Christopher Patch, “Yellow Musk Creeper 2,” relief print with collage, 2023 Photo by Hilary Irons

Nature has served as constant, inexhaustible muse throughout millennia. It has inspired worshipful works about its beauty and magnificence, but has also been enlisted to express ideas beyond nature itself, such as the central existential dilemma of human life: Do we even matter in the universal scheme, and is our grandiosity merely denial of the inescapable truth of our insignificance?

Two shows in Portland tap nature and landscape as vehicles for deeper explorations into existential questions, as well as themes of memory, myth, consciousness, literary works and the organic cycles of birth, life, death and decay.

University of New England Art Galleries presents a two-part exhibition, “Seeking Light: Plants from Shoreline to Canopy in the Arts & Sciences” (through Jan. 21). I focus here on the Portland campus installation; the other half is at the Biddeford campus, which I have not seen. At Moss Galleries Portland, we find “Long Dreams” (through Feb. 2), which features the work of Jeane Cohen (the subject of a solo show at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland, closing Jan. 7), Valerie Hegarty and Peter Burns.

“Seeking Light” views nature from a variety of angles, some fascinating and some more predictable. Among my favorites are the works of Christopher Patch, Chip Barchilon and Jocelyn Lee in collaboration with her husband Brian Urquhart.

The putative source material for Patch is the 1974 electronic tabletop game Dungeons & Dragons. In it, creeping plants “sway in hypnotic fashion before the face of the victims,” then stun them with a puff of smoke and curl around them, eventually strangling them. The skull of each victim becomes the plant’s bulbous root.

We glean this deadly strategy from pages of the game’s rule book onto which Patch prints the skull root and the lethal creeper sprouting from its jaw. The almost comic book-style rendering and the satiric pseudo-morphology of the text make this work appear humorous. But this creeper’s tap root descends right down the epochs to the 19th-century Romantic movement and, particularly, a strain known as the art of the sublime, which teemed with images of the formidable, ungovernable forces of nature and, often, humanity’s minimal consequence within them.


It’s a theme that’s coming up a lot in contemporary landscape painting – and art in general – these days, most often as a commentary on human-made environmental disasters and the planet’s angry responses: floods, wildfires, hurricanes, etc. This subject is taken up by Chip Barchilon in a way that is anything but obvious with his “Water Study (Nets and Pools).”

Chip Barchilon, “Water Study (Nets and Pools),” bioplastic, wood; 2023 Photo by Hilary Irons

Barchilon uses bioplastic formed from water and potato starch, a product of a crop that refers obliquely to colonizers’ theft of Wabanaki territory in, according to a wall label, “this stolen land called Maine.” More specifically it deals with farming practices imposed upon Indigenous cultures that contradicted their own cyclical, nomadic – and more harmonic – relationship with nature. The 2D sculpture looks like water with a bit of net floating in it. Nets are apt metaphors for constricting manmade systems of power, and here the joke is on them. For submerging the composition in water again would dissolve the whole affair, returning the aggression inherent in colonizer conquest to the flow of nature. Pardon my inelegant slang, but conceptually this piece is “way cool.”

Lee and Urquhart are interested in chronicling time, memory and recurring cycles of life, death and decay. The photos on display are part of a project that commenced with their marriage in 2015, when Lee “wasn’t ready to let go” of her wedding bouquet. She put its blossoms in an outdoor tub of water and began photographing their transformation as they floated or sank, became flat and transparent, or swelled with intensified color and form.

Jocelyn Lee, “Wedding Flowers #2, 2-15,” archival pigment print, dimensions variable Photo courtesy of the artist

“Wedding Flowers #2” is from this series. It conveys a palpable lushness at the same time we can feel the flowers being drained of their vitality – living while simultaneously rotting in a display of natural processes reflected all around us. They are also recording memory, in this case a joyous day in the couple’s life, which can serve to refresh and resuscitate that memory as it dims with age.

The collaborative aspect comes with Urquhart’s planting and tending of their Cape Elizabeth garden, which serves as source material for countless photographs. Lee is known for shooting nude models in their garden, often women of many shapes and ages not generally considered “conventionally” beautiful. Her “Carla and the Cherry Blossoms” is a fine example. It captures her elderly gray-haired subject amid explosions of pink blossoms, a poignant juxtaposition of life arising and also approaching cessation.

John Knight, “Shooting Star and Parting Clouds,” acrylic on paper, 2022 Photo courtesy of the artist

Nearby are Jim Mullen’s unabashedly sumptuous photographs of arranged flowers that reference numerous art historical ways of depicting the natural world throughout time. John Knight’s reverential depictions of plants monumentalize various species, which loom large in the foreground seemingly commanding and affecting the forces of nature behind them. “Shooting Star and Parting Clouds,” for instance, draws ecological parallels with Moses parting the Red Sea. Other artists explore fractal patterns of nature (Luke Davulis), the lacelike beauty of branches (Jennifer Brou) and so on.



“Long Dreams” at Moss packs a lot of excess into a modestly proportioned space. This is not a bad thing. The work here is an embarrassment of riches, both physical, visual and emotional. There is a feeling of over-the-topness in Jeane Cohen’s virtuosic painting, Valerie Hegarty’s heads crawling with life and memories, and in Peter Burns’s thick, decadent encrustations of oil paint on panel. Go slowly to absorb the full impact of individual works.

I first encountered the paintings of Cohen in an Institute for Contemporary Art show titled “Last Season on Earth.” This rubric cast her works in a context of cautionary environmental tale. But through subsequent exposure to her work at the current CMCA show in Rockland and her paintings here, it’s obvious there’s much more afoot.

Yes, Cohen attended Hampshire College, which often places educational curricula within a context of contemporary social justice issues. And yes, we can interpret a work like “Mountain” – specifically through the lateral scraping gestures that partially erase discernible imagery – as a landscape being annihilated. But in actuality, “Mountain,” like most of Cohen’s paintings, layers more than one narrative, thus achieving multiple states of consciousness related to the imagined topographies, seascapes and skyscapes she depicts.

Jeane Cohen, “Mountain,” 35 x 44 inches, oil on canavas, 2021 Photo courtesy of the artist

In “Mountain” we can discern, for example, two figures that seem to be moving from right to left on the canvas. Might these represent multiple human migrations across one terrain? Members of an ancient civilization hunting and gathering on this site? The mountain’s presence is steady and eternal, but the figures impart an idea of what the mountain may have witnessed over millennia. Thus, Cohen captures an indelible arc of time and memory within a single geography.

Likewise, her “All Directions Flamingos.” We can interpret this as a dense flock of these flamboyant birds flying this way and that across the sky. Yet some are abstracted (a green blur at left), while others appear in shadow (three at lower right). The green “bird” seems like a fleeting presence, here but not here – essentially a memory of a bird’s flight. The darker silhouettes can appear like prehistoric species such as pterodactyls. If this was the intention, we are looking at the evolution of avian species through time, not one depiction of the flock fixed in one time, but, rather, an entire lineage of avian evolution.


All Cohen’s works feel like profusions, especially the gorgeous “Reef,” a dense, prolifically fertile underwater forest of coral forms and sea plants. Yet they are also withholding in the sense that they purposefully play their cards close to their chest, evading specific meanings and locations in time and space.

Valerie Hegarty, “Maine Head: Water” Photo courtesy of the artist

In this extravagance of imagery, Cohen’s work viscerally connects to Hegarty and Burns. Hegarty’s “Maine Heads” are caked in plethoric arrangements of objects and ephemera that represent memories of time spent at her family’s summer home. The imagery can tie specifically to the subtitle, as in the waves breaking atop “Maine Head: Water,” the snakes slithering around “Maine Head: Earth,” or the butterflies and birds of “Maine Head: Sky.” But these are mixed with other tangible experiences of place: a lattice-crusted pie, an ice cream cone, blueberries.

Aside from personal memory, nature here serves also to reference art history, particularly the work of Renaissance court painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, principally known for portraits comprised of fruits, vegetables, fish, books and other non-human things. Like Arcimboldo’s portraits, they are abundant and exuberant. In other works, Hegarty uses nature to cite literary works (two “Ophelia Rising” sculptures) and other art genres, such as “Wave with Vanitas (Sunflower, Candle, Skull).”

Peter Burns, “Daphne,” oil on canvas, 9 3/4 x 13 3/4 in (3/4 in depth), 2016 Photo courtesy of the artist

Burns also delves into myth and literary allusion. “Kraken” evokes a gargantuan sea monster of Scandinavian myth, and “Daphne” the Greco-Hellenic myth of Daphne transforming into a laurel tree to evade the amorous advances of Apollo. But Burns also tackles humanity’s destructive potential in a painting called “Mushroom,” actually an atomic mushroom cloud, not the fungi.

The thickness of his surfaces may be representative of human decadence and excess. But humanity’s fallible and ultimately puny existence within nature is certainly behind Burns’ inclusion of human presence as proportionally insignificant against the force and grandeur of nature. This was, of course, the chief thesis at the root of the art of the sublime.

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