What’s most intriguing about “The World Outside: Louise Nevelson at Midcentury” at Colby College Museum of Art is in discovering aspects of her work and personality that many of use might not have known. Photo by Luc Demers

Despite the arrival of Memorial Day, summer is not officially here. But the art season waits for no one, so before the summer season really heats up, there are two exhibitions you shouldn’t miss. “The World Outside: Louise Nevelson at Midcentury” (through June 9) is, quite simply, the most spectacular retrospective of this towering woman of modernism you are likely to see in this lifetime, so drop whatever other plans you organized for the first week of June and make a beeline for the Colby Museum of Art before it closes.

Then there is “Shane Charles: Island Blossom” (through June 14) at Interloc in Thomaston, which explores the cultural dichotomies of this artist, who descends from both Wabanaki and British colonial heritage. Normally an appointment-only gallery, special gallery hours have been arranged to accommodate visitors traveling especially to Interloc or driving through town on their way to Rockland.


Louise Nevelson, of course, is a legendary talent. So, we might assume we think we know her story well. But what is most intriguing about the Colby show is discovering aspects of her work and personality that many of us might not have known. This revelation is made possible by novel reassessments of her work by the curators and from the many works Colby was able to borrow from collectors and institutions to supplement its own holdings. The comprehensiveness of the show is breathtaking, revealing an artist with so many more sides to her than the black shadow boxes most associated with her fame.

For example, when you think of art about the environment, does Nevelson quickly spring to mind? Not likely. Yet the show recasts her in this light by noting that she suffered the scarcity of goods and food during World War II and recognized in the 1960s how wasteful post-war culture had become. “This country was so rich in natural resources, and we’ve been exploiting it,” one label quotes her as saying.

“The World Outside: Louise Nevelson at Midcentury” at Colby College Museum of Art. Photo by Luc Demers

In this context, her use of found materials and her process of repurposing takes on an entirely different meaning. “The artist implicitly understood the impact of human waste on the earth,” reads the same label. Another surprise? Her palette of sculptural materials ranged far beyond salvaged wood. In this context, sculpture she created from Plexiglas, metal and mirrors (completely new to me) was intricately connected to the environment not only because she was recycling, but because she also created them as a way of viewing the environment through these materials (i.e.: their transparency, which incorporated the surroundings into the works, as well as reflections of both environment and viewer in the many mirror elements).


For her retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1967, she created “Rain Forest Wall,” an immersive installation that arose out of a trip to Quiriguá, Guatemala. The work was intended to show the interdependency of the various flora and fauna in a rainforest. Simultaneously, Merce Cunningham choreographed a dance performance for the piece that called attention to the impending environmental disaster facing Washington State’s rainforest at Olympic National Park.

We know from Nevelson’s background as a Ukrainian Jewish émigré that she hails from a monotheistic religious culture. And for anyone who has seen her Chapel of the Good Shepherd in New York, it’s clear she was comfortable with religious subject matter (asked what it was like to create this Christian sanctuary as a Jewish artist, she responded that the abstract nature of her work “transcended” denominations). In the Colby show, we see her exploring more mystical, unifying cosmologies likely influenced by scientific perspectives that were unfolding during the space age. Another label quotes her as saying, “This is the universe, the stars, the moon – and you and I, everyone.”

This suggests that many of her works, with titles such as “Black Moon II,” “Moon Goddess I” (inspired by a trip to Guatemala), and the documentation and blue-lit installation of works that recalled her 1958 show “Moon Garden + One” were aimed at capturing something more mysterious about the nature of the universe than the merely empirical observation of the cosmos.

This sense of the unifying oneness of everything is picked up less spiritually in a section of the show called “The Community Builder,” which offers a beautiful explanation of how Nevelson saw the segmentation of her constructions in a holistic way. She described these sculptures of stacked and gridded shadow boxes as “living communities” where “each cell strengthens and supports its neighbors.”

Sculptures painted gold, right, in “The World Outside: Louise Nevelson at Midcentury” at Colby College Museum of Art feature a catch-your-breath opulence with a double-edged message. Photo by Luc Demers

Also new to me were sculptures Nevelson painted entirely gold. They are splendorous objects to behold. But beyond their catch-your-breath opulence, we understand Nevelson is sending us a double-edged message. In one sense, they critique the glamorization of profligate acquisition common to the anointed classes of our privileged capitalism (a message that could hardly be more relevant today).

On the other hand, they also glorify the humble, quotidian nature of her materials by making objects scavenged from the streets of New York something to be revered and respected. The gold imparts dignity, if not also a reliquary-like veneration, to art made from the detritus of humanity.


The exhibition includes some beautiful lithographs where she experimented with materials such as cheesecloth and lace to create layered textures, and also explored the effects of lithography inks on stone. Two enormous prints also boast vast expanses of crimson red, not a color we normally associate with Nevelson’s abiding love of monochrome. And who knew she created abstract self-portraits (one is included here), or that some of her constructions were hinged to create door-like panels that could swing open? This and so much more about this show forever changed the way I will look at the work of Louise Nevelson.

A video near the end of the exhibition – which occupies two floors of the Jetté Galleries – offers us a glimpse of an artist very conscious of her “artist” persona. We see her instructing studio assistants, whom she calls “darling” and “dear,” wearing her furs with exceedingly impractical sculptural jewelry she designed, smoking and batting false eyelashes made of fur and heavily kohled. She, like this show, was a real original.


The art of Shane Charles has mostly to do with reconciling two potentially antagonistic facets of his being – that of his intertwined strains of Penobscot and British colonial heritage. But it is also about reclaiming his ancestry and recontextualizing it in ways that ask us to look at both the crime of white occupation of Indigenous lands as well as the way contemporary art-making can bridge both cultural origins to create a new creative reality.

Shane Charles, “Bone Bird,” 2023, bronze, heat patina, wax finish, steel bracket Photo by Dave Clough

Take, for example, two small cast-bronze wall sculptures. One, “Bone Bird,” appears like a primitively rendered avian species and was inspired by the petroglyphs discovered at Birch Point in Machiasport, which archaeologists have dated to some 3,000 years ago. The petroglyphs held invaluable clues to the earliest inhabitants of what we now call Maine. However, they have been dangerously deteriorating because of rising sea levels created by climate change, as well as sawdust dumped there by Europeans operating sawmills (which displaced water levels and began inundating the ledge art in the 19th century).

Another bird shape, “Angel,” is taken from Christian iconography. Both were initially slab-built with locally foraged clay. Charles often incorporates earth and midden from Wabanaki lands – which is to say lands colonized and stolen by European settlers. Then these figures were cast in bronze, a material and process that originated across the ocean in Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium BCE, and finally mounted with locally fabricated steel brackets (symbols of Anglo-European industrialization). Thus, these works are records of ancient peoples from which we all descend, but their specific materials and imagery represent two sides of Charles’ lineage that live within his body and personhood.


Shane Charles, “Island Blossom” (diptych), 2024, canvas collage with hand stitching, oil paint, midden, steel brackets and white pine Photo by Dave Clough

The body is key to understanding Charles’ art. The making of many of these are essentially performative (the petroglyph, for example, was “drawn” from sticks picked up as he traveled the East Coast). The most spectacular piece on display is the canvas collage diptych that also incorporates hand-stitching and gives the show its title, “Island Blossom.” The initial idea comes from contemplation of flowers that turns out to be more complex than it sounds. One side of the diptych loosely articulates a Rosa rugosa, which has become synonymous with beaches in Maine’s affluent coastal communities, a feature tourists expect to see when they come here in the summer.

Yet Rosa rugosa is a highly invasive plant that is far from native to these shores (it originated in Asia and was brought here by early settlers). The other part of the diptych is a poppy, which represents both Charles’ family’s experience with addiction and the fact that flowers are also used by many Indigenous peoples for their medicinal properties. So, weaving through the flower imagery are ideas about origin, occupation of lands and peoples, harmony with nature and the human dissonance that disrupts it.

The sheer physicality of working at this scale is palpable (the piece is 90 by 170 inches). Furthermore, Charles uses both frottage (placing sections of canvas over an object and rubbing it to create an impression of the object through the canvas) and grattage (a technique employed by surrealist Max Ernst in which a canvas prepared with oil paint is placed over something textured, then the paint is scraped off to transfer the texture to canvas).

Finally, Charles stitches pieces of the canvas together, or similarly mends rips in the material. We can see the blossoms in the end result, but the work also resembles aerial topographical maps (Charles’ grandfather was a mapmaker and his father a Penobscot tribal land surveyor). This, of course, highlights the cultural clash again and the deeper implications of its “psychogeography.” Before the arrival of white people, the concept of “property” and “ownership” was unknown to Indigenous tribes. There was no need for maps and territories. But the act of stitching or mending is a way of healing what Charles calls “generational fracture.”

Comments are no longer available on this story