The roots of the modern art scene in Maine were planted in the 1940s and 1950s, largely by artists themselves.
The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture was founded in 1946, Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in 1950, Maine Coast Artists in 1952, Maine Art Gallery in 1958 and the Barn Gallery in Ogunquit in 1959.
To celebrate its 65th anniversary, Maine Art Gallery in Wiscasset has mounted a rich, multi-faceted exhibition entitled “Generations” (Through June 10). The show fills the two floors of the old Wiscasset Academy building with works by close to 100 artists divided into three, perhaps four overlapping parts.
The second floor gallery features works by artists who exhibited in the first Maine Art Gallery show in 1958. The show was curated by poet and art critic Carl Little, whose uncle William Kienbusch exhibited in the first show. The early artists include founder Mildred Burrage, Chippy Chase, George DeLyra, Stephen Etnier, Chenoweth Hall, Francis Hamabe, John Heliker, Dahlov Ipcar, Kienbusch, Gene Klebe, Cabot Lyford, Emily Muir, Winslow Myers, F.W. Saunders, Laurence Sisson, William Thon and Marguerite Zorach, a virtual who’s who of contemporary Maine art in the 1950s.
“The Maine art scene in the late 1950s was quite small and many of the painters and sculptors knew each other,” writes Carl Little, “so this gathering represents a kind of reunion — the first of a series of retrospective shows envisioned for future years.”
There is also an invitational component to the second floor exhibition, 15 current artists selected by Carl Little, including Joel Babb, Dozier Bell, Katherine Bradford, Alan Bray, Sam Cady, Alison Hildreth, Eric Hopkins, Kazumi Hoshino, David Little, Daniel Minter, Celeste Roberge, Marguerite Robichaux, Jesse Salisbury, Alice Spencer and John Whalley, a fine representative sampling of some of artists working in Maine today.
The second floor selections are accompanied by photographic portraits by David Etnier, whose father was in the first Maine Art Gallery show. Several photographers have compiled portraits of the artist’s series over the years, David Etnier’s black-and-white images being intimate and among the best.
The first floor gallery is nearly overflowing with an exhibition of works by 65 current members juried by Little. Space does not allow a listing let alone an evaluation, but suffice it to say that only two or three of the member artists were known to me, or to Carl Little for that matter. Juried shows are all about discovery.
Highlights of the members show to me include a deft pair of Maine village streetscapes by Mark Coates, two whimsical wood assemblages by Andre Benoit, a fast and loose fantasy by Celeste Henriquez entitled “Mama Turned Into the Backyard Tree” and two very strong abstract paintings by Doreen Nardone.
Maine is a do-it-yourself art scene, from the artists’ colonies on Monhegan and in Ogunquit to summer art schools like Skowhegan and Haystack and association galleries meant to give local artists places to show and sell their work. Banding together to support a cooperative gallery is a time-honored tradition, but it has both virtues and drawbacks. On the one hand, membership galleries give a lot of artists opportunities to show. On the other, it can be hard to maintain consistent quality when all members must be shown.
One of the reasons Maine Coast Artists, now Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland, became the preeminent venue for showing the best new art in Maine was that the gallery gave up the membership format. But “Generations,” at Maine Art Gallery, by virtue of combining a juried members show with a curated invitational and a retrospective, overcomes the clubby limitations of an association exhibition.
“Generations” is a landmark show in the history of art in Maine.
Edgar Allen Beem has written about art in Maine since 1978.