Matt Blackwell, "Worry Later" (2004), oil on canvas, 55" x 64"
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Cove Street Arts in Portland has the space to put on five exhibitions at a time, so selecting one or two to review is a challenge. Currently, I would highly recommend two exhibitions that should not be missed, “Matt Blackwell: Worry Later” (through December 3) and “Stay Black & Die” (through November 26).

“Worry Later” is a terrific collection of Blackwell’s seriously humorous narrative paintings. And “Stay Black & Die” is a powerful group show of Black artists curated by Jordan Carey, a Bermudian artist and designer based in Portland. Matt Blackwell graduated from Maine College of Art and Design back in 1977 when it was still Portland School of Art. Jordan Carey graduated from MECAD 42 years later in 2019.

Lucinda (2015), acrylic and oil, collage on canvas, 62″ x 42″ | from Matt Blackwell: “Worry Later,” through Dec. 3

Matt Blackwell was still a student when we met in the 1970s. Since the 1980s he has lived, painted and taught in New York, but the influence of Maine remains with him. Portland School of Art in Blackwell’s day had a great affinity for the Bay Area Figurative Movement by virtue of the fact that PSA painting teacher Ed Douglas studied with Richard Diebenkorn. The painterly approach to figuration was also manifest in the work of artists such as David Park, Elmer Bischoff and Wayne Thiebaud.

Having watched over the decades as Matt Blackwell matured from student painter to master artist, I have been impressed with how he took the West Coast style and made it his own. The 19 paintings in Blackwell’s Cove Street show have a musical theme played out in subjects such as singer Lucinda Williams, titles such “Worry Later” (a Thelonious Monk tune) and “Whiskey River” (after Willie Nelson), a banjo playing bear (bears being one of Blackwell’s recurring totem animals) or the appearance of classical figures such as Pan, Calypso and Ophelia.

What I love most about Blackwell’s antic paintings is how they are at once crude and cultured, raw and cooked. Figures, characters and imaginative scenes coalesce out of wild smears and daubs of paint as though Blackwell finds his narrative by slathering paint around until something emerges. In the case of “Worry Later,” a whole show of messy and musical paintings has emerged.

Daniel Minter: We Cut Heads, linoleum block print, AP, 26″ x 20″ | from “Stay Black & Die” through Nov. 26

“Stay Black & Die” is an African-American idiom of solidarity. Like death and taxes, the only things a person can be sure of are their identity and their mortality. Jordan Carey brought the proposal for an exhibition of artists of color organized around this theme to Cove Street Arts, which is right across the street from the Indigo Arts Alliance, an organization that supports the development of artists of African descent.

Jordan Carey is a textile designer and former artist-in-residence at IAA. His own contributions to “Stay Black & Die” are beautiful paper kites painted with portraits of a Black people. Carey also helped create a wonderful barber chair upholstered (by Carey) with hand-printed fabric featuring African-American tonsorial images printed by Aminata Conteh, a metalsmith and IAA staff member, to compliment a suite of woodcuts of combs, clippers and hair styles created by IAA co-founder Daniel Minter. 

“Stay Black & Die” also features a small tennis painting by emerging art star Reggie Burrows Hodges, photographs by Bermudian Jayde Gibbons, prints of Black youth by Kyle b. co of New Brunswick, New Jersey, photographs of kids at play in Kennedy Park by Sean Alonzo Harris, steel and nickel baskets by Conteh, ceramic molars by Anastasia Warren of New York and paintings and prints by the late, great David Driskell.

Aminata Conteh, Two Halves Make a Whole, nickel, 6-1/4″ x 5″ x 4-1/4″ | from “Stay Black & Die,” through Nov. 26

Both “Worry Later” and “Stay Black & Die” are museum-worthy shows that you can see for free along with a constantly changing selection of exhibitions in one of Maine’s best commercial art galleries.

Edgar Allen Beem has written about art in Maine since 1978. He also writes the weekly Universal Notebook opinion column in these pages.

“Matt Blackwell: Worry Later” and “Stay Black & Die” at Cove Street Arts, 71 Cove St., Portland ME, 207-808-8911. More information at covestreetarts.com

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