It wasn’t that long ago that Eliot Porter led the charge for color photography to become its own field, changing everything. His brother, Fairfield, was not only a great painter but a muscular critic. His family’s island in Maine, Great Spruce Head, became not only a point of importance but a simple reminder that place was a sort of key that could, potentially, unlock the future.
And it did.
Photography went far past what Alfred Steiglitz, the champion of photographic pictorialism, and his colleagues could have imagined. Steiglitz, of course, was so much more than photography. His gallery, 291, led the way for so many artists to become international leaders, many of which were to crystalize into the new image of Maine art. Marsden Hartley and John Marin, for example, weren’t merely two Mainers he championed; they were giants in the making.
Looking back, and not merely limiting ourselves to the more obvious photo-oriented Maine artists, such as Berenice Abbott, Joyce Tennyson, Richard Estes, Paul Caponigro and William Wegman, Maine’s ranks of photography-related artists has been rich.
But the key, however, to Steiglitz’s pictorialism was a reverence for painting. In Maine, it was always about painting. The early artists holding cameras in their hands understood this: To be seen as art, photography had to take on painting. This was akin to the lesson that the first abstractionists got from Cubism: Legibility was everything. If a painting was legible as a painting, that was enough. Later, if a photograph was legible as art, that would be enough. And from that perspective, contemporary photography was born.
But what does that look like now? The new stuff and the new spaces in Maine we’re seeing this summer aren’t simply doing what they had been doing before. Photography, while it isn’t the only aspect, is very much part of the growing vision of Maine art.
CARVER HILL GALLERY
I move to Carver Hill Gallery here, not merely because of photography, although the gallery indeed represents some challenging and accomplished photographers, but because of the freshness of its artists and their new work and, more importantly, its move to new digs in Camden.
Art-motivated Mainers should rejoice. Carver Hill is one of Maine’s better and smarter galleries. The gallery represents artists from around the nation and around the world. Carver Hill certainly shows photography (Nick Gervin and John Kolkin, among others), but it specializes in strong (and sometimes quirky) painting, such as by America Martin or Jennifer Knaus.
Martin is a young Californian painter whose works look to Picasso and Leger, but her hand can handle it. “Woman, Eel & Fish,” for example, might seem simple things, in the echoes of Picasso, but there is nothing simple about the power of Picasso, Matisse, Leger, Marin, Utrillo or the other artists who worked so hard to make the seemingly simple seem simple. To set it in motion, Martin uses excellent drawing, scintillatingly clear, and planar colors. But to make it work, Martin has to find her own design, her own balance, her own picture. And she does.
Carver Hill Gallery’s new space is a healthy step forward from its Rockland space. Its strong new space can now better feature more artists from its notable roster, such as Ron Rovner, Ingrid Ellison, Lesia Sochor and Rose Umerlik.
We’ve seen some major galleries close recently because of age and time. But Coastal Maine is a place of lively dynamism. Not all of the newness relates to the hitherto unknown; sometimes it rehashes aspects of what has always been. And sometimes, the “new” is a fresh space for an already-known gallery. Sometimes it’s an addition. Sometimes it’s new artists. And, sometimes, it’s us – hitting our own reset buttons and looking with ever-fresh eyes.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland.