Strangely Beautiful Maine @ CMCA
My sense of fair play tells me it is way too soon to return to the Center for Maine Contemporary Art for a review even though the July 20 post about Steve Mumford’s drawings and paintings of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been the most popular and controversial Just Looking post ever. But, I have been waiting years for painter Inka Essenhigh to exhibit in Maine and, as CMCA director Suzette McAvoy works to revitalize the Rockport art gallery after it nearly closed for good in 2009, she has come up with four concurrent shows (all through September 25) that I do not believe can be beat this summer anywhere in Maine or New England.
UN/Natural Splendor pairs the fantastical paintings of Inka Essenhigh with the fanciful plastic sculpture of Richard Van Buren. The two have little in common other than the fact that Van Buren was an extremely popular New York artist in the 1970s and Essenhigh has been one of the darlings of the New York art world for the past decade. Van Buren now lives year-round way downeast in coastal Perry. Essenhigh summers in Tenants Harbor where her husband, Steve Mumford, grew up summers.
When I first saw Essenhigh’s strangely beautiful paintings in New York in 2000, she was painting in a highly polished style that suggested Japanese anime with a decorative arts edge that looked like cloisonné wallpaper. In recent years, as the Maine landscape has seeped into her soul and her art, Essenhigh has pushed the strangeness into mythical fantasy, creating animistic paintings in which nature is populated by goddesses and fairies, twinkling lights and gardens behind hidden gates.
Quite honestly, had I not seen Essenhigh’s earlier work I’m not sure I would know what to make of these mystical dreamscapes filled with evanescent beings and apparitions. But no one anywhere is painting Maine with this unabashed fairy tale sensibility and I love it.
Richard Van Buren’s bizarre Thermoplastic sculptures look as though could have been ripped right out of an Essenhigh painting. Marrying the natural forms of seaweeds and sea shells with the unnatural beauty of molten plastic and pink, purple, silver and gold acrylic, Van Buren’s sculptures are at once splendid and kitschy, like children’s costume jewelry. His, too, is a rare aesthetic for authentic Maine.
On the second floor of CMCA’s old firebarn building are a pair of exhibitions that extend the wondrous strange theme in different directions. Ethan Hayes-Chute, a Freeport, Maine native who now works mostly in Berlin, Germany, stole the show at the 2009 Portland Museum of Art Biennial with the life-size hermit’s cabin he constructed and furnished in the museum’s Great Hall. At CMCA, he continues his exploration of reclusiveness with a fully articulated cabin kitchen built into one corner of the gallery as well as a series of drawings and miniature models of shacks and cabins. Entitled “Stopgap and Steadfast,” the faux cabin looks and feels like a realistic theater set or an historic recreation. It’s real, but it’s not. Strange.
At the far end of the second floor is “Banded Artifacts/Banded Men” by Paul Oberst with photographer Patrick McNamara. Oberst has painted black and white horizontal stripes on a group of young men who McNamara has photographed doing what look like ritual dances. Not exactly sure why Oberst gets top billing as he is essentially the makeup artist for McNamara’s photographs, but the pseudo rituals are consonant with the rest of the appealing weirdness at CMCA.
Finally, CMCA’s lower level galleries and back stairwell are filled with computer inspired abstract algorithm paintings and burn drawings by Reese Inman. She is a Belfast, Maine, resident currently enrolled in the University of Maine’s Intermedia MFA program, a cutting edge techno-art program with which CMCA director Suzette McAvoy has forged an alliance. The little blips and bytes of Inman’s paintings put a fitting digital punctuation on CMCA’s current suite of strange shows. They are hand-made, but they look as though they were computer-generated.
[Center for Maine Contemporary Art, 162 Russell St., Rockport ME, 207-236-2875.]