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Strangely Beautiful Maine @ CMCA

Strangely Beautiful Maine @ CMCA
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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.

Diana, 2010, by Inka Essenhigh

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.

Slinger, 2010, by Richard Van Buren

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.

Stopgap and Steadfast, 2011, by Ethan Hayes-Chute

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.

Paul Oberst/Patrick McNamara installation view

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.

Diffusion III, 2009, by Reese Inman

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.]

Edgar Allen Beem


Edgar Allen Beem


Take a look at art in New England with Edgar Allen Beem. He’s been art critic for the Portland Independent, art critic and feature writer for Maine Times, and now is a freelance writer for Yankee, Down East, Boston Globe Magazine, The Forecaster, and Photo District News. He’s the author of Maine Art Now (1990) and Maine: The Spirit of America (2000). In 1988, he won the Manufacturers Hanover Art/World Award for Distinguished Newspaper Art Criticism for his coverage of the 1987 auction sale of Vincent Van Gogh’s Irises. Ed says, “My credo as an arts writer has long been: ‘The work of art is the search for meaning.’ I believe art is not only a form of personal expression but also a form of inquiry, every bit as much a quest for truth as scientific research.” Ed Beem’s newest book, Backyard Maine: Local Essays, has just been published by Tilbury House, Publishers, of Gardiner, Maine. It’s not about the meaning of art; it’s about the meaning of family, community, and life in general. Edgar Beem is currently at work on a new book about contemporary art in Maine to be published in the fall of 2012.
Updated Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

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3 Responses to Strangely Beautiful Maine @ CMCA

  1. Paul Oberst August 19, 2011 at 11:12 am #

    Dear Ed,
    As a artist, I so appreciate work being reviewed. As someone who loves to see work well exhibited, I cannot thank you enough for your highlighting CMCA and the attention that Suzette McAvoy has brought to the organization.

    As for your comment about my being a make-up artist, may I simply say that by part in the process was to develop the ideas behind the photographs (witness the sculptures) over a 25 year period. I then assembled all the characters, made all the arrangements, financed the project, produced the sessions, met with my talented collaborator Patrick McNamara to coordinate the shoot, and then created a dynamic space and provided the motivation so that the models and Patrick McNamara could work seamlessly to capture the rarity of men together, up close, primal and powerful. As for my “make-up work,” the participants did their own body painting with some minimal directions. An image from one of the photographs is on the cover of Art New England Magazine for September and October with an insightful review of the work. Check it out. Paul Oberst

    • Ed Beem August 19, 2011 at 4:39 pm #

      Sorry if the notice sounded flippant. Just not sure why McNamara didn’t get equal billing. And, yes, I am aware that Art New England has your work on the cover. I wrote the feature article in that issue about CMCA.

      • Paul Oberst August 19, 2011 at 8:32 pm #

        It is tough when an artist works in multiple disciplines. It is equally tough for a photographer to move between commercial and art photography…especially in this digital age. Patrick McNamara is an incredible photographer who has focused mainly on “commercial” work, but I saw immediately his artistry..his eye. There is no way I could bring to the shoot what he does, and I wasn’t even going to try. Our culture wants to see commercial photography as one thing and art photography as another—labeling. I figured it would be incredible to combine our skills. Patrick and I work flawlessly together. Patrick tends to the capturing of the image and the heightening of the formal and psychological elements. I focus on concepts, relationships and the physicality of the shoot. Without Patrick, the project would be in my mind. It has proved very difficult to describe our collaborative work as just that…most everyone seems to have difficulty with two artists working together in collaboration. I am often seen as the artist and Patrick as the technician which is completely crazy. I have made every effort to make sure that Patrick McNamara gets his due, but individuals, galleries and institutions see it differently. I made sure the July/August ad in Art New England this summer gave equal billing to Patrick McNamara. Were Patrick and I to show only photographs, trust me it would be equal billing. It is the grouping of the photographs with my other works that is particularly challenging for others to see the work as anything but mine. So, we continue to work trusting in time everything will balance out. Actually I appreciated your recognizing the work of the photographer. In fact, I see things more your way. However, I know what I have invested in this project and felt the need to set the record straight. I also noticed you wrote the article on CMCA. I received copies of the magazine after I responded to your blog….which made me laugh. That was an excellent article. I am incredibly pleased with the direction CMCA has taken. You captured the struggles of the past and the strong movement forward. Thanks.

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