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Artist John Bisbee and Bowdoin College Museum

Artist John Bisbee and Bowdoin College Museum
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There’s no such thing as bad art.

I used to think that the work of the art critic was to judge art and artists, to sort out the good and dispose of the bad. Years ago, however, I came to realize that on the scale of human actions from genocide to sainthood, making art ranks way up there with the good.

I’ve grown to see my function, therefore, as simply being the best audience an artist or work of art can have — someone who looks hard, thinks seriously about what he has seen, and then responds honestly. Everything I know about art I’ve learned over 40 years of just looking — that and spending a great deal of time in studios, galleries, and museums, talking to artists, curators, collectors, and dealers.

It’s my intention to fill this blog with information, thoughts, and impressions on a broad array of art and art institutions in New England. You’ll have to forgive me the inevitable provincialism of a Maine focus, as that’s where I live and where I look most often. As my life and work takes me farther afield — one daughter in New Hampshire, one in Rhode Island, sister-in-law in Massachusetts, youngest daughter’s soccer tournaments all over New England and the Northeast — I promise to sample the art scenes wherever I go.

To get started, however, let me say a few words about my favorite Maine artist at the moment: sculptor John Bisbee. Bisbee currently has a 20-year retrospective titled Bright Common Spikes: The Sculpture of John Bisbee at the Portland Museum of Art through March 23.

Welding together nails and spikes, and lately just stacking and arranging them, John Bisbee discovers and creates wonderfully organic and tectonic abstract forms. I’ve stated elsewhere and will say again here that John Bisbee is the most important sculptor to emerge from Maine since Louise Nevelson left the family lumberyard in Rockland to become the high-art priestess of New York.

John Bisbee grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, graduated from Milton Academy and Alfred University, and now teaches part-time at Bowdoin College — yet he’s the least academic artist you’re apt to meet in New England, with the possible exception of a few chainsaw sculptors. His art is direct, strong, and beautiful, exploring the structures inherent in nature as made manifest in nails. The PMA retrospective fills the first-floor galleries, floors and walls, with tons of fantastic forms evoking everything from biological synapses to geological dendrites.

Coincident with Bisbee’s PMA show, he has installed 10,000 pounds of welded and rusted nails in the Coleman Burke Gallery (which he directs) at the Fort Andross Mill complex in Brunswick. The show opened in February as “Patch,” a metallic mat of nails. In March, Bisbee will reform the five tons of nails into “Ridge,” a spinelike, serpentine array. In April, “Ridge” will rise from the mill gallery floor once again as “Mound.”

The February 2 opening of the “Patch-Ridge-Mound” installation also marked the debut performance of John Bisbee’s bluesy folk-rock band, Bright Common, featuring vocals and lead guitar by Bisbee, artist Mark Wethli on bass, artist Cassie Jones on keyboard, and Fort Andross manager Anthony Gatti on drums. Summers, Bisbee serves as the art director of the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee, and definitely has musical aspirations. “Someday,” he says, “I hope to hear someone say, ‘You know he’s also a sculptor.’ ”

Bearded, unkempt, and occasionally uncouth — imagine Robin Williams playing Brancusi — John Bisbee has a welcome leavening effect on the buttoned-down Bowdoin campus.

Please Note: This article was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

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