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Thermoplastic Downeast

The Tides Institute and Museum of Art in Eastport, Maine, has been having a 1970s summer. The exhibition that just closed, The ’70s: Art & Place at Passamaquoddy Bay, Maine, featured artists active in the area in the 1970s. Now, (through September 19) the Tides Institute is featuring a solo exhibition by Richard Van Buren, an artist who enjoyed the spotlight in New York back in the 1970s and has spent the past decade working in relative obscurity way downeast.

The Tides Institute occupies a large brick building in downtown Eastport that once housed Eastport Savings Bank. Directed by Hugh French, an Eastport native who for many years served as associate director of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, the Tides Institute has in recent years become an important catalyst and focal point for the appreciation of all aspects of the cross-border culture of downeast Maine and the Canadian maritimes.

The Fundy Series: Drawings and Sculpture by Richard Van Buren is a perfect exhibition for the Tides Institute as it celebrates both an artist who spends most of his time in nearby Perry, Maine, and art that evokes the coastal marine environment of rugged Washington County in a most visceral way.

Richard Van Buren was born in Syracuse in 1937, grew up in Los Angeles, where his father worked in the film industry, studied at the San Francisco State College, the University of Mexico and Mexico City College in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and then moved to New York City in the mid-1960s. He first came to prominence in 1966 when one of his abstract geometric fiberglass sculptures, “Free Epton,” was featured at the Jewish Museum in the seminal Primary Structures exhibition, a show that helped launch minimalist art and included works by Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Ellsworth Kelly, Sol LeWitt, and Walter de Maria.

During the 1970s, Van Buren exhibited extensively at important New York galleries of the day such as Paula Cooper Gallery and Bykert Gallery. But where minimalist sculptors such as Andre and Judd, both of whom became blue chip artists, remained resolutely within the reductive, minimal idiom, Van Buren’s art evolved from formal geometry such that today his work might best be described as organic abstraction, forms resonant with but not representational of biotic nature.

“The ‘Fundy Series’ represent some of the reasons that I live and work at the edge of Passamaquoddy Bay,” writes Van Buren. “These works are fueled and influenced by the dynamic conditions of this space. Light, movement, color, form, sound, smell are part of the ingredients that I respond to in this landscape.”

Van Buren once worked in polyester resins, but when he discovered their poisonous effect on his health, he went looking for a non-toxic medium. He found it in thermoplastics, the material used to make medical devices installed in the human body. At first, the artist used steel and aluminum as armatures to support his thermoplastic sculptures, but in recent years the melted and hardened plastic has become its own structure.

The six sculptures in the Tides show are hand-formed plastic constructions painted with acrylics and incorporating seashells. These raw, elegant wall pieces read like tangles of seaweed and flotsam magically turned into pearls. The two dozen drawings of the “Fundy Series” are ink wash abstractions that evoke the littoral life of the shore and tide pools. In three dimensions and two, Van Buren’s Fundy work seems lifted from the very fabric of nature.

Richard Van Buren bought his home in Perry in 1972 after visiting a friend in Eastport. He and his wife, a dancer, moved to Maine year-round following 9/11. The integrity and authenticity of his Maine work has triggered a renaissance of interest in Van Buren’s art not just in Maine, where he is represented by Aucocisco Gallery in Portland, but in New York as well, where he has just signed with the Gary Snyder Gallery Project Space and will have an exhibition next month at New York University.

“Since I got here, I’ve been doing more work than in New York,” says Richard Van Buren. “Now that I don’t have to worry about survival, I’m doing better in New York than when I lived there.”

[Tides Institute and Art Museum, 43 Water St., Eastport ME, 207-853-4047.]

Please Note: This information 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.

Updated Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

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