University of New Hampshire Art Gallery
On Great Bay: Paintings by Christopher Cook and Arthur DiMambro
October 27 - December 16, 2001
The Art Gallery at the University of New Hampshire celebrates the beauty of Great Bay through paintings by two Seacoast artists in "On Great Bay: Paintings by Christopher Cook and Arthur DiMambro."
Christopher Cook and Arthur DiMambro, two longtime friends and painters, created an artistic partnership to document the changing facets of Great Bay. Although they followed very different careers, both artists have known the bay since childhood. Over the past three years, they have captured images of the water, shoreline, islands, bridges and industrial sites on canvas and board. The Art Gallery is collaborating with other UNH departments and disciplines, including the UNH marine docents, to offer interdisciplinary tours for school groups that involve visits to the exhibition as well as trips to the bay and Jackson Estuarine Laboratory at Adams Point.
"On Great Bay continues The Art Gallery's tradition of presenting exhibitions on New Hampshire's artistic and cultural heritage," says gallery director Vicki Wright. "These paintings remind us of the delicate balance necessary to both use and preserve such a significant natural resource."
A 32-page catalogue with essays by Charles Simic and Theodore Weesner compliments the exhibition. The exhibition and catalogue are supported in part by the Winthrop L. Carter Jr., Fund for Special Exhibitions, by the Friends of the Art Gallery and by a grant. from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. The following essays, from the exhibition catalogue, are reprinted with permission of the authors and the University of New Hampshire Art Gallery.
Poetry of the Eye
by Charles Simic
There are some landscapes that more than others seem to demand to be painted and photographed. The Great Bay in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where the sea and farmland come quietly together, is one such place. Its extraordinary beauty will repeatedly surprise even someone just driving by. For the last two years, Christopher Cook and Arthur DiMambro have followed the long-standing practice of going into the countryside to sketch and paint. Their paintings, in addition to purely painterly aspects, are also a kind of historical record. The two of them know the Bay well. Long before they picked up a brush, they have fished and hunted for ducks in the area. Now, of course, there's a refinery and some bridges in paradise. That's an old complaint. I remember reading about Hawthorne being outraged at the sound and smoke of a train engine interrupting a picnic in what he thought was an idyllic spot. Cook and DiMambro do not have an obvious conservationist agenda. They paint the old and the new as they find them, side by side, and leave it to us to draw whatever conclusions we wish. (left: Christopher Cook, Looking off Hilton, G. B., 1999, oil and enamel on board, 24 x 16 inches)
Painting from nature is a complicated philosophical and aesthetic issue. It comes down to three distinct ways of working, all of which are represented in this exhibition. First, there are canvasses painted and completed at the actual location, then there are the ones that were subsequently repainted in the studio and finally the ones that are pure invention. "I put all things I like in my pictures," Picasso said. "I find the actual to be far less real to me than the imagined," our Thoreau mused. Is it the first vision that counts or the later ones? I suppose it depends on the particular painting. Consequently, there's a range of style in the exhibition from what appear to be "realistic" canvasses to those approaching abstraction. Cook and DiMambro maneuver between techniques and this way of working raises inevitable questions in the viewer's mind about the relationship between reality and the imagination. In my view, what we have here then, as in all good painting, is neither one nor the other, but a combination of the two. In literature one lies to tell the truth, in painting, too, one concocts reality by using plenty of imagination.
It's thanks to the light that things appear new and different from moment to moment for someone who knows how to look. Landscape painters fool us by making us believe they are painting trees, meadows, cows or apples on a plate when what they are really after is the quality of light. The immense variety and richness of these paintings testifies to that. Cook and DiMambro are very different artists and yet the identical subject matter and that need to achieve a fresh perception of reality brings them together. I have no doubt that they inspired each other continually and surprised themselves by how their work was evolving. In other words, they ended up rediscovering some of the first principles of their art and in the process painted some of their best pictures. It is good news that art and nature still meet and that in the hands of these two painters the outcome in so many of their canvasses is a kind of lyric radiance that deserves to be called poetry.
by Theodore Weesner
Preserving Great Bay has always been a natural impulse. It's a call heard by nature lovers, naturalists, conservationists and artists. But so has there always been a taking for granted of these rare individuals, and a taking for granted of the Bay itself. In Arizona or Idaho a gift of nature so singular would stand as gem and magnet, backbone and mythmaker, while here within the shadow of the Atlantic many of us drive by and over this work of art twice a day and hardly see it at all. Imagine a seven-fingered hand, palm down and digits splayed, the forearm twisting in through Portsmouth, past threatening tankers, extending its distant touch unto shores, impulses, imaginations. The fingertips tap fresh water and return it to a salty mix and rare ecology of plants and wildlife, fish and crustacea. Fishermen trolling the big palm don't know if they'll hook striper or bluefish, flounder or eel, shark or crab or prehistoric creature dreaming yet of perpetuating itself in a pristine neighborhood. The great Great Bay.
Ten square miles cover the palm, lying within a twenty-five mile shoreline that exceeds two hundred miles when fingers and crusted nails are included. Nine bridges like rings on a teenager's fingers guide traffic all the while sails flap and merciless currents re-fill the palm to depths of forty, fifty, sixty feet. Acres of water as thinly green as antique mirrors create fault lines, fissures hiss as if from whales, a cool and salty aroma and squawking of gulls and seabirds rides the air. A ball of orange rises, descends, reflects in dying silence. At times a furious froth flies, as if by Miro, stone striations surface unto sculpture as if by Braque, and music travels the mist and fills one's heart with abstract longing and regret. Does any work of art speak more clearly than Great Bay...in the shadow of the Atlantic and its hard pull to sand and surf?
# # #
In On Great Bay Christopher Cook and Arthur DiMambro join a small family of artists who have translated the body of water and its wetlands, ice, light and sky to canvas, wood and acid-free paper. Unlike others coming before them, however, the two--working mainly outdoors -- have attempted to present an all but stereoscopic vision of an entity immensely complicated, moody and aesthetically demanding in its own right. In 1970, the one occasion of Great Bay being formally celebrated in art (in an event orchestrated by the late John Hatch) earlier work by both was included, together with Great Bay art from as far back as the late 1700's. Cook and DiMambro, long stalking the Bay with brush and canvas, camera and canoe, fishing rod and artful eye, bring to their view more than a hundred years of study and practice and more than a hundred and ten years (since adolescence for Cook, born in Boston and summering in the area, and childhood for DiMambro, born in Dover) of absorbing Great Bay in nearly every way imaginable. (left: Arthur DiMambro, Cormorants and Clam Diggers, Great Bay, 1998, oil on board, 36 x 48 inches)
Another phenomenon is apparent here. Cook is sixty-nine, DiMambro seventy-three, and each could pass for retired. Neither is retiring by nature, however, and within the past decade, rising phoenix-like from lifetimes given to developing their painting instincts mainly on the side, each is committed to working full-time toward a second identity. Each paid full dues in a prior profession (Cook as art teacher and gallery director more than painter at Phillips Andover Academy, DiMambro as orthopedic surgeon at Dover Wentworth Hospital) and thanks to good health, modern medicine and positive attitudes, each is newly engaged...in anticipation (knock knock) of a third or fourth of artful life remaining. (Given their attitudes, I'd suggest it isn't retirement being entered so much as realignment: momentum is being sustained while new purpose and new goals are being molded.)
# # #
Christopher Cook is accomplished and complicated beyond what I've shown him thus far to be. Upon 34 years at Andover, returning to live in southern New Hampshire, his compulsion has been to test his range at last in all-out commitment to painting, a fundamental craft he shared but lightly with sculpture, film and video, installations and earning a living. A long-time student of the implications of 'place' for artists (a little like 'personal experience' for writers), he ventures here with DiMambro not to relax upon a known body of water but to assist each other with utility vehicles, outboard and canoe, with offloading materials and foul-weather gear, with perseverance, patience and occasional criticism in the application of their talents to capturing a comprehensive sweep of images, emotions and implications. The Bay is their 'place,' and in translating its soul and perfidious psychology to images in oil they have explored as much within as without.
My first awareness of Chris Cook, from 1966, among acquaintances similarly committed to art and the out-of-doors, is of a craftsman of legendary talent. Fishing rod or lure, paint sprayer or lawn mower recovered from the dump, anything falling into his hands could end up being modified to perform artful tasks the manufacturers hardly dreamed possible. All along, working and teaching as a conceptual artist, he applied his mind and hands to whatever aspect of craft he happened to be confronting at the time. On the exhibition of his The Fishing Room at the Addison Gallery in 1991 (an installation thirty years in the making), the director Jock Reynolds wrote of Cook: "I've always reckoned him an integrative thinker, someone constantly synthesizing symbols, relationships and meanings within the realm of his personal experience and creative expression." Those thirty-four years went as well to twenty other installations, a dozen solo exhibitions, a baker's dozen group exhibitions, countless modifications. His work has been the subject of many formal reviews and critiques, and thousands of individual appraisals. The term 'legendary,' like its bearer, remains alive and appropriately attached. In 'On Great Bay,' giving all to painting, Chris Cook has made us beneficiary to his gifts in an occasion of art and nature serving each other.
# # #
Painting in a well-lighted basement throughout all the years I've known him, Arthur DiMambro works today and everyday in a ground floor studio with windows and skylights and enough wall and easel space to accommodate the three, four, five paintings he likes having underway at once. Encountering a hitch in a main project, his method is to shift to a prior canvas for re-considered details, using time away from the main challenge to allow it, too, to settle into objectivity and gain from new insight. Neither impatient nor easily distracted, Art DiMambro is a pure artist who prefers solving problems and creative challenges in the work itself more than in theorizing. His continuing teachers are added brush strokes, trial and error, and time with his art books to see how the Masters resolved similar conundrums. A modest man, he is reluctant to admit that he is "in the zone" when he feels himself "working simultaneously within an inner and outer spirituality." These are occasions when deep beliefs, experience and imagination flow out through his arm and fingers while something within assures him "yes, this is the way, this is the answer." A cooking anecdote may help reveal DiMambro as the pure, natural artist he has come to be: Self-taught with oils, so is he a self-taught chef whose creations rival the best gourmet fare any of us may be fortunate enough to sample along the street of dreams. "Art's cooking," is the telling phrase. On a call from his wife, Celeste, "Art's cooking, can you come to dinner?" a summons will resound throughout our house: "Drop everything, Art's cooking!"
Avid museum visitor and reader, constant contemplator, DiMambro's mentors to whom he wishes to pay tribute are John Laurent, John Hatch, and the painter Elna Nelson with whom he studied drawing and composition in the late 50's. Also, if through books and museums: Richard Diebenkorn, Winslow Homer, the French Impressionists, Picasso for many reasons, Braque, and Edouard Manet, with whom his work retains a certain natural kinship. Smitten with painting at age 30, taking classes on the side, DiMambro continued painting and teaching himself through thirty-one years as a surgeon until 1991, age 62, when he was able to commence his second life. For over a decade now his work has been exhibited in galleries throughout New England and has begun gaining the attention of collectors. Art's cooking indeed.
# # #
On Great Bay, two lifetimes in the making, had its physical beginning on a cool morning in June, 1998. Wearing hat, jacket and rubber boots, Cook drove his 1985 4Runner, outfitted with a horizontal rack for paintings, to DiMambro's house at seven-fifteen where, loading in Art's gear and thermos, they headed south along 108 to the Singing Bridge north of Exeter. A mission beyond craft was underway and each was alive with it though treating it with understatement and make-believe disregard. Off-loading easels, primed canvases and masonite, tackle boxes filled with paints, brushes and paraphernalia, they trudged from an overgrown gravel roadway through a field and above marsh grass, then followed a receding tidal line of sloshing brown water to a promontory presenting waves, clouds and adjacent tree lines west of the rising sun, a location they had scouted previously by outboard and identified as an ideal place to begin. DiMambro, checking for footing and views, set up on a dried brush space no larger than a square of sidewalk while Cook went on to a site he had selected, a quasi back porch with a view of eternity, facing slightly upward.
Forty feet apart, tackle boxes hinged open, it was time for hands to be rubbed and elbows loosened, glasses to be cleaned, eyes and hearts blinkered and engaged, the old shtick of living merely once to be defied. Time to click into place configurations wherein creativity, composition and a little grab at immortality become one's modus operandi. Time for the last quarter to begin in earnest.
# # #
Arthur DiMambro's painting is bold and direct, often focusing on singular ideas and strong color combinations. Greens and blues, reds and yellows, golden caramel browns and silver streaks, his compositions become trumpet or oboe solos that remain with you as an evening winds down and you return to your car and don't entirely hear what your fond companion has to say. Christopher Cook's paintings, by contrast, play more as string quartets or nine-piece orchestras reaching crescendo with all instruments complementing each other. Thematic, deeply composed, inter-relationships in place if not spatially juxtaposed, they freeze at moments of intensity, as if the artist has just stepped aside and is presenting their parts and ramparts, their perches and abstractions for one to enter and explore. Nonrepresentational, they nonetheless represent not only Great Bay but an interplay within of emotion, illusion, and history.
Contrasting and complementary styles and experiences have served the two artists fortuitously in striving after a comprehensive characterization of a vastly intricate subject. Power and unpredictability, change, deceptive playfulness, vulnerability, partnership, moral support and ego, all have influenced both subject and artists on the way to this exhibition. An entity as labyrinthian as Great Bay and an alliance of artists needing to survive three years of making decisions and working together are challenges almost too demanding to contemplate; that all forces have been managed with integrity, control and good humor is testimony to the best that age and experience may have to offer. No wasteful spats for these old pros. Gifted with resilience and dexterity, passion and intelligence, they could be, in a digital age, the last of a breed to invest no less than lifetimes and second lifetimes in something as humble as craft. Don't ever forget it, is what their art finally has to say, and in this preservation and celebration of artistry without and within, I'm pleased to share the moment.
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