An Eye for Maine: Paintings from a Private Collection

by Donelson Hoopes

 



 

Romantic realism has been central to the art of Maine since Winslow Homer established the gauge by which all who came after him inevitably must be measured. The intervening years have witnessed the rise and eclipse of other orientations on the national art scene, and the consequent impingement of these processes upon the course that Maine art has taken participating in them. Abstract expressionism, America's only truly original contribution to the history of art, after the Hudson River School, had its champions in Maine as well as New York. William Kienbusch was a notable exemplar of that idiom, yet the idea of place remained central to his art. For him Maine was always an inescapable poetic fact and determinant in even his most overtly conceptual works. His contemporary, William Thon, has always been quite close in spirit to that position, without losing his anchor on the holding ground of objectivity. The Old Sloop strikes a balance between these seemingly conflicting ideas, creating a variant that might be described as "romantic abstraction."

Andrew Wyeth is the dominant figure in contemporary romantic realism. His paintings are perhaps misjudged by those who can only look at them but not perceive the subtler level at which his art operates. His associative ties to well-loved places often established undercurrents of tension that take his pictures beyond the confines of simple illusion. Ambiguity permeates Maine Room, arousing a sense of profound disquietude. Wyeth withholds information on a subjective plane, while fulsomely offering much in another way as delectation for the eye. The viewer must match the artist's discernment with his own in order to apprehend essential meanings. With Jamie Wyeth, a family tradition is being carried on in a way that is more stylistically connected than was the case with N. C. Wyeth and his son. Elusive distinctions can be made between the way Andrew Wyeth perceives his subject and the way Jamie Wyeth does it. The latter has remarked that his work is ". . . mainly about portraits. But portraits of objects and animals and people. I spend as much time with an animal or an object as I do with a person when I'm doing their portrait." Coast Guard Anchor, then, is not some sort of large outdoor still-life, but a portrait, a presence. Conversely, Andrew Wyeth's Maine Room, like many of the subjects he chooses, is not about presences, but about things absent.

Alan Magee's brand of realism is more objective than romantic, to the extent that his paintings, like The Nile, are worked in a way that permits the surface of the picture to achieve a resemblance of actual stone texture. Humble objects take on a heightened significance by dint of the artist's loving attention -- a transfiguration that has long been performed by painters of still-life. Another branch of the contemporary realist aesthetic known as photo-realism usually keeps to subjects associated with the detritus of late 20th century civilization. Linden Frederick's Bee Hives mediates between the cold objectivity of photo-realism and romantic realist tendencies more suitable to the pastoral character of its subject.

 

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