“Since its founding, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture has nurtured an expansive vision of art, maintaining a commitment to wide-ranging, often contradictory, artistic views” notes Sharon Corwin, the Carolyn Muzzy Director and Chief Curator at Colby College Museum of Art. Yet fundamental themes have been ongoing throughout the history of the School, reflecting the interests and concerns of the artworld and our culture at large. One such theme is painting’s continuous affinity toward representing the changing nature of appearances. “Inside/Outside: Work from the Skowhegan Archives” brings together a collection of work that examines the alluring flux of observation and the mutability of vision as depicted in traditional genre.
Landscape and the translation of the natural environment into a spirited visual language are evident in the work of Sylvia Snowden, Wade Frame, and Bruce M. Gagnier. Painters Kristina Branch, Gail Campbell, Janet Fish, and Charles Lassiter, turned their focus to the interior world where the architecture of the School’s studio became the subject of pictorial inspiration. Barry Shils large canvas explores the School’s social structure in the routine of group portraiture while Thomas Monahan’s large canvas scrutinizes concepts of representation through symbolic representations, shallow space and a co-mingling of graphic and painterly qualities. Dating from 1951-1979, each of these paintings foreground the humility of deep contemplation.
Juxtaposed with these paintings is a selective group of works culled from the School’s 2015 participants who share with their historical counterparts a similar concern for the vibrant nature of representation and interpretation. Manifestly evident in these works is an extreme mobility of attention and subject, set into motion with the aid of a vast range of painterly syntax. What unifies the contemporary offerings with the historic contributions is painting’s persistent dance with consciousness and language, its investment in phenomena and formal logic alike. “To be conscious of the tree is to be conscious of the tree itself, and not the idea of the tree: to speak about the tree is not just to utter a word but to speak about the thing.” Paintings are a transparent cage. “Everything is outside, yet it is impossible to get out.” This is the paradoxical nature of painting, an imprisonment and an elsewhere, a thing and an idea, a relentless field of the awareness.
In 1937 Mainer Marsden Hartley copied three lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday” on the back of his canvas titled “In the Moraine, Dogtown Common, Cape Ann.”
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among the rocks
Hartley struggled with being both an intellectual painter and an intuitive painter. “To care and not to care” is a very contemporary sentiment. Caring too much about the language of painting means risking the freedom to stray. “Not to care” risks impassivity and detachment. I included artists who each in their own way have the desire to sit still-- who know when to stretch and to taunt, to respect and yield to the authority of the painting.
Scott Anderson, Thomas Dahlberg and Sophie Grant’s works aggregate the histories, spaces, and genres of twentieth century painting with an intellectual command and a broad-based visual vocabulary that reliably conjures both representation and abstraction. Co-mingling photographic imagery with deft brushwork, Jordan Seaberry seeks to develop a sobering new realism by directly embracing the content of violence and race. Alex Jackson and Alexandria Smith employ the figure as iconic and indeterminate deeply psychological and two-dimensional.
Maia Cruz Palileo and Pallavi Singh develop absorbing idiosyncratic cultural stories, Cruz Palileo by way of vivid and loose translations of familial photographs and Singh through the use of the continuous narrative format and a graphic approach to storytelling. Similar to E. Barry Shils, Sam Jorgensen, a member of the School’s 2015 staff, furthers the genre of portraiture by recording the individuals who comprise the social landscape of the school.
Employing a trompe-l'oeil tradition Emmanuel Sevilla critically calls into question the value of the hand-made copy and the evaluative role of the simulacra within contemporary culture. Sarah Mikenis, Cal Siegel, Nick Fagan and Neil Carroll complicate painting’s material signifiers with materiality. While Siegel and Mikenis protract painting’s planar authority into shrewd and often humorous objects, Carroll integrates the visceral qualities of found material with painting’s spatial lexicon. In their work the painting’s thingness challenges traditional value designations such as craft, form invention and beauty. Memory and observation is comingled in Jane Westrick’s brisk and effortless compositions while Frank J. Stockton and Jamie Williams cultivate fantasy with the fluidity of line. Finally, with impressive scale, Linnea Rygaard mediates painting’s spatial conceits with architecture’s authoritative perspectives.
Each of these artists embrace new-found affinities, freedoms, and influences that support the new economy of painting, distinctly contoured from the art-historical matrix governing the work from the School’s archive. “In this new economy of surplus historical references, the makers take what they wish to make their point or their painting without guilt, and equally important, without an agenda based on a received meaning of style.” Yet I would argue that the breath of references and material exploration evident in the contemporary work included in this exhibition embraces a knowing time-based relationship to history and tradition, not least, a deep humility for contemplation and for the virtues of close looking.
I would like to thank Kika Nigals, Program manager of Common Street Arts and Sarah Workneh, Co-Director of Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture for originating the concept of an exhibition culled from the School’s archives. Also, thank you to Nate Young and Michael Perreault for assisting me in the installation of the exhibition. And naturally, much gratitude to the generosity of all the 2015 participants who lent work from their studios for this project.