Form & Figure
THE CANVAS – SEPTEMBER 2008
By Carl Littl
The allure of figurative painting in Maine
While Maine is acclaimed for its landscape art, the figure has always been present. Women in wide summer hats seated on rocky ledge in Childe Hassam’s Appledore canvases, fishermen hauling the “big dory” in a George Bellows Monhegan painting, a nude with wheelbarrow in one of Lois Dodd’s Women at Work pieces [MH+D, April 2008]—it is a remarkable and wonderfully varied tradition.
The three painters showcased this issue are committed to the figure. The lobsterman in Robert Shillady’s portrait quietly paints his buoys, while a very different hauler of traps defends his territory in Bo Bartlett’s bold image. Jessica Gandolf’s ball players of the past evoke legendary feats on the diamond.
There couldn’t be three more divergent approaches to the figure, or three more compelling artists to engage us in tribute
The Romantic Realism of Bo Bartlett
References to war are commonly employed when speaking of the territorial conflicts that spring up from time to time among lobstermen along the Maine coast. These confrontations have worked their way into literature—most recently, William Carpenter’s extraordinary novel The Wooden Nickel—and cinema: the storyline of the feature film Islander is built around the tragic outcome of a deep water argument over lobstering rights.
Working from his home and studio on Wheaton Island, which protects the harbor of remote Matinicus at the outermost edge of Penobscot Bay, painter Bo Bartlett caught wind of such troubles from his friend, lifelong islander and fisherman Ronald K. Ames. Ames had posed for him on occasion, one of several island residents who have done so since Bartlett first visited Matinicus in 1995.
Taking his cue from classic N. C. Wyeth illustrations, Bartlett portrays Ames as a latter-day pirate, with the Jolly Roger imprinted on the ruddy orange riding sail of his boat. Lobsters are this man’s booty. His powerful pose says he will take on any interloper; a smudge of dark smoke on the horizon to the left implies that the enemy has already been engaged.
Over the years, Bartlett has drawn on art history, the Bible, and other sources to build his iconic canvases. Often, however, his images incorporate local knowledge, blending the romanticism and realities of life on a remote Maine island. He knows whereof he paints.
Originally from rural Columbus, Georgia, Bo Bartlett studied fresco painting with Ben Long IV in Florence, Italy. He later settled in Philadelphia, attending the University of the Arts and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The Farnsworth Art Museum mounted an exhibition focusing on his Maine work in 2006. Bartlett is represented by PPOW Gallery in New York City and will have solo shows in 2009 at Forum LA and the David Klein Gallery.
Robert Shillady; Style and Content
Though it is spring on the downeast coast and buds are appearing on the poplars, it is still chilly enough to require several layers. Robert Shillady’s lobsterman prepares for the hauling season ahead, dipping a brush into a can of red high-gloss enamel paint (we can read the label), which he has been applying to bright yellow buoys. He focuses on his work, a calm look on his somewhat haggard visage. One of his dogs looks at us with what might be concern.
Beyond is the man’s yard, with pickup truck, lawnmower, stack of traps, snowmobile (for sale), and boat trailer. The lobster boat is nearly the size of the house, which features a small porch with white plastic chairs. Down the road is the ubiquitous McMansion with ocean view—a reminder of the disparities of class along the coast of Maine.
Shillady’s approach to his subject matter is stylized. A kind of perfection is achieved that is further heightened through the application of many layers of acrylic paint, which bring the surface to a shine. One may have seen such a man in a yard, but never in such emphatic hues.
The Lobsterman is the third in a series of large paintings honoring Maine livelihoods; the previous two portrayed, respectively, a man with a chainsaw working a woodlot (The Woodcutter) and carpenters framing a house (The Builders). Shillady also paid homage to boatbuilding in his marvelous Catboat on the Ways. His art, at once real and unreal, is filled with genuine reverence.
Born in Boston, Robert Shillady grew up on the Cape. He attended Boston University School of Fine Arts and graduated in 1970. He and his wife, writer Ellen Booraem, moved to Maine in 1984 and built a house in Brooklin. The Lobsterman was featured in the Portland Museum of Art’s 2007 Biennial. Shillady recently showed work in the exhibition Maine at Work at the Courthouse Gallery in Ellsworth.
Jessica Gandolf’s Ordinary Heroic Baseball Players
Red Sox 1946 is a portrait of Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, and Dom DiMaggio, members of the illustrious yet ill-fated team that lost the World Series in that momentous year following the end of World War II. The Cardinals won, thanks to the famous “Mad Dash” of outfielder Enos Slaughter who, in the seventh game of the series, ran all the way from first to home on a hit by Harry Walker to short center field.
Slaughter is the spectral figure behind the three Red Sox greats. Perhaps he is dancing around first base, taunting them, anticipating his wild run (he knew that the center fielder Leon Culberson, who replaced an injured DiMaggio that day, had a weak arm). Meanwhile, Williams and company grip their bats in a classic pose, their faces a mix of assurance and innocent vulnerability.
Gandolf calls this portrait, which is based on vintage images of the players, a “musing” on that legendary game, “a meditation on [the players’] roles as both ordinary men and American heroes.” She seeks to represent that dichotomy of physical gifts and human frailties, recognizing that, in her words, “ballplayers—even great ones—are acquainted less with triumph than they are with failure.”
Writing about Gandolf’s sports paintings in 2000, art historian David Becker likened them to medieval illuminations or portraits of saints, noting how our fascination with these images was “out of all proportion” to their small size. While the painter has moved on to intriguing new subjects, these players from the past continue to haunt us. If you build it—or paint it—they will come
A resident of Portland, Jessica Gandolf attended Oberlin College and graduated in 1980, then went on to earn a master’s in fine art from Brooklyn College. For ten years she showed with the Adam Baumgold Gallery in New York City. Aucocisco Gallery in Portland is hosting a show of new work, Calming the Waters, in September. Gandolf will be a lecturer in the Department of Art and Visual Culture at Bates College this fall.