The Bleak and the Beautiful
THE CANVAS-April 2009
by Carl Little
Mary Aro, Eric Aho & Dozier Bell
Supported in part by a bequest from the painter William Thon and his wife Helen, late of Port Clyde, the Portland Museum of Art’s juried biennial has developed a reputation for the remarkable spectrum of aesthetics it puts on display. The 2009 biennial—the museum’s sixth—is no exception, presenting painters, photographers, sculptors, and new-media artists who are exploring varieties of artistic expression.
What is new this time around is the number: a total of 17 artists were chosen from 970 entries. According to the museum, the selected works reflect the biennial jurors’ wish to curate the exhibition as a whole, allowing for “a more intimate experience of each artist’s work.” To that end, a presentation of works by a small, yet diverse group replaces the traditional broad survey of the contemporary scene.
Among the handful of painters featured this year, Eric Aho, Mary Aro, and Dozier Bell find a special beauty in dark elements of the landscape—respectively, a black square cut in ice, the residue of burning trash, and a river viewed from an unsettled sky. These are their stories.
Meet Mary Aro at the Transfer Station
When one of Mary Aro’s daughters wrote a school report about Maine in the mid-1960s, the family decided to make the trip from their home in Michigan to explore this out-of-the-way state. After dividing a two-week stay between an inland lake and a coastal retreat, the family eventually bought property on Deer Isle. Today, Aro spends four to five months in a cabin overlooking Eggemoggin Reach.
Over the years, Aro painted watercolors of the Maine coast from the front seat of her Saturn station wagon. When at home in Michigan during the winter, she turned to tabletop still lifes, which she often combined with her summer landscapes to create remarkable hybrid images.
Five or so years ago, Aro began working on a series of paintings of the Sedgwick-Surry transfer station. Feeling a bit awkward about parking at the dump for hours at a time in her trusty Saturn, she acquired a camera to record the scene. “The landscape there is constantly changing,” she explains. “I’ve painted the area flooded, the man-made hills of acid green, and the arrangements of the microwaves and refrigerators.” Inspired by the formal aspects of the scene—shapes, colors, line, repetition, symmetry—Aro’s watercolors also reflect her concern with the environmental fallout from the planet’s growing population.
In painting End of the Burn, Aro was attracted to the “uneasy emptiness” of the site. The low horizon and tall, blank sky immediately strike the viewer, as does the juxtaposition of smoldering gray debris against a sliver of distant green. The exquisite treatment of the smoking, gray-ash remains belies the subject.
Aro’s favorite quote comes from Fairfield Porter: “The deepest order is not within the ability of the artist to create,” he wrote, “instead it is something that he is able to find, either within or outside himself; and only if he is open enough, unprejudiced enough and attentive enough.” Aro is the artist that Porter describes, seeing the world for what it is, with all its blemishes and all its beauty intact.
A native of Detroit, Michigan, Mary Aro holds a bachelor’s degree and a master of fine arts from Wayne State University, both of which she earned in her 50s. Last year, she was featured in the exhibition Seven Painters at the DeVos Art Museum in Marquette, Michigan, and she will be showing new work at the Turtle Gallery on Deer Isle this coming summer. This is Aro’s fourth appearance in the Portland Museum biennial.
End of the Burn, 2007–2008, oil on canvas, 16” x 20”. Courtesy of Turtle Gallery, Deer Isle.
Eric Aho: Harvesting More Than Ice
Known for his lyrical landscapes of Maine and Vermont, Eric Aho has been exploring more robust subject matter over the past several years, trading in handsome horizons for elemental motifs, including fire and ice. Visitors to Eric Aho: Wilderness at the Alpha Gallery last year (it was one of the Boston’s top-ten shows of 2008, according to the Globe) came away with a new respect for the artist.
“I am excited by the potential for a single painting to examine personal history,” writes Aho, referring to Ice Cut (1931) his biennial entry. The painting was inspired by a story of Depression-era ice harvesting in a small New England town that his father recounted on his deathbed. “Told to me as a child countless times,” Aho recalls, “I have been left wondering why he exited with that tale rather than the one about digging the foxhole in the Ardennes forest, or about the fire, or the trip taken to Miami.”
The painter recalls the indelible images his father conjured in the telling: “horse teams, steam, saws, wool coats, old Finns, trains, blocks of ice, lunch boxes, coffee, and, of course, numb fingers.” From this narrative, Aho chose to represent an off-center square cut from thick ice, an image at once bleak and beautiful.
Always painterly in his approach to the motif, Aho extends his brushwork to a new level of expressiveness. One admires the way he renders the ragged edge of the ice, the cut lines for the next blocks, and the black hole’s illusion of profound depth. Guided by memory and emotion, Aho harvests more than ice.
Born in Melrose, Massachusetts, Eric Aho received a master of fine art degree from the Massachusetts College of Art, with graduate and postgraduate studies undertaken at Mass Art, the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana, Cuba, and the Institute of Art and Design in Lahti, Finland. A former Fulbright fellow, he received the John Koch Award from the National Gallery in 2000. His work is represented by the Alpha Gallery, Boston; DNA Gallery, Provincetown; D.C. Moore Gallery, New York City; and Island Artists Gallery, Islesford, Maine.
Ice Cut (1931), 2008, oil on linen, 50” x 70” .
Dozier Bell Embraces Enigma
In a recent statement about her life and work, Dozier Bell starts off by highlighting her roots in Maine, which stretch back seven generations, and the role they played in shaping her perception of the world. “Physical isolation, the cultural tendency to reticence, and the prominence of the natural world in day-to-day experience,” Bell notes, “fostered habits of thought in which the visual and the unspoken carried a great deal of weight.”
Over time, Bell has developed a signature vision that manifests in darkly romantic images, which are usually northern in both theme and subject. Employing paint, photomontage, and other mediums and means, she has created a body of work that embraces enigma even as it represents the truth of her perceptions, whether she is reflecting on her personal origins or the elegiac vagaries of World War II.
According to the artist, the painting River is based on memories of flying in and out of Maine. Bell waxes eloquent in describing the impression she seeks to convey on the canvas. “The increasing unreality of life on the ground as altitude increases suggests a concomitant emotional detachment from the familiar,” she writes. At the same time, the clouds, “which seem so insubstantial from the earth,” become immediate, their formations appearing “vaguely menacing and incredibly beautiful.”
Perhaps that river writhing across the landscape below is the Androscoggin, which served as the muse for another Lewiston-born painter, Marsden Hartley. Whatever the origin of Bell’s view from on high, we share her appreciation of the menace and the beauty building across the sky.
A resident of Waldoboro, Dozier Bell earned a bachelor’s degree from Smith College and a master of fine arts from the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to numerous fellowships and residencies, Bell has attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Her drawings are currently on view at the DFN Gallery in New York City, and she will be showing new work at Aucocisco Gallery in October. The Center for Maine Contemporary Art is planning a solo show of her work in 2010.
River, 2008, charcoal on acetate, 3 1/2” x 3 3/4”. Private collection.
For more information, see Resources on page 90.