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Richard Tuttle’s matrix of drawings on display at the Portland Museum; closer view

The inimitable Vogels (of Herb and Dorothy fame and featured in earlier posts here and here) have initiated Vogel 50×50, a program that has placed 2500 pieces from their collection in individual museums in each of the 50 states. Fifty Works for Fifty States is unique for a number of reasons but particularly because participating institutions must agree to hang all 50 pieces together.

From the Portland Musuem of Art‘s description:

Herbert Vogel, a postal clerk, and Dorothy Vogel, a librarian, managed to build one of the most important contemporary art collections in history with very modest means. After more than 40 years of collecting art, they decided to start giving the collection away. The Museum has been the recipient of 50 works from a national gifts program entitled The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States. The best-known works in the Vogel Collection are examples of minimal and conceptual art, but they also include pieces of a figurative and expressionist nature. Primarily a collection of drawings, the collection also includes paintings, sculptures, photographs, and prints by artists mainly working in the United States. This exhibition will feature a selection of the works from the Vogel gift which will include work by artists such as Will Barnet, Richard Tuttle, Claudia De Monte, and Steve Keister.

Before I saw the installation at the Portland Museum of Art last week, I regarded the requirement for 50 as a bit quirky. (Which is not surprising given the Vogels—both quirky AND inspired.) But after having seen the show I regard that stipulation as right on. The works are for the most part intimately sized (the Vogels only bought pieces that would fit in their small Queens apartment), so the impact is collective in the truest sense. Viewing only 10 or 20 at a time would just not give you the panoramic sense of what makes the Vogel aesthetic special. 50 is a good number. Solid.

Besides the Tuttle matrix pictured above, several other pieces caught my eye in the Portland show:

Michael Golberg (1924-2007)

Barbara Schwartz (1949-2006)

Claudia Demonte

Lisa Bradley

The Vogel story continues to astound, amaze, delight. While their financial resources were limited, their intensity was laser-like. If only they could be cloned.

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Seeking enchantment—here, there, everywhere…The Great Haul, a site-specific installation by Anna Hepler at the Portland Museum of Art. The light becomes crystalline and kaleidoscopic through the layered netting of meshed plastic.

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We have an innate capacity for remembering and imagining places. Perception, memory and imagination are in constant interaction; the domain of presence fuses into images of memory and fantasy. We keep constructing an immense city of evocation and remembrance, and all the cities we have visited are precincts in this metropolis of the mind.

Literature and cinema would be devoid of their power of enchantment without our capacity to enter a remembered or imagined place. The spaces and places enticed by a work of art are real in the full sense of the experience. ‘Tintoretto did not choose that yellow rift in the sky above Golgotha to signify anguish or to provide it. It is anguish and yellow sky at the same time. Not sky of anguish or anguished sky; it is an anguish become thing, anguish which has turned into yellow-rift of sky’ writes Sartre. Similarly, the architecture of Michelangelo does not present symbols of melancholy; his buildings actually mourn. When experiencing a work of art, a curious exchange takes place; the work projects its aura, and we project our own emotions and percepts on the work. The melancholy in Michelangelo’s architecture is fundamentally the viewer’s sense of his/her own melancholy enticed by the authority of the work. Enigmatically, we encounter ourselves in the work.

Another memorable quote from Juhani Pallasmaa, from Eyes of the Skin. So many concepts to consider here: Our capacity to imagine, remember and inhabit a space; the metropolis of the mind, built from every city we have ever visited; the power of enchantment that is elemental to art; the aura that surrounds a work of art; the interplay of our own emotions and state of mind with (and on) a work; encountering ourselves in what we see.

And not surprisingly, Pallasmaa’s small book functions for me as a work of art, enchanted, possessing its own aura, providing a reflection that allows me to encounter myself. It continuously speaks to me, holds my attention.


Anna Hepler’s “The Great Haul,” at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine. The sculpture is made from plastic and makes reference to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. (Photo: Scott Peterman)

Thank you Sebastian Smee, for addressing an issue that feels extremely personal and one that I have written about here many times: the demand to narrate the visual art experience with language.

In writing about the Portland Museum of Art exhibit by Anna Helper, Smee begins his article addressing this issue head on:

One of the cruelest burdens we impose on artists is the obligation to talk about their work. It’s not that artists should somehow — like children of yore — be seen and not heard. They are often the most articulate and insightful of commentators. (And why wouldn’t they be? It’s their work.)

But over the past several decades, in the academy, in the media, in front of collectors and curators, talking and writing about one’s own work has increasingly become, for artists, an expectation, a requirement. In some ways, it’s a burden, even a kind of violation.

Why? Because the inner compulsions of the best artists tend to develop in a place that is out of reach of language. And so when artists are asked to explain their work, the constructions they come up with can be smooth, convincing, terrifically interesting — and yet in some strange way a betrayal of the original impulse.

Smee focuses this line of thinking to the more specific realm of Anna Helper’s work. He notes that in the past Helper has referred to her work as being connected with nature. She has written about a particular work speaking to the “temporary perfect sphere’’ of a dandelion whorl, or how another piece suggests “flocks of birds converge in midair.’’

But, says Smee, her self-defined contextualizing has now shifted:

In a recent conversation, just days after visiting her during the installation of “Makeshift,’’ Hepler was suddenly eager to de-emphasize her works’ connections with nature.

“I used to constantly point out things in the natural world,’’ she says by phone. “But my work is not about those things. I don’t go to nature for ideas.’’

Instead, Hepler says she is trying to get closer in her work “to something mute and internal, a core, which has fewer links to the outside world.’’ She doesn’t want to negate her works’ links with nature. But her real interests (and here she gives the impression of groping for words) lie in “fundamental geometries that are evident both in nature and, somehow, in my own internal landscape. If that makes any sense. My work is like a 12th-generation Xerox of these [geometries].’’

Yes, yes and yes to Smee, to Helper, to this line of thought. Her distinction of not going to nature for ideas but turning to “something mute and internal, a core, which has fewer links to the outside world” is a point of view that I resonant with deeply. Her phrase, “fundamental geometries that are evident both in nature and, somehow, in my own internal landscape” is not a groping for words IMHO but one of the most insightful descriptions of a process that is, granted, very hard to articulate.

And the show sounds compelling, provocative, visually stimulating. I’m planning my visit now.

Show info:

Makeshift
Anna Hepler
Portland Museum of Art
Through October 17, 2010


Anna Hepler, Cyanotype 6, 2009, inkjet on rag paper, 36 x 47 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist.