Maine on My Mind
Nancy Cohen and Susan English at Kathryn Markel Fine Arts
There is no place for which I will wax more rhapsodic than the coast of Maine, where I’ve spent every summer of my life since infancy. It is a place to which I pay tribute year round with a small memorial on my desk in New York––a perfectly round piece of granite, a pinecone, and a small painting of a burning sunset over dark trees.
It is no wonder, then, that I was right at home with the two shows currently on view at Kathryn Markel Fine Arts, Nancy Cohen: Force and Susan English: Periphery, which each take inspiration from that rocky coastline. Both shows were conceived in a place whose idea of a beach is strewn with dark seaweed and whose sand is nothing finer than shards of mussel shells crushed by winter waves. It is from this rugged beauty that inspiration springs.
Nancy Cohen, whose show consists of handmade paper hangings and sculptures of spindly glass, has built a career on the movement of waters––for this particular show, they are the waters observed from a boat in the Dominican Republic and from the shore in the fishing town of Eastport, Maine. When looking at the group it is clear which work belongs to which shoreline, as the warmth of the Caribbean sun hangs alongside the wet chill of Maine fog.
For her Maine works, Nancy Cohen’s focus is on the tides––a mysterious force to begin with (the moon’s gravitational pull is physically manipulating trillions of gallons of ocean water––how nuts is that?), they sometimes open us to what is most humdrum and human about the sea––that is, the detritus that washes on shore as the tides recede.
Confronting the trash that is strewn on the beaches is at once a tragedy––Cohen described walking along unpopulated coastline in the DR only to encounter mounds of trash gathered at the water’s edge––and a testament to the ocean's awe inspiring force, as it pulverizes anything that is thrown about in its currents, something which Cohen confronted in the smoothed and rounded bricks which had fallen into the ocean from the now vacant factories on Eastport’s shore.
All this (and more) is in the seven paper works and five glass sculptures on display here. That these extremely fine glass works are only an ocean winter away from being dust is a reminder of life’s transitions and how easy it is to move from sand to glass to sand again.
Susan English’s work––at least obliquely––is about a different transition point, this one between water and horizon, as color fades into color and panel abuts panel.
Using polymer paint, English mixes color and then pours the thick liquid onto panels of varying sizes, which she will tip in order to have the paint (and with it, the opacity) gather at one edge or another.
She works slowly (she has to––her paint layers take twenty-four hours to dry before she can pour another one) but the painstaking nature of adding layer after layer is only visible at the edges (or is it the titular “periphery”?) where the “history of the pours,” as the artists explains, makes itself visible in fine lines of differentiated color.
But at the center of the work all that is perceivable of this process is a shimmering depth which is reinforced by a horizon line. (This is where I tell you to see these works in person as the fullness of them cannot be felt through pixels.) That we immediately perceive this transition as a horizon line, though these works emphatically contain no representation, is something with which the artists plays. In true minimalist style, the “horizon line” is not the representation of sea becoming sky, but rather is a physical change in the structure of the material, that is, one panel comes to an end, and another one begins. That these tricks and transitions are present in English’s work shift it from being merely beautiful (a worthy aspiration in itself), to being truly stunning.
When you love a place as I love Maine, you rejoice in encountering evidence that others have seen the beauty that you see. What’s even better, however, is when they show you the potential beyond that beauty, as both these artists have done, and reinvent the way you see a place you thought you knew so well.
Kathryn Markel Fine Arts
Until May 4