Maine’s summer art scene heats up with major retrospectives

Posted July 17, 2014, at 3:23 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Summertime in Vacationland not only features ice cream cone-toting tourists and out-of-town licence plates; its museums and galleries vibrate with world-class art.

From the hometown Bernard Langlais to the blue-chip Richard Estes to 35 artists who have spent time on Monhegan Island, art venues trot out their best works this time of year just like boutiques and eateries across the state.

Here are three shows featuring Maine-affiliated artists that no art lover or casual gallery hopper should miss. Divide and concur.

Richard Estes’ Realism at the Portland Museum of Art

From Venice to the Staten Island Ferry to Mount Desert Island, Estes, now 82, has an eye for the exact. The New York City painter, who traversed Manhattan with his camera in tow, captured Gotham in its less-populated Sunday-morning stillness. His oil paintings, such as his 1967 work “Horn and Hardart Automat,” show a Manhattan of a certain time and place.

The former advertising agency artist was a master at photorealism — the process of reproducing a photograph through drawing or painting — at a time when Instagram was a blessed 55 years in the future.

There is more than meets the eye in his reflective works, which capture plate-glass windows, car windshields or waves on the ocean, and transform everyday streetscapes into masterful treatises of perception.

Estes, who lives on Mount Desert Island for part of the year, has not had a show of this magnitude since 1991. Portland Museum of Art organized this painterly survey with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where it will travel next.

“The exhibition is a national story, but it has special resonance for those of us here in Maine,” Jessica May, curator of contemporary and modern art at Portland Museum of Art, said. “For many, many audiences, this is absolutely the first time Richard’s paintings have been seen — both the Maine and New York — together.”

Around the corner from a busy Times Square montage is a majestic Mount Katahdin. Maine’s highest peak stands like a liquid mirage in Estes’ gaze. Nearby, the deep essence of tree branches in his “Near Hunters Beach, Acadia National Park” share the same exacting detail that can be seen in his subway series.

The 50 paintings in the show span more than five decades. All give viewers the exhilarating feeling of a becoming a voyeur.

You don’t simply view an Estes paining; you slip into the frame and stand next to a stranger sitting at a Hopper-esque automat or board a ferry surging among Maine islands. Estes purchased a home in Maine in 1975, but the state’s lush nature did not become his muse until the late 1990s.

“A big surprise of this show is that it is uplifting,” May said.

Estes hides his signature in each painting, in a Where’s Waldo-like location, but “there is not a secret message here.”

“It’s about looking — being absorbed in time,” she said.

Don’t wait, because next time you look the show will be gone.

Richard Estes Realism runs through Sept. 7. Admission is $17, Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland.

Monhegan Artists’ Residency 25th Anniversary Exhibition, Thos. Moser, Freeport.

Monhegan Island has attracted artists to its peaceful shores for 150 years, but not everyone who picks up a paint brush or wields a welding torch can afford to retreat to such a storied, now monied, art colony.

The Monhegan Artists Residency Corporation has been making it possible for 25 years. To recognize the scores of artists selected to work here each summer for six weeks, since the program began, a group show is on display at the Thos. Moser showroom in Freeport.

The Maine-made furniture store may sound like an odd setting to view such works, but its reputation as an art emporium is growing.

“Freeport is a gateway for Maine for travelers,” Laurie Perzley, the company’s Freeport curator, said. “In the summer, 3,000 people pass through Route 1 each day. We have a lot of wall space; it’s not a traditional gallery in that every month we are rotating shows.”

The 35 artists in the show, including Michael E. Vermett and Sarah Knock, hail from near and far. And like most group shows, their motifs and mediums cut a wide swath.

“The show features work inspired by Maine, which is relative to their work,” Perzley said. “The subject matter is not all tradition Maine landscapes and seascapes — some is abstract.”

She was approached by board members of the nonprofit residency a year and a half ago to stage this exhibit.

Just as there are many, many Maines, this retrospective showcases “oil and canvas, oil on panel, acrylic on panel, screenprints, ink and paper-digital prints on paper, stainless steel sculpture. … It’s as varied as can be,” she said.

Though you won’t find well-known Monhegan artists such as Rockwell Kent or Jamie Wyeth at Moser, less familiar painters are every bit as engaging.

“The work is so varied and all is inspired by the residency,” Perzley said. “Additionally, many of the artists have said that it is a life-changing experience.”

Thos. Moser Freeport showroom and gallery, 149 Main St., Freeport. The show is ongoing through Columbus Day Weekend. Free.

Bernard Langlais at Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville

Bernard Langlais grew up in Old Town and lived his final decade in Cushing. In between, the sculptor and painter, known for his 62-foot Abenaki Indian in Skowhegan, made a loud splash in the New York art scene during the ’50s and ’60s.

But it was on a farm in Cushing where he created the often-playful animals forged from salvaged wood for which he is recognized today. He died in 1977, at the age of 56, but he remains one of Maine’s most beloved artists.

Colby College Museum of Art stages the first scholarly retrospective of the artist, whose predominant medium was wood — salvaged, weathered, chain-sawed, carved, burned.

The exhibit features 128 sculptures, reliefs and oil paintings, a portion of what was bequeathed to the college by Langlais’ widow in 2010.

It includes work shown at his 1961 solo show at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, which often exhibited Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, and a series of carved animals planted on his art farm in Cushing. Paintings and reliefs from across his career depict an artist in sustained reinvention.

He studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and received a Fulbright scholarship to Norway, where he studied the artist Edvard Munch. Unlike Estes, he was “creating a composition, not realism,” with his work, curator Hannah W. Blunt said. She spent two years living in Langlais’ farmhouse to inventory the work for the show.

In his paintings, which depict graphic and powerful scenes from Old Town and quiet still lifes, “he doesn’t settle on one style,” Blunt said. After 10 years, he decided he no longer wants to “distance himself from hand to canvas” as a painter.

While rebuilding a wall in his Cushing loft, he realized how satisfying wood is and turned to sculpting full-time.

Falling out of favor in the glossy, pop-art idiom, “his instinct led him to Maine,” Blunt said. “He immersed himself in the environment. I think he wanted out.”

What he found here was a wealth of materials, some culled from an old iron works in Waterville, and space to create, live and work.

Far from a precious artist, he “treated his work like a found object,” Blunt said, calling out a piece called “The Monitor or the Merrimack (Gull on Pile).” He placed a seagull made from wooden lobster buoys on this wood relief, and it was a hit in New York City.

The “good old Yankee,” who delighted in repurposing things, worked out of the glare of the art world for a reason. He lived on an art farm, with chickens, sheep and a stray donkey or cow and a trove of art work, which he called an “environmental complex” on 90 acres.

The college has teamed up with the Kohler Foundation Inc. to create the Langlais Art Trail, featuring restored work placed in public spaces from Presque Isle to Portland. This fall, the Langlais Sculpture Preserve opens to the public in Cushing.

Colby College Museum of Art, 5600 Mayflower Hill, Waterville, Maine. The show, which opens July 19 runs through Jan. 4. Free.