The islands in the watercolor images by Timothy McDowell have been inspired by what the Connecticut-based painter has seen while vacationing at Swan’s Island.
So the cactus off to the side of one of the paintings seems a little, well, out of place. That juxtaposition of nature, as well as the small and large details in the world, goes to the heart of McDowell’s paintings, an exhibit of which opened Friday along with two other new shows at the University of Maine Museum of Art in Bangor.
“Metaphysics of Landscape: Paintings by Timothy McDowell,” a collection of works McDowell made mostly using the encaustic technique of beeswax on plywood, will be on view until April 1 along with “A Bit of Colored Ribbon: Works by John Bailly.” Another exhibit, “Gyotaku Prints by Boshu Nagase,” runs through March 20.
McDowell said he spends time sketching on Swan’s Island, and the small islands in a grouping of eight watercolor studies on the back wall of the museum’s gallery space are unmistakably Maine. Yet the cactus makes sense, too. Although he lives on the East Coast now, McDowell grew up on a ranch in West Texas.
There are no boundaries in his work, McDowell said during the show’s opening last week. He ignores geographical restrictions, experiments with size and plays with shape and form. A bit of pollen might be the same size as the plant it comes from.
“I enjoy bouncing through that corridor that exists between absolute depiction of forms and a celebration of just painting for paint’s sake,” he said. “I like that, because it plays with our understanding of why there’s realism and why there’s abstraction.”
His Maine-inspired islands are watercolors and were meant to be studies for larger works in his favored technique of encaustic, a method in which ground-earth pigments and other media are suspended in heated beeswax.
Some of the works include pieces of fabric in the different layers of beeswax. The result is a sense that items in nature are floating or suspended.
“All my work deals with nature, and my view of nature is kind of all-encompassing from the micro to the macro,” McDowell said. “It’s almost like if you could see a scene with pollen drifting and gnats flying. Not just the big picture, but also combine that with the micro-layer of nature.”
The work is also meant to be a sensory experience for the viewer. The surface of the works have a lot of texture — although common sense would dictate they probably shouldn’t be touched — and George Kinghorn, the UMMA director, mentioned the gallery smelled of beeswax when the works were being installed. McDowell’s colors are subtle blues, pinks, peaches, yellows and browns.
The beeswax is the perfect method for his work, McDowell said.
“I really love this because it shows the [brushwork], it freezes as soon as the wax cools,” he said. “It’s also a way for me to capture light. It encapsulates and it defracts. The light passes through the layers of wax, exposes the layers underneath, and you get a really nice luminescence.”
One of the larger pieces, a diptych called “Natural Distribution,” was completed just weeks before the UMMA show. It contains many of McDowell’s signature elements, from flower parts to seed pods, with just the suggestion of a landscape and sky. There are also swatches of painted fabric with botanical themes, weathered-looking sections, and an image meant to be a vessel from which many of the botanical items could have emanated.
“It’s a kind of an awareness of how influential nature is in our lives, and some of the objects are derived from different cultures as well,” McDowell said. “The weathered elements [are] meant to suggest time and old documents, which are kind of a substrata of my work as well.”
Although the museum’s three new exhibits are vastly different, there is some overlap too.
Like the layering of McDowell’s work, Bailly’s mixed-media compositions are layered images of ancient maps, military battles with directional arrows indicating troop movements and images from anatomy books. The exhibition’s title refers to a statement by Napoleon on national pride, indicating for Bailly the notion that a group of people will go to great lengths to preserve cultural identity.
The show also includes a selection from the artist’s Place of Mind series which is the result of a collaboration with poet Richard Blanco.
Nagase’s images of fish made in the gyotaku print style are much more realistic than the hazy fantasy of McDowell’s work, but they’re much closer in their exploration of nature. The works on display have been selected from the more than 70 owned by the museum.
Nagase is the principal living master of the indirect gyotaku technique, which is done by placing a thin, wet paper or fabric on top of the fish, after which colored inks are applied in multiple layers to render a detailed, complex image of the fish.
Artist John Bailly will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 21, at the University of Maine Museum of Art. Admission is free to museum members and UMaine students with an ID, and $8 for nonmembers. For more information call 561-3350 or go to www.umma.umaine.edu.