In the longest, coldest part of winter, the University of Maine Museum of Art on Harlow Street in downtown Bangor is an oasis of warmth and beauty.
A trio of new exhibits opened at the museum on Jan. 13 and will run through May 6. The exhibits feature three contemporary artists, each with a distinctive, unusual approach to their work.
The centerpiece of the museum’s new exhibits is Brenton Hamilton: 20 Years, a midcareer retrospective of the Maine-based photographer’s unconventional but captivating work. Hamilton utilizes old-fashioned, archaic photographic techniques to create striking images that blur the line between the antique or historic and the decidedly contemporary.
“There’s now a resurgence of people that are working in photography in those early processes,” George Kinghorn, curator of the museum, said. “I think that’s certainly a response to the prevalence of digital. There’s so much digital photography, and this is kind of a counterbalance to that, investigating those old processes in a contemporary way.”
Among the processes Hamilton uses is cyanotype, one of the earliest forms of photography, first developed in the 1840s, which utilizes potassium and ammonium-based chemicals to develop a photograph with a typically cyan-blue tinge. Hamilton also works with tintypes, a photograph printed on metal, most used in the 1860s and 1870s, and gum bichromate, another early 19th-century technique utilizing gum arabic to create multicolor prints.
“This exhibit gives us a unique educational opportunity to teach people about these processes and the history behind them,” Kinghorn said. “Brenton is really a master of these techniques, and he can talk not only about the technical aspects of it, but also the history and the origins of them. … And with our youth programs, we’ll be able to actually try some of them out, like cyanotypes.”
In Hamilton’s expansive UMMA exhibit, special attention is given to his process, with several examples of the original subject matter of some of his photographic series displayed next to the images themselves — 17th-century sculpted heads are displayed alongside the photos taken of them, giving a peek into how real life becomes art.
Hamilton received an MFA in photography in 1992 from the Savannah College of Art & Design in Georgia. He is the Chair of the Professional Certificate in Visual Storytelling program at Maine Media College in Rockport, and his work is held in the collections of the Portland Museum of Art and the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland.
Also on display is Siobhan McBride: Four Hour Fortune Cookie, a colorful, entertaining exhibit of McBride’s paintings, mostly gouache on paper. McBride of Massachusetts is a technically gifted painter who takes seemingly mundane subjects — a refrigerator, a foosball table, a pile of ephemera on a tabletop, a tangle of wildflowers — and infuses them with mystery and humor.
“She married this idea of realism with a mysterious edge,” Kinghorn said. “Some areas of the composition are very realistically rendered, but then she will other areas as a void or with an absence of detail. It adds an element of the unknown. … It’s a little bit ominous or unsettling.”
In the museum’s Zillman Gallery, Jared Cowan: The Life of David is on display. Cowan is a 2001 graduate of the University of Maine’s studio art program and has since made his home in Rockland, where in 2006 he opened Asymmetrick Arts, a gallery on Main Street in downtown.
Cowan’s UMMA exhibit is a self-contained statement, telling the life story of Emilio David Mazzeo, a Rockland native born in 1920, who is also Cowan’s wife’s grandfather. In 1948 Mazzeo, a marathon cross-country runner, was the fourth American to cross the finish line of the Boston Marathon. That same year, he was also a member of the U.S. team at the Summer Olympic Games in London. Cowan never got to know the man, as he died in 1997 before Cowan met his wife, Cristina, but has since explored Mazzeo’s story through tales told by other family members and friends.
Later in life, Mazzeo experienced the catastrophic loss of his legs and, accordingly, as a runner and a later amputee, legs and feet are the dominant theme in all the parts of Cowan’s exhibit. “Untitled” presents cast bronze hip and leg bones topped with a video monitor. Cowan also cast his wife’s feet in bronze. Perhaps most strikingly, Cowan also cast Mazzeo’s prosthetic legs in bronze.
The overall impact of Cowan’s exhibit is a testament to the life story of one man and to the perseverance of his generation — struggling through many challenges while remaining humble.
“In one way, you can view it as a tribute to a specific individual, but to take it a step further, I think it’s about the idea of perseverance over considerable challenges,” Kinghorn said. “It’s absolutely got a narrative, but it has a larger message.”
The University of Maine Museum of Art, at 40 Harlow St., is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m, Tuesdays through Saturday. Admission is free. Follow the museum on Facebook to find out when lectures, workshops and other event surrounding the new exhibits are planned.