Art on the Edge
A small group of installation artists has created quite a buzz on the Maine art scene in recent years By producing adventurous
- By: Edgar Allen Beem
- Photography by: Mark Fleming
The most adventurous new artworks in Maine are not paintings, drawings, sculpture, prints, or photographs. Where these traditional art forms tend to be object-oriented, cutting edge art in the twenty-first century more often takes the form of an event or a temporary installation.
Artist and Bowdoin College professor Mark Wethli, who has helped promote installation art as the co-director of the Coleman Burke Gallery in Brunswick, believes that Amy Stacey Curtis, Greta Bank, Anna Hepler, Randy Regier, Lauren Fensterstock, and Aaron Stephan “are easily among the most exciting artists working in Maine today — or anywhere, for that matter.
“Whereas a fair amount of installation art on the art scene in general tends to be fairly esoteric, rarefied, cryptic, and inaccessible to the general public,” says Wethli, “these are artists whose work is serious but also accessible to a wider audience.”
“These are the best artists working in Maine,” enthuses Maine Arts Commission assistant director Alison Ferris. The state-run arts commission has supported their non-commercial installations with grants and fellowships, says Arts Commission director Donna McNeil, because, “the work of these superb artists is ambitious and original in nature, delivering an opportunity to engage on many levels simultaneously.”
Amy Stacey Curtis: Calculating Artist
Amy Stacey Curtis, of Lyman, may well be Maine’s most calculating artist. A graduate of the University of Maine and Vermont College, Curtis, 40, was a math whiz intent upon becoming an engineer when her family moved to Maine in 1986 and she discovered art at Massabesic High School. Her work, however, retains an acute mathematical component.
Since 2000, Curtis has staged five “solo biennials” in some of Maine’s historic factories: the Bates Mill Complex in Lewiston, the former Sebago Moc Mill in Westbrook; Fort Andross in Brunswick, Waterville’s Lockwood Mill, and the Sanford Mill. All of Curtis’ thematic installations play with ideas of “chaos, order, and repetition,” often incorporating the base number nine.
For modulation I, for example, Curtis arranged 8,118 aluminum cans in a circle, each can containing colored paper such that the twenty-one-foot circumference circle modulated from red to orange, yellow, green, blue, violet and back to red as a viewer walked around it.
One of the nine installations at her next exhibit will take the form of a white crocheted blanket, seven feet by a hundred feet, that Curtis has been working on one hour a day for a year. The audience will be instructed to unravel the blanket and place the unwound yarn in a clear Plexiglas box next to the blanket, essentially undoing all her hard work and negating the time she has spent making the blanket.
“I have found my purpose in that I want to convey to people that we are all parts of a whole and that is precious,” says Curtis. “It’s a metaphorical experience for people. People become part of the art. They complete the art.”
Sharon Corwin, director of the Colby College Museum of Art, where Curtis previewed some of her work, says, “Amy is pushing the genre of installation in radical ways. I find her work to be profoundly generous in the ways in which it ultimately depends on the viewer for its creation.”
“Amy Stacey Curtis would be unique anywhere she went,” says artist Charlie Hewitt, a Maine native and a veteran of the New York art scene, “but she would have to be a multi-millionaire to do her work in New York. All those empty mills she uses would be turned into condos.”
Curtis plans her methodical installations in a tidy bedroom studio in the small house she shares with husband, Bill, down a quiet country road in rural Lyman. As to the place Maine occupies in her life and art, Curtis says, “Moving to Maine was the first time I felt I belonged somewhere. This is where I started feeling happy. This is where I came to be an artist. My art is like a gift I want to give back to the state.”
Randy Regier: Dream Maker
Randy Regier (rah-GEAR, with a hard “g”) was an auto body mechanic for many years before he decided to go to college to become an artist. His technical skills are everywhere apparent in the elaborate fictional enterprises he fabricates — antique cars, space ships, and, most recently, an entire toy store.
Regier, 45, grew up in Kansas but lived and worked in Oregon until he decided to attend Kansas State University and then moved to Portland in 2005 to do graduate work at Maine College of Art.
Last year, Regier installed Lost & Found: Anna Isaak and the Cabot Mill at Coleman Burke Gallery in Brunswick and Now Your Spaceship Will Be Your Peace at Space Gallery in Portland. The Coleman Burke installation consisted of an antique race car Regier built from scratch and an invented story about how a woman from Kansas had come to Maine during World War II to work in the shipyards and then built the racer after the war to return to Kansas. The Space Gallery exhibition took the form of a Sputnik-size, candy apple green space capsule and a spacesuit.
Regier’s incredibly realistic “fallen” spacecraft was featured this year in the DeCordova Biennial, Lincoln, Massachusetts. DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park assistant curator Dina Deitsch, who organized the biennial, praises Regier’s commitment to detail. “By creating an entire world — from a full-scale car or spaceship to all of the possible surrounding press and marketing products — Randy gives us a world that we can potentially fall into and not look back,” says Deitsch. “He really provides a full alternative to our current reality that, in turn, makes us question all previous narratives that we have ever known.”
Randy Regier’s most elaborate creation is NuPenny Toy Store, a faux toy shop executed all in black and white and gray with labeling in Teletype code. It features robots, cars, and spaceships inspired by poems, songs, and books displayed in a strangely realistic showroom complete with cash register.
Regier, who calls his Portland studio the American Dream Technical Institute, describes his toy store as being “as real as a dream but also as inaccessible as a dream.”
NuPenny Toy Store was initially installed in an old Central Maine Power building in Waterville, will spend the summer installed in the lobby of the former New System Laundry building in Portland, and then will travel to an undisclosed location in Sanford in the fall.
“Maine is a tough place to make it, but Maine has a wonderful capacity to celebrate the notion of being an artist,” says Regier. “The people have the capacity to engage with the fact that something does not have to make sense or make money to be worth doing.”
Lauren Fensterstock: Jeweler in the Garden
Lauren Fensterstock, 35, is a jewelry maker who has never really made jewelry. Though she studied jewelry-making at Parsons The New School for Design and the State University of New York at New Paltz, she instead made what she called “precarious heirlooms”: strange little objects such as potatoes and bananas set with gemstones that subverted the ideas of longevity and preciousness.
Fensterstock moved to Portland in 2000 so that her partner, Aaron Stephan, could do graduate work at Maine College of Art. Since coming to Maine, she has worked at the Saco Museum and the Hay Gallery and, most recently, as the interim director of the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art.
When former Bowdoin College Museum of Art director Katy Kline asked curator Alison Ferris, now assistant director of the Maine Arts Commission, to suggest an artist who could create a distinctive, original body of work inspired by art in the Bowdoin collection, one name came immediately to mind.
“Lauren is an exceptionally skilled maker, and she is a creative researcher with an abundance of curiosity, which made her the perfect candidate for the project,” says Ferris. “Lauren finds astounding ways to weave together the histories of her carefully considered methods and materials with the often rather arcane social and cultural histories she’s chosen to address.”
Given free range to roam through the museum’s storage rooms, boxes, and file drawers, Fensterstock, who had just purchased an old carriage house in Portland and taken up gardening, found herself drawn to images of cultivated gardens. The work she made in response to the vintage garden and botanical prints manifested itself in 2007-08 as Parterre (French for “flower garden”), an elegant installation in which she transformed an entire gallery into an all-black water garden of cut and curled paper using a traditional quilling technique she learned from Aaron Stephan’s mother.
“The gardening process is similar to the art-making process,” says Fensterstock. “You’re using nature to create an ideal environment for the way man views himself.”
Having worked as a curator and soon to become the academic director of the Maine College of Art graduate program, Fensterstock, a 2010 Maine Arts Commission fellowship winner, believes it is only natural that Maine should foster innovative art.
“Maine is not just a vantage point to look in. Maine is also a vantage point to look out from,” Fensterstock says. “All this work is so labor-intensive. The austere quiet of the Maine winter inspires this kind of work. The artists who first came to Maine were doing revolutionary things with landscapes and Maine continues to be a place to do pioneering work.”
Aaron Stephan: Philosopher of Stuff
Aaron T. Stephan, 36, is Maine’s poster child for artistic pluralism. Since he earned his MFA at Maine College of Art in 2002, Stephan has taken the state by storm, securing ten public art commissions, making art out of everything from books, chairs, and packing crates to architectural columns, construction cranes, welded steel, and even the audience itself.
Stephan lives in Portland’s gritty Bayside neighborhood with Lauren Fensterstock, and he shares a large studio space with a blacksmith on the light industrial outskirts of the city. Currently, he is at work on a $34,000 Percent for Art commission for the new Westbrook Middle School.
Return, as the site-specific middle school installation is called, takes the form of a twenty-two-foot carpentered tree erupting from the floor of the school’s atrium. When Stephan discovered that the school was built on the site of the old Cumberland-Oxford Canal that once carried logs to the Westbrook paper mill, he set about finding logs that had been submerged in Maine lakes, milling them into lumber, and building a new tree out of the old trees.
“I see my art practice as being a dialogue with the world through stuff,” says Stephan. “The stuff can say so much. I am exploring the ways that things can teach.”
“Aaron Stephan has the most incredible breadth and potential of any artist I know,” says Portland Museum of Art director Mark Bessire. “I say this because he is a high conceptual thinker with the talents of a master carpenter and inventor. Very few artists bring all these qualities together when producing art today and also have the entrepreneurship to get them constructed.”
The general public may know Stephan as the artist who created the two-story table and chairs that soar upward in the University of Southern Maine’s Abromson Community Education Center and as the artist awarded the commission to memorialize the late P.D. Merrill, a champion of the Portland waterfront, with a sixty-five-foot arrangement of construction cranes in a starburst pattern. The Maine art community also knows him as the star of Closer, a 2009 performance installation at Coleman Burke Gallery in Brunswick.
For Closer, Stephan delivered a slide lecture about his work as a crew of carpenters walled off his audience by building a room around them. Stephan then sent in singer-songwriter Moses Atwood to entertain his audience while Stephan’s partner Lauren Fensterstock and a kitchen crew prepared a candle-lit dinner that was served to the artists, audience, and crew atop the newly constructed room.
A philosopher at heart, in that piece Stephan used what artist and Coleman Burke co-director Mark Wethli called “overlooked accoutrements and marginalia of the art world itself” — art openings, artists’ talks, music, food — to reflect unconventionally on the conventions of art.
“That piece is Maine to me,” says Stephan of Closer. “The biggest Maine thing is that you have the freedom to pursue whatever you want to pursue and you get support to do it.”
Greta Bank: The Body Politic
Greta Bank, 40, still thinks of herself as a painter despite the fact that very little she does resembles anything like a conventional painting. Boston Phoenix art critic Greg Cook, for instance, described Bank’s contributions to the prestigious 2010 DeCordova Biennial as “glittery drooling cartoon alien orifices.”
And although one might mistake the tattooed artist working in the dingy fourth floor studio on Congress Street in Portland for a denizen of the city’s punk demimonde, Bank is actually a devoted wife and mother who lives in Hollis with her husband, noted photographer Scott Peterman, and the couple’s two young daughters.
“I’m a mother to my girls, and a wife to Scott Peterman, Maine photographer, first,” she says. “A lot of the motivation behind this dark inquiry is my need to change my community for my kids. It’s a serious maternal instinct.”
The product of Quaker schools in Philadelphia, Greta Bank sends her daughters to the Friends School of Portland. She was talented enough as a painter to gain entrance to Cooper Union, a free New York art school that has produced its fair share of art stars. But Bank was so put off by the politics of careerism at Cooper Union that she moved to Portland in 1994, met Scott Peterman at a local night club, and then went off to graduate school at the University of Arizona for three years while Peterman was getting his MFA at Yale.
Marriage and motherhood postponed Bank’s own art career for several years, during which she developed obsessions with auctions and antiques. Then one day, surveying her cache of old mirrors, chairs, reverse glass paintings, upholstery fabric, and leather, she suddenly realized, “I don’t need this stuff. I want to make these objects.”
So for the past seven years, Bank has been creating what might be called dissident décor — an antique chair upholstered with pictures of a massacre, an ornate Baroque tableau charting humanity’s decline, and now the sphincter sculptures of Biophilia/Biophobia. Her art is all about body politics.
“The foremost reason why I create art is to provoke reactions from people,” she explains. “Using attraction and aversion, I’m portraying the existential troubles I think we all have in common. I feel my job is to mirror our predicament.”
Nat May, executive director of Portland’s nonprofit Space Gallery, says Greta Bank “is rare among the Maine artists I know in that she lets her curiosity about sociopolitical phenomena inform her work, finding ways to investigate science and nature, war, consumerism, and pop culture.”
Greta Bank could do her work anywhere, but she chooses to live in Maine for the quality of life. “I don’t want anything to do with the art world,” she says. “Living in Maine is the serious part of my life, not the art.”
Anna Hepler: Form Giver
Anna Hepler returned from Rome, where her husband, art preservationist Jon Calame, was studying on a Prix de Rome, in early June — too late to be included in photographer Mark Fleming’s group portrait but in ample time to construct The Great Haul, the nest-like mesh of salvaged plastic that will hang suspended from the ceiling of the Portland Museum of Art’s Great Hall until October 17.
The Great Haul is one component of Anna Hepler: Makeshift, a solo exhibition that also includes blue prints of smaller sculptures made from digital photographs. The suspended plastic net is similar in form to Gyre, a plastic mesh installation she hung from the ceiling of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport in 2009.
Hepler, 41, is a formalist. Her abstract works often take the form of inflatable or suspended plastic, taped and sewn together but also explored in drawings, photographs, and prints.
“She sets out to explore a shape found in her environment,” says Portland Museum of Art curator Thomas Denenberg, “reducing the object to an abstract essence. This then gets built back up in surprising media — a woodcut, cyanotype, or found sheets of plastic. By the time the original contours are reincarnated as a sculpture or large-scale installation, they have been the subject of deep regard which lends the work profound authority.”
Hepler describes her Portland museum show as depicting “the latticed fragility of transparent structures made from throw-away materials, joined intuitively, and without rational structure, though held together by tensile strength.”
While her art and installations are pure explorations of form, process, and materials, there is also a distinctive social subtext in her use of materials salvaged from a throw-away society. Last year, Hepler and artist Andrea Sulzer collaborated with a dozen Bowdoin College students on Carving the Floors, a project that used the wooden floors of the about-to-be-demolished old Brunswick High School to make a pair of giant woodcut prints. The artists carved designs into the hard maple floors, applied ink directly to them, laid down sheets of paper, and then burnished the backside to pull the prints, which were exhibited at Space Gallery in Portland.
Hepler, a Massachusetts native and a graduate of Oberlin College and the University of Wisconsin, moved to Maine in 2001. “Though I grew up in New England, Maine was new territory and I fell in love with it immediately,” she says. “Maine has a clear identity. People move to Maine because they love it, and make do wearing many hats in order to stay where they are. I love this uncompromising quality. I have found Portland to be a productive place to reflect on ideas and work. It is quiet for most of the year, and friendly.”
- By: Edgar Allen Beem
- Photography by: Mark Fleming