For the second time this season, we have an opportunity to see the impact an influential and beloved art teacher had on his students and his circle of contemporaries.
Earlier in the summer there was “Acquired Symbols” at Maine Art Gallery in Wiscasset, which featured the work of John Lorence, a teacher at what is now Maine College of Art & Design, along with that of his students and colleagues. Now comes “Parts of an Immense Whole: 9 Painters in Conversation with the Work of Joseph A. Fiore” at Able Baker Contemporary in Portland (through Sept. 25).
Fiore made a big splash in the 1950s with his abstract paintings, which at times stylistically recalled various artists, among them Paul Klee, Wilfredo Lam, Picasso and one of Fiore’s teachers at Black Mountain College, Ilya Bolotowsky. (He also studied under Josef Albers and Jacob Lawrence, and alongside Willem DeKooning and John Cage.) Fiore returned to Black Mountain as a faculty member until the North Carolina school closed in 1957.
But after 1959, when he began spending summers in Maine with his wife, he toggled among semi-abstraction, straight landscape painting, collage and symbolic abstractions that were inspired by the cave paintings he encountered at Lascaux in France’s Dordogne.
Except for his collages, the show at Able Baker draws from all these periods and genres. The great pleasure of the show is how intelligently it was hung by Tessa O’Brien, the curator and one of the partners in this artist-run gallery.
She encountered Fiore’s work while doing a residency at the Maine Farmland Trust’s Joseph Fiore Art Center, to which Fiore, who had a lifelong interest in environmental stewardship, donated the bulk of his surviving work. (Another show featuring many of the art center’s alumni, “Effloresence,” is currently at Zero Station Gallery and complements Able Baker’s show very well.)
O’Brien repeatedly juxtaposes paintings by Fiore and these nine artists in ways that point out their shared lineage and their differences. One variation is Fiore’s “Yellow Sun” and Rachel Gloria Adams’s “Tangerine and Blue,” which hang back-to-back. It’s a little tricky comparing these because “Yellow Sun” is in the window, which requires going outside to view it.
It depicts the sun rising or setting above a tree line with a cloud bank crossing in front of it. Adams’s cotton-linen collage has this same sense of masses floating across the surface, closer to the picture plane than the plum-colored ground. It also refers obliquely to Fiore’s collage work.
An untitled abstract Fiore painting hangs between his “Curved Trees” and Jarid del Deo’s “The Shape of a Cone Turning Itself Inside Out,” but we still see the connection clearly, despite the abstract interloper. Fiore’s shapely trees are rendered loosely and sensuously in front of a snowy rock face. It’s a beautiful little painting reminiscent of Arthur Dove’s saturated application of pigment and his reductive sense of form.
The connection to “Trees” is not immediately apparent in del Deo’s work because the main event in “Cone” is the fountain in the foreground, which is neatly and precisely portrayed. But the forest behind it is very much like “Curved Trees” in its looseness, line and palette. It’s also interesting that water elements swap prominence; in del Deo’s the fountain takes center stage, while in Fiore’s the snow is in the background.
Fiore’s untitled oil-on-paper between these two is mostly a jumbled abstract grid of colored squares. These geometries relate pretty directly to Lois Dodd’s “Blue Wall” further along. Dodd (still a vital painter at 94) was a friend of Fiore and often accompanied him on plein air painting excursions.
The “wall” of her work looks like a quarry that’s been systematically sliced to extract rectangular or square slabs of stone, which subtly mimics the geometry of the untitled work. Dodd extends that geometry to the reflection on the water below the quarry. It is wonderful to notice, too, how she achieves a feeling of liquidity and reflection simply by varying the thickness and thinness of her paint application.
And both these works relate to Jesse Littlefield’s collaged muslin on panel. All three sport blue-grays, and the muslin elements are also sectioned into rectangles. A foliate form at the left of Littlefield’s canvas also incidentally ties it to the barely visible trees above the rock face of Dodd’s painting.
It feels gratifying to make these connections, picking them up from the lively conversations transpiring among them. Some are clear homages to a particular piece, such as Eleanor Conover’s “Z (After Y Falls),” which responds with mischievous wit to Fiore’s “Y-Falls.” The “Y” derives from two streams that converge halfway down the rocky surface to cascade together into the water.
In front of this scene are three downed trees that in Fiore’s painting don’t quite visually connect to form a “Z” shape closer to the viewer. Not only does Conover complete the Z and title her work that way, but she presents the Y upside down at the bottom of the work. Conover’s is also a collage of many materials, indicating another connection to Fiore’s collage work. What’s most surprising, though, is that it also turns out to be a more interesting piece in the end than “Y-Falls,” its source material.
Three paintings in a small space behind Littlefield’s work could easily be missed, and it would be a pity to do so because they reveal another pleasure of the show: the sheer joy all these artists feel over the materiality of paint. Fiore’s “Vernal Equinox” is bright and lavishly layered with raw pigments in yellows, lavenders, oranges, pinks and greens. It is not dated but looks to be a later work inspired by petroglyphs and cave paintings of Lascaux.
And Alice Jones’s “Moonrise Over Chickamauga” hanging next to it, is perhaps the most dynamic canvas in the show, sharing with “Vernal Equinox” an enigmatic iconography (here in its tumultuous sky). The moon itself looks like a UFO, imbuing the painting with a sense of otherworldliness, almost like a bizarre Martian landscape. It is vivifying, energetic and hypnotic, a dark counterpoint to Fiore’s sunny equinox.
Upstairs there is an inspired trio formed by two Alan Syliboy acrylics on canvas flanking Fiore’s “Red and Green.” Syliboy is Mi’kmaq, a First Nation people from Canada’s Atlantic provinces and Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula. For him, the spiritual and cultural iconography dominates the canvas. In terms of subject matter, it is the main event, and we feel the authenticity of Syliboy’s connection to these symbols.
Between these paintings, Fiore has used an ancient-looking iconography of his own, some of it recognizably borrowed from Lascaux. But he immerses these symbols within the larger aims of abstract composition. Here what we notice most are the intensely saturated fields of color arranged like a puzzle in segmented parts. What we’re left with is an abstract composition with some suggestion of symbolism, while Syliboy’s are all about the symbols.
Fiore’s abstract paintings are his strongest, whether early or late (“Red and Green” is dated 2002). His straight landscapes are much less interesting. Competent, yes, even skilled to a degree. But they are not remarkable in any truly original way, which is perhaps why he returned to abstraction and symbolism later in life. I miss the collages too, but these are hard to come by. And a couple of works look lost, particularly Dodd’s “Road at Night,” which hangs alone by the door emanating a sober Milton Avery-like presence but not connecting to anything else.
Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]