Monday, September 5, 2016

MWA XLII: Tremblay's Raven

AA and I are back from Provincetown; as always, it was a lovely, relaxing week. The two great summer getaway spots for most NYC gays and lesbians are either Fire Island (Cherry Grove/Pines) or Provincetown. I've been to both, and I definitely prefer the latter. Even though Fire Island has the beach literally at your door, its own unique charms, and it takes less travel time (in theory) to get there, I find it too remote and too much of a pretentious scene. I prefer the quietude of the New England coast, but also the option of doing various things if desired, from shopping to tea dance. More importantly, I've always enjoyed Provincetown's local art scene. Admittedly, there are a number of galleries along Commercial Street targeted to the tourist market, with idyllic paintings and photographs of boats, the harbor, and the local streets, all of which of course attracts any visitor's attention, and they do make for lovely souvenirs. But Provincetown has a rich history for more than a century as an artist's colony, and as local artist Thomas Antonelli (who has been there for over 40 years) mentioned to JM and me a few days ago, there used to be a ferry that ran from NYC to Provincetown, which helped to create a logical and strong connection between these two art centers. Whenever I am there, I find myself regularly visiting places like the Rice Polak Gallery, where one can still find neo-realist paintings by Nick Patten, an artist about whom I wrote eight years ago and whose work I still admire for their fascinating viewpoints. Simie Maryles Gallery had an excellent group of realist artists on display, intermingling, for instance, academic studies by Brendan Johnston with luminist landscapes by John Brandon Sills. Blue Gallery showcases pottery by Paul Wisotzky; last year I purchased a bottle-neck vase by him. And the Portland Art Association and Museum organizes interesting exhibitions that focus on artists from the Cape. You can read more about this thriving art scene in Provincetown and its centenary in Brett Sokol's article from August in the New York Times.

This year a work that captured my attention every time I walked down Commercial Street was the image you see above, what I've chosen for the latest Monthly Work of Art: Raven, 2015, by Julie Tremblay. (Coincidentally my friend Shermania blogged last week about this black duck painting by Marsden Hartley that he saw at the MFA Boston and thereafter dubbed "Madam X".) I purchased a photographic print of Raven and will be hanging it in our den not far from the computer where I am writing this post right now. Tremblay runs her own gallery (and full production center, from what it seemed) right at the center of town (I can't even begin to imagine what she must be paying in rent for that space). Much of her work on display is geared toward the tourist market, with lovely scenes of solitary boats in Provincetown Harbor at sunrise and whales emerging from the Atlantic Ocean. I don't meant to suggest anything negative by this remark. The images are charming and perfectly suited for those who want this type of imagery for their homes as souvenirs. Clearly she understands her market, as she makes available reduced-cost prints of some of her works to draw customers in and will even mat and frame them (hence the production center). That said, I'm sure die-hard artists might consider her to be selling out.

Raven, however, goes beyond tourist imagery, and that is what captured my eye. bklynbiblio readers know I love animals and nature, and so of course I am a fan of animal art (e.g. my post on Landseer). Tremblay's website showcases a number of examples of animal pictures that she has captured digitally and on film, and many of these are wonderful depictions of animals in their habitats. But this particular composition profiles this particular black bird as a psychological portrait. This is different from photos of dogs or wildlife animals, presented anthropomorphically posed or in-their-habitat. This image of a bird with its head bowed down, its eyes invisible to the viewer, suggests a form of blindness, not just for the bird unaware of us, but for us as well, our inability to meet its gaze and understand what this creature is. The less one can see, the more one desires to see. Tremblay has a comparably powerful photograph called Sun Screen, 1988, of an elderly woman blocking her eyes from the sun with intertwined fingers, masking her vision and thus our own, making it impossible for us to truly see her, making us realize how much we rely on vision and our need to look into someone's eyes in order to understand who they are. Vision is a form of control and it makes us, as viewers, feel more comfortable with the lives around us. The same holds true for this bird. The less I can see into the eyes of this bird, the more I appreciate everything else I can see, and the more I lament for those who cannot see at all, physically because of blindness, or perhaps worse, psychologically because they wear blinders in support of their own prejudices and agendas.

This photograph also works as an abstract composition, a solid black entity that could just as easily be a human in a black shroud and hood as much as a bird in black feathers. In the center of all that black is a sharp linear V, the bird's beak, accentuated by white hatch-marks that are the scars of its own existence. This is an image of a life well-worn, experienced, exhausted, but not yet a figure of death, despite the association with mourning in the black-so-black you can almost feel the soft downy feathers on your fingertips. Tremblay told me that she doesn't know if the bird was a crow or a raven (I think it's likely a crow), but her titling of it as Raven inevitably conjures up images of Edgar Allan Poe, the Tower of London, and the Gothic imagination. But, contained as it is, with a blurred red-white nature background and a white rectangular photographic edge, the bird's identity and association with darkness is called into question, and one realizes this is more a depiction of solitude, a single moment in this bird's raucous life. It is a black beauty all its own.

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