All life is about birth, blossoming and death. A rose bush and a cherry tree pass through the same stages of life as a human being.
In her new exhibition at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland, Maine-based photographer Jocelyn Lee asks viewers to think of themselves as mortal ephemera that is born, blossoms and dies – “just like everything else on the planet.”
With more than 40 mostly large-scale color photographs, “The Appearance of Things,” on view through Oct. 14, is Lee’s largest museum show in Maine. It tells many stories of life journeys – of women in the nude, young and old, blending with nature, the human body at perfect rest among the moss, seaweed and the flowery pink petals of roses and cherries; of nuptial flowers left to transform and transmute in water over time; and of old trees, twisted and elegant, drooping but still supporting life.
These images are meditations on mortality, ephemerality and death, but with an awareness and celebration of the blossom before the inevitable decline. “I hope these images are beautiful, seductive, meaningful and contemplative,” she said. “That is my goal. I hope they function as mirrors.”
Lee, a past Guggenheim Fellow whose photographs are collected by museums across Maine and the United States as well in France and Germany, has been concerned about the cycle of life in her art since her undergraduate philosophy studies at Yale University. She’s always used photography as a way to look at the world and explore questions of life and death and to better understand the cycle of life.
She didn’t have to travel far for this project, which has evolved since she moved back to Maine from New York in 2014. She made most of the images on her two acres of land in Cape Elizabeth. Lee moved to Maine for the first time in the 1990s to teach at Maine College of Art, then moved to Brooklyn when she got a job teaching at Princeton University. She kept her house in Cape Elizabeth when she moved out of state, returning each summer to focus on her work.
“My land is my studio,” she said. “I’ve always made 90 percent of my photographs in Maine. Maine has always fed my work in ways I can’t quite understand – from photographing the bear and moose hunt to photographing nudes in the woods, on the beach or in my backyard. Maine has given me so much, visually and narratively.”
When not working at her studio, Lee runs the gallery Speedwell Projects in Portland, where she previewed this work in a spring show. She also has shown it in London. The exhibition in Rockland is the most complete and exhaustive exploration of the theme.
The pivotal moment came when Lee began making still lifes from nature. She had never attempted still-life photography, “and all of a sudden I was living in Maine and among nature.” Living on the land and tuning into nature’s cycle, and relying solely on the changing nature of natural light, led to this deeper exploration of the cycle of life around which “The Appearance of Things” hinges.
Each photo in the show – the bulk of them are 40 by 50 inches or 30 by 40 inches – celebrates plants and animals, human or otherwise, the connectedness among them and how they change with time, refining their beauty and wonder with age.
Not all, but most of the humans who appear in photographs in the exhibition are naked. Especially with these photos, which lay bare the connections between humans and the natural world and how both fit well together, putting clothes on the subjects would create a barrier that would distract from the point of the show, Lee said. “Clothes tell a story,” she said. “Nakedness leads to vulnerability and honesty.”
Reviewing the exhibition in the New Yorker, critic Rebecca Bengal wrote of these photographs, “Rather than the exchange between camera and subject, these painterly pictures … reveal a symbiosis between human and natural forms, each enhancing the other’s uncanny, shifting beauty.”
She is thrilled with the opportunity for a mid-career solo show in Maine, and at CMCA specifically. “It’s a beautiful museum and an incredible opportunity,” she said.
WHERE: Center for Maine Contemporary Art, 21 Winter St., Rockland
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, through Oct. 14
HOW MUCH: $8, $6 for seniors and students with ID, free 17 and younger
INFO: cmcanow.org or (207) 701-5005