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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: January 21, 2016

Portland Museum of Art reopens with renewed focus on what matters most: Art

Written by: Bob Keyes

In the end, what matters most is the art.

The Portland Museum of Art is now open after a nearly three-week closure that museum director Mark Bessire said was necessary to accomplish physical improvements throughout the building. Floors were sanded, walls painted and the building generally spruced up floor to ceiling.

Visitors will notice many other changes, including new hours, new admission prices – hint: they’re not going down – and a new hands-on family space.

The biggest change is the art itself. The museum is in the first phase of a building-wide reinstallation of its galleries, and visitors will notice more color, more splash, more contemporary art – and more animals.

The museum’s curatorial staff is showing contemporary work in the traditional space of the McLellan House, hanging paintings in nooks that previously were bare and placing sculpture in strategic spots to encourage people to circulate throughout the building, instead of limiting their art viewing to the Payson wing.

“We really want to get people through the building easier and get them to places they didn’t often go before,” Elizabeth Jones, the museum’s communications director, said while showing off newly hung work in the McLellan House. “We find that a lot of people don’t get back here. We want them to experience all the museum offers, and not just a part of it.”

She estimated the museum will show 40 percent more art now than in the recent past.

Here’s some of what’s new:

FOLLOW THE GREEN to the “Modern Menagerie.” The museum has reconfigured its fourth-floor gallery, filling it with animal-themed art by many of Maine’s best known painters and sculptors. Workers painted the staircase handrails from the third to the fourth floors green, as well as the outside of the elevator doors on the fourth floor. They also removed the partial wall directly in front of the elevator, opening up the space.

Visitors right away will notice oversized gulls from a Bernard Langlais sculpture that was displayed for years at the Samoset Resort in Rockland. It’s been in long-term storage at the museum and was conserved last year in preparation for installation in the “Menagerie” gallery.

There’s a Langlais wood relief of farm animals and paintings by Dahlov Ipcar of jungle animals. “Hare and Tortoise,” an oil painting by Ipcar’s mother, Marguerite Zorach, hangs next to an Ipcar painting, and Will Barnet’s family dog is alongside Alex Katz’s family cat, both of which are near Neil Welliver’s painting of three cutthroat trout. “Modern Menagerie” is a semi-permanent exhibition, on view indefinitely.

THE FIRST-FLOOR GALLERY will reopen with “Masterworks on Paper,” an exhibition of drawings, prints, watercolors and photographs from the PMA collection. The museum owns about 18,000 works of art. Of those, 9,300 are works on paper.

Curator Andrew Eschelberger and his colleagues have looked at most of those pieces over the last year or so. The best 100-plus will be on view.

“We’re not showing the biggest names. That wasn’t our defining goal,” he said. “We wanted to choose what is superb.”

That said, there are big names and iconic images. The piece that will likely generate the most interest is Edward Hopper’s watercolor “Pemaquid Light” from 1929. Hopper depicts the lighthouse on a sun-splashed afternoon, with a group of men looking over the rocks. The buildings are cast in the shadows of the day.

The exhibition will connect the artist’s relationship among eye, mind and hand. There’s an immediacy to this work that is less apparent in oil paintings. The marks are more direct, more intimate.

There are photographs by Walker Evans and Brenton Hamilton, drawings by Alice Spencer and Leo J. Dee, prints by Roy Lichtenstein and Sol Lewitt.

“Masterworks” is on view through June 5, but about 25 of the works will be changed out on April 3.

THE LATEST ENTRY in the museum’s continuing contemporary art series “Circa” features the work of Hollis artist Duncan Hewitt. He transforms everyday domestic items into works of art, using wood and ceramics to create sculptures that are full of surprise and wonder. This show is titled “Turning Strange,” which comes from an Alice Munro short story in which a character visualizes the shift between night and day, “when the familiar becomes obscured,” said curator Diana Greenwold.

This show will surprise people for two reasons. One, it’s hard to believe the cushions, hockey skates and rearview mirrors that Duncan exhibits are made from wood. And two, this show is split between two galleries, one on the third floor of the Payson wing and the other in the McLellan House.

Curators are experimenting with placing contemporary art in the McLellan House, which was built in the 1800s. They’re curious how people will respond to the juxtaposition.

This is Hewitt’s first large-scale solo exhibition, and covers about 20 years of work. It is on view through Sept. 4.

FINALLY, THE PMA will unveil the latest addition to its permanent collection, a small oil painting by Winslow Homer titled “An Open Window.” It is one of four paintings that Homer created in 1872 that features a solitary woman facing away from the viewer. In this one, she is looking out a window from the interior of a house.

Art scholars believe the painting was inspired by Homer’s travels to Ulster County, New York. They appreciate Homer’s technical accomplishment of creating a dimly lit interior with a light landscape in the background. He made the painting during an important moment in his development as an artist, and it fills a gap in the PMA’s collection of Homer oil paintings, watercolors and drawings.

“An Open Window” is on view in a small alcove at the top of the landing on the stairs leading from the first to second floors.

The museum also recently acquired “River Cove” by Andrew Wyeth, a tempera painting from 1958. Some art historians consider it among his most important paintings. The painting shows a small jetty in Cushing. It is notable for its near-inversion of landscape imagery: the landscape appears upside down, with trees reflected in calm water.

The painting has been on view at the PMA regularly since 1992 and loaned to major exhibitions of Wyeth’s work. It was donated to the museum’s permanent collection by David Rockefeller in memory of his son, Richard Rockefeller, who lived in Falmouth. It is on view on the second floor.


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