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YORK, ME — Kate Emlen has moved a significant aesthetic distance from her early immersion in graphic design. Emlen’s turn to the landscape was a response, in particular, to the Maine coast where she has spent summers since her childhood. Now based in Norwich, Vermont, with a seasonal studio on the Blue Hill peninsula, she has painted her share of Maine motifs, taking on some of the most iconic landscapes, such as Monhegan Island and the Mount Desert Island region. She brings fresh modes of representation to her scenes that give her Maine images something extra.
Emlen’s exhibition at the George Marshall Store Gallery in York, Maine, includes around 30 works from 2003 to 2017, with about half of the pieces created in the last three years. There are oils on panel and linen of various sizes, along with a handful of monotypes and one large drawing, a study for a commission.
The 16-by-70-inch panorama “Christy Hill,” 2011, is a quintessential down-east vista, a view in Sedgwick, Maine, of fields leading to trees, sea, and low mountains that stretch across the distant horizon, with clouds active in the sky. “Blue Hill Bay,” 2013, is equally scenic, but here the soft, ethereal quality of trees lining the foreground brings to mind certain Corot landscapes.
Among the most remarkable pieces in the show is “Forty to One,” 2015, which features 40 small (6-by-6-inch) oils on linen and panel and monotypes on paper, arranged in eight neat rows of five, each one a study of trees, all of them affixed to one large frame. Emlen focuses on sections of tree trunks, the vertical shapes recurring in different formats, including eight black-and-white monotypes that punctuate an otherwise full-color staging. It’s a bounty of arboreal creation, a kind of visual symphony where one can either admire the individual notes or take in the entire composition.
Emlen is altogether a tree fancier, as evidenced in several other pieces on display. “For All the Saints” and “Blue Moon,” both 2016, are gestural representations of patches of woods, executed through dynamic paint marks. There’s something of Maine painter William Thon (1906-2000) in the presentation, in particular where he edged into abstraction in his landscapes.
Indeed, it’s difficult to avoid comparisons with other painters of the Maine landscape in light of such a rich tradition. The small painting “No Berry Picking Please,” 2009, has a distinct Lois Dodd feel, in subject and delivery. A small sun-dappled out building and wood pile recall some of Dodd’s Maine motifs, while the rendering conjures her style: loose but exact. There is no better plein air painter to emulate.
The exhibition also includes a selection of small still lifes that feature mackerel on plates. The mackerel sometimes serves as a device for abstraction, as in “Head to Toe,” 2014, in which two fish, laid nose to tail, divide the small canvas down the middle, their bodies curved into each other and seeming to blend into a colorful ground. These paintings are gems, the fish, with their patterned backs, lovingly and loosely rendered.
Several drawings in the show reveal Emlen’s working method. A sketch of a scattering of mussel shells done in walnut ink and gouache is fresh and free, as is the aforementioned large study for a commission, a landscape diptych titled “Not One But Two,” 2015. In the latter work, Emlen offers the structure of a Maine landscape before the paint is applied.
Emlen’s work is paired with glazed stoneware pieces by Paul Heroux, a master ceramist from New Gloucester, Maine, who recently retired from teaching at Bates College. Marked by inventive design and surface decoration, his objects — folded vases, plates, and lidded boxes — work well in and among the work on the walls. It’s not a dialogue, per se, but a visual alignment that makes the gallery all of a piece.
A few years back, Emlen expressed her interest in motion and color, the movement of paint and the rhythm of space and counter-space. “Sometimes,” she noted, “even the quietest composition can feel as if it is moving and breathing.” Her recent work offers testimony to this observation with images that move and breathe, and engage.
Kate Emlen & Paul Heroux: Paintings and Ceramics continues at George Marshall Store Gallery (140 Lindsay Rd., York, Maine) through July 9.