Being a “retinalist”—one who has given the eye primary sovereignty—I live knowing that at any time or any place, something I see can airlift me instantly into some new unexplored territory.
An occasion for airlifting happened last weekend. Emily Nelligan‘s work was hanging on the wall right as you walked into the You Can’t Get There From Here: The 2015 Portland Museum of Art Biennial. I would not have expected a grouping of small (7 x 10″) charcoal drawings to have been the source of a powerful (and welcomed) disorientation. But it was.
Nelligan, 91, spent most of her summers on Great Cranberry Island in Maine with her husband, illustrator Marvin Bileck. She has said that she finds it hard to draw anywhere else, and most of her work over the last 50 years has centered on that evocative, foggy landscape.
The need for color disappears in Nelligan’s works. Originally drawn to charcoal and writing paper because they were less expensive than paints and canvas, Nelligan soon found herself at home with this simple medium. Using only charcoal, erasers, cotton swabs and her fingers, her drawings capture a quality about that coastline that I recognize. While her work comes directly from her encounter with the landscape of Great Cranberry Island, these drawings fall somewhere between representation and abstraction. They are full of evocation, depth, mystery, silence.
From an article about her work in the Free Press (Maine) from 2013:
While there are no direct precedents for Nelligan’s work, she speaks to traditions rising out of late 19th-century tonalism—Whistler’s gentle admonition that paint “…should be like breath on a pane of glass”—as well as the organic abstraction found in early 20th-century American modernism. For instance, Alfred Stieglitz’s photographs of clouds, the “Equivalence” series, or Arthur Dove’s glowing orbs in indeterminate space. Nearly dumbstruck, as have been other notable critics in front of Nelligan’s drawings, Maureen Mullarkey can only invoke liturgical metaphor: “If the ancient canonical hours could be observed by images instead of prayers, here they are.” Some drawings convey the impenetrable darkness of dense fog enveloping the island at night. In others, there is a quality of moisture-laden light, of breaking dawns and distant clearing. Littoral immanence. And we cannot help but wonder if the drawings in this exhibition, mostly created after the death in 2005 of her husband of nearly 50 years, aren’t in some measure prayers and homage to their long life together.
That Nelligan-induced altered state spilled over afterwards when I visited with two Portland-based artist friends, Munira Naqui and Rachael Eastman. Both are, like Nelligan, masters of dark effulgence. The emergent is present in their work as it is in Nelligan’s, and experiencing that on a daily basis is a reminder of why I am both an artist and a collector.
More about each: