By James Foritano
Waterville, Maine – Fresh, honest, engaging — even ‘crafty’ — have been some of the adjectives lavished on the Bernard Langlais solo exhibit now at the Colby College Museum of Art. And yes, they’re all true, in all senses; yet, I didn’t drive the three hours plus up to Waterville, Maine just to repeat them.
So, here are, I hope, some new or half-new insights, or maybe just self-addressed explanations, glimpsed from standing on the shoulders or peering between the legs of those previous insights.
Langlais went out of his way to come back to his family farm from near apotheosis in the bubbling ferment of the 1960’s N.Y.C. art scene. Was he afraid of the loneliness of pre-eminence, too sensitive to the heat and venom of competition — just a backwoods boy, in other words, yearning for the barnyard A.S.A.P.?
Maybe, but my take is that, like Br’er Fox in the bramble patch, Bernard ‘Blackie’ Langlais, after Paris, New York, Maine’s Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, etc., not to mention World War II, had found his true home amidst the lowing, bleating, neighing stock of the American farm — as well as animal relatives near and far, winged and scaled, clawed and hoofed.
Not only a congenial subject but also fertile materials that presented themselves to Langlais’ hungry, humorous, luminous vision and ready hand. His free-standing or deeply collaged subjects are pieced together from the wood scraps and logging remains that litter any working farm, continuously building, maintaining and re-building its own substance in the struggle for existence.
Why did our Maine artist choose this up-rooted, scored, scratched, matter-of–fact organic matter? Was Langlais apprenticing himself to the totem sculptors of ancient societies, using earthy materials to body forth at once the daily wants and homely archetypes of his tribe, putting pith in the argot of the cracker-barrel, buffing his inner seer?
Or was the well-traveled, well-schooled Langlais a pure devotee of Arte Povera that uppity branch of modernism bewitching his congeners just across the Atlantic from Maine’s rocky shores and our rockin’ ’n’ rollin’ 1960s?
It’s intriguing, for me, for one, to speculate that the longer Langlais focused his hand, eye and heart on meticulously assembling this menagerie of beasts, the more likely he felt their spirits chancing to extend into his and our existence until, ritual-like, the line between observer and observed trembled and grew thin.
It’s not only the eyes of these lively creations that seem to open so directly into mine, a wink or squint seeming like an intimate address, but their body language, at once spontaneous and posed, seems familiar to this owner’s body, to his creaky, yearning attempts to follow the manual while opening it out onto other pastures.
Across the Atlantic, a half century ago, Mario Merz writhed like a pupa, an artist-pupa, to split open our increasingly form fitting ‘skin’ of Western technology. Merz, recycling mid-tech and the ‘poorest’ low-tech materials he could find on urban streets, built an improbable igloo of detritus, crafted a sled of same, then pointed its runners down the Italian peninsula’s bright slopes and dimmer hopes. Giddyap!
Was this ‘Blackie’ Langlais’ trial also, as he wrestled, joyfully, with Maine’s poor soil and exuberant forests to breathe some least life into scraps of lumber?
Agonist or ecstatic dancer? Slick sorcerer or stumbling trickster? Mid-Maine woodsman or midriff deep in esthetic currents? Choose your persona, and right you are!
Only certain thing is that these summoned beings are not your grandpa’s birds and bears or lambs and lions whittled away in a muteness of winter tedium; they really growl, and call, bleat and roar. But what are they saying?
The Langlais Art Trail wends through multiple corners of Maine’s art galleries, libraries and civic plazas and its urban, suburban, backcountry, covering more than 50 institutions displaying his work. It’s still a-building, still entrancing, still riddling — and waiting for your visit. For a rundown of locations, visit langlaisarttrail.org.
(The “Bernard Langlais” exhibition continues through January 4, 2015 at the Colby College Museum of Art, 5600 Mayflower Hill Drive, Waterville, Maine. For more information, call (207) 859-5600 — and please tell them Artscope sent you!)