'LOBSTER' By Ted Davis, from the collection of John M. Day.
Combine the flush of technology with several generations' output of cultural objects, and it's only a matter of time before having things would be considered an art of its own. That's the focus of a curious and oddly lovely show at the Portland Public Library's Lewis Gallery titled "The Art of Collecting," which sidesteps traditional themes and, notably, the original contexts of the works shown in favor of highlighting the personal collections of four significant figures from the last generation of Maine art: Bruce Brown, John Day, Juris Ubans, and the late Carlene Ray Goldman.
This show wouldn't exist if these people didn't have well-refined and studious tastes, and if you're the sort who considers the question of whether you'd hang a painting on your wall to be a good determinant of how much you like it, these four collections will give you plenty to think about. Virtually all the show's works — predominantly paintings and drawings — are single pieces by different and notable artists, and most are inarguably beautiful. The majority of names won't be recognizable to casual art observers, and though we do see significant pieces from figures like Sol Lewitt, Will Barnet, Chuck Close, and George Bellows, the stars of this show are clearly the collectors themselves.
Divided into four distinct areas of the gallery, the show sets up a clear voyeuristic element, one to which I'd imagine viewers responding with an array of reactions. What is shown here, as much as the canvases themselves, are four people's imagined living rooms, which might readily function as a sort of proxy for their personalities. Whether viewing their personal collections induces wonder, affinity, inspiration, or envy depends a lot on perspective, which makes a show of this caliber and a public library a particularly interesting match.
In the collection of Ubans, the Latvian-born painter who spent more than 40 years teaching at the University of Southern Maine, we see two distinct sensibilities. The first is a light and almost childlike playfulness found in etchings from Italo Scanga and the Maine artist Frederick Lynch, their energy met by the aqueous blue reveries of an abstract oil painting by Iveta Sveisberga. The second might attest to an appreciation for the intricacies of provincial life, as found in pictorial and figurative works by Edvins Kalnenieks, Richard Wilson, and Ubans's father Konrad, a notable Latvian landscape painter. A large impressionistic oil by the Maine painter Michael Waterman makes a stunning exception, conjuring the cherubic figures of Mary Cassatt in hazy shades of ochre.
John Day, another educator and curator of Fryeburg Academy's Pace Galleries of Art, balances an appreciation for abstract realism amid several scenic studies of Maine cultural life. His corner is anchored by two canvases each by Stephen Pace and Ted Davis, island artists by way of New York. There's also a shine for grandiloquence, with the resplendent oil "Roman Fountain" by William Thon depicting a stately, sun-dappled monument in wide frame. Carlene Ray Goldman, a former Muskie School director of student affairs, collected contemplative, realist paintings of modernist landscapes, many of them seeming to take as their subject the position of the adult woman in postwar America.