Small but loud

Scale doesn't matter for Nelligan and Bileck
By KEN GREENLEAF  |  July 16, 2008
nelliganINSIDE.jpg
"19 OCT 01 — 1" Charcoal on paper, by Emily Nelligan, 8 inches by 10 inches.

Drawings by Emily Nelligan + prints by Marvin Bileck | Through September 20 | at June Fitzpatrick Gallery, 112 High St, Portland | 207.772.1961
The work of Emily Nelligan and Marvin Bileck in the current show at the June Fitzpatrick Gallery has an impact that is out of proportion with the small scale of the pieces. Nelligan’s charcoal-on-paper drawings and Bileck’s drypoint prints are all less than a foot or so in any dimension, and every one commands the viewer’s full attention.

Nelligan and Bileck lived and worked together for decades, spending summers on Great Cranberry Island and winters in Connecticut. Never the most publicly visible of artists, they honed their craft for years and were noticed mostly by other artists. In the recent past their work has started to find a wider audience. Nelligan had a show at the Bowdoin College Museum in Brunswick in 2000, and they were shown together at the Alexandre Gallery in New York in 2005. Bileck died that same year, but Nelligan continues to come to Cranberry, as she has since the 1940s.

Cranberry and its environs have been their continual subject. Nelligan’s charcoal drawings capture the atmosphere of the island’s shore and sky. Bileck’s prints look closely at roots, rocks, and plants.

A Nelligan drawing is deceptively simple. There are few details, just the tonal range from the paper’s white through several shades of gray to powdery charcoal black, laid into sweeping, velvety shapes that indicate sky, clouds, the curve of the shore, the reflection on the water, the dark mass of woods.

When Emily Dickinson wrote about the details of her ordinary life she transformed them into personal truths that have universal resonance. Nelligan’s work accomplishes a similar transformation. The shapes become abstract masses that are resonant meditations on the subject of nature and the nature of art, executed with the most basic tools. The drawings tell you everything that’s important to know about how the scene looked and felt, about how the darkness fell and the fog drifted in or the sun shone on the water through the clouds.

Bileck liked to focus on details. He chose to make drypoint prints, in which he made marks on a metal plate, usually copper or tin, and then made a paper print after inking the metal. These prints were often one-offs, and he would sometimes change the image on the metal to make another, different piece.

With Nelligan we see the broad sweep of earth and sky; with Bileck, our attention is brought to little interactions of roots struggling with rocks, fallen twigs, and branches, or perhaps a view of a few sheds and buildings along the shore. The pictures draw you in not because of the level of detail, but because the marks all seem to be drawn with an urgent sense of necessity. Each little line is where it is because that is precisely where it needs to be.

Nelligan’s drawings reflect the larger environment as it impresses itself on you as you walk down to the shore to look out to sea. The scenes in Bileck’s prints are like the little tableaux that catch your eye as you sit down on the bank to tie your shoes. The combined effect of the works taken together has the elusiveness and veracity of memory.

Ken Greenleaf can be reached atken.greenleaf@gmail.com.

On the Web
June Fitzpatrick Gallery: www.junefitzpatrickgallery.com

  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Emily Dickinson, Ken Greenleaf, Emily Nelligan,  More more >
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