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Art review: Cove Street ‘Retrospective’ covers Jon Imber’s range

By Jorge S. Arango

"Peg Golden," Jon Imber, 2013. Courtesy of Cove Street Arts

By 2013, when Portland art dealer Peg Golden visited Jon Imber in his Somerville, Massachusetts, studio, ALS had stripped him of so much mobility that he was unable to make the journey to his summer home in Stonington, which he shared with his wife, the painter Jill Hoy.

ART REVIEW

WHAT: "Jon Imber Retrospective" and "Distilled," featuring the photography of Cynthia and John Orcutt

WHERE: Cove Street Arts, 71 Cove St., Portland

WHEN: Through Oct. 10 and Oct. 17, respectively

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday

ADMISSION: Free

INFO: (207) 808-8911, covestreearts.com

Golden recalls, "Jon graciously accepted the help of two artists who mixed his colors for him and carefully secured the brush into a brace that was attached to his hand." The portrait of Golden that Imber painted that day hangs in the richly fulfilling and variegated "Jon Imber Retrospective" at Cove Street Arts (through Oct. 10), a testament to his tenacity as a human being and his passionate commitment to paint and painting.

The disease would claim Imber the following year, yet he captured, in dexterous, thickly applied brushstrokes, the dealer's pensive demeanor. Streaking her face with green recalls Matisse's "Woman with a Hat," perhaps signaling his ever-present appreciation of art history (other works reference Beckmann and de Kooning).

"Ballycastle #7," Jon Imber, 2002. Courtesy of Cove Street Arts

The story recalls a trip to Ireland, in 2002 – told on a plaque in the exhibit – when Imber, burning with fever, holed himself up in his hotel room and darted on and off his balcony to dodge torrential rains and complete "Ballycastle #7." This oil-on-panel greets visitors in the second gallery of the show, where we see Imber return to painting landscape as he did at the start of his career.

In his 20s, Imber was instinctively drawn to painting from nature. Pursuing his masters at Boston University in the 1970s, he studied under Philip Guston, who became a friend and mentor. The first gallery clearly documents Guston's influence through paintings and drawings of chunky, darkly cartoonish figures, many suffused in longing. There is Imber in bed with his feminine idol Sophia Loren, for example; she a vision of loveliness immersed in a book, and he a sleeping, bizarrely oversized head atop a blocky naked body. There is humor and sweetness here, but Loren also ignores him, and she is rendered with softness and affection, while Imber portrays himself as almost grotesque. In a drawing nearby, "The Approach," he moves toward her sleeping body in a manner that feels lecherous and predatory.

"In Bed with Sophia," Jon Imber, 1980. Courtesy of Cove Street Arts

The second gallery – which, after the first space, feels simultaneously like an explosion into joyous freedom and a maturation that brings him full circle, back to his deepest love – marks Imber's enthusiastic return to landscape, painted first in his studio, then en plein air. Some works, like "Chatham Hillside," are representational. Others, such as "Cleo's Ledge," barely hint at their topographic subject matter, which dissolves into an abstraction of thick, energetic brushstrokes, splatters and drips. They are about paint – its texture and viscosity, its undiluted color and raw sensuality. These works also have an immediacy the earlier figurative works lack. About his plein air painting, Imber said, "I might put a cloud in the painting and then, 10 minutes later, when the cloud is gone, I'll remove it," according to a document entitled "Jon Imber in His Own Words." They emanate the sense of fleeting moments captured. Yet the show ends on the final p ortraits, which, curiously, combine the figure with the expressionistic power of the landscapes. Imber, who restlessly experimented with styles – "I paint to surprise myself," he said – seems finally settled and at peace.

The sense of a frozen moment is a perfect segue to a very different exhibition in an adjacent gallery: "Distilled," featuring the work of landscape photographers Cynthia and John Orcutt and curated by Bruce Brown (through Oct. 17).

"Chatham Hillside," Jon Imber, 2002. Courtesy of Cove Street Arts

In his seminal book "The Decisive Moment," Henri Cartier-Bresson championed "the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event." The Orcutts are after something similar, communicating, they write, "the essence of a particular place or structure." In doing so, the best of their photography also evokes something deeper — the profound stillness and silence of a transient instant. They catch beech leaves in winter as their icy overlay melts, seemingly the instant before slipping to the ground; the melancholic dignity of grain elevators monumentalized by light that will vanish in seconds, leaving them in darkness and obscurity; the shadows cast on snow by clotheslines before dissolving into the night.

"Pillsbury Grain Elevator," John and Cynthia Orcutt. Courtesy of the artists

Larger triptych works are impressive in their way. But the quiet and intimacy of these ephemeral events, which make the other work so compelling, falls apart. Fascinatingly, the show also highlights the ways the photographic medium morphs when transferred onto different materials: archival paper (documentary), archival canvas (painterly) and face-mounted on acrylic (vividly high-definition).

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland.

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