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The Art Forecast: Maine artists win New England Art Awards

Lifestyle

The Art Forecast: Maine artists win New England Art Awards

The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research is a facetious, hi-falutin’ name for the best online art Web site in New England and possibly the United States.

It’s the personal blog of Boston Phoenix art critic Greg Cook. In his never-ending quest to promote regional art and artists, Cook organized the Boston Art Awards in 2008 and, for 2009, changed the name to the New England Art Awards.

In an art world that can suffer from elitism, the New England Art Awards are about as democratic as they can be. Anyone can make nominations (80-plus did) and anyone can vote (1,880 did). I say the New England Art Awards are about as democratic as they can be, because there are both people’s choice awards and critics’ picks.

When the results were announced at a bar in Somerville, Mass., on the evening of Feb. 8, seven Maine artists and exhibitions were among the winners. Three of the Maine winners won both the popular vote and the critics’ vote.

Painter Mark Wethli of the Bowdoin College art faculty won the Painting awards for his show at Icon Contemporary Art in Brunswick. Anna Hepler, a Portland artist who also teaches at Bowdoin, won the Solo Show by a Local Artist for her exhibition at Montserrat College of Art. And "Twilight," curated by Lauren Fensterstock at Maine College of Art’s Institute of Contemporary Art, swept the Concept/Theme Show category.

Architectural photographer Brian Vanden Brink of Camden won the critics’ Book award for Ruin, a book of his elegant images of abandoned buildings. Susan Maasch Fine Art in Portland won a people’s choice award for Photography. The Robert Indiana retrospective at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland was the critics’ pick for the best Career Survey show of 2009. And the Portland Museum of Art Biennial was the critics’ choice for Group Show Featuring Local Artists.

What strikes me most about the freewheeling New England Art Awards is that they got it right. Every artist and exhibition that won was deserving. Wethli, Hepler, Fensterstock, Vanden Brink, and Indiana would have to be on any list of the best artists working in Maine today.

I didn’t make it down to Somerville for the awards ceremony, but Mark Wethli did and he sent me a report the following day.

“The award ceremony was a lot of fun,” he wrote, “a very down-to-earth affair in the back room of a bar in Somerville, with a Dixieland band performing and just the right blend of hokum and camaraderie among those in attendance. To give you some idea, the award itself is an 8-1/2 x 11 hand-made sheet that the recipient is invited to cut and fold her/himself, complete with dotted lines indicating where to cut and fold. The result is a weird approximation of the Old Man of the Mountain, from NH.”

John Bisbee, who won the sculpture awards last year, punctuated each Maine win by hollering out “Maine!” followed immediately by a call for “Shots!” Organizer Greg Cook loved it.

“The Awards Ball went well last night,” he wrote me the next morning. “I'm an awkward host – to put it mildly – but people were forgiving. The marching band was terrific. And many people turned out. And cheered, and celebrated. I think Brian Vanden Brink of Camden came from the farthest away, but there were also folks from Providence and Worcester, and Brunswick. (John Bisbee livens up any evening.) I was honored that everyone could come, and excited to just have all these amazing talented people in the same room for awhile.”

If you’re at all serious about contemporary art, you really need to bookmark the New England Journal of Aesthetic Research website at gregcookland.com/journal. It’s where the New England art scene is happening.