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WATERVILLE — Bernard Langlais, on view at Colby College Museum of Art through Jan. 4, 2015, is not just the most important exhibition of the Maine summer art season, it is one of the best exhibitions of Maine art in years.
Colby curator Hannah Blunt has given Langlais something every serious artist deserves: a major retrospective thoughtfully organized and beautifully hung complete with a handsome catalogue, “Bernard Langlais” (Charta, 2014, $65 hardcover).
Bernard “Blackie” Langlais (1921-1977) was one of Maine few native art geniuses. He grew up in Old Town, then an active logging town, the son of a French-Canadian carpenter and a mother of 10 children.
He left rural Maine to see the world and worked in both Europe and New York before returning to his native state for good in 1966, settling on a farm in Cushing that he quickly turned into a wild and whimsical art park. When Helen Langlais, Langlais’ widow, died in 2010, she left his estate to the Colby Museum, which selected hundreds of pieces for its own collection and designated hundreds of others to be given to other institutions.
The art Langlais created between 1966 and his death in 1977 is referred to as his later work, but, more to the point, it is his Maine work, the carpentered menagerie of wooden animal sculptures that endeared him to Maine audience and earned him the scorn of some New York critics.
The Colby show is a visual walk through Bernard Langlais the Expressionist painter and abstract wood sculptor of the 1950s and early 1960s, to Blackie Langlais the fabulist creator of wooden beasts in the late 1960s and the 1970s. Though I have known Langlais’ work all of my adult life, what seeing such a thorough retrospective impressed upon me was the strength of craft in his art, the very thing that estranged him from urban elitists.
In 1962, minimalist sculptor Donald Judd was so taken aback by Langlais’ shift from abstract wood sculpture to animal forms that he wrote that the new work was “decorative … like folk-art and craftsman-like … the work can only be rejected; improvement cannot be suggested.”
Two years later, critic Vivien Raynor declared, “It isn’t every day of the week that someone switches from abstractions suitable for the Castelli Gallery – to flat-out representation … a mixture of the heroic and the Gift Shoppe.”
No wonder Langlais fled New York for Maine.
Maine tends to humanize and naturalize the art of artists from away. When Langlais got home, he threw himself into an orgy of making carpentered, carved, constructed and shingled figures and animals. The mark of craft is that the materials and methods tend to be almost as important as the image or object produced.
Langlais could have made his sculpture out of anything (and more of his outdoor work might have survived if he had), but he chose to create art out of the very fiber of his native state, the same wood his father worked.
The lower-level galleries of the Colby Museum are filled with canny and comic Langlais eagles, auks, puffins, bears, dogs, cats, cows, horses, giraffes, elephants, tigers and, most especially, a whole gallery devoted to his totemic lions.
“When I do a lion,” Langlais once said, “I feel like a lion.”
Langlais was a Leo. He had a leonine mane of hair. He had a predator’s eyes. When you look at a Langlais lion, you see the artist looking back at you. Bernard Langlais at Colby College Museum of Art is the show to see this year.
“Eagle,” circa 1964, raw and painted wood, by Bernard Langlais.
An untitled oil-on-canvas self-portait, circa 1955, by Bernard Langlais.