Art Review: Bruno, Belasco and Page Work Well Together

Since it opened in 2006, the Courthouse Gallery in Ellsworth has occupied an 1838 building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The gallery has now expanded into its companion building, the old registry.

A show of paintings by Colin Page hangs in the main gallery. I reviewed his recent show at Greenhut Galleries in Portland, and together, that show and the one at Courthouse Gallery present Page as an unusually prolific and multifaceted painter.

I was particularly drawn to a pair of his unusual paintings.

“Howard’s Garden” is an effervescently disheveled composition of a Maine house whose front yard is piled with a jazzy collection of colorful stuff: Fencing, flowers and cast-off household bric-a-brac. It’s a deceptively complex composition turning on a series of tall posts rising through the midst of the mayhem.

Despite its sparky color, spatial development is the ultimate force in “Howard’s Garden,” and it takes the form of a cascade flowing down and toward the viewer.

Rather than domestic flotsam and jetsam, the dynamic elements of Page’s “Under Repair” are the orange and blue stands used to shore up the dry-docked boat (also in a yard).

Hanging in the companion gallery are Judy Belasco’s Maine coastal scenes bathed in quiet morning silver mist.

Belasco’s works echo the scale and converging horizon perspective of Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904), whose salt marsh scenes marked a high point of American painting. Belasco’s paintings are surprisingly free of angst despite their dedication to detail and brushwork precision.

Her work hangs comfortably in the quirky (but handsome) space above wainscoting and amongst Greek Revival windows—in a room bereft of parallel lines. (I imagine the building’s eccentricities don’t make installing shows particularly easy.)

In contrast, the new space just opened in the registry building features even floors and a long, flat wall. It’s a nice combination of historic Maine and upscale gallery sophistication, and it breathes.

The first show in the annex showcases abstract paintings by Ragna Bruno. It’s an unusual show for Maine insofar as it follows a mode of dry surface material abstraction usually associated with postwar European artists such as Alberto Burri (Italy, 1915–1995).

Bruno’s paintings tend to be 4-foot squares of grid-oriented imagery in a dry, understated and earthy palette, almost like pastels age-faded to the brink of white.

“Blue Composition” reads like a simplified schematic of an envelope centered on the square canvas with its flap opened toward the left side of the canvas. This sense of unfurling backwards sustains the sense of nostalgia—shared experience and love long ago—that wistfully holds the show together.

Bruno’s “Pompeii” looks to the ancient, frescoed city—buried and then unearthed—with a sense of emotional archeology.

The artist’s music-oriented works echo this sense as well. Rather than scores still to be played, they feel like memories, now more texture than tune.

On one hand, “Musical Composition 2” looks like an ancient, desiccated version of Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie-Woogie” excavated from Pompeii, but because it pulses tonally rather than optically, it feels more like Edgard Varese than Duke Ellington.

By presenting the canvas as a complete thing—found, rediscovered or remembered—Bruno’s work cuts to the quick of abstraction.

Whereas landscape painting is predicated by a sense of place, abstraction stipulates the physical presence of a painting.

While this might not ring out as a eureka moment for most readers, it matters that when Bruno presents music, for example, we see it as a complete system—a structure, a gestalt or a whole.

Conversely, Page’s landscapes turn on the extent to which the act of painting asserts its own presence. Each of his canvases proffers the question about how important the rendered trees or rocks are (i.e., illusion) compared to the strokes and physicality of the paint.

For Page, the answer changes from painting to painting. Not so with Bruno. The paintings and their self-aware systems and structures refuse to fold into the illusion of representational space. When imagery takes form (like in her small case in “Winter Trees”), it does so in a receding whisper.

There is mystery, but Bruno keeps it for herself, like cherished old love letters. We see this in the barely perceptible backwards writing on the surface of the painting in Spanish, and often starting with “solo” —alone.

While you might think of Da Vinci or a libretto to be read from the other side, I saw reverse archeology, and quickly let them go as someone else’s otherworldly and plaintively personal letters.

While most of my favorite abstract painting in Maine bristles with a vital edge (Mark Wethli, Ken Greenleaf, Thomas Flanagan, Garry Mitchell and Cassie Jones among them), Bruno’s work dovetails elegantly with traditional Maine painting. It is quiet, atmospheric and contemplative. It’s a broken romanticism wrapped in bittersweet knowledge rather than lusty sublime.

When I saw William Irvine’s most recent paintings at Courthouse, I felt a place for Bruno as a Maine painter.

Irvine’s newest paintings work harder than ever to clearly present the structural geometry underlying works like Bruno’s. His “Lighthouse,” for example, features a blue rectangle shooting straight across the image, playing the part of sea horizon before it shoots straight up towards the sky—echoing the edge and form of the painting. It’s beautiful as well as brilliant.

There is a great deal of excellent art now on view at Courthouse Gallery. And taken together, the shows by Belasco, Bruno and Page comprise a particularly interesting trio.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: