Fading memories, unstill lifes, playful light

Provincetown exhibits capture sense of place

By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / September 1, 2010

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PROVINCETOWN—The art scene, the shops, the summertime bustle, and the likelihood of passing a drag queen on Commercial Street all add to this town’s charm. It’s easy to be here and not notice the handyman, the working fisherman and his rickety old boat. “Saudade,’’ photographer Mischa Richter’s poignant exhibition at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, honors places and people in the town that often go unseen.

Saudade is a Portuguese word with no easy translation, but it has to do, writes Richter in the show’s catalog, with sadness, longing, and homesickness, perhaps for a home that never was. Richter, who shares his name with his grandfather, the late New Yorker magazine cartoonist, grew up here.

His sense of loss is palpable in “Anthony Street,’’ a triptych. The first image shows two old men outside their home, posing proudly by a brick stoop inside a chain-link fence. The man on the left looks too small for his clothes; his socks droop. The other stands a little taller; his socks are pulled up to his knees. In the next image, the smaller man stands alone. In the third, it’s just the stoop and the front door; the fence has been replaced and the place spruced up. Time has passed on Anthony Street. So have the men who lived there.

Richter’s photos, shot with film, have a lush gravity. He fills one wall with portraits, mostly photographed inside Town Hall before it closed in 2008 for restoration. They have a dark, musty feel to them; the atmosphere befits the sitters. The man in “Freddy,’’ museum director Chris McCarthy says, does odd jobs around town: He wears a paint-spattered sweatshirt and his visage is mirthless and stern. His is the first photo in the book, accusatory.

Many images float in the mist. “KG’s Boat’’ is a rusty wreck filled with buckets and buoys that McCarthy says has long sat untouched in the harbor. A thick fog drapes the docks in the background, isolating the ghostly boat on the still water.

“Saudade’’ contemplates a Provincetown that feels lost to memory, but it’s not. The people in most of the portraits are local stalwarts. Most of the scenes Richter captures have not changed. Still, the exhibit weighs with loss and abandonment, and the sense that while much of what it portrays is still here, the community has, in many ways, moved on.

Curator as painter
Larry R. Collins is best known in Provincetown as a curator and an art dealer specializing in vintage photography. So his muscular exhibit of expressionistic paintings at PAAM may come as a surprise. The show, a career survey organized by curator David Foley, starts with a surprisingly deft living room scene painted in 1963 when Collins was only 17, and follows him to Vietnam, where, as a combat artist, he trained himself to draw figures.

Collins excels in still lifes that are anything but still. In the 1980s, he fixated on watermelons, painting them on shelves, slicing them open and coaxing their pink translucence from his brush. “King of Kings’’ has several of them, round but rife with fractures and pits, glowing behind a blue picture of Constantin Brancusi’s totemic sculpture of the same name.

The eye-catching “Marcal Still Life,’’ also from that era, shows drooping flowers and an upturned roll of paper towels beneath an ornate porthole mirror strung with crystals; the reflection in the mirror is also upside-down. It’s a high-low, topsy-turvy painting, breathless and dense with riddles and detail.

Lately, Collins has returned, obliquely, to his experience in Vietnam. “A Shau Valley’’ depicts a forest near San Francisco, but its title refers to an area where the artist was on the front lines. He paints with pleasing luminosity, but cuts up the canvas with sharp vertical and diagonal strokes depicting leafless trees, and a whirl of brushstrokes at the top suggests a helicopter. Here, and throughout the show, Collins matches alluring tone with brawny brushwork and fractious composition that sets up surprising inner tensions.

Paints and collaged photos
When last I saw work by Julie Levesque, she was making mournful sculptural installations coated in salt. Her paintings at Rice/Polak Gallery in oil pastel keep to a stark palette, although here she adds black. Levesque paints flat black silhouettes on white backgrounds. With a flurry of white scribbles like the flight patterns of manic mosquitoes, she imbues the figures with motion and volume. The result is a little spooky, like liberated shadows setting out on their own.

Sean Thomas also has paintings at Rice/Polak, and Jane Marsching shows a series of digitally collaged photos. Thomas paints terrific small canvases that examine, with a careful brush, how light plays over and changes forms. His “Vessels (Blue)’’ is so formally simple it could be a geometric abstraction, but it depicts a blue water tower, a shimmering cylinder reflected on a flat horizontal below.

Marsching examines historical attitudes toward the Arctic as she satirizes the amusements of 19th-century adventurers who were iced in while sailing there. “Harry and the Things He Balanced, Greenland, 2006’’ shows a performer balancing a ladder on his chin as he walks over the icy ground. These are funny, withering depictions of humanity’s sense of entitlement when it came to conquering the world.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at



At: Provincetown Art Association and Museum, 460 Commercial St., Provincetown. 508-487-1750,


At: Rice/Polak Gallery, 430 Commercial St., Provincetown, through Sept. 9. 508-487-1052,