Maine's Most Industrious Artist
He challenge facing every serious artist who paints the Maine landscape is how to avoid the picturesque: the obvious natural beauty that surrounds us all. Art ceased being a simple imitation of nature back in the nineteenth century, yet the seduction of the Maine landscape and seascape is so powerful that the urge to glamorize it on canvas has survived into the twenty-first. So prevalent are landscapes in contemporary art that some painters refer dismissively to Maine as a "landscape ghetto." But not Dennis Pinette. This native of Belfast insists the Maine landscape is "a forever fresh subject," and he has the body of work to prove it.
Best known for his dark and dynamic images of power stations and paper mills, Pinette has also found inspiration in fields, forests, fires, and waves, all fulminating in a distinctive palette of oily grays, sulfurous browns, rusty reds, and bruised blues. By focusing on the industrial and the elemental, he has avoided the sorts of cliches that plague so many contemporary works.
"The identity of 'Maine art' is legendary," says Pinette. "You do have to transcend it. Being a landscape painter in Maine is very tricky. The precedents are huge and obvious, but I have an unshakeable faith in originality. Without that, nothing moves forward."
Dennis Pinette, 55, is a solid mid-career artist. Restless and thoughtful, he alternately sits, stands, and tends the woodstove in a Belfast studio originally designed as a chicken barn. The studio is in the backyard of an extended nineteenth-century cape on a side street that leads downhill to Belfast Harbor. On a clear day he can see Blue Hill and Cadillac Mountain from his second-floor windows. Pinette was born just on the other side of town, but it took him half his life to get home - just in time to be part of the brief blossoming of the Belfast art scene in the 1980s.
Belfast was still the broiler capital of Maine when Dennis Pinette was born in the old Waldo County Hospital on April 1, 1951. His father had just graduated from Bowdoin College and was working as an industrial chemist at a fertilizer factory in nearby Searsport. When Pinette was still a toddler, his family moved away, eventually settling in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where Pinette got his first exposure to great art at the Williams College Museum of Art and the nearby Clark Art Institute.
An artistic inclination seems to have run in the family. Pinette's grandfather, Harold George McMennamin, was a painter who at one time shared studio space in New York with George Bellows. His maternal grandmother, Frances McMennamin, was a painter and a photo-grapher who once had a studio in Rumford. By the tender age of thirteen, Pinette had started to paint still-lifes himself and was already committed to the idea of becoming an artist.
Captivated as a boy in Williamstown by the wild, romantic confections of Fragonard and the all-American naturalism of Homer, Pinette moved to Morristown, New Jersey, as a teenager and discovered that New York City - meaning the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, the Met, and the capital of contemporary and modern art, the Guggenheim - was just a twenty-five-mile train ride away.
Pinette formalized his art education at the Hartford Art School, gaining both classical training in studio art and exposure to the conceptual art movement that was then sweeping through art schools. At Hartford, he also met Megan Smith, an artist a year behind him. The two were married in 1975, and for close to a decade they made their way in the art world together, primarily by building and selling picture frames. To this day, Pinette does a brisk side business stretching canvases and making frames for other artists.
Ten years out of art school, however, Pinette found himself at a professional crossroads. The framing business he and Megan had built in order to support their art making was taking most of their time. Worse, his own painting - which had become increasingly abstract - was no longer satisfying to him. He had lost confidence in paintings that he now describes with words such as "meaningless" and "delusional."
"Abstract painting is still very exciting to me, but abstraction didn't grow any higher than I could grow it," says Pinette. "My relationship with painting is so nervous that I felt I had reached a ceiling in my abstract work."
So in 1983, Dennis and Megan Pinette decided it was time to make a break with the past. They first toyed with the idea of moving into New York City, but ultimately decided to move to Maine where they could live more cheaply and concentrate on their art. The fact that Dennis was a Belfast native, however, had less to do with the decision to move to Belfast than did a providential real estate transaction.
The Pinettes didn't even get out of the car when they pulled up in front of the rundown house on Allyn Street. Despite the fact that most of its windows were broken, they knew instantly, "This is it!" They returned to the Realtor's office, made "an outrageously low" offer of $19,000, and, to their surprise, the offer was accepted on the spot.
Thus, Dennis Pinette returned to Maine after a thirty-year absence. And in many ways, his homecoming was like a collision between the old Maine and the new.
Belfast in 1983 was still a down-at-the-heels coastal town with the residual stink of the chicken processing plants that had once employed hundreds and defined Belfast. It would be more than a decade before the arrival of the MBNA credit card facility redefined Belfast as a desirable midcoast address. In the meantime, Dennis and Megan Pinette discovered that the area "was loaded with creative people" who turned Belfast into Maine's liveliest art mecca of the 1980s.
The focal point of the Belfast art scene of the 1980s was Artfellows, a downtown cooperative gallery whose members included photographer Richard Norton and Denise Remy, Phil and Cathy Kaelin (now Cathy Melio), Alan and Lorna Crichton (who now run Waterfall Arts), Cynthia Hyde and Jim Kinnealey (who now run Caldbeck Gallery), Stew Henderson, Janice Kasper, Squidge Davis, Michael Reece, Mathew Pierce O'Donnell, Daphne Cummings - and, subsequently, Dennis and Megan Pinette.
As Belfast became known as a town friendly to working artists, other artists arrived, among them Linden Frederick, Harold Garde, and Dudley Zopp, and several serious contemporary art galleries emerged, chief among them Gallery 68 and the Frick Gallery. Before the booming little Belfast art scene cooled off with the economy after 1989, the Pinettes found themselves regularly participating in what local artists called "nights of 10,000 openings": evenings when galleries and studios all over town held simultaneous openings and Belfast was one big party of artists, musicians, writers, and kindred creative spirits.
The first paintings Pinette tackled upon his return to Maine bore some resemblance to the abstract paintings he had lost faith in, but they were more concrete in that they took their forms from the man-made world, specifically from the structures of highway bridges. Having found an armature of reality over which to apply paint, Pinette was able to re-animate his art and move on to the industrial landscapes that made believers of audiences in Maine and New York.
"I do flirt with the abstract," he admits. "I can't help it. But I have to hang it on a metaphorical realm or it just falls apart for me."
For the past decade and a half, Pinette has essentially been painting three subjects: industrialized landscapes, turbulent water, and the natural chaos of woods, fields, and fires. Some of the industrial paintings feature recognizable Maine locales - the paper mill in Bucksport, for instance - but most depict unspecified transformers, tank farms, and rail sidings.
Just so, Pinette's "natural" Maine landscapes. When he paints the undulations of fields, the clutter of woodlands, the flames of a burning blueberry barren, or the surging waves of stormy seas, he is not after local color but the "elusive rhythms" of nature.
"When I paint water, it's not a prop for a sense of place," he explains. "It's generic motion. It's a great way to paint nothingness. I've thought about trying to paint air."
In the autumn, Pinette often works directly from nature, but most of the year he works in his studio, re-creating and re-imagining scenes based on field notes and memory. His paintings are as much about the process of painting as they are about the appearance of any external reality.
Pinette has become successful enough that his paintings sell for between $2,000 and $12,000 at Caldbeck Gallery in Rockland and at Rosenberg & Kaufman Fine Art in New York City. Reviewing his 2003 retrospective at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland for the New York Times, critic Deborah Weisgall proclaimed Pinette "an important painter, an artist of dazzling intensity and singular vision," something Maine audiences had known for years.
Pinette's most recent industrial landscapes were exhibited last summer in a one-artist show at Caldbeck Gallery and are currently part of an exhibition (through October) at the Farnsworth Art Museum entitled The Constructed Landscape, along with paintings of working landscapes by Rackstraw Downes, Linden Frederick, Yvonne Jacquette, and John Moore.
What makes Dennis Pinette's art different from that of most artists who paint the Maine landscape is not so much what he chooses to paint as the way he paints it. He paints its underlying energy as well as its outward appearance. You can almost hear the hiss, crackle, and pop of high tension.
Susan Larsen, former curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Farnsworth Art Museum, interviewed Pinette at length in August and September of 2005 for the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art. Her assessment of Pinette's place in the pantheon of Maine artists is enthusiastic and unreserved. "When people of the future study the art of Maine," says Larsen, "it will be the beautiful work of Dennis Pinette that speaks most deeply and eloquently of the conflicted moods and realities of our times."
"I do not worship the Maine landscape," Pinette says. "It's not Maine itself that I am trying to exalt, but Maine definitely has an influence. It's just so stunning everywhere you look."