A full-size replica of a Piper Cub, or rather the structural skeleton of the classic little two-seater aircraft made of unpainted pine and birch, sits in the Coleman Burke Gallery at the rear of Brunswick's Fort Andross Mill like a child's model airplane writ large. On this day, hand-drawn plans for the plane are pinned to the creamy white walls of the cavernous, 4,200 square foot gallery. The 22-foot fuselage of the Piper Cub is all assembled, but the wings sit on sawhorses to either side of the plane, still a work in progress.
In fact, "Piper Cub" is a sculptural installation, the work of Bowdoin's A. LeRoy Greason Professor of Art Mark Wethli, an artist better known for his paintings of sublime interiors and abstract color grids. But then anyone familiar with the evolution of Mark Wethli's vision knows that his artistic career essentially recapitulates the history of modern art from realism through abstraction to public murals and now conceptual art.
"This piece is both literal and conceptual," acknowledges Wethli as he stands beside his latest creation. "It's about the ideas that surround it."
Wethli explains that the initial inspiration for "Piper Cub" came after being invited by his Bowdoin colleague, sculptor and gallery director John Bisbee, to exhibit in the Coleman Burke Gallery. The big, industrial rectangular box of a gallery, with a blank wall on one side and a wall of windows on the other, reminded Wethli of an airplane hangar. As his father was a flight engineer for a commercial airline, Wethli grew up around airports and airplane hangars. And when he thought of planes, he thought of the little Piper Cub his father once owned.
"I first thought of purchasing, renting, or leasing an actual airplane [to place in the gallery], but very quickly that idea dissolved," Wethli says. "I decided I wanted to build an airplane with the act of building having a ritual or sacramental quality. So I built an airplane that won't fly. My dad rebuilt the identical airplane 50 years ago."
Wethli began the creative process by downloading plans for a Piper Cub from the Internet. He then made a one-fifth scale model before blowing the plans up and constructing the full-scale wooden reproduction. Though he had originally intended to sheath "Piper Cub," he decided to leave the intricate structure of ribs and trusses exposed because "they are too beautiful to hide."
Work began in June and by the September 14 opening the elemental little "Piper Cub" was all assembled except for the wings. As a site-specific conceptual installation, Wethli liked the idea of "Piper Cub" evolving over the first part of the exhibition, with the completed plane going on view for the last month.
The invitation for the "Piper Cub" show featured a 1956 black and white snapshot of a smiling seven-year old Mark Wethli with one hand on his hip and the other on the propeller of his father's lovingly restored Piper Cub. As such, the ideas that surround Wethli's "Piper Cub" are at once formal and autobiographical, part aviation history and part personal homage. The project is both a tribute to Wethli's father and one in which he was personally involved, helping to construct a model of the very plane he'd worked on in the 1950s.
Though a life-size 3-D wooden airplane might seem a dramatic departure from the artist's well-known two-dimensional paintings, Mark Wethli's career has been a series of aesthetic arrivals and departures, all unified by an underlying interest in properties of light and how humans make meaning from what the light reveals.
"Even when I was a representational painter," says Wethli, "my work was always conceptual. What always drove my painting was not what drives most representational painting, which is by and large an affirmation of appearances. My paintings were intended as reflections of reflections, a dream within a dream."
In an oddly serendipitous sense, Mark Wethli's essence preceded him to Bowdoin. Two of his early paintings - Hopper-esque evocations of light falling on domestic interiors - were exhibited at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in 1984 as part of an exhibition entitled "West Coast Realism." Curator Lynn Gamwell, who organized the exhibition for the Laguna Beach Museum of Art, recognized, however, that Wethli was not really a west coast realist.
"His work relates not at all to a Southern California milieu," Gamwell wrote in the "West Coast Realism" catalogue, "nor to any other place he has lived for that matter, but has a timeless, universal quality that has more to do with Van Eyck and Vermeer than with contemporary variations on realism."
In fact, Wethli is a decidedly east coast artist, and the fact that he was living and working in California at the time has a peculiar Bowdoin thread to it.
Born in Westfield, New York, in 1949, Mark Wethli grew up on Long Island and moved to Florida with his family when he was 16. After high school, he earned his BFA (1971) and MFA (1973) at the University of Miami. During his college years, however, Wethli was able to stay connected with the contemporary art world and to see the works of the great masters by flying almost weekly to New York City. He wasn't rich, but the fact that his father was an airline pilot gave him a free pass to fly wherever he wanted.
"The free pass to fly provided the texture of my life," Wethli said in a 1986 interview, a statement that resonates with more meaning 21 years later in light of Piper Cub.
While still in college, Wethli began showing in New York galleries and, in 1975, his work was included in the Whitney Biennial, a prestigious launching pad for many a contemporary art career.
In 1976, after living in New York for a time, Wethli accepted a teaching position at the University of Northern Iowa. Two years later, in 1978, he sought to return to the East Coast when he applied for and was offered a position at Bowdoin. The Bowdoin position, however, was a one-year appointment, so, in search of little more stability, Wethli instead accepted a tenure track position at California State University in Long Beach, where he taught for the next seven years. Then, in 1985, Bowdoin hired him to direct the college's studio art program. It turned out to be a match made in heaven. Wethli stepped down only this year after 22 years as chair of the Bowdoin art department.
While in Iowa, Wethli had become fascinated by the art theories of Robert Irwin, a hugely influential conceptual artist whose work deals with modifying spaces to heighten perception and awareness, often by the installation of cloth scrims that modulate the quality of light. When he moved to California, Wethli met Irwin, whose work dealt with "conditions arising from the object."
"Robert Irwin's art is about raising an awareness of the act of perception itself," says Wethli, who brought Irwin to Bowdoin as a visiting artist soon after he was hired. "He was working with the verb, the active sense of perception. Where a painting says, 'this is what I have seen,' Irwin's work is always in the present tense."
Influenced by Irwin, Wethli sought ways to elevate his own representational paintings above mere imitation such that they pointed beyond appearances toward more sublime states. This transcendental endeavor was informed by Wethli's reading of The Republic, in which Plato wrote, "The imitator or maker of the image knows nothing of true existence: he knows appearances only." In Platonic aesthetics, a painting is seen as "thrice removed from the truth," an imitation of an appearance that in itself has an ideal form.
Where most realist paintings describe a certainty and tend to re-inforce the status quo, Wethli wanted his paintings to "beg the question of appearances." He has sometimes used the analogy of gardens to make the distinction. Western gardens tend to be filled with things to look at, while Eastern gardens draw your attention to the spaces between things.
"My realist paintings were made in doubt," he says of the elegant, moody, meditative interiors for which he first became known. "They were meant to remind us that what we see is very fleeting."
In 2000, after 30 years of painting subversive interiors, Wethli made a bold and daring departure in his art, simply because he "ran out of stories to tell."
"I decided I wanted to make objects that had an identity that preceded observation," he says, "paintings that went straight to the senses."
Reducing his paintings to geometry and color moved him theoretically closer to the realm of ideal forms, but when Wethli debuted his new series of wavy grid paintings at ICON Contemporary Art in Brunswick in 2001 some viewers (mea culpa) just didn't get it. It took some time for the subtlety and seriousness of his abstract color relations to sink in. By the time Wethli painted "Transom," a 13.5 x 34.5 foot grid of 21 color squares directly on the wall in the Great Hall for the 2003 Portland Museum of Art Biennial, however, he had clearly arrived as an abstract painter.
"Transom" also represented another departure for Wethli, that from studio painter to public artist. That evolution began in the fall of 1999 when, never having painted a mural himself, Wethli was asked to teach a course in mural painting.
"It was teaching the course that turned my practice in that direction, which I have Bowdoin to thank for," says Wethli of his mural work.
Initially, Wethli led Bowdoin students through the process of painting murals on the exterior of Dayton Arena and in the interior of Druckenmiller Hall. He found that he enjoyed not only the collaborative process but also getting out of his studio and working in public.
"It was invigorating to re-join my community," says Wethli of the social benefits he experienced after decades of working alone in the privacy of his studio.
Wethli's first major mural project, completed in 2001, was "Four Quartets," a series of four 10 x 10 foot panels inspired by T.S. Eliot's poem of the same name and created in collaboration with two Bowdoin alumni, Kyle Durrie '01 and Cassie Jones '01. The mural, which symbolically evokes both the change of seasons and the seasons of a human life, was commissioned by the new Mid Coast Hospital as part of its Healing Environment Program. In much the same way that "Piper Cub" is dedicated to his father, Wethli dedicated "Four Quartets" to the memory of his mother, who passed away in 1997.
Subsequently, Wethli created murals for the Maine Department of Transportation Building in Augusta and the Knox County Courthouse in Rockland through Maine's Percent for Art program, and he also painted murals at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, the June Fitzpatrick Gallery in Portland, and Yarmouth High School.
Like "Four Quartets," "Frieze," the colorful abstract mural Wethli painted for Yarmouth High School, was a pro bono art project. Contacted by the local Yarmouth Arts group to ask how much his murals cost, Wethli unexpectedly offered to undertake the project for free if Yarmouth Arts would supply the materials. Not only did Wethli paint the mural in the lobby of the school's new performing arts center, he spent a semester leading Yarmouth High students through the process of developing the visual vocabulary he would use.
"Mark's demeanor with students paved the way to exceptional participation and student engagement in the classroom," says Yarmouth High School art teacher Melissa Noack. "The process of involving students in the creation of the mural was a remarkable learning experience for both the teachers and the students. He used music, collaboration, and intriguing discussions to involve students throughout the process."
When asked at the time how he could afford to work for free, Wethli credited Bowdoin with providing him with a good living and, in typically modest fashion, insisted, "There's no true altruism here.
"It's an opportunity to work with an exciting space, an intriguing space, but a space that felt in need," he explained. "As a muralist, I require spaces like this one, so it was more than a fair trade."
"Mark is a true gift to Maine, to Bowdoin, and to all of us," says Bruce Brown, curator emeritus of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA) in Rockport. "He gets his kids to do all these wonderful internships. He sees to it that they have wonderfully enriching experiences. He is in every student's corner. He's the most amazingly generous fellow in every possible way."
During his 22-year (1985-2007) chairmanship of the Bowdoin art department, Wethli worked with curator Bruce Brown to establish the annual summer Picker Internship at CMCA and with former Maine College of Art Dean Ray Allen to establish an exchange program between the two institutions. During that same time, visual arts facilities (including individual faculty studios) doubled at Bowdoin, total art faculty increased from four to nine, and the number of art majors tripled from 10 to 30. The overall effect of all this growth and vitality has been to elevate the profile of Bowdoin and Bowdoin artists on the Maine and national art scenes.
"Students come to Bowdoin expecting to become biologists or economists," says Bruce Brown, who has seen many Picker interns go on to careers in art. "Then along comes Mark Wethli and they're never quite the same."
As a teacher and a mentor, Wethli says his mission is simply to show others "how to be an artist-citizen."
"As an artist, a chairman, a musician and a friend, Mark is always steering toward expansion," adds his colleague John Bisbee. "He never gets small, provincial, or locked into a dogma. He's always looking to progress and to help others progress. He's a remarkable dude."
As a musician, Wethli plays bass for a folk-blues band called Bright Common that is fronted by Bisbee, who sings and plays guitar, banjo and harmonica. Bright Common (named after a kind of nail) also features artists Cassie Jones '01 on keyboards and Courtney Brecht '00 on violin, as well as artist Gordon Bok on lead guitar and Anthony Gatti, manager of the Fort Andross complex, on drums. Portland Museum of Art director Dan O'Leary sometimes sits in with the band, as does Bowdoin English professor Peter Coviello, who plays guitar on one track of Bright Common's forthcoming CD.
"For young people of my generation - and I came to Bowdoin in 1998," says Pete Coviello, "meeting Mark and the folks in the art department was really galvanizing and solidifying. I knew this was a place you could follow joyful pursuits."
In the acknowledgements for his Piper Cub show, in which he thanks a host of friends and family, artists and artisans, for their contributions to his artistic enterprise, Wethli thanks Coviello "for advocating 'joy' as a respectable motive and objective for making art."
Building Piper Cub would seem to qualify as just such a "joyful pursuit." As to what comes next, Wethli insists, "I never know. If you'd asked me that in March, I wouldn't have said anything about an airplane."
Almost certainly more three dimensional work, possibly airplane parts abstracted from the whole, definitely more paintings.
"I still love moving the brush around," he says, "and seeing light moving across an object."
Even when painting and building realistic-looking objects, however, Wethli never forgets that he is essentially a trafficker in illusions.
"For me," says Wethli, "one of the quintessential artworks of the 20th century is Rene Magritte's 'The Treason of Images' - a dry, sign-painter style image of a pipe with the cursive inscription below it, 'This is Not a Pipe' [translated from the French]. Piper Cub
is basically a full-size airplane that is simultaneously telling the viewer 'This is not an airplane,' which, implicitly or not, has been the refrain underlying almost all of my work - 'This is not a chair, this is not light passing through a window, etc.'"
"We all want to fly, and it's as hard as starting," says John Bisbee of Piper Cub. "Mark's building a plane, after a thousand paintings. All departures are imminent."
So what might appear to be a series of abrupt departures in Wethli's art - from realist interiors to abstract grids to symbolist murals to conceptual installations - is, in fact, a continuing embrace of the aesthetic pluralism Wethli believes "reflects the conditions of the art world." Contemporary art has no use for orthodoxy. All things are permitted.
"Artists now are not identified by medium or style," he says, "but by ideas."
The central idea unifying Mark Wethli's work is that art is a form of inquiry, a search for universal truths beyond the phenomenal world of appearances. In his search for meaning, he is guided by the words of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
"It's quite difficult to escape your own skin," he observes. "When I was eight years old I was building model airplanes. Now I'm a 57 year-old building a big model airplane."