Ogunquit Museum of American Art
Ogunquit Museum of American Art
This Virtual Viewing Room presents a selection of 21 works exhibited last summer at the Ogunquit Museum’s exhibition Nocturne, a show unfortunately seen by few due to the complications of COVID-19. The first major installation of Nelligan’s work since her passing in 2018, this exhibition illustrated the ethereal and deliberate range of light, movement, and depth within her expansive ouvre of charcoal drawings made on Great Cranberry Island in Maine.
The only place she really drew during her life, the island, which is part of the Cranberry Isles just south of Acadia National Park, initially became the summertime home for Nelligan and her husband, artist Marvin Bileck, when the two first rented a home there in 1944 for just a few dollars a week. They would return most summers for the rest of their lives. The island proved a vital creative respite from the bustle of New York City, where Nelligan was born, raised, and educated. In the rocky shorelines, undulating ocean, evergreen forests, and expansive skies of her charcoal renderings, the rhythmic, cyclical patterns of the island are illustrated in vibrant whites and jet blacks, emerging from planes of ghostly detail. Ogunquit curator Ruth Green-McNally, in the exhibition text for Nocturne, acknowledged the centrality of the artist’s relationship to the natural world: “Nelligan’s expressive visions appear as if lighted by hand-held lanterns under the cloak of darkness and the veil of personal contemplation. Each drawing is titled by date of execution, suggesting an inverse diurnal theme – the artist is the light from which the natural world is perceived.”
Produced on regular writing paper, the light which serves as the life-force of Nelligan’s work was created simply through the subtractive process of erasing, placing attention, as Green-McNally notes, “on a range of surfaces, textures, tints, and shadows that might otherwise remain undiscovered.” Resultingly, in her reverence to the natural forces at play within her wild subject, Nelligan’s work often toes the line between representational and abstract—conjuring a sense of place that is as internal as it is grounded in her deep personal relationship to the landscape of Great Cranberry Island.
"If the light was right I would set myself down and try to capture it. I’m utterly dependent on what I see. The quality of the light is the essence of the work."
"In contrast to those images we carry in our memories from paintings of Maine by Winslow Homer and John Marin; Ms. Nelligan’s drawings are nocturnes in which light is more fugitive than shadow and a velvety darkness dominates every prospect"
"The immensities of nature in their detail are recognizable yet, at the same time, refined—etherealized—to a point close to abstraction. Her shimmering atmospheric light suggests the lights of creation. She comes as close as a modern can to the medieval embrace of light as means for experiencing the presence of God, or, as the nineteenth century preferred to call it, the Sublime."
"But the important thing is not the specifics of these drawings. It is the spirit she conveys: that of a pure, unsullied wildness whose changes and constancies reverberate deeply in her mind."