Carl Little, Review in Art New England, January/February 2021; Exhibition at the Zillman Art Museum, University of Maine, Bangor Maine

Since his death at 75 in 2012, Thomas Cornell has not had the kind of retrospective attention he deserves as a brilliant printmaker and painter. In his lifetime, his prints and oils brought him critical acclaim. He also taught several generations of students in his 50-year tenure at Bowdoin College.

A Vision Accomplished: Thomas Cornell provides an excellent sampling, starting with a selection of prints from the 1960s. In Michelangelo no. 3, 1964, an etching with hand-colored wash, the bearded High Renaissance artist stares intently at us, his visage a stunning composition of light and dark. A similar gaze marks A Self Portrait, engraved in 1965. The artist looks directly at us from an indirect angle, his face half turned. From the dark eyes, closed mouth, and bristly jaw, the expression is hard to pinpoint – part resolute, part suspicious.

The exhibition highlights Cornell’s print process in three portraits of a snapping turtle from 1968-1969. Working in different mediums, including etching and aquatint, he renders the primordial snub-nosed creature floating/crawling in air.

Cornell often turned to mythology for subjects, with a special interest in the Greek god Dionysus. In the unfinished Merrymeeting Bay, an oil and graphite from 1970, the god of wine sits under a tree in white shirt and shorts, the Maine landscape (what was then the artist’s Bowdoinham farm) surrounding him. Art historian Martica Sawin surmises Cornell turned to Poussin around this time “to learn how to bring gods to earth.”

Myth provided Cornell the means to reflect on modern-day issues. The etching Bacchant in the Woods, 1975, shows a naked woman seated awkwardly atop the branches of a fallen tree. This modern-day reveler finds freedom in nature. Cornell considered this series “a natural synthesis of feminism and environmentalism.”

Later in life, Cornell responded to what he envisioned as an impending environmental catastrophe through his Birth of Nature paintings. In these allegories, one of which is featured in the show, we witness the death of hubris and the birth of responsibility to save the natural world. As someone who thought of artists as “cultural doctors,” Cornell practiced what he preached. His art can be idealistic, yes, yet is ultimately human.

Article by Carl Little, copyright Art New England