“Lion Head,” 1970s, wood and paint on wood by Bernard Langlais - images © Bernard Langlais, courtesy Alexandre Gallery, New York
“Lion Head,” 1970s, wood and paint on wood by Bernard Langlais - images © Bernard Langlais, courtesy Alexandre Gallery, New York
It could have been unnerving for an artist to be Andrew Wyeth's across-the-road neighbor in Cushing, Maine. Doubtful, Bernard "Blackie" Langlais gave it a second thought - other than confirming his own good sense to live on an adjacent section of saltwater farmland along a bend in the St. George River estuary.

In truth, the two artists shared much in common in addition to breathtaking views of Broad Cove from their modest, ancient farmhouses: self-effacing good humor and healthy skepticism of art world trends and criticism; their like-mindedness about simple truths found in traditional techniques and materials; well-crafted hand work - a feathery brushstroke that becomes a tidal eddy, the chiseled permanence of a fleeting gesture.

At one point, Langlais made a free-standing, wooden replica of Christina Olson from "Christina's World," Wyeth's best-known work. Casually placed beside monumental sculptures of a Trojan horse, football players, and Richard Nixon (partially submerged in a small pond) waving his "V" for victory salute, Christina greeted passersby on the very road leading to her iconic home on nearby Hathorne Point. Wyeth loved the sculpture and his affable neighbor's unabashed, playful irreverence.

Born in 1921 in Old Town, Langlais was the oldest of 10 children in a family where only French was spoken. Old Town sits in north-central Maine on the southern fringes of the great north woods, a working-class community and home of the world-renowned Old Town Canoe Company. Langlais, the son of a carpenter, would have known these fine, handmade, wooden canoes, prized for their sculptural beauty and utility originally inspired by woodlands Native American prototypes. And in Maine, canoes, native cultures and proximity to French-speaking Acadia, straddling the Maine-Quebec border, and the vastness of the northern woods all recall native son Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poems, "The Song of Hiawatha" and "Evangeline," taught to and memorized by countless Maine schoolchildren, especially during Langlais's youth. Local craft, nature, and romance can carry a boy's formative imagination, perhaps, to unexpected and unexplored realms of the spirit. From childhood, he longed to be an artist.

Encouraged by an aunt living in Washington, D.C., he initially trained in art schools there, and later in New York, Paris, and Oslo, Norway. Langlais honed his unique sensibility - sophisticated and cosmopolitan but, like his fellow Maine native Marsden Hartley, intrinsically direct and emotionally truthful. Through the mid-1950s he was exclusively a painter. However, in 1956, coinciding with the purchase of a "fixer-upper" summer cottage in Cushing, Maine, he began constructing and carving abstract wood sculptures, primarily as relatively shallow wall reliefs, harking back to cubism, constructivism, and dada and surrealism's use of found materials.
Back in New York the abstract sculpture was well-received, and from the early '60s he was among the most visible and respected artists rising with a generation of soon-to-be art world stars. He was included in several groundbreaking exhibitions, including New Forms - New Media (I and II) at the Martha Jackson Gallery, and The Art of Assemblage at the Museum of Modern Art in 1961. He showed with Leo Castelli's eponymous gallery, where he would have seen the new wave of figurative Pop artists - Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, among others. Robert Indiana, William King, Anne Arnold, and Marisol were also receiving positive attention for their work in wood sculpture. Louise Nevelson, another Maine native and with whom his work of this period has been favorably compared, was a friend and supporter.

Developing out of various individual backgrounds and stylistic approaches, many of these artists were making sculpture assembled from unfinished, rough lumber, to which they added other collage elements - paint, drawing, and objects foraged from city streets and trash, incorporating the random flotsam and jetsam of urban life. Their work often acknowledged - by way of both homage and ironic commentary - the gestural, chance-embracing qualities of the preceding Abstract Expressionist artists. At the time, Langlais's art, like that of many of his peers, explored painting as well as sculpture, and his work seemed to oscillate between representation and abstraction, painterly expression and geometric precision, coalescing in the same object.

Although he continued painting and drawing throughout his life, after moving permanently to Maine full-time in 1966, Langlais decisively committed to figurative sculpture.

These sculptures included his mature, monumental wall reliefs and in-the-round painted and carved constructions - his cacophonous un-"Peaceable Kingdom," as the increasingly cluttered landscape, house and barn became populated with bears, horses, elephants, birds and other assorted domestic and wild animal sculptures along with his own Comédie humaine of political figures, nudes and athletes, all amiably jostling each other, startling the local fauna as well as passing tourists.

One of the most ubiquitous and endearing subjects in Langlais's post-New York oeuvre became the proverbial king of the animal world, the lion. In over 100 relief and in-the-round sculptures, as well as in countless paintings, drawings and sketches, lions and lion heads recur with a serial frequency Carl Andre or Donald Judd might appreciate. Judging from photographs of Langlais taken after his return to Maine, he began to resemble his lions - "wild of mane and demeanor," as a contemporary critic once observed - and vice versa (although his frontal portraits of un-shorn, black-faced sheep have a certain familial resemblance to the artist, as well - a wry reference to his own nickname, perhaps).

For Langlais, the animals were formal and familiar objects that he could shape, transform, hang paint on, and re-invent as the spirit moved him. That they have distinct, individual personalities is also intentional. Even the most doleful lion, sheep or elephant conveys a bit of wonder and perplexed surprise at its very existence, its flawed proportions and stylized features that inexplicably and precisely nail their inherent natures - sometimes literally as when Langlais uses a pair of penny nails for a shorebird's beak or legs. His best work, in this back-road, unhurried and unchanging rural landscape, became less fettered with aesthetic convention, more spontaneous, more varied in technique and subject matter, freer, stronger, often moving in terms of blunt honesty, retaining visible traces of creative struggle - dripped, dragged and rough-hewn - on every surface.

Langlais, gentle lion of Maine art, made artwork that is utterly his own. He was not so much out of the mainstream but up river from it, nearer, perhaps, to its redemptive source for an artist as fiercely independent as Langlais. He died in 1977 of congestive heart failure at age 56. Lions and tigers . . . and whatever the wood told Blackie it wanted to be.

For the first time in nearly a half century, Langlais's work is being shown in New York at the Alexandre Gallery. Proceeds from sales will, in part, be used to support Langlais's estate, including preservation, research and future exhibitions of his artwork and the Cushing home and studio, bequeathed to Colby College by the artist's widow, Helen Langlais, in 2010.