Robert Abele & Mary Moquin exhibit at Marion Art Center strikes home

How apropos that when I was driving away from the Marion Art Center a few days ago, the first tune that Spotify played was “A House is a Home,” sung by Ben Harper and his mother Ellen.

It starts: “A house is a home even when it’s dark. Even when the grass is overgrown in the yard. Even when the dog is too old to bark …”  And it gets even bleaker as it mentions trying not to starve, ghosts, and the possibility that “you gotta run from the ones you love the most.”

Despite its melancholy lyrics, it is insistently cheerful with its upbeat melody. Ultimately, there is enough buoyancy to sense optimism. There are far worse earworms.

The Marion Art Center’s current exhibition, simply called “Robert Abele & Mary Moquin,” has a very similar vibe. The vast majority of the works are landscapes that are tinged with something akin to nostalgia and a palpable sense of longing, even for something that didn’t even exist, perhaps a something that was only a wish.

This is particularly true for Moquin. She lives on the Cape and spends a part of the year in a remote dune cottage on the peninsula known as Sandy Neck in Barnstable. She is inspired by her observation of light and shadows in the various structures there. In her work, she considers the structures to be metaphors for meditation.

In some ways, Moquin is a traditional old-school Cape Cod painter, much in the manner of Edward Hopper, who had a home in Truro and who, over the course of three decades, did dozens of plein air paintings, often from the comfort of his beloved Buicks. There is a no-nonsense starkness and dependable efficiency in his work.

In her paintings, Moquin adapts the sense of solitude and the hard-edged angles and geometry of Hopper and infuses them with something almost mystical.

“Gathering Intensity” by Mary Moquin. Credit: Don Wilkinson / The New Bedford Light

In “Gathering Intensity,” a chimney juts into a vivid purple and pink atmosphere over an ornate cottage. There is something about the landscape that doesn’t sit right, but then again, it does. The porch is devoid of furniture or plants, and the steps appear as soft as marzipan, and yet it still works.

“Summer Heat” is vivid with brilliant orange sky, yellow and red. In an era of climate change, it seems to offer a glimpse into an ever-hotter Massachusetts from which there is no escape. Almost as a counterpoint, there is “Unmoored,” in which a pale gray home with a series of peaks and dark recesses sits in front of an indigo sky with threatening clouds. And the water is rising.

Moquin’s “Rise Above,” with brown mounds and deep green pines before a lavender home, is sweet and serene, and the golden glow of the sky suggests something more than the earthly.

As wonderful as Moquin’s paintings of homes in almost otherworldly environments are, it was the paintings of tenements by Abele that moved me most. I am New Bedford-born and I was raised with two siblings by my roofer father and golf-ball-winder mother in tenement buildings. From infancy to junior high, it was a two-bedroom, two-story in the West End. My brother and sister and I all slept in the same room. Mrs. Suprenart (the first divorced woman I ever knew) lived upstairs with her children, Marc and Keri. We were all friends.

Later, we moved into a three-story tenement not far from Brooklawn Park. We had a basketball hoop in the backyard. My high school girlfriend lived on the second-floor of the tenement across the street. 

“Copper and Brick” by Robert Abele. Credit: Don Wilkinson / The New Bedford Light

Abele’s paintings brought back a flood of memories connected to tenement living — the shared hallways, basements and attics; the cramped pantries where meals were cooked; the rights of passage, from first kiss to first fistfight; the mothers having instant coffee and endless cigarettes; the Red Sox game on my grandfather’s transistor radio on the second-story porch across from what is now Temple Landing, to name but a few. 

Abele’s “Whatever Good Things We Build End Up Building Us” so reminded me of the West End home that I walked to Hathaway Elementary School from, that I went by it to see if it was. And it wasn’t. But the ubiquitousness of the New Bedford tenement is so profound that his paintings will resonate for many. And that title is perfect.

His “Paper and Plastic,” with the zigzagging telephone lines and big front porch, could have been painted 40 years ago. Nothing has changed except that the old metal trash cans have been replaced by bins for trash or recyclables.

Many will recognize the magnificent building on Acushnet Avenue with the cupola, green copper and red brick, and St. Anthony’s Church in the background.

Abele has many other works in the exhibition, including a self-portrait, a painting of his children Oliver and Amelia, and the interior of a busy frame shop. There are paintings of single family homes and winding roads (Ashley Boulevard, Route 6A in Truro), but for me it’s all about those tenements. Some part of me still resides in them.

And that Ben Harper song? It ends with “A house is a home / Even when we’ve up and gone / Even when you’re there alone / A house is a home.”

The exhibition of paintings by “Robert Abele & Mary Moquin” will be up at the Marion Art Center, 80 Pleasant Street, Marion until June 28.

Email arts critic Don Wilkinson at [email protected].

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