Curatorial Essay |
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Curatorial Essay

Alla Broeksmit: Fragments of Memory

by Suzette McAvoy


Closely held memories of childhood in Kyiv and deeply rooted remembrances of family and beloved places fuel the dreamlike imagery of Alla Broeksmit’s art. Gestural brushwork and the tactility of hand-mixed pigments in the muted palette of faded frescoes lend texture and atmosphere to her expressively rendered paintings, evoking a sense of time past, recalled to the present. A recent series, The Iconic View, 2023, pictures a swath of shoreline and an expanse of water with a small tree-rimmed island offshore. The vista is from Broeksmit’s longtime summer home on the ocean in Brooklin, Maine, a small town at the tip of the Blue Hill peninsula. The paintings, created in a series of abstracted, repeated views, meditate on a place central to the artist’s sense of self. They recall John Marin’s series of paintings made at his home in Cape Split, Maine, in the last two decades of his life between 1933 and 1953, the place, he said, “that lay closer to my heart than any place in the world.”


Broeksmit has pursued painting since the 1990s, studying at Parsons School of Design in New York City, then co-founding the Lots Road Group with fellow artists from the Heatherly School of Fine Art after moving to London in 1997. During this period, her paintings were primarily figurative and focused on portraiture, taking inspiration from the heavily impastoed, psychological portraits of Lucian Freud. In 2017, Broeksmit received her MFA from the New York Studio School, where Dean Graham Nickson encouraged her to work on a larger scale and to take “a more instinctual, visceral approach” to painting. Instructors Judy Glantzman, Kyle Staver, and Elisa Jensen were also instrumental in her development of an individualized visual language and in exposing her to the descriptive and emotional expression of color, as seen in her thesis work, Compasses, 2017. Her paintings in the years that followed, in series such as Catch Me I’m Falling, 2018, Dream a Little Dream, 2020, and Stars Shining Bright Above You, 2021, are intensely personal, tapestry-like narratives woven with fragments of memory and emblems from the past, reflective of her inner landscape.


Now, with The Iconic View paintings, she has turned her gaze outward. A visit to the unprecedented Monet-Mitchell exhibition at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris in 2022, which presented a dialogue between the Impressionist landscapes of Claude Monet and the Abstract Expressionist responses of Joan Mitchell, greatly influenced Broeksmit’s decision to paint her immediate environment. Like Mitchell and Monet, she seeks an emotive sensation rather than a verisimilitude, depicting the colors, light, and atmosphere of summer days on the Maine coast with active, dancing brushwork. The Iconic View paintings join a legacy of Maine landscapes that extend back to artist Thomas Cole, who made a sketching trip to Mt. Desert Island in 1844, ushering in a wave of landscape painters that continues to the present. Among the best-known contemporary practitioners is Alex Katz, whose connection with Maine began in 1949 when he received a scholarship to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Nearly seven decades later, Katz continues to paint the environment surrounding his summer home and studio near Lincolnville Beach, returning time and again to familiar motifs to capture the immediacy of visual sensation. Broeksmit also favors repetition and working serially, and discovered an affinity for Katz’s work at the Paul J. Schupf Wing at the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine, which holds nearly 900 works by the artist. She quotes Katz:


Eternity exists in minutes of absolute awareness. Painting, when successful, seems to be a synthetic reflection of this condition. To be aware, I don’t believe one has to deny any previous experience. Yet, to believe in past experiences to the exclusion of the present is to miss the possibility of being alive for a couple of minutes. To communicate the condition of awareness into the traditional form of painting is perhaps what I’m after.


To be alive in the awareness of the moment while embracing the past is to discover again the childlike wonder of the world, the sensation Alla Broeksmit offers in her art.

Suzette McAvoy is an independent curator, arts writer, and former Executive Director and Chief Curator at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. She writes frequently on the art and artists of Maine.