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Museum's exhibits celebrate Provincetown's artistic heritage

PROVINCETOWN -- "There was no particular reason why I should paint a portrait of Andy," wrote artist Gerrit Beneker more than 80 years ago, "except that he was a likely looking chap, and, then, there is always something good in every man which seems to come out in the paint on the canvas."

Beneker came to Provincetown in 1912, when the town was a burgeoning artists colony, to study with its premier teacher, Charles Hawthorne. "Moments in Time," an engrossing retrospective curated by his granddaughter Katrina Beneker at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, remembers the artist, the family man, and the Cape Codder.

Beneker, who worked as artist-in-residence for three companies including General Electric, painted the working man. A contemporary of the precisionist painter and photographer Charles Sheeler, who portrayed the machinery and architecture of industry, Beneker turned a more traditional eye on less-than-traditional subjects, such as Andy, who operated a crane in a scrap metal yard.

In Provincetown and Truro, Beneker painted fishermen. "We Have Toiled All the Night and Have Taken Nothing" (1922) shows Tony Joseph, captain of the traps in Truro, weary in his yellow slicker as dawn approaches behind him. Like all of Beneker's portraits of workers, this one conveys pride, humility, and heart. Curiously, his portraits of women and girls reveal less character; they have an impenetrable opacity, whereas the men open to and welcome the viewer like buddies raising a pint at the town pub.

The portraits feature subtle but evident brushstrokes and dark tones contrasted with warm ones -- the red of a rosy cheek, or Tony Joseph's yellow raincoat. Beneker utilized a markedly different technique with landscapes. One wall features paintings of Provincetown, executed in a spring-pale palette with the trademark feathery brushwork of Impressionism. These are good if not great works; "Under a Wharf" uses unusual perspective to create a satisfying abstract twist.

Katrina has rounded out the show with her grandfather's working notebooks, illustrated cards he made when he was a child, and family photos. Beneker died in 1934, at 52. That was the year before President Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration, which among other things employed artists to document and celebrate laborers. In his techniques, Beneker was effective but not visionary. In his ability to portray the soul of the worker, he was before his time.

Admiring jewelry A half century ago, when Provincetown was a hotbed of modernist and abstract painting, it also hosted every summer a handful of silversmiths. Paul A. Lobel, Henry Steig, Ed Wiener, and Jules Brenner, whose work can be seen at PAAM in "The Jeweler's Art," curated by Claire Sprague and Irma Ruckstuhl, took up on the visions of the painters and sculptors who surrounded them.

They were concerned with form, not the dazzle of gemstones. They used inexpensive materials -- pebbles, wire -- to make work that was subtle, graceful, and audacious in its simplicity. They were part of a trend: the Museum of Modern Art had staged an exhibit in 1946, "Modern Jewelry," and the Walker Art Center followed in 1948 with "Jewelry Under $50."

Wiener, who was self-educated, said that his conversations with Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, and Hans Hoffmann were his art school. He took natural forms as his inspiration: his "Fish-scale Choker" and bracelet are crafted from soft-cornered, convex silver triangles strung together. Lobel did too, but his pieces harked back to Art Deco.

Steig, the brother of New Yorker cartoonist William Steig, made puzzle-like, asymmetrical pieces, exulting in curves. One cuff is made of looping, twisting circles of silver. Brenner fancied textured surfaces and contrasts.

This kind of modernist work democratized jewelry, making fine and original bracelets, earrings, and necklaces affordable. These four, and others like them, changed the way we look at jewelry; they set a standard still observed today, which saw jewelry not as ornamentation, but as wearable fine art.

Shades of gray Philip Malicoat, like Gerrit Beneker, settled in Provincetown for the long haul when he was a young man. The painter hitchhiked from his home in Indiana when he was 20, and lived here until he died at 72 in 1981. He painted oils in shades of gray, preferring a limited palette.

Recently, the artist Rob Dutoit visited Malicoat's old studio, now used by his granddaughter, painter Robena Malicoat, and found some of the elder artist's watercolors, stacked and dusty on the floor. He has put them together in an exhibit, also at PAAM.

All landscapes, the watercolors show scenes from Ireland and Maine. In Ireland, the weather changes swiftly and dramatically. That's where Malicoat picked up watercolors, which he could use to capture the mood of the weather more quickly. These pieces, done late in his life, feature gray, but they're dominated by luscious, vibrant greens and blues.

Malicoat used simple forms, layering them into satisfying harmonies. "Maine No. 94" (1979) sets a dead, spike-branched fir tree with a slightly arcing trunk, right in front of a gray hut. The needles of a second tree fan in from the left. The limpid blue of a lake drops behind the hut, followed by a green line of land and the sky. They fold one into the next to bring us to the foreground, where the viewer confronts the dead tree like a reflection in a mirror.

The Ireland paintings emphasize mood and weather over form. "No. 48" and "No. 49" both show the bowl of a valley cupping a turmoil of clouds, one limned with buttery light and the other a thick stew. The watercolors show Malicoat with the deft confidence of a half-century's experience as a painter. Their gem tones thrill, but Malicoat never quite let go of gray's power. He was more interested in the subtleties of darker weather.

MOMENTS IN TIME: GERRIT BENEKER, A RETROSPECTIVE
Through Sept. 7

THE JEWELER'S ART: FOUR PROVINCETOWN SILVERSMITHS, 1940S-1960S
Through Sept. 21

PHILIP MALICOAT: WATERCOLORS
Through Oct. 5

At: The Provincetown Art Association and Museum, 460 Commercial St., Provincetown. 508-487-1750. www.paam.org

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