Two artists, Hillary Irons and Stephen Benenson, co-founder of Able Baker Contemporary on Forest Avenue in 2016. Irons eventually took a position at the University of New England, at which point artists Tessa O’Brien and Annika Earley joined the gallery, organizing its programming and curatorial broadcasts. Early eventually moved to Speedwell as well. O’Brien and Benenson maintain the gallery as they try to pursue their own very successful artistic careers.
In addition to inviting guest curators to organize stimulating exhibitions over the years, the gallery also offered residencies and art criticism for artists who sat in the gallery during Able Baker’s opening hours. These artists are in their 20s to 70s and their work will be reviewed by previous curators. Everything was in the spirit of the development of the work of emerging artists.
Now Able Baker has lost his lease. Portland Stage is restoring the space to build a wheelchair lift. The question remains whether the artist-run gallery will reappear in any other form. But this bitter occasion was the impetus for “Painting Nerds: ABC Farewell Show” (until July 16), a magnificent study that illustrates the endless possibilities of paint as an environment.
The artists here – all of whom have been connected to the gallery through shows they have curated and / or participated in – use brushes of all sizes, paint rollers, sprays and tape (to block areas they want to preserve while painting on others). They paint fabric and carve layers of paint that cover canvas, paper or cardboard. They collage pieces that they have painted on other pieces in the plane of the picture. They spray and spread their material, pour one shade into another, spread and spray.
The title of the show is most vivid in “Spring Light”, a jewel of abstract work by Jimmy Vieira. It is a kind of dictionary of drawing techniques. The artist has clearly glued certain amorphously shaped areas to create different textures and patterns, lifted them, then glued others to do the same. It moved on the surface, doing it again and again, creating a layer after an overlapping layer of texture, color and application technique. This enlivens the plane of the picture, leading to a diverse visual experience that feels sensual, free and mysterious.
Central purple form is variegated with white, gray and ox spots. This is compared to another indeterminate form, which represents all the wavy liquid streaks of blue and green, bleeding into each other. This section feels watery and telegraphs depth, which contrasts with the rather static, flat purple field next to it. Beneath them is what looks like artificially painted window frames, through which we see leaf brown figures on brown fields. Viera has also carved in the layers of paint with a curving pattern that resembles wood beads, and then painted on them. And on and on. You can contemplate the composition of the puzzle of this work, the many stratifications and the variety of textures and colors of paint for hours.
During the pandemic, Benenson began picking wildflowers and arranging them in spare, almost ikebana-style, which he then painted. As we contemplate these works, it is amazing to realize the amount of detail he achieves while never catching a paintbrush. Instead, he uses paint rollers, lightly laying different colors on top of each other so that the surface transmits many colors at once. It also uses markers for masking and painting. The big “August 2020 №1” is graphic and impactful. But a smaller work, hung on a salon-style wall, “September 2021 № 2”, radiates almost mystery in the style of Odilon Redon and a symbolic sense of the supernatural. It is undoubtedly beautiful and delicate, despite the obvious block technique of the rollers.
O’Brien presents several paintings. But the most remarkable and impressive is “Climb Right In”. It’s big – 60 by 80 inches – a relatively new scale for this artist, who usually works on a much more intimate scale, except when painting murals, on a much larger scale. As with her other paintings, O’Brien’s palette is neon bright and unrealistic, something that works captivatingly in these proportions, rowing us straight into the stage and causing an almost hallucinatory state of trance. As with her other paintings, she deals with the effects of light and temperature, which are not always visible to the naked eye, but are felt throughout the body.
The object is a portal, which can be reached through a set of steps surrounded by huge urns. In particular, the speck of light on the steps is a circle of color and mood. We feel intense, sultry heat that almost evaporates from the canvas. And we intuitively sense, in O’Brien’s expansive twisting gestures, her whole body’s commitment to the work. The mixture of scale, physicality and psychedelic palette will probably take your breath away.
More traditional, but still not, are two paintings by Philip Bru with statuettes depicting St. Anthony of Padua. They are traditional in their depiction – figuratively, painted with oil paints on linen panels. In this way they conform to the conventions of Renaissance religious paintings. But Bru explained that they were actually meant to link pre-Christian (especially Homeric) ideas and the Christian faith.
St. Anthony is the patron saint of the lost, a recurring theme in Homer’s Odyssey. But the idea of being lost is a broader universal theme that permeates our human condition. In both, the holy figure turns away from the viewer, evoking in us the feeling that we have been abandoned in the search for a home, perhaps even rejected. They are quiet but powerful and represent a line to which all subsequent painting is connected. In a sense, they feel like a kind of origin for the more abstract works around them.
Some of the exhibited works are not paintings at all – Hilary Irons’ colored pencil drawings on black paper or Annika Earley’s graffiti on paper drawings – and so they seem to be in touch with the general theme of the show. But, as always, these women’s works are intriguing.
It is fascinating, for example, to see Irons’ research on mortality, nature, and spirituality acquire in this environment. They feel somehow more dynamic and energetic, less contemplative than the paintings she is known for (where she mixes pigments with marble powder). Early, the new mother, effectively conveys the feeling of isolation and suffocation that the newborn can cause with his helplessness and bottomless need. In these two works, Escape, we see her running away from the stage, the baby represented by berry branches (literally the fruit of her womb). Their decorativeness contradicts the anxiety of the condition of a young mother.
Ashley Page’s Shadows on the World’s Waters is a painting in the sense that she uses a brush to make gestures of pre-mixed UV-sensitive ink containing iron salts and an activating ingredient – basically a cyanotype-making medium. On top, Paige placed a wire basket covered with a hand-woven net, the shadows of which, when exposed to light, burn the image in the middle. Paige then painted it in fine white ink.
There is great tension between free gestures and the restrictive network. The latter has many associations: the impact on the environment of parts of fishing gear floating in the ocean, the water itself as a mode of transport during the Middle Passage, the capture and capture of enslavement, etc.
And much more – the spiritually oriented paintings “Equinox” by Jarid del Deo, the almost childish “Tree Jumper” by Nick Benfie, the lavishly painted “Harbor at Night” by Catherine Bradford (reminiscent in her own idiosyncratic naive style, “Blue and Nocturne”) Whistler Silver), an alternative graffiti and dreamy work in pastel colors by Jennifer Pirello’s Soft Shock. All of this reminds us of what we will miss when Able Baker closes its doors … hopefully not for too long.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for more than 35 years. He lives in Portland. It can be found at: [email protected]
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