The Danforth assembles a group show that
by Jenna Russell
hangs together . . . and separately
"Upstairs/Downstairs I" at the Danforth Gallery, 34 Danforth St., Portland,
through August 26. Open from noon to 7 p.m. on Monday, Thursday, and Friday,
and from noon to 4 p.m. on Saturday. (207) 775-6245.
The title of the current show at the Danforth Gallery,
"Upstairs/Downstairs I," is a bit of a misnomer. The paintings and mixed-media
works are confined to one large downstairs room and attached foyer. The "upstairs" aspect
won't come into play until September, when the show's second phase, devoted to
photography and sculpture, opens.
Gary Stearly paints drippy, melting, green-black
backgrounds around the glowing pink flesh of his nudes, bringing their luminous
realness into sharper focus.
Not to worry -- there's a lot to look at, more than 40 pieces by 23 artists,
most from the Portland area. The Danforth is part of the non-profit,
volunteer-driven Maine Artists Space, a 12-year-old collective dedicated to
allowing emerging and mid-career artists control over how their work is
exhibited. True to the cooperative spirit, the group show is the natural format
here, but it's still subject to the risks of group shows everywhere. Without a
single artist's vision to hold the exhibit together, the assembly depends on a
strong curator to establish links, obvious or unexpected, among individuals.
Without that, our observations tend to be isolated and held to the surface --
we see a skilled portrait here, a nice landscape there, rather than a wider
view of what we have in common. The wide view isn't always accessible here, but
there are enough rewarding windows on the world.
"Upstairs/Downstairs I" includes oils and acrylics, dyed silks and pastels,
digital illustrations and ink drawings. Some of the subject matter is
distinctly native -- Old Port musicians, the Portland lighthouse. The natural
world is important, seen in apple blossoms and pine groves. Other worlds are
also invoked -- in Carolyn Wiley's steamy, beaded fabric abstractions
"Fantasea I and II," and in the "Untitled Mexico" series by Maine Artists Space
founder Roland Rose, working here under his middle name, Salazar.
Expanding the quest for common ground, we find several works dominated by bold,
black outlines and driven by a linear preoccupation. "Portland Headlight," an
acrylic by Betsy Schneider, has the matte color and simple shapes of a
Fisher-Price toy, in keeping with her children's book illustrations, some of
which are also in the show. Steffi Greenbaum executes a similar unsubtle vision
in her "Composition of Red Lines," a thickly-outlined acrylic of a reclining
figure with fat bands of color behind her. Detail isn't important, and neither
is realism; the woman has green flesh and minimal features, but the wrinkles in
her collapsed skirt are of paramount importance. This is painting in capital
letters, arresting for its starkness. Black lines also contain the tree shapes
in Jan ter Weele's sunny, lemon-fresh "Landscape -- Portland," and appear again
as a kind of grid in the fascinating "Zinnias with Moth." Seemingly inspired by
Paul Klee, South Portland artist Ruth Bowman uses rich, glowing color and a
mosaic-tile composition to riff on the idea of flowers while creating something
only remotely floral in appearance.
One regrets the harsh fluorescent light directly over "January Thaw," a fiber
work of knitted loops or handles on a gray-blue blanket background. Its colors
are washed out in the greenish glare, but one imagines in subtler light, the
silvery threads might come to life, icy and magical. One wishes also that
multiple works by the same artist could have hung closer together, for easier
comparison and study and a deeper understanding of each participant's
preoccupations. Joel Levasseur is one artist who would benefit from tighter
grouping; his three intriguing mixed-media pieces all come from the same "Ocean
Stories" series, and each mixes dreamy, abstract segments with more literal
references to the landscape. It's a stretch, but a healthy one (why not?) to
imagine a similar interactive contrast in Gary Stearly's watercolors. He paints
drippy, melting, green-black backgrounds around the glowing pink flesh of his
nude models, bringing their luminous realness into sharper focus.
Some of the pieces defy categorization, and their resistance has to be
respected. At first glance, it's easy to be baffled and unwooed by the rooster
art of Helen Tower Hall Rundell, but her bold blend of forceful design and
dramatic color is seductive in the small acrylic "Still Life with Rooster and
Basket." There's a strange sophistication in the weird, skewed perspective, the
shades of chartreuse and violet, and the etched figure-eight pattern that
resembles nothing so much as 1960s linoleum.
It's an awful cliché, but it's true that the big group show offers
"something for everyone!" Bring Grandma, bring the kids and your hip cousin
Sadie from New York, and everyone can fan out to find their personal favorite.
Then, reconvene for some healthy discussion. You have to love a gallery that
offers free copies of the "Instant Art Critique Phrase Generator" by the door.
The tongue-in-cheek tool provides ready-made, mix-and-match phrases for the
gallery-challenged. ("I find this work menacing/playful because of"/"the
inherent overspecificity" would be one cut-and-paste opinion.) On the other
hand, don't feel you have to talk.