I like painting and art exhibitions in which viewers are forced – on their own – to separate the wheat from the chaff. I think this is what many art snobs find so stressful about open-call shows. Something similar occurs in many holidays shows, which many galleries mount at this time of the year. The goal of such shows is to sell gifts: The Christmas season is the key commercial American moment of the year, after all.
If you’re not looking for a gift, these shows can be interesting – or frustrating. Usually, they shift to the side of frustrating. The galleries typically are jam-packed with work, and it’s generally smaller and cheaper than what they feature at other times of the year. In other words, lower impact and lower standards.
So when I drove by Greenhut Galleries in Portland and saw a $50,000 Neil Welliver nude in the front window, I laughed out loud – it was about as far as one could go from the consumable little morsels of a typical holiday show. Moreover, on the next wall hung a quite simply bizarre Alison Goodwin pink and yellow portrait of a moon-goddess-like woman holding garlic scapes. Neither painting is small enough to wrap and put in a box under the tree. And neither is cheap… nor easy. The nude, “Washcloth” (1967), is in the forest. She’s wholesome and outdoorsy, but still well past L.L Bean. The model is pretty, curvy, buxom, pert-nippled and sexually bold. In fact, nestled against her creme-white belly, the border with her black pubic hair is the highest contrast (and therefore the most noticeable) spot of the painting. The center of the image shifts between that high contrast spot and her gaze: Oh yes, she’s fully aware of what you’re looking at and she gazes back with unexpected alacrity.
It is unexpected, but as unlikely as it seems, it sets the stage with a tonally consistent sparkle. Walking into the gallery, viewers are met by a wall of works by John Whalley, Welliver and Maurice Freedman – major players all. But this is no mere circus of big names: Greenhut’s “Holiday Show” is an exhibition of great works of art. Led by Freeman’s “Thistles in the Night” (which, however small, costs more than the retail price of my Honda Civic), these works soar. “Thistles” is one of the few works in the show that shifts with the holiday mentality: Its first night, purple sky, mystical mentality puts the season’s spiritual best-foot forward. Less upward than inward, the Welliver’s “Stump” presents an equally worthy philosophical perspective: The once soaring tree has almost completed its mossy return to the earth. Whalley’s “Red Bamboo” is a study in Asian aesthetics, featuring a small, lidded bowl centered and seen from the side against a flat, wizened, calligraphy-covered handmade book. These two objects are placed upon a well-worn surface with yellow calligraphic strokes sneaking out from under the book. At first, the scene calls to mind chinoiserie, but behind the lacquered bowl, the worn objects suggest wabi-sabi – the Japanese aesthetic of organic wear and imperfection. The brilliance of Whalley’s piece is that he captures this quiet, subtle aesthetic with an incredibly tight, high-focus rendering of objects and textures.
The show has too many highlights to list. Among them are Henry Isaacs’s effervescently joyous view of Fort Gorges from Portland and Daniel Minter’s revolutionary spiritual roots in the form of embryo-esque black men in the ground under a bleak tree and a planted field: They comprise a stark but appealingly powerful pair of paintings.
But my favorite work is Alan Magee’s “Il Beato Angelico” – in reference to a painter better known as Fra Angelico (1395-1455). It’s a small, realistic and high-focus image of a Pinocchio-like doll with a stone body (Magee is well known for his stone paintings); the doll has downcast but smiling eyes and a sharpened pencil for a left arm. You expect it to be unsettling, but in fact it’s an image of incredible sweetness and supple spirituality.
Other highlights include Matt Blackwell’s little “Bearsy,” a tiny, playfully painted figure with a bear’s head; David Driskell’s deliciously green “Dense Forest”; Nancy Morgan Barnes’s “Long Haul,” a horizontal night scene of a truck – set off by a headlight-lit cow – passing through a rural working landscape; and Robert Hamilton’s triple painting portrait of Max Beckmann. That last features an image of the great German Expressionist from one of his best-known self-portraits in front of one of his famously impenetrable paintings … all gathered in a scene of Hamilton’s recognizably signature square cinematic style.
The work that has held me the longest, however, has been Colin Page’s “Hot Color, Busy Patterns,” an incomparably rich tabletop still life in a searing Fauvist palette. (Oh, yes, I’m going back to the exhibition, in part to see this painting again.) Page is a leading light of what is called “Maine painting” – that striking, quick and largely improvisational style of observational painting that ranges from Winslow Homer to the recently deceased Don Stone; Maine painting blends a bold brush with atmospheric light and an ever-present sense of place. “Hot Color” insists on a here-and-now experience, yet shows the artist’s observational virtuosity, a trait that lends it a there-and-then experience of another place and time. Page is a great painter, and this work reminds us that description is merely one aspect of his still-expanding abilities.
Greenhut’s curatorial strategy for this unusual Christmastime exhibition was simply to show the strongest work possible by its rich roster of artists – many of them nationally and internationally renowned – regardless of scale, price or seasonality. The paintings themselves are great, regardless of time, place or season.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: