Groton's Main Street Gallery traditionally ends its annual season with a "National Small Works Painting Show." This year's exhibit — which runs through Dec. 28 — was guest curated by Syracuse art critic Katherine Rushworth. Work was culled from submissions sent from around the country. It was put together with assistance from husband and wife gallery owners Roger Smith and Adrienne Bea Smith. Disappointingly, the show is not as strong as it has been in past years.
The repetitive, modular structure of David Higgins' oil on wood Moles appears indebted to the Minimalist art of the sixties, although the piece's hand-painted facture departs from the robotic lack of affect characteristic of that art movement. The piece is divided into a grid of painted images overlaid by a myrtle green grille and surrounded by a gold frame (all painted wood). The grid is four square-holes high and three wide. Each aperture frames a similar but slightly different image: a patch of tan or creamy pink skin with a dark blemish somewhere near the center and dark hairs sprouting (the hairs in graphite, I believe). The squares can be read in sequence, like a comic strip, as well as seen all together. The play of theme and variations is intriguing.
Joe Figlerski's trompe-l'œil ("fool the eye") oil on linen What Lies Beneath is worth comparing to Moles for its structure and concept. The style is very slick. On a quick glance, it has the appearance of an airbrushed work, although closer inspection reveals traces of brushwork — especially in the margins. Evoking historical precedents such as that of nineteenth century American still life master John Peto and the Surrealist Rene Magritte, Beneath attempts to be playfully self-referential. It purports to show us the back of a painting, perhaps itself. We see fabric stretched over bars: four covered ones around the edges and two more wood-grained ones crossing the middle. This painted grid is the most interesting part of the painting. Above this surface hovers, improbably, a slickly rendered rose with a purple-blue blossom.
All of this makes the painting sound much more interesting than it is. (This is a risk in interpreting and contextualizing.) Ultimately, the flashy technique fails to give the image the material presence needed to create an emotionally plausible illusion.
Kathleen Caprario shows a pair of square wood panels covered with fine gradations of tone rendered in a mixture of oil and wax. Although well crafted and texturally pleasing, the paintings have an unfortunate tinge of cheap mysticism. The Effects of the Weather shows a globe of glowing yellow light radiating outwards until blocked by shadowy black corners. Breath of Dawn features a crisp-edged black orb popping out from the bottom edge. Above: a cosmic fire, white and red with areas of ghostly greenish tint, trailing off upwards into more extraterrestrial blackness. The two paintings' texture is not totally smooth; fine, feathery strokes are visible.
Allen Cummings' Poptart is sly in its use of a rich, old school painterly technique to depict a vulgar, contemporary foodstuff. The pale ochre pastry (with red and white frosting) is split in two and casts loosely painted reflections down onto the brushy red-brown backdrop that surrounds it on all sides.
I am generally ambivalent about local poet-painter Laura Glenn's watercolor and ink bedecked paper collages. Although not unaccomplished, these abstractions suggest a yearning to be "poetic" which precedes and overruns any kind of specific content or experience to be conveyed.
Nevertheless, her Hidde(n) Letter, which is typical of her work, stands out as one the more compelling pieces here. Against an overall blue-gray-purple background, it overlays blocks and splotches of color, many on collaged scraps. The color strains for luxuriousness: green-gold, saturated cyan, tan-cream, blue, orange, yellow, salmon pink, raspberry ice cream, among others. The collage blocks become more regular towards the center, forming a loose grid. There are letters in black ink — Glenn's signature fake Chinese/Japanese calligraphy. (The effect inevitably seems a bit wrong if you're familiar with the real thing.) The characters are scribbly, thick or thin, and often bleed into their surrounds. English letters appear in one spot as well. The overall effect is mythical, exotic, and cryptic — something accomplished with more finesse by another local artist, Syau-Cheng Lai.
Kristen T. Woodward's Total Boar (terrible pun) features a rich build up of color, texture and imagery. It is done in oil and acrylic on a thick wood block. The support is unframed and the left and right hand sides at least can be considered integral parts of the work. It is covered overall in a carefully layered gestural field of reds, pinks, and creamy yellow-greens. There are two central images in front, both icons of masculine aggression and both silhouetted in profile and pointed leftward. Above: the boar, in whitish creamy tones and thickly outlined in red and blue. Around its head, the bordering is broken with highlights and haloing in white and slightly greenish yellow. Below, smaller and less visually prominent: an old military aircraft in a faded, ghostly green is collaged on. On it appear another white smudge highlight and a red star insignia. This image is echoed elsewhere, on the sides of the woodblock — look for it. Boar suggests a reliquary, albeit likely ironic in intent.
Three watercolors by Brian Paulsen are interesting, although more for their conception than for their technique. The conception is obscure, literary and puzzle-like. The technique is a dryly illustrational realism combining areas of careful modeling with background areas of flatly applied tone. In each a muscular woman, "Joyce," stands indoors, facing the viewer — although not looking at her. She is wearing a white (perhaps light gray) bikini and has carefully modeled dull coppery skin. She casts implausible shadows, weirdly blob-like and animated. Behind her, apparently hung on the wall, are pictures within pictures.
In both Joyce Looking For James and Specific Junction, the background scene — here spanning left to right — is the junction of two ordinary suburban streets (different ones). They are shown in a sharp perspective that belies the shallow stage-like space of the "real" images. In the former painting she stands, staring through a pair of binoculars while in the latter she sits in a metal chair, blindfolded, with her arms crossed in a manner that echoes the passageways. A coil of orange electrical cord surrounds that chair.
In Looking For James, Too, the background is a tall, dully colored image of James Joyce, bow-tied and standing in front of a shelf of books. It attached to wall with over-scaled cream "tape." The female Joyce, curiously, is a near-identical replica from JLFJ — as is the wooden chair to the right.
Amanda Vella's oil on canvas Sailboat Reflections is done in a post-impressionist manner loosely reminiscent of Van Gogh. It emphasizes thick, broken paint-strokes that cluster most densely towards the middle of the left edge, creating a focus. Vertical strokes — the boat masts, apparently — are scattered about like a thin forest. The piece is best seen from at least few feet away. Any closer and the scene dissolves into its somewhat murkily colored marks. Sailboat is about par for the course: more or less competently done but less than thrilling.
This is the Main Street's sixth annual small paintings show, and although it might be difficult to prove, I get a sense of over-familiarity, of well-worn ruts and diminishing returns. The gallery is, of course, a business, charged with the difficult task of making money in a small and isolated market. Still, it may be conceivable, practical, and valuable to change course slightly, to try something a bit different in years to come.