In my roundup of 2011, I mentioned Portland’s Flat Iron Gallery as one of my favorite new art venues in Maine. It’s a handsome and interesting space that showcases the work of some good local artists.
That so many of the artists are familiar to the Portland arts community, combined with the fact that owner Matt Welch is a painter, has led many to believe the gallery is a collective. But it’s not. It’s Welch’s baby.
As someone who doesn’t distinguish between art and craft, the general mix of work is very much to my liking. Flat Iron features painting, photography, furniture, sculpture, clay, glass and jewelry.
That doesn’t mean I like all the work. I don’t. But I think Welch is off to a good start, and he certainly has enough strong artists to make the case that Flat Iron is for real.
Flat Iron has a large front space in which works by all of the gallery artists are on view. There is also a smaller space in the back for monthly rotating shows. The rear gallery is currently featuring 18 works by George Wardell, who mostly paints commercial buildings and industrial scenes in a straightforward, representational style.
Unfortunately, it’s among the weakest work in the gallery. The scenes are stiff and lack atmosphere. I have nothing against urban landscapes in general, but Wardell’s work is void of drama, social compassion or even irony.
You can sense his honest dedication, but it feels like he’s not yet sufficiently fluent in the language of painting to distill poetry from such prosaic subject matter.
It also doesn’t help Wardell that to get to his show, you have to walk past a group of Peter Batchelder’s paintings. His geometrically simple buildings are rendered in a colorful palette and a style informed by Wolf Kahn. Batchelder’s paintings might be formulaic, but he paints well, and creates appealing relationships between architectural volumes and the space of open landscape.
While many look down on Kahn as too predictably appealing or even saccharine, he has long been one of my secret indulgences, because I happen to think his color sense is delicious. Considering how tricky color can be, I have no problem with artists making successful paintings that seem to have taken their lead from Kahn.
My favorite work in the gallery is a pastel by K. Min — a slice of frosted layer cake with a raspberry quietly perched on its chocolately brow. The delicacy of the confection is brilliantly enhanced by the presentation of the scrumptious dessert — it sits in a round shadow that feels like a plate. The softness of the round form both mediates the solidity of the slice on the white space of the paper and subtly reminds you of the original form of the cake.
While the subject has been visited by many others, Min reminds us that authenticity is often more important than originality.
There was only one other piece by Min in the gallery — an uncannily quirky view of a New York apartment building. I want to see more of her pastels.
Some of the best work in the gallery includes jewelry by Jennifer Nielsen; in particular, a choker with flange pendants alternating between sea-polished pebbles and tiny diamonds.
My favorites also include Benjamin Lambert’s wildly creative and technically innovative clay sculptures of environmentally mutated birds and fish; David Wade’s poster-sized photo, “The Zone,” which succeeds on so many levels and none less ironical than the next; Sandy McLeod’s sculptures; and Jaap Helder’s bold and chewy abstract paintings.
My major complaint is that Will Scherer’s stylized drawings in stylized frames seem too affected to remotely fit in with the rest of the work.
Finally, I would like to point out how much I enjoy seeing Patrick Plourde’s work at Flat Iron. Plourde is a metal sculptor with a light touch who isn’t afraid to branch out and experiment. Between the many windows (which, being on the second floor, really open up the space), the large amount of varied work — including sculpture — and the blend of art and craft, Flat Iron is pretty much ideal for Plourde.
The piece I kept coming back to is a simple-seeming floral sculpture with outdoor faucet handles playing the role of the flowers. Because of its elongated base, the piece can be a landscape as well as a floral or a still life. It can be seen flat against the wall, yet it opens up in the round. Its potential is surprising.
In some ways, Flat Iron is a work in progress. But even if it can still use a few tweaks and edits, it’s already an interesting gallery with a lively local flavor.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: