Art galleries come in all shapes and sizes. But somewhere in the last century, we all sort of tacitly agreed that an art gallery was a clean, well-lighted space in which one could usually expect to find work that would relate to itself in some sort of series by a single artist.
Damariscotta’s Stable Gallery is very unusual insofar as it’s a cooperative with 10 member artists that also juries in the work of about 30 other artists to show alongside them.
There are many galleries in Maine that superficially look something like Stable. For the art-viewing public, this might even be the quintessential idea of a non-Portland gallery in Maine: A quirky, handsome, homey and unique space stuffed to the gills with arts of various media – paintings, sculpture, jewelry, hand-crafted furniture and myriad forms of fine craft.
One difficulty with visiting such galleries, however, is that they don’t fit with our ideas about museums or contemporary galleries in which we expect to give every single work at least a glance with the pretense (usually feigned) of seeing it in the context of the rest of the exhibition.
We have this idea that art exhibitions are the coherent crafts of curators, and that anything that doesn’t play along with that model is, well, just a shop.
The London gallery in which Vincent van Gogh worked was such a shop – hung floor to ceiling with paintings and free from solo shows.
The term “salon style” (hanging lots of paintings together on a wall) might sound highfalutin to us, but it was a domestic term to the bourgeois who frequented Van Gogh’s shop. Oops, I mean gallery.
Among the hundreds of works now on display at Stable are a few paintings by the current “featured” artist, Bob Thomas. Thomas’ spare and gritty paintings thresh the line between abstraction and landscape.
But what really struck me as my eyes wandered through the gallery was that Stable now has one of the best rosters of ceramic artists in the state.
When I suddenly focused on the clay to the exclusion of everything else, the gallery transformed before my eyes.
This is probably the standard experience of a retail shopper, but it’s an excellent mentality for large galleries and, for that matter, museums. After all, to be discerning is to be selective.
Stable currently features the work of two of my favorite Maine artists: Ceramicists Jonathan Mess and Tyler Gulden.
Gulden is executive director of the Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts. His work is quiet, subtle and extraordinarily sophisticated. It’s also bizarrely underpriced.
Gulden’s teapots and vessels are traditional in appearance, but in the sense of centuries of Asian refinement and decades of his experience as a salt glaze master. While little-known in Maine, Watershed has a gigantic international reputation, and Gulden is a significant part of that.
Mess is in a class by himself as a Maine contemporary artist. His ceramic sculptures are built up like sediments, and take on geological logic through their construction and firing processes.
The slips, glazes and clays shift, expand and shrink at varying rates in a way that mirrors geological activity on a macro level. What we see are cross-sections of layers of dynamic color and form with organic activity defining them. They are fascinating and powerful objects.
Adero Willard’s ceramics are about handsome painting patterns on standard clay vessels.
Clay’s great strength is that it can mobilize any sculptural, design or painterly approach in combination, and Willard has a smart sense for such syncretism.
Her chargers, bowls and vases, in particular, use pattern logic, but are cropped and delineated with elegant intelligence.
Porcelain is an amazing material for its white light and texture qualities. Liz Proffetty’s porcelain vessels feature cascading transparent skeins of watercolor-like glazing. The best ones are nothing less than indulgently gorgeous.
Ingrid Bathe’s hand-formed porcelain cups reveal the inherent qualities of porcelain’s white kaolin clay better than any work I know anywhere. Bathe’s hands are literally apparent in each, with the surprising effect being that they feel incredible to hold.
Malley Weber’s work was a real find for me. It ranges from beautifully drawn but creepy leafless New England trees on brown clay wall tablets to hilariously fun zombie fish on mugs. She too has an excellent sense of pictorial design on three-dimensional objects.
There are other strong clay artists as well, but keep in mind that clay is only one component of many at Stable.
After Gulden’s pots, for example, my favorite work at the gallery is Eban Blaney’s handmade furniture.
Certainly, I don’t like everything at Stable. I don’t like probably about a quarter of it, and half doesn’t interest me, but that’s about my average for a good gallery.
However, I think the excellent overwhelms the other.
I very much support the ethic implied and broadcast by the professional galleries that represent a set roster of about 20 artists and give each a solo show every 18 months or so.
But Stable is an excellent reminder of why I like the fact that galleries – like any innovative business – come in all shapes and sizes.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: [email protected]