By DANIEL KANY
Although not traditionally considered a Maine strong point, two of the best shows I have seen this year feature geometrical abstraction: Duane Paluska’s “New Paintings and Sculpture” at Icon Contemporary Art in Brunswick, and Ken Greenleaf’s “Intercept” at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport.
It’s fascinating that the pictorial work of these two artists (who have both primarily been sculptors in their long careers) is now so superficially similar in appearance, especially because it is ultimately so different.
That these two shows are running concurrently is a stroke of luck for the art-viewing public. They comprise an extraordinary comparison.
The good news is that all you have to do is look. You don’t have to figure anything out to “get” the work. It’s brilliant, refined and supremely sophisticated, but, like music, you don’t need to parse it intellectually to sense its achievement.
Paluska is primarily known for his “minimal-ish” miter-jointed wooden sculptures that employ the language of furniture and, most pronounced amongst his newest work, window and picture frames. Of the 28 pieces in “New Paintings and Sculpture,” 18 are sculptures.
Paluska’s paintings are actually canvas collages, for the most part. In fact, some only use the hues of the found boat canvas for color. With his extensive experience with wood, however, Paluska knows how to seamlessly and beautifully finish a surface, so it’s hard to tell what’s paint and what’s not.
Paluska’s “Pliers,” for example, is a 20-by-22-inch panel with a “G”-like angular gray form in the center of a surface dominated by faded-pink canvas. Yet every piece of the surface fits with the solidity of a tile mosaic.
Every form articulates both positive and negative space. Every corner is so tight that the edges of “Pliers” pulse with a dynamic tension much at odds with the assured stoniness of the nestled forms. The lower right is a wizened white, while a slate-blue trapezoid in the lower left sets off a pair of gray triangles on which the “G” form perches sharply.
Like all of the paintings in the show, “Pliers” is stunningly complete as surface, object and image.
Greenleaf’s “Gauge Series” pieces at CMCA use the same trapezoidal and triangular language, but with an entirely different effect. Greenleaf’s individual forms are also monochromatic, but they are tiny and sharply rendered in oil and pastel on paper with plenty of white space around them.
The angles of trapezoids and triangles imply both visual perspective and motion. But while Paluska’s works mobilize the idea of perceptual shifts on the picture plane, Greenleaf’s gem-like forms writhe, float and shift with beautifully choreographed rhythms in limitless space.
“Gauge 31” ironically shares the “Pliers”‘ palette of pink, gray and blue trapezoids and triangles, but Greenleaf floats his group of abutting tiny forms with plenty of white paper around them. Greenleaf’s new intimate scale (which appears to have been inspired by his artist wife, Dozier Bell) brings the viewer in close so that the broad paper margins make no spatial limits on the forms.
Greenleaf is clearly inspired by Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematism — one of the first and greatest movements of abstract painting.
His other pieces are from his “Blackwork” series, thickly handled geometrical sets of heavy charcoal on collaged white paper. These have become more tense than before, and rather than unfurling with spatial elegance, have taken on an industrial pulse. Formerly featuring wispily mystical motions, they are now substantial and serious.
Greenleaf’s “Blackwork” drawings are closer to Paluska’s sculptures than Paluska’s own paintings. The sculptures are in a constant state of unfurling themselves in space. While they share some of the best qualities of Sol Lewitt’s and Joel Shapiro’s strongest work, they reveal a unique sense of gestural motion as though in a permanent state of transfiguration.
The angled joints of Paluska’s simple poplar bars are so finely crafted that they look inevitable. These free objects without bases are often covered with fine linen and finished (like his paintings) with mat acrylic gel.
Paluska is an excellent sculptor in the round — one of the best in Maine (which, unfortunately, is not much of a distinction). Most of the pieces have several viewing angles that transform them entirely — an effect multiplied by the solidity of the shadows on the beautifully installed and spotlighted pieces.
Paluska’s “Feeler” is a wall sculpture that from one angle absolutely looks like the gray form in “Pliers.” Yet from another angle, it makes a perfect square — although with a shadow that makes a balancing triangle like the lower left corner of “Pliers.”
While many of Paluska’s sculptures use the language of furniture, some — particularly the few with the new reverse-mitered joints — seem like picture frames coming alive and into space. “Feeler” is one of these, although few pieces in the show are as elegant as “Hook,” which achieves this as well, with sparer simplicity.
Paluska’s work has never looked stronger. Any doubts I ever had about it have been completely dissipated.
I had been disappointed that Greenleaf gave up sculpture for painting, but I am thrilled with his current dedication to drawing and its spatial possibilities.
I don’t think there’s any mutual influence between Greenleaf and Paluska. Within their work, the superficial similarities are incidental. But they make a gorgeously fortuitous comparison for us. It’s not the forms, but how these two masters employ them, that ultimately matters.
These are great shows by two of Maine’s best artists. They should not be missed.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: