Despite its 100th birthday, abstract painting has hardly been the star of Maine’s 2011 season. But I can finally report on a couple of shows featuring terrific abstract work.

Since I just wrote about another show at Aucocisco, I won’t go into detail about Cassie Jones’ muffin-puffy and scrumptiously fun retro treats, Mark Wethli’s jangling gems of poetically modernist play and Sage Lewis’ delicious little delicacies, which are flavored with a heavy dose of geometric respect for my favorite-ever artist, Kazimir Malevich (of “Black Square” fame).

Aucocisco’s is a show not to miss.

My favorite show of 2011 thus far, however, is now on view at the George Marshall Store Gallery in York. It features the paintings of Robert LaBranche (Eliot) and Duncan Johnson (Hartford, Vt.), as well as clay sculptures by David Orser (Parsonsfield).

The gallery is in an 1869 building set just in front of a newly renovated working wharf. The fantastic space is marked by wonderfully proportioned and surprisingly large windows, water views and an unusually high ceiling for a space of that size and era.

More relevant, however, is the beautiful installation of the work. Director Mary Harding fitted the gallery, which is not large, with 43 artworks in such a way that they complement each other while still allowing the space to breathe.

Orser’s sculptural work is on low pedestals below well-grouped paintings, and together they make for a quietly sensuous exhibition.

It’s interesting that LaBranche’s and Johnson’s paintings get equal billing yet somehow manage to be in perfect balance, particularly since they are ultimately so different.

LaBranche’s muscular canvases echo not only the Bay Area School’s greatest painter, Richard Diebenkorn, but also, less obviously, the late John Laurent. He was LaBranche’s teacher and the backbone of the University of New Hampshire’s excellent painting program for many years (as well as the son of the great Robert Laurent, whose work can be seen now at Tom Veilleux’s private gallery in Portland).

LaBranche works and works his pictures by layering and pushing paint around until they exude complete solidity. In some ways, that’s the definition of Bay Area painting, as opposed to the strong but finessed mark-making of Maine’s greatest painters — Homer, the Wyeths, Marin, Hopper, Hartley and the Monhegan School in general. When these come together, it can be a great match.

George Lloyd, for example, comes to mind, and it makes perfect sense that he shows at this gallery as well. (A fantastic, color-gridded and figurative piece from the ’70s in the gallery office was a reminder that Lloyd should not be underestimated as an influential ambassador between Maine and the Bay Area).

LaBranche’s paintings tend toward coloristically subdued landscapes that pile up their loosely geometric and compartmentalized striations so that only one level of the painting at a time reveals the depth of a functional landscape.

“Yellow Buoy,” for example, stacks up its charcoal-striated and organically colored layers until it gets to a brilliant red band punctuated by a vertical yellow “tache” — the buoy.

Johnson’s “paintings,” on the other hand, aren’t traditional paintings, but are more accurately described as assemblages. Comprising only “found” painted wood, they ride their colors and textures (including knots and weathered wear) to achieve delightfully lithe compositions.

Yet Johnson deserves all the credit for his editing, obvious patience and milling skills, as well as his deliciously subtle interventions — such as pencil-line grids with right-leaning diagonals and the rhythmically sweeping precision of silver nail patterns that could rankle the envy of silversmiths.

It’s hard to say what’s most impressive about Johnson’s work: Composition, finish, palette (oddly invisibly autumnal in the context of this show despite his Burt Dow penchant for healthy, pink punctuation), texture, craftsmanship, etc. It might, in fact, be the quietness of his work — despite all the time, effort and consideration that goes into them — that is Johnson’s most worthy achievement.

Orser’s ceramic sculptures play a visual role almost akin to fallen leaves against LaBranche’s and Johnson’s foliage coloration, but their low-ground organic logic built up by a jade-leaf or punchy-briar feel is braced by a keen sculptural sensibility.

Cubist spatial gestures drive Orser’s organically modular forms, whether they seek to deliver crystalline snowflakes, the carapace of a prawn or a calmly recumbent poodle. Orser has an accomplished feel both for the textured skeins and internal volumes of vessels and figures.

While Joe Hemes’ light sculptures in the dock level/basement space of the gallery aren’t my favorite works at the gallery, they are undeniably the most fun and unusual.

Hemes’ architectural skills are in full force in his sense of detail, mystery and space, as the metal sculptures project well-orchestrated and calligraphic scribbles onto the walls of the darkened gallery. (Spoiler alert: Incandescent filaments don’t create simple dots.)

This is my favorite Maine gallery show of 2011 in part because it surpasses the sum of its parts. While all the art is strong, the presentation makes it a phenomenal show that’s absolutely one of the year’s best. 

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]


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