Tessa Greene O’Brien has been showing her art in Maine for more than the past dozen years. She’s a good curator (I’ve written about her shows) and a strong painter. She’s given me reason to keep her on my watch list.

But O’Brien’s current show at Elizabeth Moss Galleries – “Clear Blue Morning” – is well above her expected trajectory.

We assume excellence by artists who have long occupied the top tier, but it’s particularly exciting when emerging artists make a step forward beyond expectations. This is particularly hard to see, in part, because we’re talking about artists who are finding their way into the public eye. So, on one hand, they need to have been visible to a certain extent, but not so obviously that they’ve been squeezed into our collective awareness by force.

O’Brien grew up in the midcoast and earned art degrees from Skidmore College and Maine College of Art. She co-founded (with her husband, artist Will Sears) the Portland Mural Initiative. She has been showing at Moss and in various venues, and she’s worked hard to make herself more visible with projects such as the murals. She works with ideas – such as systems logic – that are particularly appealing to me, but her physical objects hadn’t quite matched up to the depth of her intentions.

When I walked into Elizabeth Moss and saw a large body of O’Brien’s newest paintings, I could feel the massive step forward. The style of the works varied, and yet each of the compositions was satisfying. And then there was something more to each work that lifted it: a structural heft, a finely textured passage, a witty hack, a technical trick. Every work had a twist of its own.

“Hot Light,” 48 by 48 inches.

O’Brien’s work in the past has resonated with a systems approach: She tends to use the logic of her subject objects to establish her painting strategies. The slats of a building or the muntin bars of a window aren’t just things to be represented but vehicles for her paint application. A far wall, for example, might be held as a flat surface by the flatness of the paint. O’Brien still does this, and it’s an effective enough approach. We see this in her largest painting, “Lean,” a 6-foot-square canvas peering into the inside of an unfinished garage space. The far wall is indeed rendered with flat layer of swimming pool green 2-by-4s framing the space against a dark blue. O’Brien builds out the framing of the roof and the sides so that they zoom forward with a 3-D effect, but much of the cement floor is painted by a pulled palette knife so it stays too flat and, therefore, conflicted within the image. Nonetheless, this image appears as the bridge to the newer work.

The other larger paintings are notable for the range of paint application. O’Brien sets up areas that look practically marbled (again, with the palette knife) and is more dedicated to scumbling (i.e., leaving the underpainting to show through, say, at the edges, which adds color and spatial effects). The artist also shifts between transparent and opaque pigments or glossy versus matte sections, and so on. “Hot Light” is a particularly successful work. The 48-by-48-inch canvas depicts a garage seen from the outside at night, maybe headlight-lit at the moment of pulling into the driveway. It’s a dark scene led by a few spots of bright, warm light. Some of it is orange-y white, but the broadest sweep of the work involves large brush strokes of magenta flowing through much of the scene, presumably as underpainting. The magenta is a transparent pigment, and it seems to have been thinned with Galkyd or some other rather glossy medium. O’Brien then renders the flat front of the garage in opaque colors, leaving the interior space in layered tone darkness with the blues gaining a purply cast from the transparent magenta sweep.

Hanging next to “Hot Light” is “Cool Pool,” a painting that seems specifically designed as the antithesis of its neighbor. The top edge of an above-ground pool features cool blues in front of the garage and shed painted with warmer tones – reds and yellows. It looks as though O’Brien felt the need to unify the scene and so glazed the entire surface of the work with a very thin, translucent sheen of opalescent white. Titanium white is the most opaque pigment and it has a chalky texture, so this effect is not unlike photographing a scene through a slightly dusty window. This gesture unifies the entire surface of the painting and plays off of the glossy qualities of “Hot Light” hanging just next to it.

“Float,” 36 by 36 inches.

O’Brien’s most exciting works feature a simple model of a house or garage structure – just the corner posts and basic cross beams as though made with a child’s blocks. In several of her works, the artist renders these with impressive 3-D solidity from a view looking down so that there is no horizon line. She uses this quality to play against the vaporous abstract color and light of the rest of the canvas.

“Float” is a painterly realization of this framing on a real-life scale: Instead of looking down at a toy, we are looking up at the intricate framing of a barn. It is indeed a handsome and impressive painting. The beams are rendered with precision and solidity within a compelling single-point system of perspective. And by leaving the rest of the canvas vague to the point of abstraction, we are left with sense that what we are seeing is not a thing but an idea. (I am guessing it’s the studio of her dreams.)

While the show is lead by large paintings, O’Brien’s smaller works, however simpler, are solid, smart and appealing. Overall, it is an impressive body of work. O’Brien has raised the bar for herself, and I am looking forward to seeing what comes next.

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

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