Ellen Golden and Duane Paluska are married. Paluska owns and operates Icon Contemporary in Brunswick, a gallery that somehow manages to be both deeply established and quirkily unique with a Maine flavor all its own.

Icon Contemporary owner Duane Paluska and his wife, artist Ellen Golden, with Paluska’s “Attention.” Photo by Daniel Kany

The gallery has occupied the same old converted Colonial house for decades that, like a true Maine house, probably doesn’t have a straight line anywhere within its frame. Well, except, of course, in the art it features. More often than anywhere else in the state, Icon features the stuff of straight lines: hard-edge abstraction.

One of the idiosyncrises of Icon is that its default mode is to schedule one of its regular artists for a show and then have that artist invite another artist to join them. The works are then hung together throughout the two floors of the gallery.

The current show features Paluska and Golden. And I am not sure who invited whom, but the outcome is an impressively strong show.

Paluska has been making art for a long, long while. His first major mode was taking pieces of wooden furniture and transforming them into abstract sculptures. He then began making collaged paintings using colored sail canvas to create elegant, low-contrast hard-edge abstract “paintings.” To his growing list of modes, Paluska is now punctuating his focus on shaped-panel paintings. These too are insistently abstract and come across as reductive, as in minimalist.

“How do you know?” by Ellen Golden Photo by Ellen Golden

Golden’s ink-on-paper works flutter intentionally between painting and drawing. Her two camps of work are largely divided between constellations of tiny black ink marks that create spaces, and sometimes divisions, not from the marks but from their shifting density: a lighter area has fewer marks; a darker region has more. In contrast to these atmospherically celestial abstractions, Golden’s other leading mode covers a page with grid-like sets of tiny sharp-edged trapezoids (often in inky browns and ochres) with razor-thin lines shooting between them. Like the constellation works, these have an optical effervescence, but it’s somewhere between looking at window blinds attempting to hold back the light and the visual effect of looking at words on a page written in a language that you haven’t yet recognized.

Golden has been an exciting artist to watch over the past three years as she moved full time into the studio. Her last show marked a quantum leap forward, and she has now completed the circuit of combining the conceptual, process, technical and visual aspects of her work. In short, she has integrated the viewer’s perspective, and her work now has a full sense of finish. We can sense her ideas, ambitions and intentions in balance. What this means is that the areas that are ambiguous appear as intentionally ambiguous. This is a key point for both Golden and Paluska – and much ambitious art in general.

Paluska’s sculptural work is based in transformation. He’ll begin with, say, a table and then work it until the sense of furniture is not so recognizable that it dominates our experience of the thing. “Set the Table,” for example, appears to have begun as a small, round wooden table. Then Paluska shifted elements until it stood much like a figure. Most importantly, the gesture of the sculpture becomes the posture of a figure, subtly leaning and just barely twisting in space –not only like a real person (think contrappasto), but also in the vein of traditional figurative sculpture which was, of course, based on the human figure.

“Set the Table,” by Duane Paluska Photo by Daniel Kany

“Set the Table” could be the figure setting the table. Or both. Or neither. This is the Schrodinger’s Cat quality of some art: It’s both, one or neither: Human observation fixes it in place.

An obvious comparison of Paluska’s sculpture is to Joel Shapiro whose well-known works can be seen either as minimalist sculptures or figures. What happens with Shapiro’s work, however, is that viewers generally start with one side of the equation and then find the other side is a possibility. Paluska’s sculpture is more complex because it uses the discourses (i.e., vocabularies) of furniture and carpentry. Whereas Shapiro employs simple bronze “block” forms, Paluska, a master carpenter, uses the logic and appearance of carpentry (joints, connections, veneers, wood finish, etc.) or furniture (legs, spindles, table tops, glass, feet, etc.) to play up literal transformations.

The fact that he uses word-connected ideas of furniture and carpentry is particularly challenging to some viewers: They recognize elements but as Paluska transforms these elements into the realm of the uncanny, their words fail them – which is Paluska’s goal. And it is one of the great qualities of visual art that it can push us past the edge of language. There are no words, after all, for the things we can’t recognize. But the key to the effect is the “almostness” of the resemblance, and it’s not unlike the “Uncanny Valley” – the aesthetic concept that human-like things cause more revulsion when they look not-quite human.

Because Golden’s images remain in the realm of objects (Is it a book page or an abstraction? Is it picture of stars in space or a microscopic world?), they don’t challenge the reader like some of Paluska’s work that often operates with objects that relate to the human body, like chairs or tables that seem to be coming to life. (Think of the furniture in Jean Cocteau’s 1945 “Beauty and the Beast,” for example.)

Paluska’s new shaped paintings feature acrylic paint on canvas-wrapped wood. Their logic, however, is based on that of painting – the colored rectangle on the wall. These works are dynamic: Visually, they fold and shift before our eyes. They don’t transform from one thing into another, but we can’t help but see them in a state of change. Seemingly simple, they refuse to sit still.

Together, Paluska’s and Golden’s work creates not one but a series of dialogues between set forms, expectations, possibility and the viewer’s role within the formalist notions of art (design, composition, etc.). These dialogues are often visual conversations, but they are loaded with ideas. The fact that any of the works in the show can stand alone only reinforces the notion that abstraction, perception and aesthetic expectation on the part of the viewer can be robust, rich and rigorous in the hands of an accomplished artist; or, in this case, in the hands of a pair of artists. It’s a worthy reminder that culture can’t happen in a vacuum: It needs shared social space – an audience – to come alive.

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

[email protected]


This story was updated at 5 p.m. on July 3 to correct the end date of the exhibit.

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