Marci Spier, “Forget,” oil on gessoed paper, 8.5 x 11 inches Courtesy of Ocean House Gallery & Frame

As October runs of major gallery exhibitions wind down and November shows wait in the wings to be installed, the time seems right to take in a small show at Ocean House Gallery & Frame in Cape Elizabeth. Expectations for this type of venue are generally not very high, since the primary commerce centers on practical matters of presenting and enshrining art (matting and framing) rather than the art itself. “Exhibition” can often seem an inflated term to describe the kinds of shows one finds in frame shops, where postcard-pretty pictures of landscapes and seascapes, flowers or birds tend to predominate.

So, it was a pleasure to discover instead the work of Marci Spier, currently featured in an exhibit called “Letters to Love” (through Nov. 20). Spier applies oil paint and oil stick to gessoed paper, canvas or panel to create works that mimic lined, three-hole-punched sheets of paper, most of them with notes scratched into the paint with ballpoint pen. They “aim to capture the nostalgia of writing love notes on paper,” her artist’s statement explains of this series. There is a certain timeliness to this. A 2018 National Literacy Trust report revealed that letter-writing among children and young people was up, from 28.9 percent in 2011 to 36.7 percent. And a U.S. Postal Service survey just this April found that one in six consumers are sending more letters and cards, many in an attempt to feel more connected with people during the isolation imposed by the pandemic.

Marci Spier, “Middle,” oil on gessoed paper, 8.5 x 11 inches Courtesy of Ocean House Gallery & Frame

Spier’s notes themselves are addressed to “Love” – as in the quality, idea and manifestation of love – rather than a person. This could have resulted in a lot of sentimental treacle. Indeed, sometimes these missives can stray perilously close to that: “Dear Love, It’s okay that we don’t see things the same way” or “Dear Love, It isn’t always easy, but you are always worth it.” Whether you cringe at this or smile will depend on the perspective from which you view it. Certainly, we could be cynical about these messages and others (“Dear Love, I am hopeful”). But they can also feel like positive affirmations that function as beacons of optimism during our pre-election perfect storm of political (and loveless) divisiveness and high anxiety over COVID-19, pick-a-spot-on-the-map military conflicts and alarmingly frequent natural disasters.

But what elevates these is Spier’s exploration of color as a language. The series was inspired by Joan Snyder’s 1970 painting “Summer” (now at the Art Institute of Chicago) in which Snyder used graphite to create lines on the canvas in the manner of Agnes Martin, Frank Stella and other artists. Rather than writing on the lines, however, Snyder used horizontal strokes of paint as annotations, or perhaps diary entries, that appeared to chronicle the progression of color through the season. In an homage to Snyder’s painting, “Love Letter to Blue” from 2017 (not exhibited here), Spier experienced the limitations of the English language to fully express her reverence for this color. So, she abandoned words all together and simply let the paint speak for her affinity to it. One wordless painting in the show, “Blank,” does this, with the addition of a simple heart drawn onto the paint in one corner.

The best of Spier’s pieces are those where she has built up the surface with thick layers of color. The top layer is almost always a gooey impasto of white, with blue horizontal lines and the vertical red line and hole punches painted onto it with oil stick. Sometimes, however, the lines and hole punches are scratched into the white to reveal multiple layers of color underneath, as in “Normalize” – “Dear Love,” it reads, “Let’s normalize (expletive),” to which a pretty universal response might be “Amen to that!”. The impression is that the most apparent (read: written) message has, literally, many shades of meaning, meanings that teem under the surface with reds, yellows, blues, pinks and so on.

Marci Spier, “We Both Know,” oil on canvas, 9 x 12 inches Courtesy of Ocean House Gallery & Frame

Other times, colors are applied on top of other colors that have not yet dried, resulting in tinted, rather than pure, white hues. In “We Both Know” the white layer looks pink; in “Normalize” it is yellowed. The play of color elicits a multiplicity of emotional responses that will, of course, vary with each viewer. But the simplicity of the conceptual and visual approach makes these paintings immediately accessible. Most also benefit from a smaller scale, which feels both more intimate and, because of the concentration of so much paint in a condensed field, more physically resonant.

Owner Graham Wood’s artist stable includes several other very intriguing talents, among them Stephen St. John, Joshua Ferry and Rachael O’Shaughnessy. It’s worth keeping an eye on upcoming shows. Because the gallery itself is tiny, it’s also easy to enjoy the entirety of each show in short gulps, brief intervals that can be far more rewarding than a mere 20 or 30 minutes might suggest.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland.

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