There’s a new art venue in town: Alice Gauvin Gallery, located on the stretch of York Street heading toward the Casco Bay Bridge from the restaurant Yosaku. A native Mainer, Gauvin studied at Colby College and the University of Cambridge, and most recently worked in the curatorial department of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The inaugural show she has assembled is called “Stages” (through Jan. 29), a rubric that, despite its Aristotelian philosophical premise (“while history may be devoid of apparent meaning, drama must be plausible,” according to the press materials), basically unites five artists of disparate styles who stage scenes on canvas.

This, of course, is what most artists do. What’s more interesting is the way the majority of paintings in the show use the language of modernism to reference classical literature and the history of art. And with so many galleries focused on Maine artists, it’s refreshing to see a show that has nothing whatsoever to do with the state or its artists.

The standout here is Thaddeus Radell. His paintings are often ruminations on Shakespearean works (particularly “King Lear”) and Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy.” But the specific subject matter is less important here than his technique.

Radell’s surfaces are thick encrustations of dry pigments mixed with cold wax and oil paint. They are so densely clotted in parts that they look like scabs one could flick off the picture plane. I imagine that, years hence, they will be a conservator’s nightmare.

But the build-up of material is exactly the point. It is the process by which Radell coaxes his characters into the world. Yes, one could say this of many artists who do representational work. But what distinguishes Radell is that this troweling-on of glutinous material leaves his subjects mysteriously inchoate. They seem not quite formed, as if they are still coming into being. The effect is endlessly intriguing.

Thaddeus Radell, “Night Revelers,” 2020-’21, oil and wax on panel, 20″x30″ Photo courtesy of the artist

In “Night Revelers,” for instance, one can discern figure-like forms. But a head may simply be a coagulated blob of white or pink. To the right of the canvas, one figure looks like a man on horseback, possibly with a lance of some sort.

I’m not sure what the reference is here, though it did call to mind for me Rembrandt’s “Night Watch.” But it could just as easily be a group of wedding guests from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or the souls Dante encounters in the first circle of hell.

Many of these works telegraph a distinctly Renaissance preoccupation with myth and narrative, yet seem to portray the rough, incipient ideas of future allegorical works captured at the point where they just begin arising out of the murky darkness of the artist’s consciousness.

Thaddeus Radell, “Ochre Interior,” 2019, oil pastel, graphite and wax crayon on Bristol paper, 11″x17″ Photo courtesy of the artist

Figures are more defined in Radell’s drawings, though their feverishly sketched quality still leaves them fairly ambiguous. “Ochre Interior” depicts four figures. At left, one appears to wear robes that are possibly clerical. The other figures seem uncomfortably bound or prostrate. The one outlined in red recalls Saint Sebastian; the one to its right appears hooded.

Again, subject matter is elusive. The figures assume classical Renaissance – possibly martyred – poses. The cloaked figure could be a stand-in for Minos, the judge who condemns sinners entering the second circle of hell to various torments appropriate to their offenses. Or this interior could be a torture chamber at Abu Ghraib.

Whatever his thematic intention, the power of Radell’s paintings is their ability to intimate great themes emerging from a kind of primal muck. They’re worth the trip to the gallery all on their own.

Another artist who revels in the material qualities of paint is Simon Carr, represented here by various still-life arrangements of vegetables. Still life, of course, has been a recurrently popular genre since the Dutch Masters. Unlike their forebears, however, Carr’s paintings are devoid of the symbolism of the Netherlandish works, the romantic light and atmospherics of the 18th– and  19th-century European varieties, or the compositional daring of something by Braque or Picasso.

Simon Carr, “Garlic II,” 2017, acrylic on canvas, 16″x20″ Photo courtesy of the artist

Instead, Carr’s works have an all-over quality to them that evades a central focus. The most successful of them is “Garlic.” It works well because it evokes something beyond what it obviously is. Though the title tells us what we’re looking at, the loosely rendered heads also recall crumpled bits of paper, an aerial view of impressionistic apple trees in bloom or the haystacks of Monet. This abstracted depiction gives “Garlic” a more interesting depth and dimension.

Two large paintings by Emily Zuch adopt another artistic conceit dating to the Middle Ages: that of the self-portrait reflected in a mirror. Artists as diverse as Parmigianino, Rembrandt, Rockwell and Avedon have adopted this trope. Zuch’s versions are graphically flat, with little depth of perspective.

Emily Zuch, “Pinwheel,” 2019, oil on canvas, 42×42″ Photo courtesy of the artist

Aside from self-portraits, however, “Legs” and “Pinwheel” are also amalgams of references to art history. In the former, for example, these include a glove taped to the wall (de Chirico), a book about Henri Rousseau and a copy of a Renaissance painting – all mixed with a bit of kitsch (what looks like Daisy, Blondie and Dagwood’s dog from the popular comic strip).

“Pinwheel” includes, among other references, a Tang Dynasty-style horse, another glove and a Matisse-like postcard. Are these storyboards of Zuch’s inspirations? One can’t be sure. But the randomness seems slightly calculated and, because of it, a bit self-important. Their flatness and large size also make them feel sort of all over the place, offering no place for the eye to rest.

I much preferred her beautiful landscape “Green Window” and “Zurbarán in a Box,” a kind of art history inside joke that wittily traps Francisco de Zurbarán’s Saint Serapion in a nightmarish Mondrian-like grid.

Xico Greenwald, “Shelf,” 2021, oil on canvas over board, 55×48″ Photo courtesy of Alice Gauvin Gallery

Xico Greenwald also paints still life works, in his case inspired variously by Roman frescoes, 17th-century Spanish still lifes and, though he doesn’t cite it, Pop Art. I add the latter because, though some have more depth of ground than Zuch’s, they too are fairly flat and graphic. The objects don’t overlap (those in “Shelf” don’t even cast a shadow), and though the brushstrokes are more expressive, the paintings exude a certain matter-of-factness. All these are qualities of Pop Art.

Rachel Rickert is the only one who does not seem to be referencing more historic genres and, as such, feels a bit like an anomaly here. Though she has drawn comparisons to Pierre Bonnard and Mary Cassatt, her nudes are small, intimate and frank in a wholly contemporary way. Her larger works – one depicting a building and another a shower curtain – are devoid of human presence and, so, entirely lose the sense of intimacy. What’s left seemed less interesting and a bit bland to me, despite their monumental proportions.

Overall, it’s a promising debut. But I’d say there is too much unrelated content here, despite the organizing philosophical premise. I look forward to more focused shows in the future. I could see, for instance, an interesting conversation emerging between Greenwald’s and Zuch’s works, or between Radell’s and Carr’s. But amid the clamor of such diverse artistic voices, it is impossible to hear those exchanges.

You can see for yourself this Saturday, between 6 and 8 p.m., when Gauvin will host a reception to celebrate the gallery’s debut on the Portland art scene.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected] 


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