Jimmy Viera, “Spring Light” Photos courtesy of Able Baker Contemporary

Two artists, Hilary Irons and Stephen Benenson, co-founded Able Baker Contemporary on Forest Avenue in 2016. Irons eventually took a position at University of New England, at which point the artists Tessa O’Brien and Annika Earley became involved with the gallery, organizing its programming and curating shows. Earley eventually moved on too, to Speedwell. O’Brien and Benenson have kept the gallery going while trying to pursue their own very successful artistic careers.

Aside from inviting guest curators to put together stimulating exhibitions over the years, the gallery also offered residencies and art critiques for the artists who gallery-sat during Able Baker’s open hours. These artists spanned in age from their 20s to their 70s and would have their work reviewed by previous curators. It was all in the spirit of developing the work of emerging artists.

Now, Able Baker has lost its lease. Portland Stage is reclaiming the space to build a wheelchair-accessible elevator. Whether the artist-run gallery will re-emerge in some other form is still an open question. But this bittersweet occasion was the impetus for “Painting Nerds: ABC Farewell Show” (through July 16), a gorgeous survey that illustrates the infinite possibilities of paint as medium.

The artists here – all of whom have been associated with the gallery through shows they curated and/or appeared in – use brushes of all sizes, paint rollers, spray cans and tape (to block out areas they wish to preserve while they paint over others). They paint fabric and carve into the layers of paint that coat canvas or paper or board. They collage pieces they’ve painted onto other pieces on the picture plane. They splatter and fleck their material, bleed one hue into another, daub and spray.

The show’s title comes most alive in “Spring Light,” a jewel of an abstract work by Jimmy Viera. It represents a kind of glossary of painting techniques. The artist has clearly taped out certain amorphously shaped sections to create different textures and patterns, lifted them, then taped out others to do the same. He moved around the surface doing this over and over again, creating layer upon overlapping layer of texture, color and application technique. This animates the picture plane, resulting in a multifarious visual experience that feels sensual, freewheeling and enigmatic.

A central mauve form is speckled with white, gray and oxblood-colored flecks. This is juxtaposed with another indeterminate form that is all wavy liquid stripes of blues and greens bleeding into each other. This section feels watery and telegraphs depth, which contrasts with the fairly static, flat mauve field next to it. Underneath these are what look like faux bois-painted window frames through which we see foliate brown shapes on tan fields. Viera has also carved into the paint layers with a meandering pattern that resembles wood grain, then painted over these as well. And on and on. You could contemplate this work’s jigsaw puzzle composition, multiple stratifications and variety of paint textures and colors for hours.


Stephen Benenson, “August 2020 #1”

During the pandemic, Benenson began picking wildflowers and arranging them in spare, almost ikebana-style arrangements, which he then painted. As we contemplate these works, it’s astonishing to realize the amount of detail he achieves while never picking up a paint brush. Instead, he uses paint rollers, laying different colors over each other lightly so the surface transmits many colors all at once. He also uses masking and paint markers. The large “August 2020 #1” is graphic and impactful. But a smaller work hanging on a salon-style wall, “September 2021 #2,” emanates an almost Odilon Redon-style mystery and Symbolist sense of the supernatural. It is unapologetically beautiful and delicate, despite the apparently blocky technique of the rollers.

Tessa O’Brien, “Climb Right In”

O’Brien presents a few paintings. But by far the most remarkable and showstopping is “Climb Right In.” It is large – 60-by-80 inches – a relatively new scale for this artist, who normally works at a far more intimate size, except when she’s painting murals, at a much larger scale. As with her other paintings, O’Brien’s palette is neon bright and not realistic, something that operates arrestingly in these proportions by scooping us right into the scene and inducing an almost hallucinatory trance state. Also as with her other paintings, she is concerned with the effects of light and temperature that are not always apparent to the naked eye but sensed throughout the entire body.

The subject is a portal reached by a set of steps flanked by enormous urns. The dappling of light on the steps, in particular, is a tour de force of color and mood. We feel an intense, sweltering heat almost steaming right off the canvas. And we intuit, in O’Brien’s expansive arching gestures, the engagement of her whole body in the creation of the work. The mixture of scale, physicality and psychedelic palette will likely take your breath away.

More traditional, and yet not, are two paintings by Philip Brou of statuettes depicting St. Anthony of Padua. They are traditional in their rendering – figural, and painted with oils on linen-wrapped panels. In this way, they conform to the conventions of Renaissance religious paintings. But Brou has explained that they are actually meant to bridge pre-Christian (specifically Homeric) ideas and Christian belief.

St. Anthony is the patron saint of the lost, a recurring theme throughout Homer’s “Odyssey.” But the idea of being lost is a larger universal theme that pervades our human condition. In both, the holy figure turns away from the viewer, eliciting in us a sense of having been abandoned in our search for home, perhaps even rejected. They are quiet, yet powerful, and represent a lineage to which all painting that followed is connected. In a way, they feel like a kind of origin for the more abstract works around them.

Some works on display are not paintings at all – Hilary Irons’s colored pencil drawings on black paper, or Annika Earley’s graphite on paper drawings – and so seem tangential to the overarching theme of the show. But, as always, these women’s works are intriguing.


It is fascinating, for example, to see the different character Irons’s explorations of mortality, nature and spirituality take on in this medium. They feel somehow more dynamic and energetic, less contemplative than the paintings she is known for (where she mixes pigments with marble dust). Earley, a new mother, effectively conveys the sense of isolation and suffocation that a newborn can elicit with its helplessness and bottomless need. In these two “Escape” works, we see her fleeing the scene, the infant represented by berry branches (literally, the fruit of her womb). Their decorativeness belies the anxiousness of a young mother’s state.

Ashley Page, “Shadows on the World’s Waters”

Ashley Page’s “Shadows on the World’s Waters” is painting in the sense that she employs a brush to apply gestural strokes of premixed UV-sensitive ink containing iron salts and an activator ingredient – basically the medium for creating cyanotypes. Atop it, Page laid a wire basket coated in hand-knotted netting, the shadows of which, when exposed to light, burn the image into the medium. Then Page drew onto it using fine white ink.

There is a terrific tension between the free gestural strokes and the confining netting. The latter carries many associations: the environmental impact of pieces of fishing gear floating in the ocean, the water itself as a mode of transport during the Middle Passage, the trapping and capturing of enslavement, and so on.

Jarid del Deo, “Equinox #2”

And so much more – Jarid del Deo’s spiritually oriented “Equinox” paintings, Nick Benfey’s almost childlike “Tree Jumper,” Katherine Bradford’s lushly painted “Harbor at Night” (which recalls, in her own idiosyncratically naïve style, Whistler’s “Nocturne: Blue and Silver”), Jennifer Pirello’s alternately graffiti-graphic and dreamy pastel-colored work “Soft Shock.” It all reminds us of what we will miss when Able Baker closes its doors … hopefully, not for too long a time.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: jorge@jsarango.com 

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