Tessa Greene O’Brien, “Layla” Photo by Aliza Eliazarov

You might not think Maine-born-and-bred painter Tessa Greene O’Brien and Chinese-American Jamie Chan (based in Brooklyn, New York) have much in common. Their cultural backgrounds are quite dissimilar. O’Brien is a mature painter who has exhibited widely, run a gallery (the now-closed Able Baker) and curated shows, while Chan is still an emerging talent.

However, though not planned, and though neither of them may be familiar with each other’s work, two current exhibitions reveal certain threads weaving through both women’s paintings: O’Brien’s “The Spins” at Buoy Gallery in Kittery (through Nov. 5) and Chan’s “Lettuce Makes You Tired” at the newish Dunes Gallery in Portland, which opened late this summer (through Nov. 30).

While they serve different pictorial and thematic ends, both artists plumb quotidian subject matter, revivifying it with startling palettes of bright saturated color. Both women also employ soak-staining – a technique invented by Helen Frankenthaler where thinned-out paint is applied to the front or back of wet canvas so it bleeds and runs – which brings a specific sort of depth and interest to the picture plane. And both paint representational images over the stained surfaces with what feels like urgency and intensity, limning bodies, objects, flora and other elements with energetic brushstrokes.

O’Brien is a much beloved artist in the state. She has tackled familiar themes for years – especially landscapes – but she has done so through a particularly vibrant palette that invites the viewer to contemplate these subjects in a new, fresh light. Most interesting is the way she has manipulated color in many paintings to create an effect of looking at a negative version of an image, with darks and lights inverted, at least from the way we expect to see them.

One painting in the show of a dog named “Layla” does this in an intriguing way. Fundamentally, the painting is three colors: yellow for the sand and daylit sky, a light green mixed with white for water (we are clearly at seaside or lakeside) and a darker green that defines a tree at right and Layla’s contours, features and fur. But the canine seems to hover in a state of merging with the landscape, with areas of yellow on her body appearing as insubstantial and transparent enough to reveal the landscape behind her.

It’s an interesting way to paint a dog that connects its primal animal nature to the ungovernable wildness of nature itself. And that is the point of many paintings in the show. O’Brien’s brushstrokes seem quick in the manner of a sketch. Yet an intuited sense of their deliberateness slows us down somehow. In her statement she writes, “’Wild’ does not have to be loud or fast. I think of beavers gnawing sticks in a series of repetitive marks, layering them to build a dam, slowly and meticulously until the work is done. Any gesture can bubble over into the realm of uncontainable.”

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This points to the more profound nature of the creative process. Yes, there can be skill in a painter’s technique and application. But there is something else more abstract and mysterious at work here, something the painter channels but does not originate or control.

Tessa Greene O’Brien, “Queen Anne’s Lace” Photo by Aliza Eliazarov

Other paintings of dogs such as “Izzy and Wally” and “Izzy and Wally Roll” (both incorporating the stained-canvas technique) telegraph these same qualities of negative image and the inherent wildness of nature. But this also happens with her self-portraiture, especially in another oil-on-dyed-canvas work called “Queen Anne’s Lace.” There is something about the yellow O’Brien uses that emanates the heat of a summer’s day. The artist’s layering of paint and plant forms, which oscillates between representation and mere suggestion, gives a wildness to the scene.

O’Brien herself appears, cellphone in hand, almost as a ghostly manifestation within nature. She feels like a temporary presence in something more powerful, more alive and more unstoppable. She may be photographing the scene with her phone, yet like the image she is capturing, the reality of her presence is transient, subsumed in the instant after clicking her picture into the inexorable forward motion of time.

Tessa Greene O’Brien, “Fort Williams (Tennis)” Photo by Aliza Eliazarov

“Fort Williams Field (Tennis)” is one of the most compelling works in the show. It is probably the most precisely representational, though again O’Brien’s brushstroke seems charged with a kind of ferocity of life that conveys the potential of nature to invade and overtake a world cultivated and pruned by humans.

She intensifies this contrast by giving us a glimpse through the trees of a tennis court’s neat rectangular grids. This portion is tiny in comparison to the work’s dimensions and seems on the verge of being engulfed by flora. The juxtaposition is further ramped up by the sky, which is left mostly as pink-stained canvas, giving it an otherworldly presence.

O’Brien’s work is thrilling for its mix of deftness, freedom and imminence. Something seems about to happen in many of these paintings, and their aura of unpredictability and spontaneous creation is something we feel – sometimes unsettlingly, but often with excitement – in the depths of our soul.

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KEEPING UP WITH LIFE

Jamie Chan’s paintings are about an artist trying to balance her creative life with the financial imperatives of having a “regular” job, staying fit and managing the barrage of aspirational expectations imposed upon us by modern culture.

Chan’s predicament, of course, is nothing new. Jeff Koons was a commodities broker before he hit it big in the art world. Richard Serra paid for his art practice with proceeds from his furniture moving company (Philip Glass was his assistant). Keith Haring was a busboy, Barbara Kreuger (not surprisingly) was a graphic designer at Condé Nast, and Dorothea Lange at least worked in her field as a photo finisher at a photography supply shop.

What is new here has to do with a younger, increasingly self-referential generation. Certainly, history is not without creatives who dwelled on their “suffering artist” mystique, and in so doing enhanced the market for their work (Exhibit A: Paul Gauguin). Yet for millennials and Gen Zers – busy with social media, bombarded by advertising images touting idyllic lifestyles, immersed in the cult of celebrity – talking and making art about the day-to-day stresses of contemporary life is what they do. It’s not necessarily narcissistic; just their particular cultural zeitgeist.

Dismissing art because of what we perceive as youthful nihilism would be to miss some excellent work. Art has always functioned as a commentary on the times in which it was conceived. And strong, if still developing, voices like Chan’s will be one measure by which we can understand our current era.

Jamie Chan, “Body Scan,” 2021, watercolor, acrylic, charcoal on unprimed linen, 36” x 50”

For example, if you think a painting of people working out sounds boring, you need to see “Offering by Greyson” and “Body Scan.” Mixing soak staining, acrylic, watercolor and charcoal on unprimed linen, these works are boldly colorful and intensely physical. Their cropping focuses attention on the exertion of exercise, while also holding other parts of Chan’s life.

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“Offering” has a strip along the top quarter of the canvas that, while not quite clear, seems to depict Chan and her friend: the artist working at a desk, Greyson stretching before or after exercise and Chan drinking a beverage. The rest of the canvas is devoted to a more finished image of Greyson stretching. “Body Scan” focuses on two figures – one just a torso and legs in the foreground – also stretching. All the exercise is taking place at home, indicating a these people’s COVID isolation.

In both cases, the palette of pinks, reds and blues makes the mundane monumental. And by monumental I mean that the effort of being human in our current time is a gargantuan one. It is an even more challenging quest to find stillness within all this activity. That’s a contemporary condition worth contemplating.

Jamie Chan, “Office Cerberus,” 2018, watercolor and acrylic on canvas, 72” x 42”

“Office Cerberus” is, literally, an office worker’s nightmare scene, the whole left side and bottom dominated by a devil and the mythical three-headed dog (Cerberus) that guards Hades. The boss is actually the devil, while the Cereberus is the the secretary, denying or admitting access. Chan is in the middle right of the painting, whirling naked on her office chair.

But the painting is complicated by an airplane in the middle, which could suggest many things: from vacation daydreams to the fate of office workers in the Twin Towers during the 9/11 attacks (it’s headed right at Chan). Either way the office worker’s life is toil and monotony that requires escape or leads to some horrible fate. Even more ambiguous is the upper right quadrant, which depicts three hands holding implements that might also infer many meanings.

They might be tools of Chan’s artistic trade: the hands squeezing a tube of pigment, pinning up a work with a thumb tack or using a palette knife. Or they could be something far less savory: various instruments of torture that personify office work. Who knows?

But what makes Chan’s experiences resonate artistically is her process. Because Chan is perpetually juggling her time, she can only devote an hour or two to her work on any given day. So, the paintings progress sporadically. The very techniques she is using embody her journey toward balance amidst the cacophony of contemporary life.

She may apply thinned out acrylic washes or watercolors to the back or front of a canvas and not revisit them for a year. Then she resumes, perhaps adding more staining or charcoal lines or acrylic paint. The painting emerges as her life allows. Even not knowing this, however, does not preclude the fact that, visually, her work is layered, lush and interesting.

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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