Photo by Chelsea Ellis, center, flanked by works by Sam Giberson with sculpture by Duane Paluska, bottom left, at Fort Hall Gallery in Brunswick. Photos by Ian Trask

Couples show “the House support itself,” put on by Lights Out Gallery at Katherine Bradford’s summer studio in the Fort Andross Mill in Brunswick, which has been dubbed (until summer anyway) the Fort Hall Gallery, was supposed to close on Valentine’s Day. While there will still be an official “closing party” on the fitting holiday Wednesday, the show – curated by artist Ian Trask, who also keeps a studio at the mill – will remain up through Saturday.

The first thing denizens of the gallery scene will notice is that the art community in Maine is a small one, and that the community of artists who are coupled is even more intimately proportioned. Which is to say that you’ll find many of the usual suspects here: Rachel and Ryan Adams, Tessa Greene O’Brien and Will Sears, Susan and Tim Van Campen, etc. Some of these aren’t doing anything particularly new (in at least one case, I saw a painting I’ve seen at a few different venues already). But several artists created new work for “House.”

Couples shows have proliferated recently. This summer, there was “Counterpoint: Monhegan Artist Couples” at the Monhegan Museum of Art & History, as well as three concurrent shows with couple connections weaving among them at Cove Street Arts (“Seeing Through,” “Dirigo” and “Elective Affinities”). Also at Cove Street, Jamie Johnston and wife, Sondra Bogdonoff, exhibited together last month in “Morphatoreum.”

Clearly, it’s a popular theme, its chief enjoyment being the opportunity it offers to discern similarities and differences between their work and speculate on how one artist inspires the other and vice versa. This pursuit can have a heyday here. It’s easy to see, for instance, that though two of these pairings – Chelsea Ellis and Sam Giberson, Johnston and Bogdonoff – work in completely different media, there are affinities that nevertheless thread through their work.

Ellis is a photographer who paints her body and, using digital manipulation, places some of its parts into a scene she has photographed. Both scene and body are painted in the same color (in this case, a chartreuse green), creating a ghostly porosity between figure and setting. Among other things, Ellis is interrogating people’s tendency to objectify the female body, here representing it literally as a series of actual body parts (objects). It’s hard to objectify a body when it’s not all there, which leaves us with the uneasy feeling of trying, impossibly as it turns out, to complete the figure in our minds. Increasing our discomfort are her titles; here “Afflicta” implies someone with a corrosive or degenerative condition not dissimilar, for instance, to leprosy.

Giberson, at first glance, seems to have nothing in common with his partner. His works are mixed-media constructions painted in hot colors like bubblegum pink, deep blue and fire-engine red. The surfaces of their component parts are variously textured, creating tension within each composition that goes beyond the mere clash of colors. They have a more solid, graspable sense of materiality and a cohesion in the way they are held together, intact and unto themselves. Yet fundamentally, both artists’ work has something to do with compartmentalization and assemblage of parts, and color plays an important role in both.


Fiber pieces by Sondra Bogdonoff and painted wood by Jamie Johnston.

Bogdonoff’s medium is fiber; her husband’s is wood. Yet both deal with mathematics and geometry. In Johnston’s case, that geometry is asymmetrical yet requires a mathematical precision to achieve. Bogdonoff’s weavings also depend on mathematical calculation, though their effects are softer and more subtle than Johnston’s work. Both these artists also build in a certain sense of accessibility – Bogdonoff by leaving threads loose and, thus, blurring lines that would otherwise be clearly defined; Johnston by applying color in an almost painterly way, meaning that we can see the artist’s hand, which humanizes constructions that might have felt super tight and overly controlled.

There are also some delightful surprises. We don’t often see, for example, Abby Shahn and Fang exhibiting together. Yet here we are treated to Fang’s wildly imaginative, decidedly nutty assemblages of found objects, which hang next to Shahn’s enigmatic acrylic works on panel. I’m not sure what Shahn’s are about, but their titles, “Eshu Coming” and “Eshu Going,” incorporate the name of an Orisha deity who keeps order. This, combined with the cluttered home this eccentric couple keeps in Solon – which has been cobbled together with no apparent order from odd flotsam and jetsam – made me wonder if these paintings were a mischievous nose-thumbing at Eshu or something occult, such as Wiccan pentagrams.

Plates by Nancy Andrews with works by Dru Colbert.

Another surprise was the work of Dru Colbert, partner of Nancy Andrews. I had never seen Colbert’s work, which mixes gouache, ink and dried flowers. They couldn’t be more different from Andrews’ provocatively funny, sexually explicit and excoriating works about the aspirations for women imposed on them by media, society, men and so on. To wit: One of several plates featuring a naked woman and the words “One day I hope everyone will know my name (It’s pronounced KAY-la)” or “ ‘Pretty Woman’ is my favorite movie.”

Colbert’s “For Princess Grace” shows pressed flowers and elliptical shapes floating in space, emerging from black hole-like voids. What it has to do with the actress-turned-Monaco royal is not apparent, except, perhaps, the idea of changing form as you come into and out of different realities. But it and her other works are beautifully executed, beautiful and strange. I look forward to seeing more in the future.

It was also nice to see Sears working in acrylic paint, pigment, dye, ink and sand on canvas, instead of his usual wooden tesserae (not that there is anything wrong with the latter, which I love). Exhibited next to Greene O’Brien’s paintings of homes rendered in similar palettes to Sears, his works look almost like his companion’s paintings, but deconstructed into curious, minimalist geometries.

Painting and mug sculpture at left by Allison McKeen with works by Matt Demers at right.

I had also never seen anything by Allison McKeen. Her “Rising Tide” acrylic on panel has definite synchronies with partner Matt Demers’ barely controlled abstract paintings in terms of color and forms. Yet McKeen’s work is more graphic and ordered, though still emanating a kind of collage feel similar to her partner’s paintings. She takes at least some of her inspiration from graphic and pop arts, so it was an interesting context in which to view Demers’ “Top of My Lungs Bottom of My Heart,” which reveals Dunkin’ Donuts logos embedded at the heart of a field of cacophonous abstract color.

And sometimes never the twain shall meet, as they say. It is always a pleasure to see the work of the late Duane Paluska, whose flirty, dancing, perspective-skewing chair and table forms seem to be worlds away from Ellen Golden’s rigorously controlled abstract ink drawings on paper. Both their works are engrossing, but in entirely different ways.

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

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