You might not think Maine-born and raised 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 (Able Baker, now closed) and curated exhibitions, while Chan is still an emerging talent.
However, although not planned, and although neither of them is familiar with the work of the other, two current exhibitions reveal certain threads woven through the paintings of the two women: “The Spins” d ‘O’Brien at Buoy Gallery in Kittery (until November 5) and Chan’s “Lettuce Makes You Tired” at the brand new Dunes Gallery in Portland, which opened in late summer (until to November 30).
While serving different pictorial and thematic purposes, the two artists probe the everyday subject matter, bringing it to life with surprising palettes of bright, saturated color. The two women also use dip coloring – a technique invented by Helen Frankenthaler where diluted paint is applied to the front or back of a damp canvas so that it bleeds and drips – which brings depth and interest specific to the image plane. And both paint representational images on the stained surfaces with what feels like urgency and intensity, illuminating bodies, objects, flora and other elements with energetic brushstrokes.
O’Brien is a highly regarded artist in the state. She has tackled familiar themes for years – especially landscapes – but she does so through a particularly vibrant palette that invites the viewer to contemplate these subjects in a new and fresh light. Most interesting is how she manipulated color in many paintings to create an effect of looking at a negative version of an image, with darkness and light reversed, at least the way we expect to see it. .
A painting in the show of a dog named “Layla” does this in an intriguing way. Basically, the paint is three colors: yellow for the sand and the sky lit by day, a light green mixed with white for the water (we are clearly at the seaside or the lake) and a green darker which defines a shaft on the right and Layla’s outlines, features and fur. But the canine appears to hover in a state of fusion with the landscape, with patches of yellow on its body appearing insubstantial and transparent enough to reveal the landscape behind it.
It’s an interesting way to paint a dog that connects its primitive animal nature with the ungovernable wildness of nature itself. And that’s the point of a lot of the paintings in the show. O’Brien’s brushstrokes appear swift in the manner of a sketch. Yet an intuitive sense of their deliberateness somehow slows us down. In her statement, she wrote, “’Wild’ doesn’t have to be loud or fast. I think of beavers gnawing on sticks in a series of repeating marks, layering them to build a dam, slowly and meticulously until the job is done. Any gesture can seethe in the realm of the uncontrollable.
This underlines the deeper 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 neither emits nor controls.
Other dog paintings such as “Izzy and Wally” and “Izzy and Wally Roll” (both incorporating the tinted canvas technique) telegraph these same negative image qualities and nature’s inherent wilderness. But it also happens with her self-portrait, especially in another dyed oil-on-canvas work titled “Queen Anne’s Lace.” There’s something about O’Brien’s yellow uses that emanates from the heat of a summer day. The artist’s superimposition of paintings and plant forms, which oscillates between representation and simple suggestion, gives a wild character to the scene.
O’Brien herself appears, cell phone in hand, almost like a ghostly manifestation in 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, but like the image she captures, the reality of her presence is fleeting, subsumed in the moment after she clicks her picture in the inexorable forward motion of the time.
“Fort Williams Field (Tennis)” is one of the most compelling works in the series. This is probably the most accurate depiction, though again O’Brien’s brushstroke seems charged with a kind of ferocity of life that conveys nature’s potential to invade and overtake a cultured and carved by humans.
She intensifies this contrast by showing us through the trees the neat rectangular railings of a tennis court. This portion is tiny compared to the dimensions of the work and seems about to be swallowed up by the flora. The juxtaposition is further enhanced by the sky, which remains mostly as a rose-stained canvas, giving it an otherworldly presence.
O’Brien’s work is fascinating for its mixture of skill, 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 disturbingly, but often excitedly – deep in our souls.
Jamie Chan’s paintings are about an artist trying to balance her creative life with the financial imperatives of having a “regular” job, staying in shape, and managing the barrage of high expectations that modern culture imposes on us.
Chan’s predicament, of course, is nothing new. Jeff Koons was a commodities broker before breaking into the art world. Richard Serra paid for his art practice with proceeds from his furniture moving business (Philip Glass was his assistant). Keith Haring was a busboy, Barbara Kreuger (unsurprisingly) was a graphic designer at Condé Nast, and Dorothea Lange at least worked in her field as a photo finisher at a photographic supply store.
What’s new here has to do with a younger, increasingly self-referential generation. Certainly, there is no shortage of creators in history who dwelled on their mystical “suffering artist” and, in doing so, improved the market for their labor (Exhibit A: Paul Gauguin). Yet for millennials and Gen Zers – busy with social media, bombarded with advertising images touting idyllic lifestyles, steeped in the cult of celebrity – talking and making art about the daily stresses of life contemporary is what they do. It’s not necessarily narcissistic; just their particular cultural zeitgeist.
To dismiss art because of what we perceive as childish nihilism would be to miss out on a great job. The art has always functioned as a commentary on the era in which it was made. And strong, yet still developing, voices like Chan’s will be a measure by which we can understand our present times.
For example, if you think a painting of people working out looks boring, you should see “Offering by Greyson” and “Body Scan.” Blending dip coloring, acrylic, watercolor and charcoal on unprimed linen, these works are boldly colored and intensely physical. Their reframing focuses attention on the effort of the exercise, while also holding other parts of Chan’s life.
“Offering” has a stripe along the top quarter of the canvas which, although not entirely clear, appears to depict Chan and her friend: the artist working at a desk, Greyson stretching before or after exercise, and Chan having a drink. The rest of the canvas is devoted to a more accomplished image of Greyson’s stretch. “Body Scan” focuses on two figures – one just a torso and legs in the foreground – who are also stretching. All the exercise takes place at home, indicating a COVID isolation of these people.
In either case, the palette of pinks, reds and blues makes the mundane monumental. And by monumental, I mean the effort of being human in our present time is gargantuan. It is an even more difficult quest to find silence in all this activity. It is a contemporary condition worth considering.
“Office Cerberus” is, quite literally, the nightmarish scene of an office worker, the entire left side and bottom dominated by a devil and the mythical three-headed dog (Cerberus) guarding Hades. The boss is actually the devil, while the Cereberus is the secretary, denying or granting access. Chan is in the middle right of the painting, swirling naked in her desk chair.
But the picture is complicated by an airplane in the middle, which could suggest a lot of things: from vacation daydreams to the fate of office workers in the Twin Towers during the 9/11 attacks (he heads straight for Chan). Either way, the office worker’s life is a toil and a monotony that either requires escape or leads to a horrible fate. Even more ambiguous is the upper right quadrant, which depicts three hands holding tools that could also infer many meanings.
They could be tools of Chan’s artistic craft: hands squeezing a tube of pigment, pinning artwork with a thumbtack, or using a palette knife. Or they could be something much less tasty: various instruments of torture that personify office work. Who knows?
But what makes Chan’s experiments resonate artistically is his process. Because Chan is constantly juggling her time, she can only devote an hour or two to her job each day. Thus, the paintings progress sporadically. The very techniques she uses embody her journey to balance amidst the cacophony of contemporary life.
She can apply diluted 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 spots or lines of charcoal or acrylic paint. The painting emerges as his life allows him. Even not knowing it, however, does not detract from the fact that visually his work is layered, lush and interesting.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]