Bold graffiti-like white curves and shapes blast across Galen Cheney’s “Signal Inward,” with layers of canvas, paper and paint under and over them. As Cheney was hanging the piece, she grabbed a black Sharpie, drawing a few lines to bring out a three-dimensional quality of some forms — adding depth while demonstrating her view that her works are not too “precious” to be tweaked.
In “Signal Inward,” as in other new works by Cheney, the highly textured piece is a patchwork of torn pieces from earlier canvasses, snippets of Chinese paper, bits of ephemera, layers of paint and drawing brought together in vibrant abstraction.
Tessa G. O’Brien’s paintings, with strong composition and compelling color and light, draw the viewers to the atmosphere and experience of structures that are her subjects. Viewers come to recognize that in these multiple works with distinct palettes and shapes, O’Brien is considering the same structure from different perspectives in different seasons, times of day, even years. The building is a family home that was modified, expanded over time.
Cheney and O’Brien’s dual exhibition opened this week in the Contemporary Gallery at Montpelier’s T.W. Wood Gallery. Accompanying it, the Wood’s Hallway Gallery is filled with color and light with the group exhibition of the Vermont Pastel Society.
Cheney and O’Brien’s exhibition is a homecoming for both artists. Cheney, who long had her home and studio in Middlesex, is now based in North Adams, Massachusetts, home of Mass MoCA. She has exhibited in the United States, Canada, Italy and China. O’Brien, a Montpelier High School graduate, now lives in South Portland, Maine, where she has her studio, and designs and paints murals and signs.
O’Brien brings together representation and abstraction in her paintings. Her paintings at the Wood take viewers from the bare bones of construction to the comfort of interior spaces. In “Addition,” vertical lines of a framed portion of the home meet diagonals of lumber, roof, ladder, the cool palette of a chilly day is warmed by a glow of pale yellow and rose. In “Woodglow,” viewers gaze from the welcoming interior out through a set of paned windows — windows that feature in many of O’Brien’s paintings and were salvaged from a Bar Harbor mansion before being installed in the family’s evolving house.
In much of her painting, O’Brien turns to architecture.
“I like working from observation, and you can find very abstract compositions within architecture. It creates a nice framework for me to enter into painting,” O’Brien said.
This series, O’Brien noted, “is material I know so well. It’s very rich and poignant to me and really freed up my color palette. These were very fast paintings and became as much about light and atmosphere and color as the subject itself.”
Cheney’s artwork at the Wood also has autobiographical ties, but in a different direction. In several, she uses fragments of earlier paintings, often with frayed edges where they were torn, revealing the pre-painted material. Color, movement, and energy of the earlier work become part of the new whole.
Cheney, well known for her paintings, has been exploring this approach to layered constructions since a 2015 three-month residency in China. Using remnants of past experiences, she works them into fresh and immediate new work, yet imbued with memory and history.
“What I really love about working in this collage sort of way is that it’s almost never done, it’s always up for grabs — I can go back in and change it,” she said.
Several of Cheney’s pieces have graffiti-like markings.
“I’m interested in graffiti in all of its forms — from someone tagging a wall with spray paint to ancient graffiti. On the Great Wall, there is graffiti hundreds and hundreds of years old scratched in in Chinese characters,” she said.
Bringing that to her work, Cheney noted, “I like that sense of time, of one thing over another, some things are veiled and others come to the fore. I like that you have to take time to look.”
With artwork by over 20 pastel artists, the group show of the Vermont Pastel Society runs the gamut from landscapes and cityscapes to figurative, florals, still lifes and delightful animal portraits — wooly sheep and grand Scottish Highlands cattle among them.
The Vermont Pastel Society, established in 1999, currently has over 100 members. In this exhibition, viewers see the flexibility of the medium, particularly in capturing light. There is a shimmering quality to light in the artworks — light reflected from water, in glorious sunsets, catching petals of flowers, or bathing the side of a barn in subtle hues.
The Pastel Society will present awards for Luminous Landscape, Reflective Waterscape and Lovely Lines.