45 Years of Narrative



Forests engulf 78 percent of Vermont’s landmass, or 4.46 million acres. This glut of earth is almost entirely run by private landowners, who possess 80 percent of the state’s forestry. Joan Lovell owns 15 of these acres, and soon she will live full-time in her off-the-grid cabin in the Green Mountain National Forest. The nearby town numbers 50 or so inhabitants, all of them “ten miles from the closest latte,” says Lovell.

She’s no stranger to these verdant peaks. A self-portrait offers a northern twist on Southern Gothic as the artist visualizes the frozen night she spent trapped in four feet of snow, wondering if she would be found dead or alive. In her painted retelling of this incident, Lovell’s look of peaceful nonchalance seems to mull over fates more gruesome than becoming a popsicle.

Given these annihilating and unkind winters, Vermont is primo real estate for tax evaders, the terminally asocial, and other assorted folk who feel the need to cleave themselves clean from civilization. Lovell is not one of these separatists, though the genesis of her artwork is often hermetic. “[I’ve been] operating in my own nest,” she says. Her oeuvre pursues a correspondingly individualist ethos: an amusing reexamination of social norms and an exuberant embrace of foibles, quirks, humor and inquisitiveness, things sometimes discouraged in the perfectionist aspirations of our culture at large. Personal narrative (part real, part imagined) is Lovell’s true medium and an ideal vehicle for these motifs.

Her subject matter has ebbed and shifted, but her stainless technique has remained. Her youthful images were impelled by curiosity, tempered by comedy: a bartender backdropped by models copied from a catalogue, two men awkwardly kissing, a hazy and peopled urban sidewalk, or a man dressed in a meat suit. Her autobiographical period, continuing from 2004 through the present, is more inward, sometimes emancipatory. Lovell says these pieces concern “critical junctures in the development of awareness: first remembered experiences of guilt, horror, amazement, love.” Unifying all these works is a knack for gestural emotion. The aforementioned bartender’s boyish face is glossed with all the apathy one might expect of a low-wage lad required to wear a fishnet tee at work. (Or maybe it’s his poker face: a nip slip has got to be good for tips, right?)

Even the most lascivious thing here is emotive. In Calendar Boys of ’84, a dozen dudes stand ready to be ogled. Their offerings are varyingly confident, flamboyant, surprised. The props (still a staple of present-day boudoir photography) are patently ridiculous, though no more so than, say, the continued existence of Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit issue. Meanwhile there is something queerly liberating in this display of absurd nudity. Despite cultural efforts to repair women’s notions of body image, there remains a ubiquitous and oft unexamined valorization of the male body. Lovell’s calendar boys can be admired for their unsparingly funny riff on the male physique. Look upon December’s playboy, ye mighty, and despair. Or maybe not: sexy Santa brims with a sense of body positivity that even the fiercest haters could not quell.

Might we still feel slight embarrassment for these boys or any Lovell’s figures? Enticement? (Mr. February: text me?) Maybe empathy, or a sigh and an “I’ve been there.” Perhaps even total bewilderment, as in David Thinks About Stephanie. I wonder what Stephanie is thinking as she steadies the wooden cutout of David’s head and shoulders, herself a seeming figment of David’s thoughts. Is it consternation or concentration on her face?

Lovell’s knack for illustrating imperfection put her at odds with the demands of commercial illustration. With monetary motivations, she says, “The work started to suffer.” An editor once told Lovell, “You need to make the girls prettier.” Obviously the bonehead didn’t get it: Lovell’s figures click with psychic realties more important than the market’s need for flawlessness. Besides, look at Lovell’s ingenue dancing next to her TV. She’s earnestly cute, with an understated sex appeal that never careens into objectification. What we instead derive from her image is a twist of rhythm, the moment the beat introduces itself to the nerves. This thoughtful sensuousness joins Lovell to the lineage of Frida Kahlo and Dorothea Tanning, a heritage rooted in the fantastic as much as it is the introspective. Painting allows a retreat into phantasy, which Lovell construes as having “psychological benefits,” a boost in mental well-being or a calmative effect. The tale is told not only for an audience, but the teller, too.

Lovell’s process welcomes meditation. Some people listen to music when they paint. Lovell listens to movies. Dialogue and drama gift gab to the brush. Speaking of gab, one of Lovell’s formative gaffes comes from third grade, when she was mistakenly placed in a speech class. At the end of each school year, the speech students performed a pantomime. Lovell was tasked with introducing the play. On opening night, she sauntered toward the “dark blue velvet, asbestos-lined curtains,” only to faint from nervousness. An audience of 300 students shrilled into salvos of laughter.

In her paintings, Lovell rectifies this earlier attempt at the pantomime. Yes, the accompanying stories are superbly funny, but to focus purely on the attendant text is to ignore Lovell’s talent for visualizing narrative. When painting, Lovell asks herself what the person is feeling, thinking. Her figures respond. To borrow a phrase from novelist Jeannette Winterson, stories become “written on the body,” and reach their greatest potency in vivo.

The forest, like the body, is too deep to ever fully know, so it trembles with an alluringly vague sense of narrative which the brain might flesh out in image, word or contemplation. I adopt Lovell’s fierce curiosity when I think of what she’ll excavate from those dark Vermont woods, spaces so open they might lead anywhere.


- Alexander CastroOctober 2016

The above essay accompanied Joan Lovell's retrospective exhibit, 45 Years of Housework Successfully Avoided, recently on display at Van Vessem Gallery.


Artist's Entertaining, Inventive Dinosaur Creations Roam Freely in Tiverton Gallery


"Open the door, get on the floor. Everybody walk the dinosaur." -- Was (Not Was)

I saw a happily grinning young boy, about two years old, in an art gallery in Tiverton at an opening a few nights ago. He as wearing a screenprinted t-shirt with the image of a dinosaur on it in the middle of an exhibition of dinosaur sculptures. I said to his father, "Wow ... this must be his favorite art show." 

The dad responded, "Oh yes ... his grandfather is the artist." 

Damn, little Ben has the coolest grandpa on the planet. A combination of the wizard Merlin, Santa Claus and Richard Attenborough's portrayal of John Hammond, the creator of "Jurassic Park" in the film of the same name, Jeff "Fish" Wells is a gregarious, inventive and entertaining artist. And in an era where much art in unfriendly, derivative and mind-numbingly dull, this is a welcome treat.

Wells has packed the Van Vessem Gallery with an array of not entirely anatomically accurate dinosaurs, as he is reaching for emotion, humor and a pop culture mythology, not presenting a scientific thesis. There are not the prehistoric beasts that might be on display in a children's museum. I suspect there are any number of 10-year olds who might correct him on some of the depictions ... but I certainly could not. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said about pornography, "I know it when I see it." This is the paleontology version of that notion. 

Using materials such as fiberglass, plywood, duct tape and Bondo, Wells has created great reptilian monsters that reference Godzilla and his Japanese monster ilk, as well as Dino from "The Flintstones," and "The Herculoids" with equal unvarnished fervor. Entering the gallery, one encounters "Pteranodon," a flying lizard with a twelve-and-a-half foot wingspan and an elongated head with a tremendous beak, shaped much like a pair of needle nose pliers.

In the adjoining room, from two chains dangles "Little Florida," a tylosaurus. She bends and swerves like the sea serpents of ancient myth or the "monster" of Loch Ness. Across the room, mounted to the wall like a hunter's trophy is "Buddy," the head of a jovial silver triceratops. The metallic sheen reinforces the sense that this was a deadly armored animal, with javelin horns jutting upward ... even as he smiles, as if just kidding. 

On a smaller scale, there is "His and Hers," two dilophosauruses, rising from white-painted wooden ovals from which pegs are attached — to hang the husband-and-wife bathroom towels from, of course.

"Selfie" features a cartoonish dinosaur with more teeth than a comb and a bright pink tongue hanging out like an overeager dog. He sits in a dark green fiberglass lawn chair, one foot atop the opposite knee, as if he were waiting for someone to bring him a beer and a burger.

A highlight of the exhibition is "After Years of Ruling the Planet, the Nuances of Music Still Eludes the Dinosaurs," a gathering of three unique and individual works displayed as a unit. One of them, "Gordy," a juvenile t-rex accidentally destroys an accordion; while in "Two Saxy," a young velociraptor does much the same to a pair of saxophones. In the hands of yet another raptor, a cello fairs no better.

Also on display, in various moods and positions are a yaleosaurus, a proceratops and a family of dimetrodons. Don’t' worry if you don't know which is which. Bring a kid ... they will. 

"Dinosaur Haven: Selected Works by Jeff "Fish" Wells" is on display at the Van Vessem Gallery, 63 Muse Way, Tiverton, RI until July 10.

 - Don Wilkinson

Originally published in The Standard Times. June 16, 2016



Newport painter wins prestigious Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant


                                                                                             Photo by Dan McManus


“Professional artist” is not a career known for fiscal security. So, each year, alongside making art and (usually) a day job, artists tediously file applications for grants and fellowships. In December, painter and Newport resident David Barnes was one of the fortunate few to receive a grant from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation for the 2015-2016 fiscal year.

Since 1985, the foundation has doled out handsome sums to established artists in-need of financial assistance. "It's nice their legacy is being given to painters. I feel a little bit connected, " Barnes said.

Grantees do not have to be stylistically indebted to Lee Krasner or Jackson Pollock, the Abstract Expressionist power couple who shook the terra firma of the mid-century American art scene. But the body of work should be fluent, progressive and routinely on view.

“It represents some kind of important step in your painting career,” Barnes said. “It’s one of those door-opening things, mostly to other grants.” This past semester, Barnes taught three courses at Bristol Community College, sometimes to the detriment of studio time. (Interested students, by the way, can take his Figure Painting Workshop at Newport Art Museum this month.) With the grant, Barnes can loosen his academic schedule and find more time to paint.

“It’s enough money to make something possible,” Barnes said. While he “can’t retire” from the grant, it will help him visit Rome and “check out some art.” It’s intriguing to think how this excursion into antiquity might influence Barnes’ style. His subject matter is predominantly modern: industrial work sites, crowd scenes, images sourced from cell phone videos and TV news. The imagery is transcribed in a visual language that feels painterly and thick, but also swift and lightweight.

Barnes paints with sumptuous restraint, accomplishing much in a few pithy strokes. “Mine are relatively thin paintings with little underpainting and an economy of actual brush marks,” he writes in his artist statement. The past few years have seen Barnes embark further into sparseness. The artist writes that his current industrial landscapes are “liminal spaces that subtly evoke violent change,” populated with puddles, objects and smudges.

These ostensibly pedestrian themes signal deeper feelings. “I’ve been doing a few paintings of just a foot on the ground,” Barnes mused in a 2014 interview. “Why not? I mean that’s pretty interesting to me now, all of a sudden. What’s underneath us.”

Barnes paintings are now on view at GREEN SPACE, the art venue at T.F. Green Airport. His work will also appear in the Northeast edition of New American Paintings, an annual of contemporary painting that prophesies the forthcoming hot and cool, an honor nearly as prestigious as the grant. As a painter with an avowed interest in “bring[ing] the viewer to the threshold of banality or collective anxiety,” Barnes describes both the symptoms and the content of the zeitgeist.

Yet he is not an anxious painter; his compositions are too frugal and tight to register any traces of personal doubt. “I can see in a painting if there’s any hesitation now. I can’t tolerate that much anymore,” he said in a 2014 interview. The simplicity of his work effuses this confidence.

Barnes examines impermanence and uncertainty in his work, making otherwise foreboding scenery confusingly pretty. His concerns are classically existential, pumped with the steroidal fright of mass-mediated life. Barnes has mentioned being captivated by the “generic disaster” imagery of TV news and YouTube videos, sources from which he renders distress calmingly and persuasively.

I can’t pretend Barnes’ work offers emotional resolutions or easy answers — but this makes his technical aptitude all the more appealing. Form and content are inseparable pals in Barnes’ paintings, displaying beauty beyond the romantic, an unease more nuanced than the purely abject. Barnes melds contemplation and confrontation, balancing earthy shadows and browns with syrupy blues or greens. Obliquely but powerfully, Barnes’ paintings remind us that what is underfoot will invariably shift. Wider recognition for a painter this good is frankly overdue.

-Alexander Castro

Originally published in Newport Mercury. January, 16, 2016





Fugitive Blues


The  Italian artist Roberto Ferruzzi  produced one remarkable painting in his lifetime, Madonnina (1897), an image of a mildly disheveled street dweller and a sleeping infant. The original painting was eventually lost, but the image attained a second life through duplication as religious paraphernalia. Ferruzzi never intended the work to be devotional, but the majestic blue of his model’s robes pushed the painting toward a decidedly devout interpretation.

The most striking chromatic detail of Ferruzzi’s original has mutated greatly in subsequent reproductions. Mary’s robe (an art historical staple that, in some respects, is her most recognizable feature) was a muted, airy blue in Ferruzzi’s original. But replicators have added smoldering washes, deep pools of blue cloth that bring the image closer to a Renaissance depiction. Tiny, laminated prayer cards —stored in the purses and nightstand drawers of little Catholic grandmas everywhere— bear the Ferruzzi image (or its countless copycats). Through blue, Ferruzzi inadvertently achieved the divine.

Blue is obviously vested with grand symbolic power. Through light absorbed and scattered, the visual geneses of sky and sea, blue forms a significant part of our visual experience of the physical world. Its prominence in realms both natural and artificial signals its importance to the human eye. In a 2003 survey by Joe Hallock, the majority of both men and women identified blue as their favorite color.

Artists, too, have an affinity for it, having infested art history with the many moods of blue. Though it is a primary color, blue was not always readily available, especially in the palettes of early oil painters. Ultramarine, the preferred pigment, was extraordinarily expensive, made from ground lapis lazuli. As such blue was re- served for special occasions, like the Madonna’s robes. (Nota bene the connection emerging here, one between blue, femininity and the sacred.) According to Victoria Finlay, Michaelangelo’s The Entombment went unfinished because he couldn’t afford ultramarine.

Fast forward several centuries and you have cheaper blue pigments, leading to more spectacular and expansive uses of the color throughout the entirety of modernism. Lyrical and color field abstractionists were fond of blue. It was emotional, light or heavy depending on the mood of the brush. It was self-supporting, a color with no inherent need for the graces of line or shape. Optically, blue recedes, and this motion gives large patches of blue a dreamy shimmer. In Rothko’s high modernist project, blues were portals to transcendent planes.

In the visual lexicon of businesses and institutions, however, blue sells the idea of security and stability. Its popularity and digestibility lend it a special place in these anodyne palettes, appearing frequently in organizations, sports teams, universities and governmental agencies. These “official” uses build on blue’s historical association with royalty and prestige.

Blue’s frequent use in computing interfaces (Microsoft Windows comes to mind, as do various leading social networks) furthers its inoffensiveness. In darker shades, blue does not draw attention, making it ideal for corporate contexts where bland colors are needed.  The navy blue of business attire exemplifies a decidedly neutered approach to coloration: color without emotion, chroma without punch. Wear a blue jacket to a job interview, and you will likely make a good impression (according to one study in the journal Sex Roles).

Too much blue, however, can imply depression and unease. It invokes two sides of the same thing: the celestial and mysterious, the despairing and lonely. Shared by both perceptions of blue is a certain formlessness.  As mystery is shapeless, so is sadness.

Or, the emotional register of blue can be nonexistent. If we understand depression in a clinical sense —i.e. as a blunting of emotion, rather than an outpouring of anguish— we can under- stand blue as a similarly emotionless color. Blue’s rival red is affectively pugilistic, as are other warm tones. Even purple (blue’s sibling) maintains an air of sentimentality or sensuality. Blue can be more emotionally unavailable than any of these colors.

In biomedicine, this is arguably blue’s aesthetic purpose: to reduce emotion, to still the brain. (The ER extends this metaphor of blueness-as-stillness: a “code blue” is for cardiac arrest.) Blue’s psychological prowess and aesthetic effectiveness are best summarized in the form of pills. Anthropological studies into the color of pharmaceuticals have shown that patients link blue pills with tranquility and sleep. Accordingly, many kinds of blue pills exert an anxiolytic, antidepressant or anorectic effect. (In the case of Adderall and Viagra —two stimulating drugs, commonly blue— the symbolism of blue is reinstated by their soothing or softening of an organic obstacle or excess.)

Pop music, meanwhile, is one of the largest repositories of emotive blues, an antithesis to pharma blues that gently strip the color of feeling. Blues both lyrical and sonic permeate the music of woman musicians like Laura Nyro, who sung deeply idiosyncratic and mystical versions of “the blues” that reestablish the connection between the ethereal and the feminine. While Mary’s blue robes represent spiritual willingness, the blues of women singers offer freedom from the demands of men to “be happy.” From Joni Mitchell through Lana Del Rey, women musicians have sung and reaffirmed the power of blue: as color, as feeling, as concept, as a voice of emotional dissent and transformation. Likewise, the blues have offered multiple generations of black Americans a fluent language for expressing the pains of living under racist institutions and ideologies. Recently, artist Ana Teresa Fernández painted the border fence in Nogales, Mexico, blue. She said it “represents the physical wound of two countries not being able to heal.” This is blue-as-resistance, blue-as-catharsis, blue-as-potential.

As evidenced by the work in Blauww, there are many blues, each one with a distinct temperament. Looking at the work here, I see blue as an omen, a scarcity, a rendezvous, an impending storm, a remembered abode, military garb, Promethean flame, poetic decay.

Patrick Malin’s Atlantic Crest is closest to the legacies of immanence discussed here, while Beth Claverie’s Blue Bedroom exhibits magnificent gloom and ambiguous blues that continue the color’s emotional histories. David Barnes and Marc Kehoe have submitted similarly portentous scenery, recalling blue’s substantive talents in setting a mood. Fish Wells’ dinosaur head --a tribute to blues guitarist Son House-- reestablishes the blues as a project of vitality and humanity against agonizing circumstances. Elin Noble and Joshua Nierodzinski seem to probe the cognitive spheres of blue, while Susan Strauss and Nancy Shand fillet the landscape to expose blue’s animating energy. Natasa Prljevic’s Floating Structures is located on some strange road between graphical abstraction and the chaos of animation, with a delightful partnership of blue and its nemesis red. Kristin Street’s prickly piece weds untouchable needles to a heavenly sapphire. It could be interpreted in an almost ecstatic context: the pain of the needles mitigated by a curative blue. Street didn’t intend it that way, but once released blues have their own agenda. Like Ferruzzi, we can’t predict where blue will take us.

-- Alexander Castro, December 2015

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Haven for Art Mavens, Van Vessem Gallery draws in an eclectic bunch


It is not uncommon to meet the uncommon at Marika Van Vessem’s art gallery on the appropriately-named Muse Way in Tiverton. You might meet an artist who looks like Salvador Dali. You might meet one who paints like him. There might be an image of Fidel Castro on one wall and a Castro convertible sofa on the other. One painting may denote the entrance to Hell, while lovers embrace heavenly nearby.

One of the great things about the Van Vessem Gallery is the layout. There are two sides in the gallery, both with large wall spaces. There is plenty of well-spaced light and beautiful bamboo flooring. The space has a great outside porch.

As described by many, including Marika herself, the gallery has a really nice flow and feels very airy. There is about 940 square feet of space. It overlooks wooded areas and a recreation area. Mixing media, it is next door to the Sandywoods Center for the Arts, a venue for great music and all kinds of other events, sometimes set simultane- ously with gallery openings.

Its owner, Marika, is now 65, but only a newbie as an art exhibitor. Some have called her a late bloomer into the art world. She demurs and will acknowledge the ‘bloom’ and that, of course, it is never too late. A native of the Netherlands, Marika was in international sales before dabbling and dabbing with brushes. But the arts always surrounded her. Now, her gallery surrounds the arts. “From a very early age I was always interested in art.

When I was in my teens, my circle of friends consisted of artistic people, painters, photographers, writers, poets, musicians, some of whom became quite well known,” says Marika. “Influenced by all the major events of that era, we organized ‘happenings’ and other art events. We congregated and talked about art almost constantly.”

In the mid-‘80s, Marika started taking her own art seriously in Holland. A great influence was her friend, Cornelis le Mair, a very well known classical painter. After returning to the U.S., she took private lessons and rented a studio in Wickford. Unsure of her abilities, she possessed great ideas and inspiration, encouraged by very positive reactions to the work she was doing. She worked with Ted Tihansky on painting skills, had some private instruction on composition with Johannes von Gumppenberg and learned still more from her collaborations with Newport artist Henry Finn.

“The Shady Lea Mill in [North Kingstown] was a great place with many artists and a great atmosphere. I learned a lot from many people there,” she adds.

She describes her painting style as fairly realistic with “touches of expressionism.” Marika says she is reluctant to create an artists’ statement since she feels that “works of art should be left open to interpretation by the viewer and not be limited by explanations of intentions by the artist.”

In 2000, Marika entered the Newport Art Museum Juried Exhibition with a mixed media piece that received first prize in that category. “That was a very exciting time and it encouraged me to continue what I was doing,” she says.

In 2010, she moved into the newly-created arts and agriculture community Sandywoods, in Tiverton, where we started a co-op with a dozen artists that lived there. “In the gallery I now occupy, I functioned as the gallery coordinator at that time, and when the co-op dissolved, I was offered the opportunity to lease the space from Sandywoods,” she adds. Though she had worked in Newport galleries for about 15 years, the spot in Tiverton was cheaper and only minutes from her home.

On any given weekend, receptions at her gallery can resemble Andy Warhol meeting Leroy Neimann. You never know who might arrive.

“I will be going into my third year very soon and I am finding that there are many great artists who are looking for good spaces to show their artwork. I have been fortunate to work with some of the best regional artists and to show some incredible work,” says Marika. “I have quite a few great shows coming up in 2015 and am also in the planning stages for some larger events. It is rewarding, invigorating and gratifying. As for influences on my art, past and present, there are too many great artists and artworks to mention just a few.”

You will just have to come to her gallery on Muse Way to meet them.

-James Merolla

Originally Published in The Bay January 9 2015


In Instagram's Cave


This essay began as a challenge to Susan Sontag’s On Photography, but how do you slay a giant? (Would you want to?) If Sontag’s infamous tome is a serious look at the ethical, ontological, and epistemological consequences of photography, then this essay picks up where Sontag left off. Can we comb the ruins and salvage something gorgeous, meaningful, useful?

Ruins are an apt metaphor for what some snobs imagine cell phone photography to be. One acquaintance expressed total disinterest with iShow, telling me she hated selfies. And isn’t cell phone photography just a bunch of selfies? Sometimes, yes: see Michelle Lapointe’s Mirror in the Bathroom and Carol Scavotto’s I Am Pretty Now, two unconventional takes on this now inescapable genre. I’ve tackled the selfie before in an article for Art New England, and I concluded that, pitted against less spontaneous self-portraiture, the selfie is artistically lacking. I mostly stand by that, but I’ve reconsidered what it means for images to be impactful. 

Gallery owner Marika Van Vessem came up with the idea for this show and let me curate it. The original intent was for this to be a fun, summer event and I think we’ve achieved that. More importantly, this show encapsulates a certain trend that hovers between fine art and snapshots. Though some professionals have tried to slow its unstoppable march, smart phone photography is becoming one of the principal means we acquaint ourselves with the world.   

Some of these images are perhaps unassuming on their own but, arranged with others, they form something cohesive and symbiotic. This replicates the way images actually behave online. In the Instagram Epoch, the image is understood only sparingly as an individual thing. Images are better taken as units to be rearranged, pictures to be scrolled through, selfies to like. The cell phone in your pocket holds a similar bounty: the camera roll, a stream of images that will end only by choice.

There is a nicely-proportioned mix of images here. Some, like Ck Ledesma’s Trazos series, use the camera phone as one would any other camera, thereby proving its talents to the sad, sad purists who still subscribe to the idea of owning a warehouse full of speciality lenses. Others, like Leslie Block Prip’s Wickenden Street and Rohina Hoffman’s stunning Glow and Couple at Dinner, are more actively “mobile,” using the smartphone as a thief (or perhaps rescuer) of the most transitory moments.  

Capturing the most inconsequential moments: is this the logical limit of photography? Sontag was indeed right, and ridiculously prophetic in her words: everything now “ends in an image.” Desire ends in pornography, commerce ends in a shopping cart full of product thumbnails and communication ends in a profile picture. The photograph begins to acquire a certain quaintness, and it has never looked as benign as it does now. Even the most magnificent photos are swallowed up in streams of data. Somewhere, some teenager is remixing images of tragedy into internet memes. The photograph is still a potent art form, but most images burned into today’s collective consciousness are not art images but news images. Outside art world regulars, the images people often remember are ones the mass media bombards into us, not exemplars of aesthetic merit.

Still, good images deliver emotion, awe, joy. As someone who has had the privilege of having ecstatic experiences, I am interested in art as a means of bringing enlivening energy to a greater number of people. The art crowd can be one of the most politically and socially conservative cliques in the world despite the surplus of allegedly liberal-minded people who inhabit it. In theory, cell phone photography is adamantly opposite to classism and the somehow-still-breathing, reified concept of taste. 

Photography is indeed a “language,” as Sontag suggests, and not an inherently artistic thing. But, with cellphone in hand, finger on the trigger, we can work toward uncovering what renegade philosopher Simone Weil called “the order of the world.” With luck, we might smash the barriers of social organization and delusion and let the chaos of the uncreated earth run free once more. (See, for example, the monstrously mythical and invincible Colorado landscapes of Brandi Finley, or Kathy Crowley Gardner’s ultra-ethereal Early Morning.)

“We reconstruct for ourselves the order of the world in an image, starting from limited, countable and strictly defined data…The substance of the universe only manifests itself to us by the blows it deals,” Weil wrote. “Looking is what saves us.”  

Weil knew that beauty hurts. The quest to find it can be utterly exhausting. The sublime is reached only with a bit of self-sacrifice. (Scavotto’s masked selfie and Bunny Head actually achieve this brutal-sounding self-effacement with humor.) With the camera phone, we are able to collaborate and combine our photographs inadvertently, instantly. Sometimes, this can make the world of cell phone images feel like the Platonic cave. Instagram is a particularly cavernous place, containing many rabbit holes that send you through colliding streams of images. But rather than see this as a negative, I prefer to think that the modern presentation of photographs —the Instagram feed, Facebook albums, Tumblr— can teach us to appreciate juxtaposition, crossover, the unification of dissimilar things without erasure of their difference. Kristin Street took the lead in hanging this show, and her configuration is a superb mimic (or perhaps alternative to) online presentation. 

Sontag feared that seeing would become our only means of experience, but she seemingly clung to the antique ontology that reality was somehow homogenous in its character. More recent authors like Japan’s Saitō Tamaki have shown that the image world is an equally viable source and object of desire, engagement, humanity. Saito found photographs to have a “lower context.” Saying “I like photographs” refers to an enormous and vague collection of things. Saito believed photography to be one of the less stimulating mediums, but the openness of photographs is what supplies them their contemporary strength. The photograph has no prejudice until it meets the photographer. Photographs do not replace experience; they isolate a part of it and make it open to interpretation — not in the analytical sense, but as a means through we may question our own accepted notions of reality. We should be open and unafraid to receive this knowledge. The photographer must let their work be more than a standalone piece by joining forces with others’ images. 

The network of images is now millions of pictures deep. No one controls this entity, and by engaging it we learn something or, better yet, obtain more questions. I know very little about Sally Mendzela’s I Will Follow. I’m told it was taken with a flip phone in Vermont. (Do I need to know anything else?) But even before I learned that, the image moved me. The saturated leaves jumping off the ground, the twisting forest path, the second dog in the distance reduced by perspective to nothing but a tiny speck — this is a dream, an ancestrally remembered image, a reassuring phantom that heals and restores even without its title. But the title is luscious too, and a good piece of advice. We must be willing to follow others sometimes, to quiet our egos and let beauty lead us.

“He who is aching in every limb…bears the reality of the universe in his flesh like a thorn,” Weil wrote. “The difficulty for him is to look and to love. If he succeeds, he loves the Real.”

Weil knew the world was an awful, painful place, but to extend ourselves beyond the self means to reach for something that can alleviate the collective struggle. Cell phone photography — as a communal expression of the beautiful and intriguing in an age of extreme cynicism and apathy— is not a facile trend. With it, we make a humble offering to the ecstasy of not a singular vision, but collaborative sight. 

—Alexander Castro
iShow curator


Van Vessem Gallery Marks Second Anniversary


Marika van Vessem knew the Van Vessem Gallery “turned the corner” last fall when more than 250 people showed up for the exhibit, “two painters,” showcasing the work of by Dan Gosch and Mark Kehoe.

Innovators in the Rhode Island art scene in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, the opening reunited Kehoe, now based in New York, with Franklin resident Gosch, drawing attendees from as far away as New York and Boston.

And the New England art media followed, giving the show at the out-of-the-way gallery in Tiverton high praise in arts magazines such as Art New England and Artscope.

“That show really put me on the map,” said van Vessem.

Now, as van Vessem marks the two-year anniversary of the gallery she started at the Sandywoods artist complex, the current retrospective exhibit features work by the artists who have exhibited there over the past two years. The work from well-known artists includes paintings by Cynthia Farnell, who operated the Hera Gallery in South County, R.I.; copper and woodcut prints from Rita Rogers, whose work was recently part of a group show at the Nassau Museum in New York; a multi-media, three-dimensional piece by Thomas Deininger, in which assembled objects are reflected onto TV screens as eyes; and of course, some of the pieces from Gosch and Kehoe’s show.

For the retrospective, van Vessem said she contacted 52 artists who exhibited over the past two years, and 42 responded, submitting pieces for the show that run the gamut from photography, paintings in all media including those by Fall River’s Peter Strickland and Newport artist David Barnes, sculptures by Anna Shapiro and Ben Butler, and a three-dimensional paper, metal and wire installation, “Blue,” by Lucia O’Reilly.

The exhibit also includes an oil painting of a water lily by van Vessem, a painter herself. A native of Holland who relocated to Rhode Island years ago, van Vessem worked out of the Shady Lea artists studios in North Kingstown, R.I., while also gaining gallery experience working at various galleries in Newport.

When she first heard about the plans to build the Sandywoods residential artists’ community in Tiverton, she said she started applying right away and moved in when the residences were ready. She and some of the other resident artists originally operated the gallery jointly as a co-op among 13 artists, but after a while she said “it self-destructed” for various reasons. So when the opportunity to run her own gallery came up, van Vessem said she couldn’t say no.

She opened the Van Vessem Gallery in April 2012, while working at another full-time job. By the second year, after she retired, it started to gain ground and attract more and more well-known artists and more serious art collectors, she said.

“My goal has been to work with the artists and provide a place where they can show their work and to create a gallery (in which) the different types of work will make for a good show,” said van Vessem. “Basically to create a haven for artists and at the same time, making it commercially viable.”

Though the gallery is located off Bulgarmarsh road, a distance from the more established arts area of Tiverton at the Four Corners, van Vessem said the area has “an immense amount of artists who are looking to show their work” at the gallery.

With her recent regional exposure, van Vessem said the gallery is booked for shows for the next two years starting off in the next several months with exhibits of work by painter Patrick Malin, opening Feb. 28; followed by Kristin Street, founder of the Krause Gallery at Moses Brown in Providence; and Bristol, R.I., resident Tom Culora, who will be doing a multi-media installation called “Shock and Awe,” based on The Beatles’ TV appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” He will also exhibiting paintings of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army inspired by a trip to China, said van Vessem.

“I love what I’m doing — there are no drawbacks,” she said, as she looked back, and forward to the coming year. “The gallery’s grown up a lot in the past year.”

-Linda Murphy

Originally published in The Herald News January 25, 2015


Dan Gosch and Marc Kehoe: Two Painters


Poet Stevie Smith wrote, “The pleasures of friendship are exquisite.” Seeing Marc Kehoe and Dan Gosch, two painters and long-time pals in their first-ever joint exhibition at Van Vessem Gallery, it’s hard to disagree. Kehoe and Gosch are highly accessible artists—provocateurs, in a sense, prodding the viewer to react through sheer visual force.

The largest piece in the show is Gosch’s Ship of Fools—a fever dream given flesh. An orgiastic spectacle of superheated reds and pinks and a mess of fantastic bodies are framed by a cool, cobalt pair of nude figures. The visceral imagery of bodies packed in a car like ground beef in plastic would be unsettling, were it not comical.
Indeed, Kehoe and Gosch are wizards of the irreverent. Kehoe manages to turn even pain into something humorous: his images of a crying baby (papa e figlio) and a woman captive in the clutches of a gorilla are two of the show’s funniest selections.

Were they painters with less technical skill, Kehoe and Gosch might not get away with their absurdity. However, the work is spellbindingly adept. I repeatedly found myself getting lost in the images, staring for what seemed like minutes at simple blue brushstrokes in Kehoe’s monte sibilla 1.

Kehoe and Gosch may be tricksters, but their works exude irresistible love and attention toward their craft. Kehoe’sdonna velata is a bewitchingly stand-in for one by Raphael, and Gosch’s assortment of portraits is an endearing and charming freak show, showcased in a head-spinning variety of styles.

Kehoe and Gosch remind us to laugh not only at ourselves but at the world and its many, many pretensions. Sigmund Freud wrote that the joke helps us digest what is psychologically uncomfortable. Kehoe and Gosch remind us that the joke is not merely defensive; it is life-giving. Perhaps one day, when the world has been successfully enervated of all its humor and fun, Two Painters will emerge from the dystopian rubble and remind us to partake in those exquisite pleasures of friendship and laughter.

-Alexander Castro

Originally Published in Art New England January 2015


No Separation


They drove through Providence in clunkers painted with burlesque performers. They were RISD renegades, making weird paintings, weirder films. They were Dan Gosch and Marc Kehoe, two buddies whose works will be shown together for the first time in a new exhibition in Tiverton. Van Vessem Gallery will host “two painters,” an exhilarating collection of new works from both artists opening Saturday, Nov. 8. For those who can recall the Providence of the early 1970s, no introduction is needed, and a flyer with both painters’ names is likely impetus enough to go. For everyone else, a little history: Gosch and Kehoe were part of a pre-Cianci Providence that boasted an enviable cache of creatives, such as filmmaker Gus Van Sant, three-fourths of what would become the Talking Heads (David Byrne, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz) and actor Charles Rocket. “Honestly, [we were] having a very good time,” says Kehoe of the Providence years. He and Gosch had a friend circle that would make any hipster jealous. Gosch and Rocket crashed the openings of fast-food joints as eco-heroes Captain Packard and Lobo, while Kehoe was bandmates with Byrne. When Kehoe needed music for a film he was making, he enlisted Byrne and Frantz to work together, a collaboration that bore obvious fruit. “[Gosch and I] became good friends. We spent a lot of time discussing what you might call reference material: paintings, art, movie stars, old cars,” says Kehoe. For them, the separation of high and low culture was artificial. “I think both of those cultures come from the same place,” says Gosch. He absorbed the influences of “sideshow paintings and banner art,” while Kehoe was drawn to the “compellingly and oddly beautiful, poetic and mysterious” highway system on the East Coast. They both loved film noir and spent hours consuming it during movie marathons at Brown.

Whatever their influences, people loved their art; Gosch’s murals at the Providence underground’s favorite bar, Leo’s, made him infamous with the in-crowd, “Most of the people coming to the show are coming because of that,” says Gosch. Kehoe left Rhode Island for New York, but he and Gosch stayed in touch. In the late 1980s, they worked together on the Broadway musical “Senator Joe,” a satire of Joe McCarthy produced by Adela Holzer. The real comedy wasn’t on the stage, but behind it: Holzer had scammed investors by pretending she was David Rockefeller’s “secret wife.” “She had funded a musical using a pyramid scheme,” laughs Kehoe. “It never opened.” “Two painters,” thankfully, will open: “One room will be Kehoe, one will be Gosch,” says Kehoe. In his paintings you can rediscover a piece of a dream you thought you’d forgotten. In Gosch’s work, one finds abnormal subjects — demons, dancing crowds, a dude in a fez — precisely rendered. “Representational art is bigger than it’s ever been,” Gosch says, slashing down a pseudo-informed question about the fate of the human figure in a concept-crazed art world. A careful look at his portrait of a redheaded girl — her face consumed in a maelstrom of freckles, her eyes the color of blue slush, a pair of buckteeth guarded by puffy lips — might convince you he’s right. Kehoe finds the human figure allows for a bigger, more diverse audience: “I like to depict us. I would enjoy having not just people of the rather incestuous or closed-off art world look at [my work.]” Gosch and Kehoe share a frightening technical competence, too. You could get lost in the controlled floods of brushstrokes that comprise Kehoe’s paintings. Gosch is a color maestro; his palettes seem to be of extraterrestrial origin. (“How do you achieve those bold colors?” I ask, fumbling for questions about form instead of content. Gosch laughs and says, “Just keep ’em nice and bright.”) Anyone who’s ever attempted to paint the human figure can appreciate the formal finesse of Kehoe and Gosch. Even in the debasing form of a JPEG, one sees the robustness of their paintings. Gosch and Kehoe are artists whose work is best felt and enjoyed, rather than probed for meaning. Gosch groans when galleries request an artist’s statement, a putting-into-words of what is de facto ineffable: “I’m totally lost. I cannot think of something that doesn’t sound pedantic and insincere…I relate to the physicality of [painting.]” Kehoe doesn’t resist interpretation, but he’s not one to chisel exact meanings in his work: “The best paintings are those that people go and look at and they figure out for themselves…The intention of the artist is not always of prime importance. I defeat my own intention…Really great art has to have a mysterious and unknown element in it.”

“Two painters” is your chance for some sensory reeducation. Keep your eyes wide open, until you’re grinning cheek to cheek.

-Alexander Castro

Originally Published in The Newport Mercury November 2014