by Britta Konau
Portland’s Aucocisco Galleries currently shows new work by Cassie Jones, Christopher Keister, Sage Lewis, and Mark Wethli – four artists at different points in their careers who are making very exciting art right now. Christopher Keister has abandoned painting the subtly configured, multi-colored circles on paper with which he made such a splash at the biennials of the Portland Museum of Art and the Center for Maine Contemporary Art and is now working representationally. I had seen the beginnings of his current body of work when I visited with him during his 2010 Monhegan Artists Residency. Keister is deeply fascinated by occultism, science fiction, psychedelics and drug culture and expresses this preoccupation through his work. The paintings at Aucocisco are small-scale depictions of the faces and busts of ancient statues, a human skull, a cut gem, and the word “Orgone,” an obscure theory concerning a universal life force. The straight, head-on representations against a simple, colored background turn these images into icons of a hermetic philosophy.
While Keister’s paintings are clearly representational, in some cases representations of representations, in spirit they are not as far removed from his earlier abstract work as it may seem. They present concepts and abstractions of hierarchical and mental power. Knowledge and understanding are given and denied at the same time – we know what we see, yet we don’t, leaving us wondering and uneasy, which I suspect the artist relishes evoking. It will be interesting to follow this young talent, who is driven by an earnest curiosity about new territories of the mind and the world beyond ours.
Sage Lewis has contributed a series of watercolors on sheets of propylene mounted on Plexi. Titled “Facet Studies,” central forms shaped like irregular gems float in white space. They are beautifully delicate, like whispers of blue liquid, layered and pooling along the edges. It is fascinating to observe how our mind latches onto any intimation of representation, craving the satisfaction of recognition. We will thus see lunar surfaces and wild seas in some of these images. But we should not be deceived for long and give them the attention they so richly deserve as entirely abstract works of art that engage material possibilities to exquisite effect.
Cassie Jones is represented with recent iterations of her wonderfully inventive, whimsical configurations of painted felt on wooden panels that she started in 2008. In these new works, too, there is a deliberate awkwardness that makes them strangely comforting and unsettling at the same time – seemingly soft and warm, and out-of-control fecund too.
In a group of smaller pieces to which “Come Across” belongs, organic, expanding masses are now more clearly defined against underlying, rectangular core shapes, the supporting panels. As in any formal juxtaposition of organic and abstract forms, Jones’ works could act as metaphors for the Cartesian model of body and mind continually wrestling for control, but that is merely an aside. Curiously, those safe geometric forms are the wildly patterned ones, and the bulging protuberances are the staid monochromes. The shapes of the latter have gained in complexity and decorativeness, lessening their alien character. Two visual languages interact, interrupting each other, speaking on two different planes, literally. Jones’ work cannot decide whether to be paintings or sculptures, and that is a great part of their attraction. Jones has a superbly creative mind and I cannot wait to see where she will be taking this “indecision” next.
Mark Wethli’s oeuvre has been marked by some radical changes, and in my opinion he is getting better and better with every move. Wethli contributed several small paintings on handmade paper to this show, many of which I find extremely exciting. They are the compositional twins of his paintings on re-purposed wood, yet they also mark significant departures. “Stay Tuned” and “Paper Thin” are black-on-white compositions of a meandering vertical line varying in width and shape but always remaining geometrical. Compared to the earlier paintings on wood, these have gained in interest for their subtly layered backgrounds in muted whites and greys of an underlying irregular grid that emerges and disappears. The figure/ground relationship is enriched and complicated and the geometric abstraction gains a handmade quality. To me they are simply beautiful, finely balanced works.
Other pieces are more colorful, even psychedelic, with maze-like forms, or more restrained, collage-like compositions of squares and rectangles. Of those, “Before I Knew You” stands out for its pastel tones and complex composition of uneven rectangles stacked up next to and on top of each other. Balances and relationships are just right, colors repeat and interact perfectly, and energy activates the entire surface – a love poem without much disguise. Wethli’s new work relates to his earlier grids and lines of color as well as the rigorously simplified paintings on panel, but a new playfulness is apparent that also speaks of mastery. Although small in scale, these are some of Wethli’s strongest works so far. All four artists are at their best at Aucocisco, producing engaging and exceptionally stimulating work. I highly recommend visiting the gallery for a very rewarding experience.
“Cassie Jones, Christopher Keister, Sage Lewis, and Mark Wethli” is on view through November 5 at Aucocisco Galleries, 89 Exchange Street, Portland, 775-2222; www.aucocisco.com.