Celebrating the human form at Dartmouth Cultural Center
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Celebrating the human form at Dartmouth Cultural Center

Generally speaking, I like the concept of the themed art show. Whether the assigned motif is broad (the landscape, the portrait, the still life) or curiously esoteric (thrift store finds, tertiary colors, 1960s sitcom characters) or something in between, the themed art show, if properly curated, establishes an oft-needed sense of cohesion.

I have reviewed, curated or juried far too many shows in which, to give an example, a potential exhibiting painter brings a landscape to be displayed in a room full of classical nudes. The artist then offers up a cockamamie rationale such as “but look, this mountain looks just like a woman’s hip and that one is like her breast or maybe her shoulder.” Or something akin to that.

I once juried a show at a Rhode Island gallery that had a particularly loose theme. Each piece had “to tell a story.” It seemed pretty straightforward, except to the craftsman who had created a quite beautiful oversized salad bowl, made of a variety of woods. He asked me why I juried his work out of the show and I told him, from a podium at the crowded opening, that his bowl didn’t tell a story.

He responded “It’s the story of the trees…” 

Nice try, dude.

Currently on display at the Dartmouth Cultural Center is a show with the somewhat uninspired and uninspiring title “Figurative Exhibition.” Fortunately, many of the 26 works on display by more than a dozen artists working in a variety of disciplines rises above the clunky and univentive name.

Painter Stephen Remick, a frequent exhibitor at the DCC, Tiverton’s Four Corners Gallery and other regional galleries, was invited to jury the exhibition. He focused on the call for entries instructions: “Figurative Art is the celebration of the human form. Your work must represent it in some way.”

Remick noted in his juror’s statement that the “entries vary from the representational image to non-objective abstraction, where the title steers the viewer to the theme. Yet, after knowing the title, maybe the abstracts aren’t so abstract.”

He is being both diplomatic and magnanimous. Of course, the bulk of the work is absolutely figurative. A few push the limitations of the definition of figurative, making the viewer play a Where’s Waldo-like game. Where’s the figure?

The best example is glass artist Michelle Lapointe’s “Heatwave.”  Suspended in one of the gallery windows, it is a transparent and translucent depiction of a deep red sun with wavy cartoon rays caressing an off-white landscape. Until one clearly sees the two breasts and long legs.

Hmmm, maybe that mountainscape guy was on to something after all.

In a more traditional vein are three drawings by Erica Driver of pregnant women (or perhaps, all of the same expectant woman). “Waiting,” “Blue” and the untitled third piece focus on the swollen-with-child figures from shoulders to hips. No faces are seen and the anonymity suggests a spiritual commonness between all mothers and all those that will be.

Amy Araujo displays two charcoal drawings. Both are free-flowing and dynamic. “Love Goddess,” assumedly a self-portrait, is a commanding work, equal parts precision and unruliness. “Ten is Fierce” features a girl in a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt with a countenance that suggests a wisdom and confidence beyond her years.

Carol, Pam and Nicole are the eponymous names of three small portraits by oil painter Peter Guay. All are traditional headshots, all exquisitely rendered. Carol wears a headband and a light blue shirt. Pam is a gray haired woman with a mischievous smile in front of a purposefully unfinished orange background. Nicole is younger, with long dark tresses and just the slightest bit of weariness about her.

“Self-Portrait” by Pamela Hoss. Credit: Don Wilkinson / The New Bedford Light

Very similar in scale to Guay’s series of portraits is Pamela Hoss’s “Self-Portrait.” For 30 years, she was a drawing instructor at the College of Visual and Performing Arts. She has done many portraits of other artists in the community. Her self-portrait exudes a self-confidence, tempered with both tenacity and calm.

Iria DeValles-Viera’s “Hey You” is an acrylic painting of three standing figures painted in deceptively reductive fashion. Seemingly two men with a woman between them, their postures suggest that we are seeing them from behind. But their heads float over their shoulders without the benefit of necks. The heads appear to be set 180 degrees from their torsos and their faces are featureless, perhaps a commentary on a kind of societal disassociation from one another.

“Hey You” by Iria DeValles-Viera. Credit: Don Wilkinson / The New Bedford Light

“Salvador Dali” is a clay relief portrait of the famed Surrealist painter of melting pocket watches and a burning giraffe created by Vania Noverca. His legendary mustache is in the shape of a horseshoe.

“Salvador Dali” by Vania Noverca. Credit: Don Wilkinson / The New Bedford Light

Jill Law displays the only two sculptures in the exhibition, both small clay figures of women as well as an oil painting of a porcelain skinned voluptuous nude. Titled “Lady in Red,” she floats in front of a red background, perhaps a sofa, and it creates an element of unexpected dimensionality. 

“Toe in the Water” by Peter Dickison is reminiscent of traditional imagery of Greek mythological figures and that is a pool that he has much tapped, often to wonderful results. In it is a girl standing behind a somewhat androgynous adult figure (I’m leaning toward a woman here) with a few flowers in hand.

“Lady in Red” by Jill Law. Credit: Don Wilkinson / The New Bedford Light

They are deep in the woods and it feels like a retelling of some ancient tale. But Dickison’s figures are invented, not out of whole cloth but rather with visual muscle memory. He speaks of memories as less tangible reconstructions and idealized fantasies, given form through experience.

“Obscured” by Michael Walden. Credit: Don Wilkinson / The New Bedford Light

Painter Michael Walden’s “Obscured” is fascinating for any number of reasons but particularly for its delightfully strange composition. A man wearing nothing but a pair of gray boxers stands almost at attention, partially behind a sheer translucent section of fabric. Walden plays with shadow and light to suggest another adjacent figure or perhaps a different manifestation of the man himself, a more malevolent aspect.

Back in the 1980s, painter Milton Brightman did a series of paintings of barroom interiors including the Belmont Club, the King’s Inn and the long gone Fisherman’s Lounge. They were populated by a cross section of humanity drinking cheap beer, arguing, smoking cigarettes, listening to music and flirting with each other. He eventually abandoned that theme to concentrate on the pastoral landscapes, urban scenes and waterfront paintings for which he is best known.

But in 2012, he had a pang of nostalgia and contemplated painting interiors of a number of downtown bars before he ultimately opted for the Washington Club, right in his own South End neighborhood. 

He asked himself “How can I make this place look interesting?” But the answer was clear. He had an affection for the club and all those within it. Brightman is part classical painter, part underground comic book artist, and part social documentarian, and with “The Washington Club,” he hits it on all cylinders.

With additional works by Joanne Hickey, Deborah Macy and Carol Scavotto, the “Figurative Exhibition” is on display at the Dartmouth Cultural Center, 404 Elm St., Dartmouth until June 1.

Don Wilkinson has been writing art reviews, artist profiles and cultural commentary on the South Coast for over a decade. He has been published in local newspapers and regional art magazines. He is a graduate of the Swain School of Design and the CVPA at UMass Dartmouth. Email him at [email protected]

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