Boston's Newbury Street Galleries

Tough Times Faced with Style

By: - Dec 27, 2008

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A visit to the new order of galleries on Newbury St.  finds a very different mood than my previous report in BFA on the re-coalesced scene in SOWA. Galleries have closed, some have moved, but the stalwart presences are right where they've always been. And if it's not quite business as usual in the latter part of this financially unstable year, there's still business, first and foremost..

Newbury St. is a shopping destination, and stores that survive  have a distinctive identity worthy of destination shopping. The clothing stores, restaurants,  boutiques, beauty salons – sets themselves apart with a designer name, or reputation for quality and luxury. The galleries are no different; they're survivors that have carefully built an audience, and they  feature adistinctive profiles of artists who can be counted on to deliver when their turn comes on average every other year.

The down-side of this reliable approach, some might find, is that each gallery is an island unto itself. As I made the rounds of galleries nearly every dealer asked what else was showing on the street. They just hadn't had time to see for themselves.

Furthest down the street, for example, we find Nielsen Gallery, which is known for showing modernist painting (abstract or figurative) and sculpture which calls attention to its own raw materials. This month Jon Imber shows a beautiful series of hi-key deKooning-esque abstractions (and a few frank and touching self-portraits) while Dexter Lazenby's wood and metal sculptures quote architecture (literally, arches in various fragmented forms) under vibrant coats of paint.

Upstairs from Nielsen, Victoria Munroe Gallery in a seasonal approach presents a group show of smallish works on paper. "Now & Then" intriguingly mixes historical prints with contemporary watercolors and other works on paper. Joel Janowitz stands out with his luminous gestural still lifes in watercolor, especially a muddy array of oysters ripe for shucking and a table of luminous vases, one glowing in dark cobalt glass, set before a window looking out on a marsh.

Proceeding up the street, another reliable stop is Gallery NAGA, where director Arthur Dion has given over the entire space to the luminous oil landscapes of Peter Brook. Dion, always well-informed and articulate in discussing his artists, pointed out that Brook mixes two oil techniques in his deceptively photo-realistic vistas: additive layers for the washes of cloudy sky, subtractive erasures for the coiled masses of trees huddled on rocky Irish coasts. The show as a whole was rainy, serene, and transporting.

Alpha Gallery's niche is large-scale, lush oil paintings, and those of Kataharina Chapuis don't disappoint. These large, luminous abstractions look like chips of fresco peeled off ancient walls, but the illusion is a combination of the subtle color gradations she employs and the plaster  applied to give wooden frames the rough edges of torn paper or hewn rock.

A sign of changing times relating to the in-transition Beth Urdang Gallery hangs from the stairwell window next to Arden Gallery (Urdang, Judy Ann Goldman, Yezerski and Miller/Block used to share a floor further up the street; more on Miller/Block Gallery to follow below), which features the glowing new encaustics of Joanne Mattera. Mattera is the local master of the wax-painting technique, and she excels in taking encaustic,  this oldest of media, in the most lush minimal and formal directions. "Contemplating the Horizontal" features stripes that manage to retain strict geometry while never forgetting the gestural touch of the artist's hand, especially in a subtractive sub-series where wax is scraped away in horizontal bands to reveal underlying layers of color and texture. While most of her panels are square, the show doesn't lack for variety or vibrant color.

Those changing times are true on the first block of Newbury as well, where Miller/Block (soon to become Ellen Miller Gallery) has taken over the old Pepper Gallery space. The current show, "Gray Matters," mixes artist from the Pepper and Miller/Block stables, the only connection being a focus on black and white work in a variety of scales and media. Michael David's ambiguous charcoals of figures seen through wet glass are stunning, as are Greg Parker's meticulous geometric abstractions in graphite. Even more confounding in their details are Randall Sellers beguiling miniature landscapes, which recall scrimshaw as much as pencil on paper. The show, as a whole, is a witty and cerebral response to winter doldrums.

Ellen Miller had just returned from the Miami Art Fair, where she (like many other dealers on the street) found the mood subdued, and the patrons more prone to careful contemplation than spontaneous purchases. Her reaction to the troubling economic times was a mixed one, but not pessimistic. "I'd hate to be a new gallery starting out in this climate," she admitted, feeling thankful for the experience and reputation that allows her to play a "waiting game" at the moment.

At the same time, however, she finds the current time to be one of opportunity, where new strategies (for example, the 6-week calendars that many galleries are trying as opposed to the 4-week shows of the past) and the need for creative responses to adverse conditions can coincide.  "It's a good time to experiment," she avers.

That certainly seems to be the mantra of Judi Rotenberg Gallery over the last year, which continues an exciting focus on new and emerging artists. This month Jennifer Liston Munson's "Glance" features a series of paintings that mix large-scale photo prints with smaller panels of oil painting. The blurry digital images (from distinctive but offbeat urban locations both north and south of the Mexican border, mostly) serve as the inspiration for the abstract paintings. If the tensions in texture and size aren't fully resolved in every case, the bonus given is the joy of seeing a young artist in the process of working out a lively evolution. Munson's risk-taking is fully on display, sharing with the viewer a sense of exciting possibility and impending change.