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Art Review: Galen Cheney, new abstract paintings. West Branch Gallery & Sculpture Park, Stowe. Through September 7.


Published August 13, 2008 at 7:30 a.m.

“Swaying Tall Stems” by Galen Cheney
  • “Swaying Tall Stems” by Galen Cheney

While motorists fume over the cost of running their oil-thirsty automobiles, oil paint is powering a different sort of internal combustion at West Branch Gallery & Sculpture Park in Stowe. The current exhibition is called “Internal Combustion,” in fact, and it comprises new, highly refined abstract paintings by Middlesex artist Galen Cheney. Her explosive canvasses get their drive from sensuous textures and vibrant, harmonious hues.

In her artist’s statement, Cheney calls herself “a builder of paintings.” She adds, “My tools are my hands, brushes, knives and scrapers.” Her richly varied and energetic approach to paint application creates a symphony of textures on each surface. In “Threshold of Life,” broad, steel-blue strokes sweep downward in the central, horizontal plane of the 43-by-33-inch canvas. Smaller patches of peach-orange and cerulean blue surround that midsection mass, which looks like a mountain escarpment.

Not all of Cheney’s pictorial elements are nonobjective. Biomorphic forms resembling flower stems, such as an aqua-colored group of lines in “Threshold of Life,” hint at narrative content in Cheney’s Abstract Expressionist aesthetic. In “Sugar Cane Alley,” petals and stems are even more evident. Tangled blue and green lines of varied weight are loosely woven, à la macramé, on either side of a lavender vertical axis. An element featuring elongated ovals, like dragonfly wings or daisy petals, lies buried to the left of the lavender vertical.

In the 24-inch-square painting entitled “Cirque,” which is dominated by crimson and light blue, narrow bands of lines droop in swags along the top and bottom edges of the canvas, giving the sense of a big-top tent. Cheney uses the swags to “frame” tall, thin verticals of paint. A shape resembling a thick-walled bowl at left contributes a horizontal counterpoint. Other nearby ovals of different sizes echo the bowl form.

“Super Natural” is a 60-inch-square painting with similar swag lines that, at first glance, seem less orderly than those in “Cirque.” But with closer observation the structural logic of Cheney’s work becomes clear: Matrices indicate vertical and horizontal. (Diagonal axes are rare in her canvasses.) “Asleep Among Rubies,” a 44-by-34-inch oil, is composed almost entirely of ovoid shapes that meld into a vague grid. Yet Cheney may be more concerned with spatial depth — in a Hans Hoffmann-esque “push-pull” manner — than with linear compositional movement.

In her nearly square, 58-by-59-inch “Swaying Tall Stems,” the central vertical axis resembles the center of an open book. Sinewy threads of magenta, powder blue and pale orange are laid down tightly across the midpoint of the canvas, but these forms become incrementally broader as they spread right and left. Wide, nearly conical shapes appear along the edges of the painting. Cheney’s chromatic harmony ranges from darkly valued greens to the calligraphic strokes of warm white that punctuate the intricately layered, monumental work.

In the show’s catalogue, a curatorial statement by gallery coordinator Amy Rahn discloses that Cheney’s new body of work took shape during an intensive residency at the Vermont Studio Center. Indeed, the paintings of “Internal Combustion” epitomize the vivacity of fresh discovery.

The West Branch has recently expanded its quarters, allowing it to accommodate large-scale works such as Cheney’s. Even if gas costs a bit more these days, a trek up Stowe’s Mountain Road to this gallery is well worth the trip.

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