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Boris Ostrerov and Winter Chapel with Marsha McDonald

Open through March 13, 2010

Gallery A: Boris Ostrerov


Boris Ostrerov is a young painter who works with white paper and black ink. His new, large scale works deal with boundaries and empty spaces, borders, fringes, the here and there, often focusing on what is at the edges rather than at the center. Originally from Russia, Ostrerov is a graduate of the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. He currently lives in Milwaukee.

Gallery B: Winter Chapel

This is a collaborative project that began as an ambition to create a beautiful space in which to sit and ruminate during the most bitter months of a Wisconsin winter. The young, local architect, Philip Katz, who specializes in sanctuary spaces, had recently completed an addition at Temple Emanu-El on Brown Deer Road. Having watched the development of this project and having had various conversations with Katz, the idea of how we craft sacred space became very interesting. There are some necessary ingredients, like symmetry and certain proportional relationships that seem to connect and reverberate with our human wiring. The Greeks caught on to this. Another interesting issue is how art work fits into sacred space. In Jewish and Islamic culture, representational imagery is forbidden in the sanctuary. Without the need for art to tell stories, what then is its role? Temple Emanu-El chose Tobi Kahn, a New York Artist who specializes in liturgical work, to make panels for the new space. They are shimmery, simple abstract forms that reference historic events in oblique ways (Tobi Kahn panels). The Winter Chapel at Portrait Society, as an installation, was a way to work with these ideas in a very DIY manner, but nonetheless, to feel the repercussions of design decisions in shaping a spiritual space.

The space of the gallery was modestly transformed by painting and organizing it to enhance the atmosphere of calm. In thinking about what kind of art might support such an endeavor, Portrait Society chose Marsha McDonald, a former Milwaukeean and mid-career artist who now lives mostly in Korea and Europe.

McDonald has long painted landscapes that are liminal, atmospheric and almost abstract. One might imagine them as serene, gentle versions of J.M.W Turner’s work.  Most of the paintings in The Winter Chapel were done in Wisconsin, featuring familiar places like Harrington Beach and other points along Lake Michigan. Preferring a small scale format, McDonald renders scenes that feel epic in their deep spaces and luminous skies.

The surfaces of these paintings are softly finished with an almost waxlike (encaustic) sheen. She accomplishes this through multiple layers of scraping and sanding until the surface becomes eloquently scarred with small patches of color sometimes unexpectedly peering through the tonalities.

McDonald’s paintings are dreamy and poetic and this is not an easy place to reach without becoming cliche or, at best, predictable. These paintings make you bend close and travel with them, perhaps to a sunrise over a marsh or into a winter sky with small bursts of reflective light reminding us of the phenomenology of magic. Her paintings flirt with abstraction in a way where she provides perfect balance between the seen, observed and identifiable reality (it’s a river, a lake or a marsh) and the more soulful, perhaps foggier rendering of internal zones where our nerve centers register beauty or the sublime.

McDonald says, “I try to make intimate, quiet things, exploring ancient recurrent themes, in particular landscape and weather. There is a need for silent, expansive, seasonal images in an increasingly noisy and spiritually insular world.”

McDonald also says that “color and light are for me things and thoughts, substance and phenomena. ..I’m interested in what we see, what we do not see, what we imagine we see.”

This month, McDonald was notified that her work was chosen for a show about environmental issues at the US Embassy in Colombo Sri Lanka. Her work was also included in the Florence Biennale in 2007. In recent years, McDonald has participated in a number of residency programs in Europe, including the Valparaiso Foundation in Mojacar Spain and the Denkmalschmeide Hoefgen in Grimma, Germany.

About 15 of Marsha McDonald’s paintings are included in Portrait Society’s Winter Chapel.

Sharing the space of the Chapel are a series of sculptures presented by Milwaukee painter David Niec from his private collection. Niec, who shows his night paintings at Dean Jensen Gallery, spends much of his time at an isolated cabin in the Northern Wisconsin woods where for years he has collected pieces of wood chewed by beavers. Niec hauls these logs out of the woods and then eventually drives them back to his home in Milwaukee where he might work into them with his own carving, or cut them apart and piece them together with other chewed woods to make sculptures that look natural but possibly defy gravity or have shapes just odd enough to catch our attention.

The Winter Chapel, with the selection of Marsha McDonald’s paintings and Niec’s beaver chews, took a decided and unpremeditated turn toward nature. In retrospect, if you are trying to make a space that feels quiet and protected like a chapel without using religious conventions, what’s left? Nature. One could argue, however, that across the hall, in Gallery A, Boris Ostrerov’s gestural ink compositions create a chapel environment as well by allowing us to focus on black and white and the empty spaces and boundaries that his work explores.

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