Jack Sell displays his results at 3 Fish

Abstract experiments
By NICHOLAS SCHROEDER  |  May 23, 2013


'RADICAL CENTER' Mixed media on masonite by Jack Sell.  

You might look at Jack Sell, a Gray resident and part-time Downeaster, as a painter with a secret. A Maine artist in the classic tradition, he's also worked by commission as a photorealist painter for the United States Air Force, and maintains a professional archive of his work, largely land- and seascapes, online. The majority of paintings he's made in his career have been indebted to Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, and Emile Gruppe, all observers of the New England outdoor life, yet he's never been able to shake a call toward abstraction. "Beyond Pollock," his retrospective of abstract oil and mixed-media works at 3 Fish Gallery, examines this underbelly, where experimentation and a lifelong affection for Jackson Pollock and Salvador Dali have been founts of energy since he began painting them in 1961.

In the 1940s, Jackson Pollock painted on flatbed canvases and made splatter an aesthetically pleasing thing to look at, but his most enduring contribution to modernism is more about action than painting. In his work, Pollock made the body visible without using a hint of figurative representation, marking them as astonishing indexical references of his own aleatory physical event. Sell's paintings aren't so much concerned with that task. Even the best of these 24 canvases seem to approach expressionism as a formal study rather than a collision of energetic gestures, and many employ figurative or representational devices that are all but completely elided in Pollock's work. So while it's misleading to imagine Sell as going "beyond" the bad boy of modernism, it's entirely appropriate to say he takes a slightly different road.

Sell's primary update on the form is the use of everyday materials as sculptural elements within the color field. Bolts, screws, keys, toy cars and soldiers, large webs of glue, and similar detritus gob up his paintings, giving them material context, the contour of relief sculpture, and a mysterious quality of subjective memory. This is novel, and depending on how you feel about abstract art, might appear studious, blasphemous, or fun. Of course, it also restores to these paintings much of the literal meaning that Pollock so remarkably sublimated in his work, and it's the clearest indication that Sell is up to fundamentally different stuff.

Within its relatively narrow scope, this show has a lot of diversity. Many works contain fresh schemes and palettes of color that resist easy association, like "EveryLiving Thing," where ominous, insectile black splashes mark up a field of swamp green and melon pink. Others are more traditionally pictorial, like the campy red and yellow light of "Plato's Cave," where ghoulish figures hover behind an optic web of white paint. Still others mimic the modes of portraiture, like "Side Effects," in the foreground of which Sell has lodged a figure sculpted from tin and wires. All are interesting tweaks on the Pollock mode, but the former are most interesting, as the small, elemental distinctions create a subtle yet measurable distance from their influence.

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