What the light reveals

Maasch's room of dark statues, fresh flowers
By NICK SCHROEDER  |  July 31, 2014

 art_brentonhamilton_main

WEIGHTS AND MEASURES Brenton Hamilton’s ‘Spanish Face,’ gelatin silver calotype, 10 by 8 inches

Skip too fast toward the Old Port and you’ll miss the revived gallery known as Susan Maasch Fine Art, a corridor-ish yet amply-sized showroom that has focused on pairings of photography and painting since last summer. Their latest duo, Brenton Hamilton and Kiki Gaffney, is worth a stop, its works adventurous enough to satiate the art-educated while sufficiently wall-mountable to please strict collectors.

Working in a photographic process steeped in historical method, emotional weight, and cultural memory, the artist Brenton Hamilton has over the years become one of the area’s most recognizable and quietly arresting artists. And his series here, all new and exclusive to the gallery, is some of the most even-handed, resolute, and multidimensional of any photography you’ll find. 

An educator with the Maine Media Workshops in Rockport and a resident of the Maine coasts, Hamilton’s most distinct characteristic is his choice of subject. (Notably, It has nothing at all to do with Maine.) Building from previous focuses in astrological imagery, human anatomy, and the architecture of antiquity, Hamilton offers thirteen photographs, using as his subjects the heads of 18th-century Spanish carved-wood figures—he has a collection. Making these “portraits” involves a type of a 19th-century formula of negative imaging, the mechanical and material variations of which Hamilton shows here. Calotypes are paper negatives on vellum immersed in silver, resulting in a stony, fossilized image. Ambrotypes are silver images on black glass, imbuing his figures with dense, velvety, friar-like tones. And tintypes, very short exposures of silver collodion on metal or glass, seem to freeze his figures in the frame of an antiquated era.

Which gets at the real appeal of Hamilton’s work. The specialized methodology of his work invites points along several cultural histories; on its strength, his art acts as a conduit between the pedagogy of photography, Renaissance-era values, early sculptural forms of the human ideal, and the present-day infatuation with the aesthetics of nostalgia. It’s the visual art equivalent of a time machine. Yet Hamilton suffuses it with such warmth, depth, and subjective opacity to ensure it’ll only transport those observers willing to put in the effort. His anonymous figures aren’t ahistorical, but their glass inset eyes, heavily gessoed forms, and obscured depiction in these studies make them impossible to fully grasp, helping to bore them into our collective unconscious.

While they make a fine counterweight to the dense collection of Hamilton’s, the clean, crisp botanical studies of Kiki Gaffney, an artist from Philadelphia, are something of an odd fit. A mix of diverse media (graphite, ink, acrylic, and oil) applied to large-ish paper surfaces (30 by 22 ½ inches), Gaffney’s works skip along several phases of textile design and floral pattern, finding rhythms not just on the surface of the paper but within the application of the media itself. The strongest example of this is “Poem and Rhythm,” where a wallpaper-y network of yellow flowers, sharply applied in acrylic paint, forms a first-order dimension of the piece, while angular graphite lines float whisper-like in the background.

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