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  • By Carol Taylor-Kearney

An Uncommon View of the Commonplace

Close at Hand, an exhibition of artwork by artists Sheila Chimes, Elizabeth Heller, and Ed Kent, opens Cerulean Arts Gallery’s season with a nice flair. On the one-hand Close at Hand presents many paintings of traditional still life—that is, representations of known and commonplace objects. On the other hand, although the objects represented are familiar—I would even say “close at hand” to the artists who make these works-- there is an interesting twist to each artist’s way of handing such recognizable subject matter.

Post card for Close at Hand.  Artworks, left to right:  "Junk Drawer" by Sheila Chimes, "Still Life with Summer Flowers" by Elizabeth Heller, "Assemblage No. 7" by Ed Kent.
Parts 2 by Sheila Chimes

Sheila Chimes gives us paintings that are a masterclass of design. How does this work? The composition appears to be of objects scattered across a surface. This surface can be blank as in Junk Drawer (featured on post card) or covered with a motif as in Red Bill or Map. Each article creates its own pattern through coloration. In Junk Drawer the blacks, grays, and

Map by Sheila Chimes

whites become metal things like tools and hardware and an accent of brownish-yellow and red create a triangular path that takes us around the rectangular picture plane. Another relatively monochromatic grey work, Parts 2, is full of black, white, and mid-tone strokes. But what sets this off as a painting of shiny metal objects is the bit of a golden yellow circle that clarifies that this is not a grisaille but a grouping of stuff made of reflective materials. Similarly, in Map the organic-shaped, brownish objects of wood, stick, and branch reflect the outlines of land masses on the chart below. Again Chimes uses a color, and again it is red, to emphasize another relationship-- the meridians that are also present. As I examine each painting, I become increasingly aware of what a fabulous abstract painter Sheila Chimes is. Not that her realistic depiction of objects is lacking; it is spot-on. But she presents a view from above or nearly above which tends to flatten the picture plane and although there are shadows, these are tight and blended to the ground. In this way I think of her as being a successor of Edgar Degas. And like Degas her compositions ar

e off-kilter. In Red Bill she sets an orange scarf, purple grapes, a maroon ball, a wrinkled ribbon of crimson paper, and two rounds of yellow and light blue material on a backdrop having a red-on-white floral pattern. Most of these colors—yellow, orange, red, maroon, purple—are analogous. The blue, slightly darker in value to the white surface and cooler and complementary to the presiding orange, is held in place by the maroon circle of the ball and its greyish shadow. A nice piece of eye-candy here. That the left side of the composition is empty of objects and the other sides have them cut off prompts a feeling of informality that fits with the subjects as well as a sense of passing tim

e. A really interest-ing painting that, for me, speaks to the development of her work is Bill’s Batch 1A. Having seen Red Bill, I recognize the white and red patterns as a back cloth, maybe a scarf or cover or wall paper. The brown at the bottom can mean a tabletop with the frayed-edged aforementioned material. But then it gets weird. What seems a purple ribbon flips back and forth in value. These value changes are less about light and more about transition. Other color shapes float and interweave, sometimes feeling solid by their opacity and transparent by the way their edges share a shape, even when there is a change of color. Bill’s Batch 1A is no different than what Chimes has done in all her still lifes. She plays with viewpoint and cropping, color and shape and pattern to make the commonplace delightful.

Elizabeth Heller is also a painter of still life but with completely different interests. Her

Still Life with Autumn Scarf by Elizabeth Heller
Patti Smith by Elizabeth Heller

canvases are full of objects and she is wonderful with expressing the way light plays across different articles, their inherent pattern and texture, both dull and reflective surfaces. And although she can present these groupings slightly off-center, every last displayed object is fully contained on the canvas right up to, but not crossing, the edge. And there is quite a lot to see; the picture is full to overflowing and from a viewpoint that is both immediate and just far enough away for you to study both the objects and the paint. In this she reminds me of Janet Fish, another great female still life artist. For example, in Still Life with Autumn Scarf, a red, yellow, and green patterned scarf is bunched in the foreground. It may be falling off the table, but maybe not. In any case, it sets a barrier between the assembled objects and viewer. The table is set slightly to one side so that I can see its end and the supposedly empty space it occupies. But the mirror in the background and a little bit of detail at the painting’s left side tell me differently—this room has more than just this still life. Light and shadow, shiny and dull reflections gambol from left to right. A blue bowl tips to kiss the right boundary while inside the picture itself everything is doubly repeated in the mirror along with the hands of a possible viewer or the artist herself. Within the picture is a small bust. And I find t

hat face, the face of Patti Smith, on a pedestal beside the painting. Another piece, Night in the Studio, also contains a sculpture that is nearby. Night in the Studio plays more with relative dark colors and shadow rather than brightness and reflection. In Heller’s use of color and incorporation of her own work of art, the sculpture, I am reminded of Henri Matisse’s Studio with Gold Fish (which is at the Barnes Foundation). The sculpture that is included in this painting is Portrait of Genesis, a curvy nude. Made of cast hydrocal, a relative to plaster, it shows the hand of the artist also reminding me of Matisse and his sculptures. That Portrait of Genesis has a patina of casein, a milk-based white paint brushed over it. It looks like an Abstract Expressionist white painting fashioned into a figurative sculpture. That the sculptures are used as part of the subject matter of the paintings is very “meta-“. I look at the paintings, which I have to assume came after the sculptures wer

e made, to see if the sculptures are merely decorative objects in the paintings—a “twinning” effect. Or if something from or about the sculptures relates to the process or subject or meaning of the painting. I believe I gained more clarity of purpose when I looked at Still Life with Summer Flowers (featured on post card). The title suggests the potted plant at the center of the layout. But in taking apart the other objects included, I am left wondering. Okay, a shell on a piece of crystal, a small bottle with two sprigs of lavender, a blue glass bottle… check. But a severed hand and a wiry frame or make-up mirror with a dull, almost monochromatic face in the circle in the middle? Now I’m thinking vanitas and memento mori or maybe some personal commentary. Then it occurs to me, “Nature Morte”, French for “Still Life”, could also be “Nature Death”. But not death as an end of life, rather as a transition, of time, of space, of light.

Assemblage No. 9 by Ed Kent

Ed Kent does not make still lifes per se. Instead he creates assemblages of small parts into a structure. These parts are varied from mechanical and electrical components to small tools and hardware to trinkets and novelty items. Each piece is fitted almost grid-like into a composition as in Assemblage No. 9 and Assemblage No. 7 (featured on post card). He coerces the bits into a strict rectangle. But in Assemblage No. 9 all the pieces are relatively flat to the picture plane while in Assemblage No. 7, there is a layering where some parts expand over other parts. Not to be pigeonholed, in others like Arrangement in Blue, he allows them to stay free-form, that is, allowing the pieces to create the assemblage’s ultimate shape. He unifies his structures through paint. This is important as it is a factor is separating the constituent parts from their function, instead focusing on their qualities of shape and texture. From a distance certain recognizable shapes/objects stand out; up close one can get lost in all the bits and pieces. The neutrality of color in Assemblage No. 9 and No. 7, both painted white, keeps the interest simply on the surface. While in Arrangement in Blue, an Yves Klein colored piece, bigger parts thus less small detail and areas where the wall creates negative space within the composition integrates it into the room. But the shadows that it casts isolates it as an individual passing through. I recognize some of it to be parts from movie projectors. And the verticality of Arrangement in Blue, along with the blue color, also relates to it being a spiritual message, a totem of sorts. Kent further plays with this idea of the assemblage construct as part of an environment in Object No. 205 where the orange mechanical stands on a canvas of violet, white, and green stripes. This ground takes on the look of a floor, a baseboard, and a wall—a room. While the bright orange assemblage sits like a tinker toy, creating its own shadow. This could be the most “representational” work in

his oeuvre while Convergence, a 3-color circular piece that looks like an exploding sun with an orange spider that could be an alien is the most “narrative”. But the most painterly, and perhaps most abstract is Assemblage No. 5, an orange grate with an assemblage of components against a rectangular painting bearing similar shapes in a reddish-orange with films of yellow, blue, and grey. It seems a key, or is it a culmination, of what he is expressing to us—a discussion on pictorial elements and the picture plane.

Close at Hand, artwork by Sheila Chimes, Elizabeth Heller, and Ed Kent is at Cerulean Arts Gallery from September 4th – 29th. Cerulean Arts is located at 1355 Ridge Avenue Philadelphia, PA 19123. You can also see the individual pieces of work (and purchase them) online at The opening reception for Close at Hand was September 7th, and the Artists’ Talk from Saturday September 21st at 1 PM is below. And, of course, stop by Cerulean Arts Collective members' gallery right next door. Five separate galleries, five separate artists... What a way to start the Art Year!

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