If Middlesex were a neighborhood in the Bronx, Galen Cheney’s jittery scrapings and layered slashes of paint wouldn’t seem so incongruous. But Cheney does live and work in that central Vermont town, an unlikely home port for someone whose paintings often resemble a free-form version of what subway taggers were doing 25 years ago.
Examples of the petite, white-haired artist’s emphatically urban, graffiti-influenced style fill the Church Street side of the BCA Center in Burlington. The rear of the gallery, on City Hall Park, contains more subdued and refined abstractions, though they similarly lack Vermont-y qualities.
“Being in that environment helps me paint,” Cheney says of Middlesex, “but I don’t need to paint it.” In fact, “I’m feeling a little cut off” in Vermont, she adds, strolling through her BCA show, “Street Level.” “I go to the city as much as I can.”
That would be New York City, where Cheney recently became affiliated with the Painting Center. She’s scheduled to have a show next year at that nonprofit exhibition space in Chelsea, where galleries abound.
Born in Los Angeles and raised in Connecticut, Cheney lived in New York for a few years after graduating from Mount Holyoke College. “I was climbing the corporate ladder,” she says of her work at a Manhattan publishing firm, “but it was the wrong ladder.”
She got on the right one by studying art history and theory in Italy and then earning an MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1990. Her progression as a painter wasn’t straightforward, however. Cheney spent five years in Portland, Ore., where she attended massage school in addition to working in a bronze foundry. She also made stopovers in North Carolina and Washington, D.C. Having moved to her grandparents’ home state of Vermont five years ago, she now gives therapeutic massages at her home to supplement her art earnings.
Cheney’s evolution as a painter has been no less restless. She began by composing traditional landscapes but soon moved into abstract expressionism, having become particularly smitten with the work of Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) and Philip Guston (1913-1980). That direction proved profitable: “The work sold well,” Cheney says. “It was pretty.”
So pretty, she recounts, that Bill Jensen, a Brooklyn-based painter of visceral and often wildly colorful abstractions, referred to Cheney’s work as “perfume.” He didn’t mean it as a compliment.
Assessing Cheney’s paintings at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, where she had a fellowship last year, Jensen did see something he liked. “Do that,” he told her, pointing to one of the colorfully chaotic and densely layered pieces of the sort now on display at BCA.
“I needed that affirmation,” Cheney says, and notes that Jensen is a painter “I much admire.” His advice marked “a turning point for me,” she adds. Gesturing toward “Street Fair,” a 10-part painting with jutting geometric forms and swirls that riff on Arabic script, Cheney muses, “Five years ago, I never imagined my work would look like this.”
One of the birch panels that make up “Street Fair” leans at an angle against the wall rather than hanging alongside the others. That quirky placement introduces an amusingly jarring effect in a work that manages to achieve visual coherence despite its jumbles and synapses.
A display format suggested by BCA curator Chris Thompson brings caprice to “Lariat,” as well. It’s another agitated oil-and-enamel composition on 10 birch panels. These individual surfaces form a harmonious sequence, even though the paintings continue around a corner, alternately hung flush or positioned to protrude a couple of inches on the perpendicular walls.
In “Untitled Diptych,” Cheney paints tubes striped like candy canes on one half, while on the other she presents a tangle of swoops and smudges. The tubes are a recurrent motif in this 15-piece show. They appear in a few of the calmer compositions in the rear of the gallery as well as in the wilder works up front.
“It’s freeing to work without any sort of blueprint, but it’s also exhausting,” Cheney reveals of the sprayed and brushed creations that Jensen encouraged her to cultivate. As a relief from that open-ended process, “I need something really methodical, something that doesn’t require digging down,” she explains. While her outbursts of urban angst materialize on panels with no preparatory sketching, “I mapped that one out completely,” Cheney remarks, pointing to “Pulse,” a comparatively small-scale work in the BCA Center’s backroom.
It consists of a face-like shape formed by bands of blue, white and black against a dark background. Nearby hangs the three-part “Calligraffiti” suite, more graceful and disciplined compared to Cheney’s more explosive and anarchic work. Here, the tubes sway gently into one another, producing patterns that do indeed allude to both calligraphy and graffiti — as well as to the work of Brice Marden, one of the stars in Chelsea’s constellation. The centerpiece of this trio is especially striking because of the dark palette the artist chose, which is radically unlike the ruckus of pinks, blues, yellows and whites elsewhere in the show.
Comparing these sublime arrangements to the bombast in the front room, some viewers might advise Cheney to “do that.” Maybe it will mark another turning point for this continually evolving artist.
"Street Level," paintings by Galen Cheney. BCA Center, Burlington. Through June 23. Info, 865-7165. burlingtoncityarts.org.