The Portland Phoenix

Art Seen: The dialogue of Duane Paluska and Ellen Golden

"Mr. Magic," Ellen Golden

"Mr. Magic," two 6-by-4-inch pieces, ink on paper, by Ellen Golden, 2021. (Courtesy the artist)

In 2019, artist couple Duane Paluska and Ellen Golden exhibited together at Icon Contemporary Art, the Brunswick gallery Paluska operated for some 30 years adjacent to his woodworking workshop.

Paluska died last year and a new version of that show now graces the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland in celebration of their life, love, and art.

“Dialogue: Duane Paluska and Ellen Golden” (through Jan. 3, 2022) features Paluska’s shaped canvases and wood sculptures and Golden’s pen-and-ink drawings. The dialogue they carry on speaks a shared vocabulary of geometry, abstract form, pattern, repetition accented by a palette of restrained colors.

Untitled Duane Paluska
Untitled acrylic on canvas on board by Duane Paluska, 2019. (Courtesy the artist)

The Paluska-Golden dialogue takes place in a single gallery room where Golden’s small drawings make up in detail what they lack in size, holding their own against Paluska’s larger acrylic on canvas on wood paintings and eccentric wooden sculpture, which read like tables and chairs that aspire to more than function by virtue of being deliberately non-functional.

Golden’s drawings build mesmerizing patterns out of myriad tiny elements, the whole far surpassing the parts. Most of her recent drawings are in a palette of orange-reds that read like little brick mosaics.

Paluska’s paintings explore the complexities that can arise when something as simple as two rectangles overlap, intersect and penetrate one another. He was well-known as a furniture maker before he became a fine artist. His sculptures use the techniques of joinery to create furniture-like pieces that share the dynamics of connection with the paintings.

But where the paintings are sober and serious, like most of the art Paluska showed at Icon, his cherry, ash, maple and mahogany sculptures are a comic mash-up of tables, chairs, and benches.

“The art I make has to do with my personality and character,” Paluska once said. “The story I have to tell is shaped by those characteristics. It’s understated, quiet, ironic.”

The subtext of the Paluska-Golden dialogue is care and craftsmanship and attention to detail.

“We are both interested in detail, precision, clarity, ambiguity of space and depth, and the way that color plays into those concerns,” Golden said of their shared aesthetic. “I also think that both of us found a way to take a seemingly intellectual approach and use it as a means to express deep emotion.” 

Both Paluska and Golden were relative late bloomers as artists. Paluska taught English literature at Governor Dummer Academy, Wheelock College, and Bowdoin College from 1959-1973 and worked primarily as a furniture maker and housebuilder from 1973-1989 before he blossomed as an artist and gallerist.  

Golden studied art history in college and made art into her 20s, but she only returned to her art in a serious way in the last decade, having worked in the cause of economic justice for women and immigrants at Coastal Enterprises in Brunswick from 1978-2015.

Paluska once compared the urge to make art to a wild animal marking its territory.

“It’s a way of recreating one’s self and establishing a place in the world,” he said, “both as an invitation to share with others and as protection against the existential emptiness.”

The Maine Jewish Museum is an urban oasis in Portland that has established itself in recent years as one of the most consistently fine galleries in the state. Concurrent with the Paluska-Golden show, the museum is showing photographs of Israel by Sean Alonzo Harris and illustrations by June Atkins from “The Pumpkin Patch,” a traditional Buddhist tale.

Edgar Allen Beem has written about art in Maine since 1978.

Maine Jewish Museum, 267 Congress St., Portland,, 207-773-2339.

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