Home is a range: Artists do house work

Rob Browning, "Sea House."
Rob Browning, "Sea House."

The concept of shelter has been on my mind lately because I've been reading Michael Pollan's A Place of My Own, a book about the author's process of building a stand-alone workspace–- a tiny house, if you will, for his writing. So, the group exhibit, "Houses," at the Nichols Gallery Annex in Barboursville, pulled me like a magnet.

The venue itself is an old house, where each of the downstairs rooms showcases the work of one of the contributing artists: Rob Browning, Margaret Embree, Gray Dodson, and Ron Boehmer. Like siblings in a family, the four painters may share a common subject and oil as a medium, but their personalities on the canvas could not be more different.

Rob Browning's work is not strictly dedicated to structures. Small portraits hang amid his larger, more surreal images, which thrill with blocks of saturated color. Browning's stylized shoebox houses have no apparent occupants (and no doors, just single windows), but a notable exception is "Stick." Like a modern re-envisioning of Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World," an adolescent boy crouches in the foreground, clutching a stick as he looks away from the viewer toward a white house, barely visible beyond a grassy horizon. Browning uses houses to prod viewers' ideas about isolation, inside and outside, and what is hidden but suggested.

Margaret Embree's houses also lack occupants as her paintings depict abandoned structures with rusting roofs and vine-covered outer walls. Embree creates an eerie sense of emptiness by allowing the viewer to look through windows and doorways to open windows on the other side of the buildings. In contrast to the houses' dark interiors, her settings are sunny and lush with vegetation. Embree's compositions mix straightforward realism, offering little evidence of her brush, with impressionistic landscapes, an odd combination of techniques that is not always successful.

Impressionistic brushwork is also central to Gray Dodson's and Ron Boehmer's work. Dodson's broad strokes and imaginative use of color–- e.g. bright pink to highlight brick windows, a tree, and cars in "Near the Park"–- recall Paul C©zanne, and her houses have a just-out-of-reach, dreamy quality. Boehmer, on the other hand, opts for a near-pointillistic style. The modest, mid-20th century houses occupying his yellow-green landscapes seem secondary to his focus on the technical aspects of painting.

Whether symbolic, realistic, dreamy, or incidental, the houses in "Houses" offer a range of dwellings under one roof.

The exhibition, "Houses," featuring work by Rob Browning, Margaret Embree, Gray Dodson, and Ron Boehmer, is on view through May 31 at the Nichols Gallery Annex. 5420 Governor Barbour St., Barboursville. 540-832-3565.