An alternative gallery: making a museum-sized exhibition space

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Sheffield van Buren & Katherine Porter: Paintings
April 4 – May 31, 2013
Thursdays through Sundays, 1 – 6 pm
100 Holton St. Allston, MA
(behind warehouse at 184 Everett) 


[Photo] View of Installation at 100 Holton St.

Down a nondescript alley, just past Jump on in Parties and the Boston Auto Body Shop, you will notice the hand-painted sign with the words GALLERY. Follow the arrow and you will be amazed to find an art exhibition to rival a museum—with soaring ceilings and a beautiful installation of thirty oil paintings by two established artists. What is the source of this unusual gallery?

Artist Sheffield van Buren searched for several years for an alternative exhibition space before locating an “industrial box” in a warehouse section in Allston. The building is one of many vacant or underutilized buildings in the area owned by Harvard Real Estate. Van Buren, a life-long Cambridge resident, approached the university with his idea for gallery space and it agreed to rent the space for several months. The only problem? The raw space still needed walls, soundproofing, lighting and a bathroom.

Fast forward two months, and now this cavernous warehouse space has been renovated by Harvard to provide a museum-like exhibition venue. Measuring 75 x 75 feet, with soaring twenty-five-foot ceilings, it is now the fitting backdrop for a two-month exhibition of thirty paintings by van Buren and Katherine Porter—two artists who have both been creating and exhibiting art for over half a century.

“Lots of people are doing this everywhere,” says Porter referring to the phenomenon of pop-up shows, typically vacant stores that artists rent for short periods to show and sell their work. But 100 Holton is hardly your typical pop-up. At over 5,000 square feet, the scale and finish work needed to make it suitable for showing art might have discouraged many. Yet van Buren, seeing the space as an artist, marveled at the changes in light and space while overseeing the construction. For him the renovation was an art project in itself. Assistance with lighting came from professional designer John Powell, admired for his work with the Charles River Conservancy, illuminating the historic bridges linking Cambridge to Boston. In this gallery his theatrical lighting humanizes the vast space and focuses attention on the art.

Sheffield van Buren, Painting 11, 16 x 16 in.

Van Buren and Porter have known each other since the 1960s when they had studios together in an unheated building on West Brookline Street in South Boston. This current exhibition is the first time they have mounted a show with one another. One is immediately struck by the differences in their artwork. Van Buren’s luminous oil paintings, sixteen inches square on wood, are delicately colored in soft translucent shades of white, pink and blue. Simply numbered without titles, these delicate, quiet works are flecked with foil shavings that protrude from the surface and quiver in the breeze. Mounted along the back wall of the gallery, and illuminated with a narrow band of light, they present a calm and meditative presence. Inspired by the ever changing, ethereal qualities of light, van Buren describes his paintings as “determined by the evening sky, its clouds illuminated from below, and the afterglow of the transitioning sky into darkness.”

Conversely, Porter’s brightly colored abstract works bristle with tension and energy. The size of the works varies, from 2 x 2 feet to over 11 feet in length, and they reflect a forty-four year time span in Porter’s artistic production. Titles hint at the subjects; Evening Venice (2011) uses moody grey and brilliant yellow to capture the atmosphere of canals, bridges and reflected light. In Into November (2011), glowing iridescent patches of color are anchored to the surface by lyrical lines and quadrilateral shapes. The enormous Joie de Vivre (1983) 86 x 140 inches, features geometric shapes rendered with a loaded brush; line and color generate movement and tension reminiscent of Robert Delaunay. Porter offers an energetic counterpoint to van Buren’s more contemplative pieces.

into november
Katherine Porter, Into November, 2011, Oil on panel, 36 x 36 in.

The juxtaposition of styles is keenly evident to Carl Belz, Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, who has been a supporter, collector and friend to both artists for decades. He met Porter in 1968 when he first arrived in Boston and he “fell in love with her work right from the very beginning.” Her work at the time included large-scale grid paintings, one of which is displayed here. Charles Bridge (1969) is hard to miss at 79 x 96 inches; the alternating bands of blue and tan chevrons greet viewers as they enter the gallery. Belz met van Buren many years later during a studio visit where, immediately smitten, he purchased several paintings for the Rose Art Museum collection and one for his wife.

Belz is scheduled to speak at the opening reception on April 20 at 4:30 p.m. His theme will be “Fire and Ice,” inspired by the Robert Frost poem. “Fire” is the expressionistic Porter while “ice” is the transcendental, cerebral van Buren. As this exhibition makes clear, these polar opposites can coexist and act as foils to each other. While the artists do have very different approaches, they also share an affinity in using color to convey emotion, and an interest in capturing the changing qualities of light through paint.

Admirably, van Buren and Porter, creating and exhibiting since the 1960s, willingly embark on new projects. Perhaps the overhaul of the warehouse space and the tribulations of the installation are a reflection of the challenges that continue to energize these artists; this energy will be keenly apparent to visitors in this unique and engaging exhibition.

Will this renovated exhibition space be available for other artists in the future? Sadly no, not unless they bring their 5-irons. When this show concludes, Harvard plans to rent out the building long-term to an indoor golf range.

—Susan Mulski

This show is on view through May 31, Thursday through Sunday, 1-6pm, in a warehouse behind 184 Everett Street, Allston, Massachusetts. For directions, got to “Current Exhibition” at An opening receoption will be held on April 20, 3-6pm.

Susan Mulski is a writer for Art New England magazine; she is based in the Boston area.

For more information about these artists, please visit:


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