Jon Imber still paints. The artist, who was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, in the fall of 2012, can no longer walk. He can’t hold a paintbrush as he once did. The disease took the use of his right hand — his painting hand — first, so he painted with his left. Lately, he has to brace the brush between both hands. He doesn’t move his failing arms to paint. He sways his entire body.
Imber has two remarkable gallery shows up now of recent paintings. (A survey show is also on view at Danforth Art). Raw urgency and thrumming vitality power still lifes, a landscape, and a few portraits at Alpha Gallery and portraits of friends at Maud Morgan Arts’ Chandler Gallery. Those at Maud Morgan Arts, executed since last September, also startlingly chart the artist’s physical decline.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Imber began his career as a paragon of control, building up volumetric figures out of many small, measured, layered strokes. Summering in Maine, the sea and sky broke through his constraint. Bravura landscapes blossomed out of juicy, unexpected gestures — playful drips, severe gashes, impudent dollops. In his paintings over the years, he bounced back and forth between precision and cutting loose. Now precision is no longer a choice.
The change over the last six months is alarming. The bold portrait “Don,” executed last October, fills the square canvas: a background of dancing, mustardy strokes, a man rendered in confident gestures — easy arcs for his gray blue hair, little squibs of paint for the jut of his eyebrows. Every stroke at once fluid and sure. That’s what Imber does so well: His marks are so alive, they feel untamed, out of hand. Yet he orchestrates them into full, glorious paintings.
The latest portraits bristle with that same unbridled energy. They fill up less space; they’re more compact, also more haywire and jittery. “Jon,” a self-portrait made in February, leans to one side, and that side is less contoured, more a smear of tones. He has a hawkish mien, more than the man himself. These latest portraits are ferocious.
Imber’s portraits raise fascinating questions about how much painting truly lies in the artist’s hand, and how much of it depends on his eye and his spirit. Imber is less nimble, but he turns that to his advantage. He employs his awkwardness to go deeper, push harder, expose more.
Most of the paintings at Alpha Gallery were made last summer, when he still had pretty good use of his left hand. Vigorous and buoyant, they hinge on that sense of release that his most expressionistic canvases have always exhibited.
Indeed, it’s as if he’s satisfying a hunger for action and movement in paintings such as “I Feel Like I Am in the Middle of Swirling Energy.” It’s a boisterous jungle of a piece, with lolling tangles in humid greens and yellows, including a gruff spray of burly yellow strokes at the top suggesting a monarchic lily.
Amid all this defiant riotousness, I was happy to come upon the quivering stillness in “Blue Hydrangea,” with its voluptuous blossoms of soft blues, their jagged edges unfolding over a ground of palest mauve — Imber’s color sense is masterful. And he will not be domesticated: Brash wet overstrokes in white hold the flowers in place.
Imber may not be able to paint like this again. Still, he paints, and well he should. To this artist, it’s evident that to paint is to live. May he continue to devise new techniques to keep the brushwork up as his body gives way.
New space in Watertown
Artists Ellen Wineberg and Cathleen Daley have opened a new project space next door to Drive-By Projects in Watertown. They’re reluctant to call it a gallery. “We’re artists for artists,” says Daley.
Their first show, “Un-Mapping the Air,” is spare, uncluttered, and deeply moving. It’s all about foiling expectations. Large is made small. Something tactile and present somehow conveys absence.
Bob Oppenheim’s painted panels stitched and splayed with loose threads are delicate with breathy hues and barely visible lines. They might map the cosmos, or the underside of a piece of embroidery. They pull you in close with their hints and whispers, weaving a net of memory and longing. What’s there feels like traces of what has gone.
Speaking of cosmic, Ted Ollier’s silkscreened pulsing concentric circles with pools of color at their core are simplified visions of planets and their rings. They read like objects of meditation, icons that draw you into the center. “Planetary Rings, Uranus” has a small pale blue circle at its center, and the rings around it imply distance. “Planetary Rings, Neptune” has a larger, turquoise core, and fewer rings. Where Uranus recedes, Neptune seductively rises to meet us.
Carol McMahon explores the dark side of domesticity with white-washed doll houses. “Homefront” is nearly empty, upside down and askew, with stray boxes and a white-painted doll’s hat resting on its upturned foundation. God knows what damage came to this home, from within or without, to leave it so bereft.
Jon Imber: Visionary Botanist
At: Alpha Gallery, 37 Newbury St., through April 2. 617-536-4465, www.alphagallery.com
Un-Mapping the Air: Bob Oppenheim, Carol McMahon, Ted Ollier
At: Room 83 Spring,
83 Spring St., Watertown. www.room83spring.com