Memory and nostalgia in two Stamer exhibits

May. 15, 2014 @ 09:56 AM

“Cross-Cut:  Damian Stamer Paintings and Photographs
from the collection of Jim and Jane Finch,”
Craven Allen Gallery, 1106 Broad St., Durham, through July 12.

“Rummage:  Damian Stamer, large-scale paintings,”
Flanders Gallery, 302 S. West St., Raleigh, through May 31.

Damian Stamer (b. 1982) is into nostalgia, not just with his images, but the way he paints those images. His canvases are filled with dilapidated barns and sheds buckling under debris. The surfaces are blurry, hazy and sometimes spotted with what seem to be droplets of rainwater. He insists we see things he remembers from his childhood or things that are slowly deteriorating in front of his eyes. And we must see them as he does, in the fog of memory. In the gallery handout, he writes about returning over and over to his past, that there is comfort in familiarity. “Time passes slowly as things fall apart,” he writes, and painting is the only way to describe these places, which he confesses exist more in his mind than on earth.
The gallery is a photographic grey-black and white with occasional spots of color; some of the paintings are totally abstract, but most begin with a crumbling building. Stamer was born and bred in Durham. His work today relies on his memories of rural Durham and Orange Counties and photographs he takes of the places he remembers. For now, his paintings focus on ramshackle barns leaning precariously into deterioration or cluttered with stuff, covered with webs, dust and memories.
There is a series called “Lowell Road” and singles with the titles, “New Sharon Church Rd.” and “Patrick Rd.” All are close to each other. They are the barns we see from the road when we get off the interstate. When Stamer shows us what is inside or behind a structure, we recognize abandoned buckets, farm machinery, rickety chairs, refuse. He also paints a white border around most of the images to remind the viewer, no doubt, this is not real; this is an image of an image, like a photograph. His carefully crafted paintings mimic photographs that have faded over time. He drips paint, layers it like sheets of glass or flips it in wide swaths with his brush. He is a master at making the viewer stop and look closely, trying to figure out what else is in the picture.
Juxtaposed with Stamer’s paintings and prints are vintage photographs from the Jim and Jane Finch collection. Stamer was intrigued with the idea of showing his work against photographs from the past and wrote, “Ultimately it will be up to the viewers to make their own connections between the artworks on display.” 
From the Finch collection there is an old barn trisected by several very old, sturdy trees by David Simonton and further down the wall there is Wright Morris’ “Model T” crowded into a barn. Unrelated except tangentially are some of the test photographs from the Bikini Atoll. Photographed from 1.5 miles the mushroom cloud is as scary as anything from Hiroshima. And in a corner are some marvelous formal portraits of middle class African-Americans that, although undated, would appear to be pre-20th century.
Each of the images, whether painted or photographed, carries a specific set of memories and works well in the same gallery and on the same walls. A small color photograph, “Kudzu and Road, Hale, Co., Alabama,” by William Christenberry, secures the show to the South. There is no section in the country more tied to and almost strangled by Kudzu vines.
Stamer, who has had solo exhibitions in Germany and New York, returned to Durham and earned an MFA at UNC Chapel Hill in 2013. Currently, he also has a show in Raleigh at Flanders Gallery.
The Flanders show is smaller but the images are much larger. To fully appreciate the breadth of this young man’s work you need to visit both galleries. Two of the “South Lowell” series are here which gives the viewer a chance to see the discipline Stamer practices in working through ideas. His barns in the smaller format are complete in every aspect; when they get larger, there is room for the landscape to insinuate itself on the composition. 
New in this show are several interiors. One is a narrow view of a kitchen, painted in chocolate browns rather than the straight black and white of a photograph. We look over the edge of a stove toward a sink and some closed Venetian blinds. Another is a room, perhaps an attic of an abandoned house, where a card table, some narrow chests of drawers, pieces of wood, a chair and an overturned stool share the space. We see all this but there are reminders this is not a real place. This is a remembered place with all the tricks of memory that keep the image from being accurate. Those white borders suggest a postcard. 
In “Rummage” he has composed the scene as if it were painted on a screen, divided into three sections. There are tilted objects to disrupt the feeling of space as are the splashes of paint that look like raindrops on a glass surface.
“Requiem” is another interior that feels so familiar. In the center of the picture is an upright piano. The cover for the keys is gone, the instrument leans forward, but somehow a chair has managed to stay in place as if waiting for the performer. Green vines escape down from the ceiling and part of a wheelbarrow and lots of junk pull us into the painting only to be pushed back to the surface by the tilting piano. Stamer may begin with an actual photograph but digs into his basket of aesthetic tricks to make us see what he sees — a blurred vision of things connected to another time, images of images.
In addition to his MFA at Chapel Hill the artist has studied art in Hungary and Germany. At the moment he works in two studios, one in Brooklyn, the other in Durham and for now, his chosen subjects are the places he knew as a child. This young man is on his way. 

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.