Damian Stamer: Unseen 

Through Saturday, Nov. 2

Craven Allen Gallery, Durham

“New Sharon Church Rd. 79” embodies the mystery, revelation, and transience that permeates Unseen, an exhibit by Durham painter Damian Stamer. A small shed doggedly holds the center of the composition. The shed’s sharp edges separate it from the kaleidoscopically blurred landscape that surrounds it. Its entryway, which is no more than a dark stroke of paint, implies that a door was once there but has now been pulled off its hinges. What lies beyond the entrance, and will the momentary chance to find out soon slip away?

Unseen, currently on view at Craven Allen Gallery in Durham, includes multiple works on paper by Stamer. The landscapes and interiors he has sourced from his commutes through rural North Carolina are presented to viewers as a vanitas—a reminder of ephemerality. Although the artist typically reserves watercolors for preliminary studies, here, he deftly uses it to create portals into a world that is often either ignored or misunderstood.

Crumbling barns and old farmhouses littered with moth-eaten mattresses, broken furniture, and artifacts of days gone by have a nostalgic, poetic quality that can hypnotize observers. Stamer recalls first feeling this way as a child looking outside a car window, but now, as an adult, he is also aware of the sometimes grim, likely unknowable history that creates the conditions for scenes like these. The intention of this body of work is to call attention to complexities that are overlooked when we see something familiar.

While “New Sharon Church Rd. 79” and “South Lowell 153” portray haunting beauty through softly bleeding washes of watercolor, pieces like “Horry County MT 8” and “South Lowell MP 27” represent impending erasure. Stamer uses printmaking techniques to layer imposing forms and frenetic lines over otherwise-idyllic pastoral scenes. Interiors such as “Horry County Study 6” and “New Sharon Church Rd. 3” show crowded spaces scratched over with a tangle of colored lines. Will these spaces, which were once home to someone, be lost to decay, spurred by encroaching nature or the “progress” of redevelopment? 

Craven Allen’s quiet, secluded belowground gallery is the ideal space in which to view such layered, intimate work. There is a solemnity in a room with no natural light, and it lends itself quite well to the sobering questions Stamer is posing.

Unseen is Stamer’s first full show of works on paper. Though primarily an oil painter, he picked up watercolors for the first time since his undergraduate studies in a residency at the Budapest Art Factory in 2017. What first seemed like an enticing experiment in pushing an abandoned medium turned into a powerful tool for inquiry. Unseen is a triumph of both technique and content, transporting the viewer far from what is known in a seemingly commonplace vehicle. It is certainly an exhibition to be seen.

Corrections: Damian Stamer lives in Durham, not Raleigh, and his 2017 residency was at the Budapest Art Factory, not the university. 

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