Opposite attract

James Shay and Michael Todd

“Hoffman’s Well” by James Shay at the Stremmel Gallery.

“Hoffman’s Well” by James Shay at the Stremmel Gallery.

There’s a lot of ways to approach a two-person art show. Do you want two artists who have something in common—a shared theme or material or a common time or place? Or do you want contrast? Two artist that seem to work at cross purposes? The show currently on display at Stremmel Gallery takes this latter approach. The two artists, James Shay and Michael Todd, both live in California but, beyond that, have little in common.

And their artworks seem to have contradictory purposes. But that’s why the works look so good side by side.

Todd is a sculptor. Shay is a painter. Todd’s works in bronze and steel are funky, explosive and energetic. Shay’s paintings are pastoral and calming to the eye.

Shay’s paintings hit a sweet spot for those who like Western landscape paintings as well as painterly abstract work. They’re representational paintings that depict the idyllic rolling hills of central California but abstracted out to swaths of base colors, and arranged in careful, harmonious geometry. Some of the best paintings, like “Red Ochre Ridge,” are abstracted enough that, out of context, or without the horizon line near the top of the painting, they might not even register as landscapes. But most of the paintings are neatly evocative of Western places.

“I really admire the abstract art of the last century,” says Shay. “But at the same time, the one thing that I hold against it, is that doesn’t communicate well enough to a large number of people. It does more than it did before, but it doesn’t touch as many people as landscapes do.”

Shay paints with casein paint. “It dries matte and … it’s not plasticky or oily"—like acrylics or oil paints, respectively. “It dries vaguely brittle so that you can sand it and scrape it, which I love.” He works the surfaces very heavily which gives the paintings an aged quality.

Before turning to painting, Shay had been an architect for 25 years. “I know that, when I want to, I can draw and compose,” he says. “And I learned how to do that as an architect.”

There’s an architectural sense of structure in his work, but he says that in some ways, painting is liberation from his former life as an architect. “I love color,” he says, “and there’s practically no color in the practice of architecture.”

(The color blue—as in “blueprints"—is the exception.)

“I’m not driven by angst,” says Shay. That comes across in his work. Todd’s work, on the other hand, has a frenetic quality. While Shay’s work palliates, Todd’s work provokes. It’s full of shapes that move outward or upward with loose, sprawling energy. “Jacobs Ladder I” and “Jacobs Ladder II” are bronze pieces that lift vertically with ramshackle shapes, culminating in ladder figures.

Many of his pieces, like “Chelo,” radiate out from large circles. The sprawling, frenzied circular sculptures contrast nicely with Shay’s calm blocks of pastoral color.