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In her first show as curator, painter and installation artist Pamela Sheridan juxtaposes the works of three artists - painter Jeff Suarez, photographer Carol Gaudreau and her own – in a way that pretty much makes the viewer say, “Huh? Why’s this one next to that one?”

That’s to say, Sheridan pushes her viewers to use an artist’s eye in viewing the show.

Carol Gaudreau’s digital and gelatin silver portraits and landscapes reveal her subjects’ surface and depth simultaneously. She intuitively understands that portrait photography is a dialog between the two people on either side of the camera and establishes an implicit trust so that subjects reveal their inner natures to herself.

The pre-adolescent girl in Hilliana rests her head on the arm of a couch, lying dreamily in a party dress. Her dead-on gaze and slight smile hint at an already developing but innocent sexuality. “Sunny” seems anything but that. In a visual metaphor for self-entrapment, the photograph’s Asian woman looks imprisoned in her silk jacket and bedspread, clamping one hand over the other and looking fearfully into the camera with an involuntary frown. In Hop Hop Dancer, Gaudreau catches the slightly perplexed frown of a 15-year-old boy thoughtfully tugging at his earlobe. He makes sure we catch all his ‘hood regalia – pinky ring with happy face, chain link watch and gold bracelets. He’s not aware, however, that he’s simultaneously showing his naiveté.

Gaudreau’s landscapes have a keen appreciation of the bizarre: Frodo might appear any minute from a gaping hole beneath two birches with claw-like, exposed roots. Another shot of vertigo-inducing tree trunks leaning at a 45-degree is an eerie fantasy about surrender.

Although Jeff Suarez is self-taught and has only been painting two years, he has an innate compositional and design sense. His major theme is music, mostly his guitars - anthropomorphic, or locked into centrifugal design patterns, their energy almost jumps off the canvas. His Matisse-like works, in gray and green, look like deconstructed sound holes. Perfect Session builds a stylized fantasy of a jazz session on simple geometric patterns in gold, white, brown and black. Manipulating hues of blue, possibly to salute the blues as the basis of jazz, Suarez transforms the pianist, trumpeter and drummer into design icons representing the “J” in jazz, the precision of a trumpet solo and the solid back-up of the drums.

If Gaudreau shows you the surface, and Suarez the mid-point fantasies, Pamela Sheridan bares emotion’s underbelly with her complex, abstract and large installations. Sheridan does not plan her work; she just takes off from an initial concept. Paradox is about the resilience and beauty found within life’s struggles. Its barbed wire loops are meshed together by multicolor threads, which encase globes that likely represent hopes or defeated fears. Like all of Sheridan’s works, they show an intricate interplay of positive and negative space and a flowing sense of line.

In Us, she replaces the “finding-the-perfect soul-mate” ethos with just accepting one another’s baggage. Loops – elephantine and jute-entwined or of galvanized steel – create an organic entity, holding together its innards with multicolor embroidery threads. They encase the work’s center, into which Sheridan has woven Indiana Jenkins’s poem, In My Pocket. The theme of the poem and the core of “Us,” is that we are all to an extent damaged goods and that the best relationships help us hold each other together. In The Fury and The Hope Within, an elegy to a heroin overdose victim, three paintings abstract addiction with the fire of craving and the blue cool of the fix. But Sheridan doesn’t use art merely as catharsis. Haven, made with children and auctioned off for a community project, binds together four large dream catchers, protecting the children’s dreams for cleaner air, peace, and freedom from fear.

The thirty representational, semi-abstract and abstract works represent the inner and outer layers of physical and emotional reality. You’ll see a lot of patterns repeating in the groups of pieces. Scarves draped over women’s heads in Gaudreau’s portraits mimic the loops in Us and Paradox. Relationships abound: the couple in Sheridan’s Us; Suarez’s happy Family of guitars; the narratives in Gaudreau’s portraits, and the dreams held tight in Haven. Sheridan has done a nice job of pulling off her theme, despite the show’s unlikely mix, while introducing talented emerging artists.

Arts and Music at First Parish in Malden, Universalist

"Transformations" is on view through February 23 at the Gallery at Elm Street.

All images are courtesy of the artists.

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