IN an art world stretched thin by the economy, it's not uncommon for a gallery or museum to compromise deeper art values just to stay alive.In contrast, a small gallery nestled in the orchards and cow pastures of rural Hollis, N.H., is finding strength and popularity by challenging artists and the community to produce and contemplate thought-provoking art. "What we're after is real art, not decorative art. Not works that evoke 'Isn't that pretty - that would look nice over the sofa,' but works that allow the artist complete and total freedom to express what he feels he must say," explain Gary Johnson and Charles Candler, owners of Opus 71 Galleries in Hollis. Mr. Johnson and Mr. Candler ran art businesses in Washington D.C., New York, and Pennsylvania in the '70s and '80s before settling in Hollis three years ago. For support, they founded the Hollis Art Society. It is a risky goal for art entrepreneurs in staid New England: Every six months, Opus 71 holds a three-week exhibition by selected regional artists who have been asked to produce a work based on a central idea. This season's show, which has been extended to Nov. 3, is entitled "Flawed Perfection." When you step inside the antique, white clapboard home that houses the gallery, you're drawn into the analysis of "flawed perfection." There are 76 treatments by 22 artists, mostly paintings, with some pastels, drawings, constructions, sculpture, ceramics, and one stained-glass piece. A classical use of narrative and the figure pervades much of the exhibit, with a sprinkling of modern presentations. For instance, a large portrait of an expressive young father, kneeling amid playful, naked children describes "the utter joy - and simultaneous frustration - of being a parent," says its creator, Colin Berry. Gordon Carlisle shows the destruction of childhood myths with his whimsical painting/construction of a boy fleeing the lap of a department-store Easter Bunny. One of the most unusual aspects of Opus 71 is the gallery owners' dedication to maintaining a dialogue with the artists. During the six months that the artists are at work on the show, Candler and Johnson are in constant communication, offering ideas and pushing them to the limits of their technique and expression. When the exhibition is finally displayed, it is a celebration of individuality, and attracts a waiting list of artists wishing to participate, and enough buyers to keep the project comfortably afloat. "Opus 71 is giving me a rare opportunity to show works that most galleries won't take a chance on," says Patrice Methe. "You often find people who are most successful in the art world producing works that don't challenge the mind. A typical gallery response to some of my paintings is 'Your work is wonderful, but our clientele won't accept it. Her stark oil painting "Interior Consequences," created for the current Opus 71 show, is an example of such a challenging work. It shows a lonely room with bare windows, a reclining nude man on a bed in the foreground, a woman wringing out a towel over a bowl, and another man looking out the window in a posture of distress. "Some people regard this as an AIDS painting, which it could be, but it's much more about all the perils of responsibility in a relationship," says Ms. Methe. "I knew it was a risk painting. I fought with myself to keep from decorating it and making it safer for people to look at, which would have made it more of a contrivance rather than a direct emotional impact," says Methe. As proof of the influence a gallery can have on a community's appreciation of serious art, this painting by Methe was awarded the Hollis Art Society Award for Excellence, that carries $1,000 prize. Formed by Opus 71 two years ago, the society is made up of about 100 mostly local residents. They pay an annual $50 dues that funds the award given at each show, with extra dues going to artist study grants. The title for this spring's show is "The Many Faces of Fantasy ... and Other Forms of Escape," which proposes that artists "identify and portray the causes of man's need for fantasy and escape," according to gallery owner Johnson. "I'm normally leery of a gallery that wants to direct my thinking," says Christopher Gowell, who has found a supportive market for her figurative sculptures through Opus 71, "but I've found that their ideas ... pull out hidden feelings - so that what I create is still really me." Says Johnson, "We see a desperate need for art to be used to help people ask questions of themselves, and thus further their well-being. Art can record beauty, but it's more valuable when it uses that beauty to stimulate thinking." The majority of works in the show range between $500 and $3,500, with a few exceptions at either end. Commissions from sales pay for the expenses of the two special annual shows, in October and April. Ultimately, the Hollis Arts Society aims to support Opus 71 in expanding its special shows to include music and dance. Johnson is optimistic about the gallery's future: "Our idea," he says, "is that if you are doing something you believe in and you work at it, you will get people to come to you, wherever you are."
Opus 71 Galleries is located at 71 Depot Road in Hollis,N. H. It is open by appointment on weekdays (603-465-3434) and 12:00-5:30 p.m. on weekends.