Wednesday, January 16, 2008

states of the art

"States of Identity: Real or Imagined" is the State of the Art Gallery's contribution to the upcoming Light in Winter Festival. As usual, it features gallery members weighing in on a loosely-defined theme. This year's theme is "identity." Although this may have served as a jumping-off point for the artists, it doesn't work as much of a guidepost for the viewer.

"States" does have a mood distinct from most SOAG group shows. While carefully observed realism often acts as an anchor, the work here is more experimental. There are a few traditionally figurative paintings scattered about; however, they are not among the strongest works here. In keeping with the hybrid and high-tech character of LiW, mixed-media, collage, and digital imaging rule. The human figure portrayed literally or by analogy is common, as is the natural and built environment presented in unfamiliar and awe-inspiring ways.

Not surprisingly, LiW founder-director Barbara Mink is well-represented. Her three large mixed-media acrylic canvases are standout works, full of her rich geologically-inspired painterly textures. These pieces are new terrain for Mink, as they incorporate collage and portraiture into her signature style. The monochrome faces are printed via photo-transfer. There is some awkwardness in the way they are juxtaposed with the paint. The familiar, intimate forms don't always sit well with the awesome expanses of color.

Black Angels is the most resolved painting in this regard and the best overall. The center is dominated by a black-printed face shown in three-quarter view a portrait of the artist as a young woman. Another artist-head, frontal and less visible, hides in the lower right corner. The piece works so well because the blackness framing the angels is echoed throughout as contour-lines and shadowy patches. Portraiture dissolves into abstract landscape. The background is composed of patches of rich and varied color, particularly turquoise. Angels is named after a string quartet by avant-garde composer George Crumb and incorporates appropriate sheet music.

Grotto is of the same size and proportion and also features a pair of Mink's, this time blending in more. The dark, earthy colors are covered with patches of dark turquoise and thick golden powder. The square shaped Old Country places the face of a white bearded ancestor in a sunken, shrine-like enclosure.

Ethel Vrana is also working with an abstraction inspired by the natural world. The acrylic Event-Particles indeed evokes a microcosm. A loose, branching grid of yellow lines covers a green ground and is itself covered by a cloud of copper. The overall texture is dense and lively with layering, scratches, and air bubbles. A cluster of shiny black droplets hovers near the center. It resembles a living system.

Photographer Jan Kather shows a series of lenticular photographs (the surface is a grid of tiny lenses). Depending on where you stand, you can see either one of two images one astronomical and one earthly or some combination of both. The images are iridescent and mesmerizing. Ausable Eddy Galaxy is particularly compelling. A marble-like maelstrom in black and white is juxtaposed with a pink cloudburst in the darkness of outer space. Central Park Galaxy combines similar astronomy with a blurry nighttime skyline, the park a strip in the foreground.

Carol Ast, long respected for her carefully rendered pastel landscapes, has been trying out new directions recently. Here, she has collages featuring diverse and unexpected combinations of media. Inunnguaq: In the Likeness of a Human: Inuit is on paper. It shows a dark stone monolith rendered in what looks like thick paint, set against a desolate pink pastel expanse. Remarkably enough, the pile is actually made of clay. Ast used regular clay as a top layer with paper clay in the middle acting as a kind of glue (containing as it does both materials). I assume this is a viable technique but the result appears somewhat unwieldy. Still, it is a striking image. Autobiography combines torn paper scraps including fragments of her landscape pastels and bits in silver with dried plant material and energetic pastel strokes.

This Ole House, a digital photograph by David Watkins Jr., shows a decrepit wooden house. The building is at a moderate distance, near the top of the page. Sloping upwards towards it is a swampy landscape filled with barren trees and branches. The dull, wintery colors are punctuated by the green of grass and the red of a brick chimney. The piece hangs in the middle of a row of five prints; each of the others shows an exterior detail of the ruin. Many show corners. It is up to the viewer to construct a whole from the evocative fragments. The borders of the images are uneven which gives them a weathered feel similar to their subject.
A correction: the central image in Black Angels is not Barbara Mink but her daughter (the corner image is Barbara). In Grotto, the top image is the artist.

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