Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

I Do (review the Artspace shows)

50 Orange St, New Haven, (203) 772-2709
Through May 9, 2009. Gallery 1 show (un) spoken runs through June 6, 2009.

A fine and related set of shows wraps up this weekend at Artspace (the main gallery show continues through June 6). The galleries are filled with art by six artists comprising three wedded couples. The couples include locals Karen Dow and Christopher Mir as well as Linda Ganjian and Jesse Lambert of New York and Dan Steinhilber and Maggie Michael of Washington, D.C.

It's the practice of all six artists to work individually, and each artist has one of the auxiliary galleries to show their individual work. Gallery 1 is reserved for collaborations commissioned specifically for this show. Both Mir and Dow are painters. But the exhibited work of the two other couples splits between abstract painting (Michael and Lambert) and sculpture/installation
(Steinhilber and Ganjian).

In one of his installation works (all untitled), Steinhilber approximates an abstract painting in an ingenious way. Using a modified Weedwacker, he shredded multitudes of plastic shopping bags. Steinhilber fused the colorful shards onto a large white plastic backing with an iron. It's a striking work, painterly, rich with texture and depth (like a soft rolling landscape). It reminds me of an artist's well-used palette, accruing blobs of color, the scratchpad of creativity. There is strong balance to the work; my eyes kept searching throughout, investigating the disparate tidal pools of plastic color juxtaposition. This same impish fascination with the creative possibilities of everyday materials animates the other sculptural work in Steinhilber's gallery. He created a giant black balloon by tearing apart a couple of dozen garbage bags and ironing them together. They are inflated by a desk fan hanging from the ceiling. It looks like big, spiky black cloud of smoke rising from the floor to the ceiling.

Michael's two abstract paintings combine stenciled text with dripped, spray-painted and thinned oil paint. There is a restless urban energy. I write "urban" in part because Michael includes metallic paint in her palette, an urban signifier. Also, the combination of text—"To Heaven and Back" and "Nothing Says More" in the respectively named paintings—with layers of drippy, sprayed and fluid paint brings to mind urban walls covered with flyers and graffiti, worked on by weather, time and light. Of the two, I found "Nothing Says More" the more effective. It is less chaotic, although chaos is not necessarily a negative quality. More importantly, there is a striking balance between the strength of gestural paint application and the low key range of color. It screams but understatedly so.

Jesse Lambert also uses metallic colors in some of his paintings. But with his affinity for bold colors, patterns and hints of natural forms, his works don't suggest the urban environment don't me in the way Michael's do. There is almost a decorative quality to his canvases. Lambert exercises a lot of control over his compositions but not tightness. He takes a Pollockesque delight in spotting and flinging his latex, enamel and acrylic paints.

The brash physicality of his paintings stands in contrast to the precise, architectural sculptural compositions of his wife Linda Ganjian. Using cut, twisted and folded cardboard and paper, Ganjian offers ornate structures evocative of Middle Eastern design. "Avestan," a work on the floor of Gallery 4, is a miniature urban center. In the combination of geometric forms and delicate curlicues of lines, it seems at once both intensely modern and breathtakingly ancient. The sculptural details are enlivened by a considered use of color. The base and largest structures are rendered with cream, details are elaborated with black, a wood-like mustard and, most eyecatchingly, Ganjian includes a few well-placed instance of a rich purple.

I have written about Karen Dow and Christopher Mir before (Mir several times). Dow creates her abstract compositions in reference to photographic imagery. The five paintings in Gallery 5 are each named after a month. Her source material was still lifes in an old calendar. Although flowers, i.e. natural forms, were the starting point, Dow's technique leads her toward compositions that feel more architectural than organic. Colors are broken into planes, textures are suggested by more detailed geometric forms. In looking at "March," it was as though I was standing on the second floor inside a brightly lit Modernist home. There is depth and shapes suggestive of doors and windows. Dow paints without using rulers or straight line masks. I felt that the paintings might have been even stronger had the geometries been pushed harder, if the lines didn't have the hand drawn feel.

Mir's paintings blend myth, sci-fi, horticulture and hints of conspiracy and surveillance. These new works continue in that vein, suggesting fantastic narratives without the least chance of resolution.

Each couple used a different strategy for their collaborative work. Painters Dow and Mir created the painting "Untitled" together. Each had portions of the canvas real estate. Compositional unity comes from Mir's incorporation of spiderwebs and utility pylon structural imagery with Dow's geometric forms. Steinhilber and Michael took a different tack, fashioning a joint photographic installation, "Untitled (Compass Series)." The 66 photos—many shot in their hometown of Washington, D.C. including a number among the crowd at the Obama inauguration—range from abstract shots to street photography to architectural images and images of art. Many of the photos include images of the other partner, either as central focus or subsidiary detail. The photo installation speaks to a way of looking that informs individual, and in this case collaborative, artistic practice.

I was most taken with Ganjian and Lambert's floor sculptures. Inspired by children's toys, the imaginative forms combine Ganjian's architectural precision with Lambert's joy in lively color. Their fully realized aesthetic identity is a true synthesis of the couple's individual approaches.

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