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Monday, September 18, 2006

It's Elementum, my dear Watson

City Gallery
994 State St., New Haven, (203) 782-2489
Ends Oct. 8, 2006.

Curated by Liz Pagano, Elementum is a small show with some large artworks. It is organized thematically around interpretations of the four basic "elements": earth, air, fire and water.

Leila Daw's "doesn't stand a chance" is an over-sized mixed media work on four abutting tall vertical canvas panels. It depicts a dark mountainous landscape as it might be seen from an airplane. Adhered to this landscape are layers of painted fabric, printed imagery, whorls and streaks of glitter, and fragments of text. According to Daw's notes for the show, "The piece maps and reflects upon the way water shapes the earth, lies on the earth, evaporates into the air and sinks into the earth." In shades of blue and purple, rivers and tributaries traverse the landscape. There are disturbances in the sky. Objects—hailstones, meteorites?—rain down upon the land. The text reinforces the sense of massive forces at work. In fragments it reads, "like a river in the desert doesn't stand a chance now you see it now you don't."

With its landscape of rocky outcroppings, Susan Newbold's "Life Journey" registers on the eye as something of a cousin to Daw's work. Newbold has affixed a long stretch of frosted mylar over an enlarged digital print of mountainous stone. The mylar diffuses the background print. With ink, graphite, charcoal and watercolor, she has drawn on the mylar over the landscape, adding hints of earth-toned browns along with the blacks. Using both pen lines and ink washes, the two layers combine to convey a sense of restless energy and upheaval in a landscape that might otherwise appear inert. Newbold's piece also invites closer inspection for the pleasure of her line and brushwork, the way the shadings and colors blend together.

Gloom and foreboding marked my reaction to Dorothy Powers' striking "Night Forms, New Haven." In these works of charcoal and acrylic on paper, shapes of massive black oil tanks dominate the compositions. They are surrounded by dark skies. Hints of light are more evocative of threatening fire than comforting illumination. Powers' commentary on her works says that, "They represent both the positive and negative elements that the Earth has to offer." True, the oil tanks suggest the natural wealth contained within the Earths. But visually, these paintings primarily emphasize the negative. This is an environment of smoke and eternal night, the paint and charcoal clinging to the paper like soot to brick or coal dust to a miner's skin.

In contrast to the dark, heavy nature of "Night Forms, New Haven," Suzan Shutan's "Simbolo Lingua Natural" is heavy in concept but light in execution. Contained within a large horizontal ellipse are the symbols for air and water (drawn from the periodic table of the elements) and earth and fire (from ancient alchemical symbolism). The installation uses black string stretched around an array of T-pins stuck into the white wall. Fastened to the ends of the pins, the string image is about one inch from the wall. Intersecting lighting casts multiple shadows of varying strength. In her notes on the piece, Shutan states, "The installation subscribes to the idea that everything consists of each other." Shutan fortifies this ecological concept by employing symbolism drawn from the scientific and spiritual realms. While quite large, the work is light. It contains both its solid material components—the pins and string—and their shadows: substance and spirit. And each physical referent has multiple shadow responses.

Pagano has included three different series of works of her own, although there is a continuity of approach over different media. I lived on a lake when I was a child and I remember I loved looking at the formations the ice made in the stream that fed the lake. Pagano's "thin ice I" and "thin ice II" (suminigashi with embossed overlay) indicate she shares that fascination with the way water swirls, traps bubbles and straddles the boundary between liquid and solid. We see the underlying prints through the diffuse overlays—fluid, concentric eddies of blue, gray and black. The swirl of water in "thin ice I" resembles another natural form: tree rings. The overlay is embossed with raised rings that look like bubbles of air caught in ice.

Her series of India ink on six sheets of paper, "amalgam/the mix," are abstractions that take pleasure in the way water interacts with black and yellow ink. Rather then lay on the surface of the paper, the mix of ink and water soaks into the fibers. Possibly depending on Pagano's method of application, this merging of solid and liquid create different but very natural textures and forms. There are coronas of translucent tone, hazy clouds, fingers of ink that look like veins or rivulets of rain on a windshield (at 60 miles per hour), spatters of ink. Throughout the six, the varying completeness of absorption suggests processes captured at different rates of velocity.

Sitting in the gallery window—benefiting from the natural light—is Pagano's third work, "U-UIII." This is a mixed media construction of 21 black-framed boxes with two facing sides of glass. Some also contain plexiglass, cheesecloth and pieces of paper. Abstract forms in oil paint or ink overlay and interact with each other. There are splashes of ink, splotches, milky adhesions of white or color, nebulae of light and shadow and tendrils of line.

Almost all the works emphasize the interconnectedness of the elements, and, by extension, of the world for which they are the building blocks. But I also discern (probably unintended) connections between the works themselves: Daw's and Newbold's mountain terrain, the washes of ink in Pagano's and Newbold's art. This is a show that rewards both thought and vision.


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