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Thursday, February 21, 2008

More than scratching the surface

Kehler Liddell Gallery
873 Whalley Ave., New Haven, (203) 389-9555
Deconstruction and Resurrection: Works by Joseph Adolphe & John Ferry
Ends Feb. 24, 2008.

One works large and one works small. One painter explores interiors. Sometimes with figurative portraiture, and the other revels in the abstract geometries of urban landscape forms. Despite their dissimilarities, the paintings of Joseph Adolphe and John Ferry make for a strikingly complementary show at Kehler Liddell Gallery in Westville.

Part of the reason for that is that both artists invest a great deal of attention in the surfaces of their works. In Adolphe's "Vigilance"—a formal portrait of three young girls—there is a great swirling of wide brush strokes coating the surface of the canvas. According to Frank Bruckmann, a local painter who was gallery sitting when I visited, Adolphe likely applied an undercoating of white gesso. Adolphe appears to have scraped into some of the painted areas to add biting gestural highlights.

Along one wall, a series of Adolphe's large still life abstractions are displayed. (They may, in fact, be two series, judging by the titles.) From left to right, they progress from a relatively straightforward still life of a heavy crumpled cloth on a wooden table into canvases where the cloth seems to take on a life of its own. Over the half dozen paintings, it lifts off, twists and turns in colored space, until by "Untitled No. 7" the image is pure abstraction. Folds of yellow, gold and orange turn in upon themselves, spitting off fragments of color.

In all of these, there is as much attention devoted to working the surface as to delineating the forms. The first work on the left, "Easter No. 1," although closest to pure still life, is lively with daubs and swirls of color. As much as it rewards standing back and taking in the whole, it is a treat to get in close and absorb the detailed areas where wet swirls of paint rub up against one another.

On the facing wall, Adolphe offers a series of large paintings that combine his still life interest with a talent for figurative portraiture. There's an interesting balance between the formal and informal in these paintings. The man and woman in "The Couple" sit side by side, forearms touching and the fingers of her right hand barely alight on the back of his left hand. And while they look straight out at the viewer as in a formal portrait, their posture is slumped and affect bored. Get on with it, already! It's a pose but a self-evidently weary one. As in several of Adolphe's works, ceramic cups and vases, some fruit and a potted plant are arranged on a simple wooden table.

Unlike the work of local artist Steve DiGiovanni, also a specialist in figurative interiors, Adolphe's paintings don't actively evoke narrative. This is so even when there are slightly mysterious elements, as in "Faith" and "The Double," two works that feature the bald-headed Adolphe as his own model. The still life set-up of jugs and a ceramic cup on the tabletop in "Faith" takes center stage. Adolphe, in shadows off to the left and peering around the side of a cloth backdrop, is more of a prop than a character. (Adolphe's attention to surface, particularly that of the table and the ceramics, is especially evocative in this work.) As with Nathan Lewis, Adolphe is a master at depicting the human figure.

There are no human figures in John Ferry's paintings. He has a fascination with the weight, contours and presence of vintage urban architecture. With some of these small paintings—"ADM #3," "Kansas City #8"—Ferry's compositions straddle the line between urban landscape and geometric abstraction. The subject matter in others is more direct. With "Decatur #2," "Decatur #1," "Kansas City #1," "Kansas City #2" and "New York #3," Ferry's heavy application of paint yields a surface that is intensely tactile and almost sculptural. Studying these works, I can imagine running my fingertips over the rough confluence of early 20th century brick and mortar. By privileging texture over fine detail, Ferry evokes a rough and raw past. We can feel it even as it disappears. He also has a superb way with light. In "Kansas City #2," the buildings glow with the palpable illumination of late afternoon, the gold before the dusk settles in.


Blogger John R Ferry said...

Thank you for your kind words about my work.

John Ferry

8:33 PM


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