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The RiNo's Horn
A Place to Trumpet Rino Artists by Rex Brown from the Pattern Shop Studio

Thursday
Jan272011

Jonathan Kaplan at Plinth and Ice Cube

Suppose you are cleaning junk out of the garage. A broken adjustable office chair, an outdated globe, a nerf football, an old ceiling light dome without its fixture, an old clutch plate, some plastic donuts that your kid used to stack on pegs, a bell without a clapper, that old singing trout your buddies gave you, some stylized plastic birds and fish the cats used to play with--you put it all in the trash bag, right?  Not Jonathan Kaplan.  He saves junk like that.  He saves anything that catches his eye for geometry or  texture or kitsch.  He makes molds out of cast away objects and throws them on a shelf where they accumulate until that certain day when he's mulling over ideas for new ceramic pieces.  Then he lets his  whimsicality take over, stacking unlike shapes and textures into potential ceramic objects of various kinds and uses.  His whimsicality is informed by a lifetime's study of the history of his ancient art and the cultures that used it to create everything from everyday useful items like pots to expressions of their deepest fears, hopes and beliefs. 

Jonathan's latest show, "Modern Moche," at his Plinth Gallery (plus some pieces at the current Icebreaker 2.0 show at Ice Cube Gallery) displays the witty beauty that can arise when he combines  cast-off modern artifacts with ancient ceramic traditions such as the art of the Moche culture that flourished in Peru almost two thousand years ago.  Peruvian pottery often employs human and animal forms, often displays an amusing erotic playfulness, and, among the Moche, usually includes a distinctive "stirrup spout" that serves both as a spout and handle.

Jonathan's references to this tradition are clear in his latest vesselsHere, a plastic donut has become the stirrup, a corrugated tube from a broken office chair has become the spout and both sit atop conjoined birds, which sit atop a halved child's globe.  Or,  below, the stirrup spout sits on top of a kitschy fish, which sits on top of a nerfball.

Besides stirring some admiration for Jonathan's capacity to assemble unlike artifacts into entirely new and useful larger objects, these references to an ancient culture's pottery raise some interesting questions.  Do the animals used in Jonathan's pottery "mean" what animal representations in Moche culture mean?  Fish and birds have held multiple symbolic meanings for many cultures for thousands of years.  What do the thrown away, sentimentalized, mass produced animal images Jonathan used to create his vessels "mean" to us beyond, perhaps, "commodity?"  Would we place Jonathan's vessels in the tombs of our loved ones, as the Moche did with theirs?  Can bad taste (the fish, for instance) be redeemed when it is re-purposed, re-contextualized and translated into another medium?  Do the aesthetics of modern assembled art objects (whether Jonathan's or Rauschenberg's) rise to the level of the wit that animates them?  

The aesthetics of Jonathan's vessels are generated not only by their exotic and ingenious combinations of modeled forms, but also by their luscious, multi-layered glazing.  You see these from across the room and without knowing how they were made or what they are referencing or even how they're used, you want them for what they do to the light on and around them.  Alternately creamy or shiny or flat or all three, these ceramics are like cats, who always know where to be.  Take one home and I'm certain it will lead you to its perfect spot.

Rex Brown
Pattern Shop Studio

Wednesday
Dec222010

Strange Attractors: Rapp & Richards at the Pattern Shop Studio

Roger Rapp and Jeff Richards make intellectually interesting and visually beautiful art. Both share deep interests in science, mathematics, philosophy, and the noumenal--that is, the non-material, non-phenomenal aspects of experience that can only be apprehended intuitively. Both were trained as sculptors, but have been painting or working with multiple media for many years. Both have deeply curious minds. Appearing together for the first time in a show they call "Strange Attractors," at the Pattern Shop Studio (December 3rd to February 4th), they create a striking dialog that prompts viewers to think about space, time, light and reality in new ways.

Roger's multi-layered paintings in the show are centered on the geometry and mathematics of ancient civilizations, principally the gigantic Nasca Lines, mysterious geoglyphs etched on the high desert sands of Peru by a long vanished people. Although no one knows exactly why or how these patterns, which can only be fully seen from the air, were created, Roger's interest is to show the universality of the geometric relationships they express. He does this by coloring the various arcs, circles, squares and triangles and highlighting their intersections under layer after layer of acrylic paint, some layers containing words and word fragments in an unknown language, scattered about the paintings like pottery shards at an archaeological dig. The effect, in his "Rosetta 1" painting, for example, is hauntingly beautiful and thought provoking. What ideas lie beneath our feet, what ancient secrets cry out for the translator who can restore them to our collective wisdom? How much have we lost? 

Roger Rapp: Rosetta 1 (56"x 44")If you are not curious about the human mind and the evolution of ideas, Roger's paintings will make you curious. Moreover, they will show you, if you didn't already appreciate it, how important artists like Roger are for inducing wonder and engaging our inquisitive instincts. His anthropological interests connect him to the artists of the late 19th century who brought their curiosity about "primitive"  or "tribal" art into the mainstream of the next century's modern movement. I am reminded of Sir Herbert Read's assertion, in Icon and Idea, that in human and individual development, the image precedes the idea. Geometric pottery preceded Geometry itself. "Without the creative arts there would have been no advance in myth or ritual, in language or meaning, in morality or metaphysics," he wrote. He might have added, today, "in science and mathematics."

Jeff Richards is interested in many things, including chaos theory, from which the term "strange attractors" has emerged to describe conditions under which chaotic systems can tend to evolve toward more ordered dynamical systems. If you Google the term or have ever seen the graphics produced by the mathematics of chaotic systems, you will find that the visual representations of these concepts resemble Jeff's topological fiberboard, paint, glue and sewing thread constructions.

Jeff Richards: Wu Li #3 (48" x 48")

Each work begins with a painted wooden circle, square or rectangle, upon which he has stretched hundreds or, on bigger pieces, thousands of feet of threads of various colors, some of which are painted over and some of which are just above the painted surface, like veils. The effects he achieves are extraordinary. His surfaces are often mottled or bumpy, as if they were landscapes on an asteroid or frozen rivers shot through with ice cracks and crevasses. Over them run radii of threads in multiple directions, intersecting and piling up to create still more nodes above the surface, each looking like distant stars broadcasting their light one ray at a time. Viewers crook their necks this way and that, trying to establish which of the many lines fanning out across the works are the "real" perspective lines, but they search in vain. Jeff has exploded the conventions of human perspective, conveying instead the sense of a universe that can be seen from all perspectives at once. His works boggle our earthly brains. His round "mandalas" bring the eye to their bright centers, then spin it out to the periphery and then draw it back again and again for a most dynamic viewing experience.

The artists don't have separate rooms. Their works are intermingled. The overall effect is visually powerful (their palettes and geometric shapes often match) and intellectually fascinating. They carry on an irresistible conversation about the nature and beauty of patterns in our lives, our world, and the universe in which we find ourselves. The show will be open First Friday in January and February, and any time individuals or groups would like to make an appointment to see it.

Rex Brown
Pattern Shop Studio

Sunday
Oct312010

Karen Roehl & Carol Browning at Ice Cube Gallery

Karen Roehl and Carol Browning both had successful careers in graphic and interior design before turning to full time painting.  They met in art classes at UCD, found they had similar interests in abstract expressionism, and kept in touch after graduating.  Now they share a studio at The Dry Ice Factory and have a stunning show together in the Ice Cube Gallery.  

When you enter, you are confronted immediately by Roehl's 99" x 66" canvas (Untitled #1) and you may find you can stand there for a good long while.  Her earth tone composition, shaped by strong, flowing blacks and spotted with light organic, ovoid forms suggests you might be looking down at a stream, running over smoothed stones.  The potential of the Kline-like black swaths to intimidate is tempered by soothing, watery forms and lines, leaving the impression of steady, serene movement.  She must have been in a good place when she painted this.  I guess this because Karen is one of those painters who wears her heart on her sleeve.  You can tell from the energy in her brush strokes and the extremes of the contrasts of colors and shapes in her paintings whether she is working from difficult or troubling  feelings or is more or less at peace with herself.  A devoted student of her art might even be able to tell what music she was listening to while painting.  In this, she is firmly in the center of the branch of abstract expressionism that to me is more expressionistic than abstract.  The subject of her paintings is feelings.  And they're mostly feelings of which she is unaware when she begins, can only articulate through painting, and begins to understand only when the painting is complete. 

Because she is a painter who draws heavily on her emotions, her intuitions, and her unconscious, she generates very different paintings show to show.  You can't say you've "seen" her work, because you don't really know what she'll do next.  One of her other large works in this show--Untitled #2--conveys very different feelings than Untitled #1, and demonstrates different kinds of paint handling. (Here I ought to say "medium handling" because she combines acrylics, inks, markers and whatever else she can find around the studio).  Also quite large--89" x 66"--it brings in some stronger color contrasts and allows quasi-objective forms to emerge through layers of paint, like dream images.  Is that a rocket ship?  Is that a deer with an energy saving bulb nose?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  It's not important.  Shapes emerge and submerge under layers of media and it's their contrasts and tensions and surprises that make the painting fascinating.  Two of her paintings over the Ice Cube bar--the 2009 blue paintings on her Facebook page album--show that Karen has mastered the classic abstract expressionistic look and can offer the kinds of cooler and softer color blendings that interior designers lust after.  Her smaller water media on paper pieces (36"x36") are also very desirable and easy to live with.  I felt like buying all of them.

The same is true for Carol Browning's small (32"x24") works on paper.  Absolutely luscious.  You want to take them all home and redecorate around them.  No one knows this better than Carol, who was an interior designer for many years before she turned to full time painting.  She knows how to group paintings that carry on extended conversations with one another.  Her larger paintings also suggest an unfolding narrative of some kind, perhaps because they were painted sequentially.  The first one you see, Untitled #12, glows with a mysterious inner light like luminist  landscape painters used to conjure up or like parts of the Milky Way you can only see on the darkest nights.  Subsequent paintings (#13-16) progressively improvise on the same theme with powerful expressive effects. She uses white the way Karen uses black--that is, where black often takes the lead in a Roehl painting, white often takes the lead in a Browning.   Her reds, sometimes as punctuation marks, sometimes as dominant color blocks, are often the stars of a painting's drama. 

The pairing of Carol and Karen is inspired, because you can see how two painters who seem at first quite alike are in fact very different.  Carol has a more colorful palette, more measured brushwork and a penchant for more geometrical shapes.  In her work, black is most often used to outline or highlight shapes, whereas in Karen's work, black is often a force all its own.  Carol also handles the transitions from color to color and shape to shape more softly.  Although both can be explosive painters, Carol smooths her explosions more, as if she were painting in a Southern drawl.  Her largest piece (Untitled #17, 73"x68")--in fact, the largest painting she has ever done--plays an upper quadrant of circles, arcs and geometric shapes against a lower quadrant filled with a happy clutter of more linear shapes, forcing your eye back and forth and up and down in a thoroughly engaging way.  It is as witty as it is beautiful.

When you go to their closing show November 5th, expect to be wowed.

Rex Brown
Pattern Shop Studio

Wednesday
Jun022010

RiNo Sharon Brown's "Creators" at Sellars Project Space

We're drawn to portraits for many reasons, but the most basic may be that all of us once lay cradled in our mothers' arms looking into her face as she nursed us.  The features of that face become hard-wired in infants' brains, along with feelings of being bonded and safe or alone and in danger.   Throughout our lives, eye contact with others remains a quick scan to determine whether we should trust or mistrust, hope for connection or despair of it. The power of a portrait to affect us begins here, with the power of the human face in general to command our attention.  Whether it is the image of the Virgin Mary or Barack Obama or any of a thousand gods, goddesses or heroes, we look to the face  for assurance and protection.  Throughout history, it is the face that lives on, long after the identity of the subject has been forgotten; and it is the face that stirs the viewer, not the name or accomplishments of the subject.  Go to any art museum in the world and you will not know anything about the people you see on the wall or the degree to which the painting "looks like" the "real" person portrayed.   It doesn't matter.  Either the face as a whole works or doesn't work, interests you or doesn't, triggers those early feelings and memories or doesn't.  

Today, we are so are inundated with faces--faces  framed by television screens or movie screens or the pages of countless magazines, faces that are meant to persuade or manipulate or sell or scare-- that we have developed defenses against their power.  Sharon Brown's portraits of Rino artists, hanging through June at Sellars Project Space, 4383 Tennyson Street, break through those defenses and force us to see faces afresh.  They're larger than life and, even though they're based on color photographs that she took, they're in black and white.  She is clearly trying to do something that portraitists, as we usually think of them, don't tend to do.  She asked her subjects not to smile or put on a mask or show any emotion, if they could help it.  She caught most of them unawares, so they are dressed in day-to-day garb.  She deprived them all of any background contexts and artifacts that might say something about their trade or wealth or creativity or power.  She allows no heroic postures, no courageous or humble tilts of the chin, none of the conventions that might reveal her subjects' social roles; she uses none of the formulaic compositional tricks we associate with famous portraits.   

So what is she saying with these paintings?  That creators aren't anyone special?  That they're indistinguishable from anyone else on the street and shouldn't be romanticized? Why would she paint murderers and thieves in vibrant colors (her 2001 Damage series), yet paint artists in black and white? The answers are both personal and stylistic.  Most of her colorful six-hundred-and-some-odd paintings have been based on old black and white amateur photographs consigned to oblivion.   She sees color in black and white and black and white in colors.  The most important difference, I think, is that for her, black and white are the colors of memory.  When, two years ago, she completed a colorful series of paintings (Sisters) of  her late sister Barbara, the last painting in the series  was in black and white.  Creators builds on that last painting, and becomes, I think, a continuation of  her effort to transform that painful loss into beauty.  She paints her fellow artists in the colors of memory--as if they, too, were, like so many of her subjects, found in an old photograph album in the back of the closet. But these subjects are not ghosts from the past; they are very much alive.  And in celebrating them, she is celebrating what she and they try to do day after day: rob death of its sting and turn darkness into light. 

Sharon Brown is not a "portraitist."  She is a painter.  In this series, she has turned to the tradition of the portrait in order to express something about her emotional journey, her body of work, and her supportive circle of fellow artists that she could not express in any other way.   Before they are anything else, these paintings are beautiful paintings.  Then they are portraits, carrying with them the power of the face to conjure up our earliest feelings of connection and trust.

Friday
Apr232010

Margaret Realica at Plinth

Summer Strawberry by Margaret RealicaThe first impression you might have when you enter the immaculate Plinth Gallery to see Margaret Realica's exquisite porcelain and mixed media creations is that you have stumbled into an airport for tiny flying saucers, each sitting on its own platform awaiting refueling or repair.  Most are more or less the size of softballs, perhaps circled by translucent rings or nestled in conical forms, with wires wiggling out, like vines seeking the sun, or looping around the object to connect mysterious electrical or mechanical doodads.  The more rectilinear ones make you look for a switch to see what it will do when turned on, but there is no switch.  You have to create your own fantasy about its purpose.

Then you realize, as you admire each for its elegant finish and the meticulous craftsmanship that went into it and the interplay of components you would think of as incommensurate, that you are in the presence of some Comic Spirit.  These objects suggest teapots!  If Paul Klee or Joan Miro had teapots, they might look like these. Or if a teapot was sent off into the universe eons ago and went through countless alien civilizations, it might come back to earth looking like this.

Many ceramic artists love mimicry and whimsy (I think it comes with the medium), but Margaret Realica is one of the wittiest and most playful I've ever seen.  She appears to ask herself, "How far away can I get from representing a teapot, yet still present the formal essence of one?" And, "What disparate and totally un-teapot-like materials can I combine, yet still capture the feelings and associations of teapot-ness?"  This show (you can also visit mrealica.com, and plinthgallery.com for photos) is the answer.  The challenge she tackles is even greater when you consider that the Teapot  is one of the Big Clichés of ceramics (who hasn't made a teapot?), and greater still, when you consider the history of the Tea Pot and all the associations we commonly make to it.  It's an ancient form that has worked its way through culture after culture since the 4th century, symbolizing here hospitality, there peace; at one time conjuring up a luxury reserved for emperors and queens, at other times, evoking a simple peasant pleasure at the end of a back-breaking day.  Only water exceeds the amount of tea that is consumed around the world.  The Tea Pot is one of those great marriages of Beauty and Utility, and one of those rare forms that engages all  senses at once: vision (sensuous and maternal curves, heavenly porcelains and precious metals), hearing (the rumbling boil, the whistle, the pouring splash, the slurp), touch (hot on the lips and in the belly), smell (the entire herbal spectrum), and taste (from sweet to bitter and everything in between).  Like other great human pleasures, tea drinking requires a certain amount of anticipation and waiting, of letting things steep, if you will; it's done slowly; every sip is savored. Elaborate rituals have developed around it, ceremonies and whole etiquettes (do you curl your pinky when sipping?).

Margaret Realica knows all this of course, and has not been intimidated by the challenge.  She contributes something new to a venerable tradition, which is what Master artists like her are supposed to do.  Her  confabulations of porcelain, wire, brass, plexiglass, plastic tubing, acrylic drawings and photo-transparencies, gears, found objects, and electrical devices--none of which, except porcelain, is associated with tea or teapots-- all assembled with meticulous care and mischievous cunning-- are eloquent, funny, endearing and important.  They get into your head and steep there, urging you, weeks later, to come back and have another sweet sip.

Rex Brown
Pattern Shop Studio