Very few galleries have opened in Seattle since the Great Recession began. The brand-new Prographica Gallery in Madrona , started by well-known local artist Norman Lundin, is bucking the trend in several ways besides the economic. Not only is it located in a quiet residential neighborhood far from the usual art hubs, it is also one of the few galleries in the country devoted exclusively to works on paper. KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, joins us with his comments on their most recent show.
His new venue, called Prographica, in honor of a long-defunct gallery in Chicago, is dedicated exclusively to the exhibition of works on paper, one of the few such businesses in the country.. "Vogue in Red," the work on paper by Los Angeles artist Kim Frohsin in the gallery window, turns out on closer inspection to not be an abstraction at all, but rather a boldly gestural figure painting. A young nude woman, her eyes locked on ours, straddles a wooden chair, her body thrust one way, her outstretched leg the other. The pictorial language is expressive of both rapid execution and a highly disciplined hand, the artist searching for a balance between accurate description and letting the paint be paint. Some of the explosive blobs resolve themselves as legs or arms, and some blobs remain blobs. The bottom third of the image is simply the untouched white of the paper itself, reading here as a piece of furniture helping to support the model, and an area of non-activity to contrast with the intense activity elsewhere. The process of working directly from the figure with a pile of assorted art materials and a ticking clock is central to Frohsin’s practice, and there are several other works of hers here which share a similar smashingly designed, art-on-the-go appeal.
Sharing the walls with Frohsin are four other artists who also create works that are representational without being literal, and for whom the shapes, lines, voids, and tonal textures of the result are as important as their actual subject matter. Working on paper frees these artists to leave large areas of the work blank or nearly blank, and ambiguity is consciously used as a device to create mystery or atmosphere. All of the artists have spent years pursuing their particular methodology, and all have as a result evolved a distinct pictorial language.
Sally Cleveland is, on the face of it, the most literal of the artists on view, her tiny oil-on-paper portraits of the Northwest landscape betraying an almost photographic fidelity to their specific locale. But what makes Cleveland’s work interesting is the way she edits and reinvents her usually nondescript subjects to invest them with compositional drama.
“Road with Run-Off”, for example, is simply a view of a muddy field on a grey day during that interminable stretch in the Northwest that’s neither winter nor summer but some never-never world in between. The tiny image – the size of a large postcard – is invested with a melancholy intensity by the severe geometry of its structure. The barren field is stripped of identifying texture or detail, appearing as a bold umber wedge crowding every other element of the picture to the edges – road, and hillocks, trees and sky. The weight of the brown mass is relieved by a highly gestural blob of white in the foreground – the drainage ditch run-off of the title – and a single white fence post. The picture is a brilliant application of the abstracting principle Frohsin used for her Vogue in Red, blobs and all.
Also in the same spirit is a scarlet red slash which brings to life another drab stretch of countryside, "Slough with Red Foreground." In the painting, a view of a flat landscape with thin parallel strips of stream, field, woodland, and sky, Cleveland intuitively added a rapid stroke of pure color – not in response to anything in the actual scene, but because the picture needed contrast and energy. The imaginary red seems right at home, its painterly calligraphy fitting into the painterly calligraphy of the whole.
Romey Stuckart veers the closest to actual abstraction, with several of her drawings presenting few obvious cues as to their real-world inspiration. That the inspiration exists is apparent from her titles: "Combustion," for a cloud of charcoal surrounding a tree-like core, "DNA/Crown of Thorns," for a whirling pair of spiky curves that vaguely suggests the famous double helix, and "In the Garden," an upright, curling tendril capped with what might be a dome of nestled buds. I’m not sure I would have spotted the botanical connection without the title, but curator Lundin has made another, visual connection between the near-abstraction of Stuckart’s plant forms and a much earlier self-portrait he has purposely hung alongside. Though twenty years separates the two works, they are not only identical in scale and materials; they share a very similar compositional structure. Stuckart leans her body and tilts her head, while holding one bent arm upright, and the similarity with the upright and tilted masses of "Garden" alongside are indeed striking. Coincidence? Perhaps not; it’s possible to study the work of many artists and find them returning again and again to particular shapes, colors, and arrangements, no matter what the actual subject matter. Look for the wedge form in the work of Edward Hopper, or sinuous curves in the painting of Edward Munch.
For Eric Elliot, it’s the process of seeing that’s important, not so much the things being seen. His eloquent, minimalist, ink-wash studies of studio ephemera are remarkable for the complex, inventive way he converts his mundane surroundings into a mosaic of surprisingly interesting smaller forms. The four interior views in the show are the result of an arduous process of analysis and interpretation, a sort of visual needlepoint addressing one spot at a time. No object is simply outlined and filled in, but forms and spaces emerge through marking boundaries and intersections, spots of shadow and tone. What is left out becomes as important as what is included, and there’s a freshness to the observation, the result of a sustained effort at seeing familiar things as new.
I’m not as enamored of the bicycle studies of Katina Hutson, but her work makes perfect sense in the current show, creating as it does a sort of tapestry of linear and elliptical shapes from the overlapping forms of bicycle rims, wheels, and spokes. Decorative, complex, and true to its source, her drawings explore that elusive margin between the legible and the obscure, the literal and the abstract, that is the underlying theme of the exhibition.