Friday, October 26, 2012

The Mystics Downtown

Owen Schuh
"Two Folds"
Graphite, gold copper and silver leaf, and sumi ink on paper
32 x 32 inches
Due to time constraints, I've provided only brief remarks about three terrific, tangentially related downtown shows. All three are on view for just one more day, so rush out to see them, if you can.


"Uncharted," a handsome group show of works on paper at Cain Schulte Gallery, "explore[s] the concept of mapping as the visual and conceptual categorization and organization of relationships, systems, and interactions." Remarkably, the works included in "Uncharted" all relate well to one another (rare for a group show with such a broad theme), and the exhibition is compelling both visually and conceptually, but a few artists' contributions stand out.

Owen Schuh's "Two Folds" is an elegant diagram illustrating all of the possible ways a piece of paper can be folded in two. Schuh is a precise craftsman, and his circles and lines add up to a kind of mathematical sublime. Without the aid of the press release, I wouldn't have recognized what it is that Schuh has mapped, but that isn't necessarily a problem. "Two Folds" also works as an arcane design, calling to mind the complicated but specific hierarchies of, say, a Kabbalist. That Schuh has produced an image that is as readily associated with mathematics as it is esoteric mysticism shouldn't surprise; just ask your neighborhood theoretical astrophysicist to discuss notions of beauty.

Amber Stucke
"Survival Relationships No. 2 (Symbiosis State)"
Graphite, gouache, and ink on stonehenge paper
50 x 38 inches
Amber Stucke's two large drawings, "Survival Relationships [Symbiosis State]," Numbers 1 and 2, inspire a similar sense of wonder, but, unlike Schuh's more abstract and Apollonian investigation, Stucke's subjects are bulbous and oozy, lacking right angles and hard lines. Her project focuses on the curious and often complex relationships of simple organisms. Her richly detailed work elicits obvious comparison to the celebrated German biologist and artist, Ernst Haeckel (whose intricate prints are collected in Art Forms Of Nature, a book that regularly appears in artists' libraries), but whereas most contemporary works that manifest Haeckel's influence are relatively feeble, Stucke's drawings delight every bit as much as those of the famous naturalist. Moreover, as Stucke's works' titles suggest, she is less concerned with the biological forms per se than she is in their interaction.

Katie Holten's shadow drawing series is less visually exciting than the aforementioned works by Schuh or Stucke, but her small pictures, artifacts of her mapping the movement of shadows in a given space, are restrained reminders of the value of taking note of that which typically goes unnoticed.
Katie Holten
"Shadow Drawing"
Graphite on paper
9 x 12 inches

A block south, at the Fraenkel Gallery, works by another perceptive observer of the everyday are on view. The title of Charles Burchfield's "White Picket Fence" evokes bourgeois banality, but the striking picture makes it plain that Burchfield was a modern mystic, an artist who saw (or recognized) the extraordinary in the mundane.

Charles Burchfield
"White Picket Fence"
c. 1965
Watercolor, chalk, and charcoal on joined paper
53 x 40 inches
In the painting, just beyond the eponymous fence (which is positioned at the base of the image, its wooden slats between us and Burchfield's vision), a tree heaves heavenward like a pyre, radiant with heat and light. Admiring the piece, I thought of the biblical story of Moses and the divine revelation he experienced in the form of a burning bush. According to one popular interpretation of the story, Moses broke with the mundane when he choose to observe the ordinary world (the bush) through extraordinary eyes (the bush as burning). Revelation, in this reading, is experienced by those who are willing to truly open themselves to the wonder of this world. Similarly, Burchfield observed that "the artist must paint not what he sees in nature, but what is there."
Charles Burchfield
"Heat Lightning (Landscape with Grey Clouds)"
c. 1962
Watercolor, charcoal, and white chalk on joined paper
58 x 45 inches
Consider the artist's "Heat Lightning (Landscape with Grey Clouds)," also included in the Fraenkel Gallery exhibition. The painting possesses a hallucinatory grandeur that reminds us why our ancestors felt compelled to populate the sky with god-driven chariots and angelic hordes, but Burchfield's beaming cloud towers and oxbow channels are the raw stuff of myth, the awe-inspiring inspiration sans any fantasy spawn. Myth is vital to our species, but Burchfield's work reminds us that the unadulterated real, if looked at with keen eyes, is itself astonishing.

Critic Jerry Saltz described Burchfield as "the mystic, cryptic painter of transcendental landscapes," but it's important to remember that, like his American transcendentalist predecessors, Burchfield's work is merely an enthusiastic response to the world as it is; mystics are not lunatics.

Chris Fraser
“Eidolon, Sylvania 120PAR/CAP/SPL/FL30, 2012”
Light Installation
Exterior View
Just around the corner from Fraenkel, at Highlight Gallery, a contemporary transcendentalist is exhibiting. Unlike Burchfield, Chris Fraser is not a painter -- nor is he a poet like Walt Whitman, whose "Eidolons" provides the title of Fraser's solo show -- but his work reveals for us "not what [we see] in nature, but what is there."

Fraser's background in photography led him to work with light as a primary medium. All of the artist's recent projects play with our perception of light's movement through space; in the process, Fraser, makes the ethereal almost tangible. "Eidolon, Sylvania 120PAR/CAP/SPL/FL30, 2012," the strongest work in "Eidolons," is also among the most beautiful of Fraser's pieces to date. Fraser's artwork titles ground his project in the mundane (the letters and numbers are the manufacturer code information associated with the bulbs Fraser uses), but by directing the bulb's illumination through a tiny hole in a wall (and into an otherwise unlit room), Fraser focuses our attention on the astonishingly intricate pattern cast by the ordinary flood light. The effect is transformative.

Alone in the dark interior space with the floating impression of the bulb's face projected in front of me, I move between scales, alternately considering the subtly pulsing pattern in front of me as a particle accelerator collision, a sunflower's floret pattern, and a representation of the cosmos. Highlight Gallery's press release defines an eidolon as "a phantom or an image of the ideal." In combination, those two things -- a phantom and the ideal -- flow into the notion of the numinous, and I believe that is Fraser's aim, to provide his viewers with experiences that might open them to awe.

Chris Fraser
“Eidolon, Sylvania 120PAR/CAP/SPL/FL30, 2012”
Light Installation
Interior View

Image credits: Owen Schuh, Amber Stucke, and Katie Holten images, courtesy the artists and Cain Schulte Gallery; Charles Burchfield images, courtesy the Fraenkel Gallery; Chris Fraser images, courtesy the artist and Highlight Gallery

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