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Over the last few years, Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery has increasingly specialized in abstract painting, with contemporary takes on minimalism often given center stage.
"I've come to it by living in this environment," says director Robin Rule, referring both to the austerity of much of the Western landscape and to the many hard-edged abstractionists who have been working in Colorado for decades, a number of whom are represented by her gallery.
As a mark of her fervor for minimalism, Rule ventured a couple of weeks ago to the mecca of the movement, Marfa, a nearly abandoned West Texas town where the master of minimalism, the late Donald Judd, established a permanent home for his artistic legacy.
Judd, who died in 1994, was given an abandoned Army base, Fort Russell, by the Dia Art Foundation. Although Judd later had a falling-out with Dia, he held on to the base and began to buy many of the downtown buildings in nearby Marfa, which he used to display his monumental work, as well as the work of his friends, including Carl Andre (an artist who has exhibited at Rule). Since Judd's death, the Chinati Foundation has continued his work.
Rule went to Marfa for the Chinati annual open house, which attracts a who's who of the contemporary art world. This year, a piece called "Untitled (Marfa project)," by Dan Flavin, a friend and peer of Judd's, was unveiled. It had been designed in 1996, the year Flavin died, but the unbelievably enormous multi-part piece, which includes Flavin's signature fluorescent lights in various colors, was installed only recently in six empty U-shaped former Army barracks. It has been internationally heralded as Flavin's magnum opus.
This was the second trip Rule made to Marfa -- she went as a tourist last year -- but she had a purpose this time: to establish the name of Mary Obering among the top ranks of the original minimalists. Obering, a neo-minimalist painter who once lived in Denver and once lived with Judd, was the subject of a solo show that Rule presented at the Marfa Hotel to coincide with the Chinati open house. "Last year I felt that Mary was needed. She ought to be included here among the likes of Judd and Flavin," Rule says. Several examples of Obering's work can be seen right now in the back room of Rule Gallery. Obering has been the subject of two solos at Rule in the past few years. The exhibit in Rule's main gallery spotlights another neo-minimalist: Jae H. Hahn shows off several recent paintings by this Los Angeles artist.
Hahn was born and raised in Korea, where she attended the College of Fine Arts at Seoul National University. She came to the United States to study at the University of California at Los Angeles, and later at California State University at Long Beach, where she earned her MFA.
Despite her years in California, Hahn's heritage is still in the forefront of her stylistic influences. The paintings included in the Hahn show have a decidedly Oriental flavor, in terms of both her palette and her lacquer technique, a fairly traditional one that is commonly seen in Asia.
To create the basic compositions, Hahn first applies oil paint, then adds layer after layer of lacquer. The first layers are tinted with the oil paints, but in the top layers, less and less pigment is used until the lacquer being used is clear. This creates a remarkably glossy surface that has a tremendous visual depth, as the viewer is able to look through the layers to the paints suspended within them. It has the character of a three-dimensional mottling.
"Jae's paintings are infinitely intriguing," says Rule. "She's interested in lush surfaces and rigorous geometry the way Mary [Obering] is."
Hahn has written that the empty spaces in her work mark the beginning of all visual art and are comparable to silence, which she regards as the starting point for music. "The white, empty wall always has fascinated me with its unlimited possibilities," she wrote last year in an exhibition catalogue. While all of the paintings in this show are new, they are all part of Hahn's "Kuan" series, which she began in 1995. "Kuan," she has said, is a Korean word meaning "silent observation."
The show begins with "Kuan SOO-2," a striking two-panel piece made of oil, gold and lacquer on wood. The two zigzag panels that mirror each other in shape come together to make a single symmetrical composition resembling a gateway. Because Hahn painted the sides of the panels a dark color, the shape of the zigzag is stressed; as a result, the white wall behind it almost becomes part of the piece. The vertical parts have been painted with vertical stripes, and the horizontal parts are marked by broad light-colored diagonal bars. These bars direct the viewer's eyes down toward the empty wall that makes up the bottom center.
The exhibit really gets under way in Rule's main room, which has a temple-like atmosphere of serenity. A number of variations are seen here within Hahn's simple and seemingly non-limiting compositional vocabulary: stripes. On the west wall is "Kuan S99-10," a companion piece to "Kuan SOO-2." But instead of a zigzag, Hahn makes a pair of simple angles accented with horizontal and vertical stripes. The stripes are joined at the diagonal that follows an imaginary miter. Behind the viewer is a far different work, "The Spicy Red Stripes," made up of a pair of narrow horizontal panels each covered in thick red stripes alternating with stripes in mottled red on gold.
Red seems to be a favorite color for Hahn and definitely promotes the Oriental aspects of her art. Two monumental multi-part pieces, each with ten horizontal panels stacked almost from floor to ceiling, are also painted in rich reds: "Enchantment" and "The Golden Autumn." In each, every panel has been painted the identical shade, but the color used for "Enchantment" is redder than "The Golden Autumn," which has an orangey tinge.
An interesting feature is that both pieces are available in modular form, meaning buyers can purchase two, four, six, eight, or all ten panels. In fact, every painting here can be bought in pieces, with "Kuan S99-10" being the only exception, since it wouldn't make sense to split its panels up. I wonder, though, if "Kuan SOO-2" wouldn't also suffer from being split up. This piecemeal approach to sales seems to be a better idea conceptually, or poetically, than it is in actuality; perhaps Hahn should rethink it.
The luxurious paintings in Jae H. Hahn gleam like jewels and make the Rule Gallery shine. Despite all this glitziness, however, the mood is quiet and contemplative -- or, as Hahn would have it, silent.
Minimal concepts are also seen in two shows closing this weekend at ILK on Santa Fe. In the entry space and continuing into the south gallery is Several Terms, a painting show featuring recent work by John Clark. Filling the north gallery -- literally -- is Tacit, an installation by Alex Harrison.
Clark's show would have been good if he hadn't made a serious mistake in judgment right off the bat: In the offensively ironic "Departed Souls," he has incorporated a dead mouse and a dead bird, both entombed in a thick layer of aluminum paint. It's a move that's either overly trendy à la Damien Hirst or a reflection of Clark's bad taste. Either way, it's only the latest example of the twelve-year-old-boy-gross-out school of the fine arts -- something I've never appreciated, even when I was twelve.
If you can recover your sensibilities -- which is no easy task -- you'll notice that "Departed Souls" is quite beautiful. Of course, that just makes the whole thing worse.
The rest of the show, thankfully, is free of animal corpses used as art supplies, and in the south gallery proper, there are a number of fine paintings that somehow manage not to be stomach-turning.
"First Class Entrance," an acrylic on panel, is a dark, vaporous painting impersonating a monochrome. Though it appears to be a purple square, Clark creates a mottled finish with shades of purple, dark blue and reddish-violet. It's simultaneously expressionist and minimalist. The same combination of stylistic elements is seen in the elegant "Man Hanged Re-mem-bered," an acrylic on synthetic fabric. The essentially black painting is divided into vertical bars created by the seams, where Clark has joined together swaths of cloth. Some of the vertical pieces have been skim-coated with acrylic, which alters the sheen of the already shiny cloth. A simple yet ambiguous line drawing in the bottom right of the piece depicts either a horned animal or, maybe, a jock strap.
Harrison's installation, "Tacit," also has a minimal element: the materials he uses -- namely, hardware and rope. With these simple tools, he has completely taken control of the space, so much so that it's impossible to actually enter the north gallery. Instead, "Tacit" must be viewed by looking into the room through the doorway. Harrison has taken scores of metal loops and screwed them into the four walls, the floor and the ceiling; attached to the loops are measured lengths of thick, bright-white braided rope. The ropes are connected in straight lines between the four walls, the floor and the ceiling, with all of them intersecting in the center of the room. The resulting form is a starlike shape in which rays seem to emanate from the middle. The effective lighting further stresses the piece's locus.
Both artists are thoughtfully playing with minimalist concepts, a popular idea around here right now. And both are on their way up in the local art world -- well, as long as Clark can leave the dead animals to his cat.
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