Review: Conceptual Art from Judy Chicago, Ann Hamilton and Jae Ko

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Surveying Judy Chicago RedLine 2350 Arapahoe Street

There are three solos on display now through the holidays that focus on internationally known conceptual artists. RedLine is hosting a retrospective dedicated to Judy Chicago, a pioneer in feminist art, while Robischon has given space to two artists, Ann Hamilton and Jae Ko, with a small compatible group show as the conclusion.

Surveying Judy Chicago: 1970-2014 is the closing act in a year-long program at RedLine dedicated to celebrating the accomplishments of women artists; the program was flawlessly facilitated by gallery director Louise Martorano, while this exhibit was put together by curator Simon Zalkind and exhibition designer Ben Griswold.

See also: Light in the Darkness Is the Key to Linda Graham's Vaporous Installation at Hinterland

Chicago burst onto the scene in the 1970s when she coordinated "The Dinner Party," a piece that was meant to recast the history of women and, at the same time, bend the course of contemporary art in a new direction. Considered a masterpiece, the installation is rife with references to the various political, aesthetic and social goals that Chicago set out to achieve. On a simple level, she wanted to supplant phallic imagery with vaginal forms -- and she did, combining them with the related shapes of butterflies, a universal symbol of metamorphosis. She also aimed to replace traditional fine-art methods like oil painting and bronze casting, which were male-dominated fields, with "women's work," like embroidering and potting.

And to put it all into the context of domestic life, another aspect of women's history, the organizing theme was a table set for dinner. Most significantly, the piece pushed contemporary art in the direction of collaboration and narrative -- big shifts at the time, since the chief approach in cutting-edge art before that had been individual expression and creating work that was non-narrative.

"The Dinner Party," which is in the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum, isn't included at RedLine, but there are a number of pieces related to it -- most notably, an impressive set of 39 presentation drawings laying out the full iconography of all of the final plates. There are also a few of the test plates in porcelain decorated with china paint. These are experimental elements used to finalize the designs of the related plates that were ultimately included in the completed piece. The central space at RedLine is dominated by these works, and it's undeniably the high point of this -- or any -- Chicago survey. Thus, even in its absence, "The Dinner Party" is the centerpiece of the exhibit.

The show also includes a couple of later, mural-sized works that are worth noting. One, which has a neo-art-deco feel, is "Earth Birth"; it depicts a reclining nude woman done in spray paint and accented by various needlework techniques by Jackie Moore Alexander. The piece is meant to refer to birth, a subject Chicago noticed had not been explored much by artists. Stylistically related though done with paint alone is "Cartoon for 'The Fall,'" which concerns a narrative about the Holocaust -- Chicago is Jewish -- done in a style that seems to come out of 1930s regionalism.

Ann Hamilton: Selected Works Jae Ko: Force of Nature Robischon Gallery 1740 Wazee Street

Ann Hamilton: Selected Works is another solo that explores the work of an important conceptual artist. For this show, the initial enfilade of spaces at Robischon is taken over by Hamilton's works on paper, many executed by the famous Los Angeles printer Gemini G.E.L. In the back corner is a mosaic of photo-based images of faces that relates to Hamilton's multimedia "voce: the house of the mouth" project. In the Viewing Room are videos, including one of "voce," as well as photos of Hamilton in performance costumes. These are reminiscent of those familiar images of costumed party-goers at the Bauhaus in the 1920s.

But the standout works are the paper-and-cloth pieces that Hamilton created with Gemini. The first group is from her "visite" series, whose title is taken from "carte de visite," the term for a nineteenth-century calling card that featured albumen-print portraits. Hamilton appropriates the portraits by re-photographing them using a tiny camera affixed to her finger, then enlarges them and pairs the resulting photo-based images with pieces of cloth that are adhered to the prints using the chine-collé method.

These pieces could easily be associated with Japanese scrolls, as they have an exaggerated vertical format. There is also a textural affinity to the scrolls, in the margins between the cloth and paper and in the horizontal divisions between the elements. Finally, there's the calligraphic character of the poetically rendered circles at the top center of each. Circles are significant for Hamilton, representing all sorts of things for her. She has written that "the circle...is the first eye."

Circles are even more important to her "ciliary" works (the series title describes the tissue surrounding the eye). These pieces are round in shape, and they, too, combine paper and fabric, but in a more obvious way. The center of each piece has fabric gathered in a bunch then extending outward, while all around is a pleated print arranged so that it radiates into a full circle. The printed part is covered with fine lines reminiscent of the crosscut of a tree trunk. In overall appearance, the "ciliary" pieces reminded me of elements from a fancy drape valance and have the same kind of strong visual presence.

In the next set of spaces at Robischon is Jae Ko: Force of Nature, a showcase of works by this well-known Korean-American artist who uses rolls of paper, inks and glues as her chief materials. The show includes three phases of the artist's work. The first consists of wall-relief sculptures in which ink-soaked rolls of adding-machine tapes have been manipulated into rectilinear patterns, some evocative of decorative grills. Then, in the window space, there are creations that are more sculptural and more fully leave the wall. In these pieces, Ko has pulled out the paper from the rolls in various ways so that they form stacks of rounded shapes of different dimensions.

In between is something different: the title piece, a monumental installation in which loosely coiled bands of brown craft paper are stacked up against a forty-foot-long wall. "Force of Nature" was first shown in a different form at the Phillips Collection in 2011.

The rolls of paper are shaped by being distorted through gravity, acting on their own weight -- hence the title's reference to nature. As simple as Ko's concept is -- piling up rolls of un-dyed and unaltered paper -- the piece has a real visual punch and could even be called magisterial. In fact, it may set you back on your heels when you first encounter it.

In the gallery's capacious back space is an economical, untitled group show displaying the work of four Robischon artists. First up are two of Ted Larsen's smallish post-minimalist constructions, in which simple shapes and complex surfaces collide. Next are Linda Fleming's signature pierced-steel panels, which have the character of decorative screens. Also represented by signature work is Derrick Velasquez, who combines wood, vinyl and gravity to create his smart-looking bas-reliefs. And last is the work of internationally significant installation artist Judy Pfaff (Hamilton's initial mentor, by the way), who has included three of her shadowboxes, inside of which she has arranged paper constructions and plastic flowers (which have been melted) to create sculpted collages.

The Chicago show and the three at Robischon have a lot to recommend them -- but plan to see them soon, as all four close in the next few weeks.

Surveying Judy Chicago Through December 27 at RedLine, 2350 Arapahoe Street, 303-296-4448, redlineart.org.

Hamilton and Ko, et al. Through January 3 at Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 303-298-7788, robischongallery.com.

Turn the page to see more art from the shows mentioned.

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