I love group shows, in particular those that are held together by a clearly defined organizational theme. At their best, these sorts of exhibits can lay out a broad-based historic, aesthetic or stylistic narrative — sometimes all three at once. But solos can also be superior because they give viewers an in-depth look at an artist's oeuvre and can convey that individual's artistic point of view. If the artist is working in a contemporary style, the value is even greater, since the solo can act like a signpost for our times. With this in mind, here's a roundup of three worthwhile solos in town.
Big-Lots, at Ironton Studios and Gallery, is made up of some very large abstract paintings by Wendi Harford. I've been aware of Harford's work for more than a decade; she's been creating much longer than that, but she tends to drop in and out of the gallery scene, and I hadn't seen what she was up to for several years. Based on these strong and artistically ambitious paintings, I'd say she's as good as I remembered.
Harford was born in New York — Queens, to be exact — but she's mostly lived and worked in Colorado, earning a BFA at the University of Denver in 1977. When I spoke to her at Ironton, she mentioned that she had studied with the late Denver abstractionist Beverly Rosen. I then began to notice all the subtle evidence of her mentor's influence.
The group of seven abstract paintings are not, strictly speaking, a body of work or a series, as they display a range of approaches. On one side is the striped painting, "Endless Summer," and on the opposite is "Astoria," which looks like graffiti on the side of a building. In between are several different styles, with two pieces — "'Sup" and "Bellis Perennis" — that look like an homage to the late Dale Chisman in the way their organically based forms stand out against a smeary and indefinite ground.
I liked most of these paintings, but "Pressure Drop" was the best. For this piece, Harford began by creating an all-over abstraction with broken areas of color dominated by black and white but also including red and turquoise. There are also brown, purple and black tendrils that drop down from the top, invading this abstract ground. By placing one totally abstract field over another, Harford creates the illusion of receding space — a feature not often seen in abstractions, which typically aim to be flat.
Kim Ferrer is another longtime Colorado contemporary artist. Her solo, Childsplay, is on view at Walker Fine Art. Ferrer studied drawing and painting at the Art Students League of New York in the '70s, and in 1991 she earned a BFA from Colorado State University in those same disciplines. But in 2004, she returned to CSU to get her MFA in sculpture, and it is sculptures that are on display at Walker.
As could be inferred by the title, the show evokes the pleasures of childhood. The pieces comprise a conceptual schoolyard playground dominated by brutally scaled and roughly finished seesaws. But in addition to the childhood references, Ferrer has added Buddhist philosophy, so instead of going up and down on the seesaws, viewers are meant to try to balance them in midair to achieve a sense of equilibrium.
The first piece is "Perception Shift," which looks like some kind of ancient artifact. There are two over-scaled rocker runners made from old thick slabs of wood; they're connected by a system of wood and steel rods, with a pair of bench seats at either end. Not technically kinetic, it has the potential to be: If one person sits on a seat, the piece will pivot on the runners, with another person needed to bring it back to its balanced, resting position.
"Balancing Act (awareness exchange)" is a related series that takes a radically different form. Here, Ferrer has built platforms out of flat planks balanced on a bronze orb. Viewers are meant to stand at different points along the platforms with the aim of keeping both ends aloft. In addition to these teeter-tottering pieces, there's also a sort of obstacle course called "A Fine Line." In this piece, viewers walk along a shaved log, trying to keep their balance.
Supplementing Ferrer's work, which occupies the floors, is a group show hanging on the walls. Gallery owner Bobbi Walker invited the artists she represents to submit pieces on the theme of "child's play." There are some interesting things here, including some delightful childlike paintings by Frank O'Neill; other standouts include works by Ben Strawn, Sabin Aell, Bonny Lhotka, Roland Bernier, Jonathan Hils and Eric Corrigan. I know why Walker is presenting this adjunct — small works are easier to sell than big sculptures — but the Ferrer show would have been more coherent if it had been presented by itself.
Ivar Zeile at Plus Gallery has solved a similar problem by completely separating his current group show of represented artists from his featured solo, Systems of Knowing, made up of drawings and related installations by R. Justin Stewart.
Stewart is an emerging artist originally from Wisconsin who has spent time at the Kansas City Art Institute and the University of Minnesota. He has gotten a lot of traction with his installations made up of suspended forms, but the show at Plus is different. Zeile has observed that walking into the show is like entering a three-dimensional map of the New York subway system, and I can see what he means: the hard-edged red lines run like train routes coming down off the walls and across the floors to link the individual sets of drawings to the specific sculptures they inspired.
The different groupings of drawings and sculptures are very similar, even if they have scores of perceivable differences between them in their many details. And they don't progress from one to the next — at least as far as I could tell.
The drawings, which are hung in discrete clusters, feature linear patterns made up of the same set of forms repeated over and over, mostly simple circles. The sculptures share the same vocabulary of forms, but instead of ink or graphite, they're made from industrial materials including twist ties and O-rings, both made of plastic. Each sculpture is on a shallow plinth painted a bright color. Despite the clear interconnection between the drawings and the sculptures, they are separable, as demonstrated by the fact that each element has been individually priced on the exhibition checklist.
The drawings are lacy, and the resulting sculptures are insubstantial both because of the lightweight materials Stewart uses and because there's a lot of air in them, with the plastic shapes creating skeletal structures. They're about the translation of one system, lines on paper, to another, lines in space, which brings up similarities and differences between the two. Because the installations, which comprise both types, are constructed of formally identical repeated elements, Stewart's creations conceptually link up with contemporary ideas about pattern-building and fractals.
The Harford, Ferrer and Stewart solos each have their own appeal, and nothing really links them together. Nothing, that is, except that each is a snapshot of what's happening right now in the art world.