Open and Quiet Spaces
When she was a student in college, Rhonda Gates recalls that she often sought out "open and quiet" spaces. She explored the flood plain of the Missouri River, climbed up bluffs to watch storms coming in and "wandered around" prairies in Kansas and Iowa.
Gates was a figurative landscape painter then. When this became limiting, she created a supple semi-abstract visual language to suggest the Midwest's spacious flatness. In January, Gates exhibited eleven oil and graphite paintings on panels at Chicago's Zg Gallery.
Gates' subtle, meditative paintings capture the soul of the Great Plains. After preparing the surface of a panel, she draws a grid with a pencil, then paints inside the lines to create a formal color field that recalls a flat landscape as seen from eye level. Her marks, patterns and rectangles of paint in graduated tones suggest vegetation, the sky at night and steel and glass city architecture rising over farm fields.
The most beautiful piece in Gates' show is Just after dark (2002), a 60-in. wide, 18-in. tall panel painted in numerous shades of blue and blue-black to suggest the slowly darkening night sky. Slim slanted forms at the bottom of this work could be broken corn plants. Underbrush (2002) shows stalk-like shapes before a pale background that may be snow. The verticality and shallow depth-of-field in these paintings connects them to Chinese art.
Gates now lives in Chicago where Lake Michigan is the largest open space. In walks along the shore, she stands "bravely at the abrupt end" of a pier, thinks (not very seriously) about jumping into the water, and contemplates the city. Marina about 4, with haze (2001) comes out of such experiences. Sanctuary (2003), another pattern piece, evokes the forest as glimpsed through archways.
This is Gates' first major solo show. She has just begun to explore the possibilities of her visual language. She will go far.
Most Cherished Devices
Derick Malkemus, sculptor, finds his two "most cherished devices" at the end of his arms. For as long as he can remember, he has used his hands to "do the bidding" of his "eyes and psyche." We saw the results -- 15 sculptures in cast and fabricated aluminum, steel, stainless steel and fiberglass -- at Artemisia Gallery in January.
Malkemus makes foam displacement castings, which are close relatives of the lost wax casting. He carves a form in Styrofoam, coats it with a refractory substance, makes Styrofoam runners, and buries everything in a flask of sand. Then he pours molten metal onto the runners, which vaporizes them and the form within the sand. Once everything cools down, he extracts the casting. The refractory coating ensures a clean surface.
The artist makes slant, disk and "muscle" forms, all related. Boy (2002) and Slant (2002) are small castings with coarse-grained surfaces on functional bases. Both works embody leaning geometric forms with interlocking elements that recall Futurist imagery. Boy is just five inches high, but the artist gets tremendous energy and tension into it.
Slipped Disc/Limited Twist (2000) and Match Book (2000) suggest grates or drains as created by a madman. Everything is off-kilter with open centers that seem to have been chewed out. There are odd folds, bends, striations and occasional matte color in the surface. Malkemus gets these intriguing, somewhat humorous effects by carving the Styrofoam form with a hot wire.
We see one of the artist's "muscle" forms in Archer (2000). The "muscle" is long and slim with striations in its surface. The artist says that he created this tense shape to get "more sinuous lines" into his work. Several other pieces in the show embody these forms.
A friend tipped us off to Malkemus -- this artist is little known outside the sculpture community. Over 15 years, he has built his own visual vocabulary and taken control of it. Not every piece in this show is a grand success, but every single one is Malkemus' alone. How many artists can say that?
James M. Smith
James M. Smith, a St. Louis artist, showed six mixed media paintings, ranging in size from 18 x 24 in. to 84 x 72 in. at Perimeter Gallery in January. Smith's flat color fields, surfaces and textures suggest sky, moving water and sunlight flooding through trees. This is formal, meditative work.
The artist begins with raw canvas, which he cuts and tears into squares and rectangles of different sizes. He may wrinkle or tint these pieces of cloth before he sews them together into a flat patchwork hanging. Some pieces are connected with small safety pins. The result is a wide, very flat construction that recalls animal hide or possibly a robe. The artist paints parts of it in vibrant colors, splashing the paint and letting it drip or creating an impasto with a palette knife.
Trip Fire (2000) is a quiet color field with a brilliant patch of red vermilion in the upper left. CloudVB (2000) is a study in pale colors -- white, cream, ivory and more. In Lessor Red Compass 2 (2002), four rectangles of cloth frame a semi-abstract image that Smith outlines in graphite.
Chicago's Own Cowgirl
Barbara Van Cleve is Chicago's own cowgirl. Born in Montana and raised on the family ranch there, she started to take pictures at the age of eleven and now has a national reputation for her photographs of ranch life and the American West. Chicago has a perfect right to claim Van Cleve because she earned an MA in English Literature at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and taught English Literature and later photography for over 25 years at DePaul University, Loyola University and Mundelein College, all Chicago-area institutions.
For many years, Van Cleve worked in Chicago during the academic year and spent her summers ranching and photographing in Montana. She moved to Santa Fe in 1980 to focus full time on photography. She has since exhibited nationwide and published her work in several books.
Van Cleve's latest book is Holding the Reins: A Ride Through Cowgirl Life (2003) with a text by the novelist Marc Talbert. Holding the Reins, which is aimed at readers in the eight- to twelve-year-old age group, describes four hard-working ranch girls -- KaDee, Sarah, Katy and Leslie -- who live in Colorado, Montana, Wyoming and New Mexico respectively.
The ranch girls are all quite tough and resourceful. They may inoculate livestock for hours at a time, struggling with rebellious beasts that want to kick them in the side. They ride horseback almost from birth and walk long distances through cold weather to school. They know much about life, for they help make cattle into steers.
Barbara Van Cleve visited each girl during a different season of the year and photographed her life. Van Cleve's straightforward style conveys the pride and dignity of these girls. Her understanding of the West and love for it come through in every image. This is an excellent book.
Our copy of Holding the Reins will soon migrate across the street into the hands of a serious-minded girl with a shy smile. She just might become Chicago's next cowgirl.
VICTOR M. CASSIDY writes on art from Chicago.
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