Color: The Primary Material, an exhibit at Lockwood Gallery on view through July 30, pairs the work of two artists, Grace Bakst Wapner and Steven Alexander, that share a preoccupation with color, abstraction, and the geometries of the rectangle. Known for her rough-textured clay sculptures of figures, Wapner has broken new ground with her wall-hung fabric pieces, which roughly fall into two types: solidly constructed collages of glued and sewn painted paper and burlap, and pieces of layered painted semi-sheer fabric cut into meandering or feathered shapes accented by stitching. The works’ muted colors and tactility communicate a delicate fragility as well as an elemental presence, suggesting emotional states and wounded bodies as well as sculpted landforms and mineral surfaces.
Alexander’s paintings of interlocking colored squares and rectangles, which at first glance appear flat and hard-edged but on closer inspection reveal a subtle translucency of underlying color and edges that float rather than abut, have the sensual appeal of music. Their shifts in value, temperature, and hue are carefully calibrated within their minimalist formal language to create vibrant rhythms, which fully exploit the characteristic of color as “a pure energy” that “constantly shifts and transforms before our eyes,” as the artist states in the video posted on his website. The simplicity of form, materials and means characterizing both artists’ work result in a richness and straightforwardness of expression that compels one to keep looking—a looking that unlocks subtle visual energies and fires up the imagination with metaphorical meanings and associations.
The Woodstock-based Wapner has spent most of her career as a sculptor, exhibiting mainly in galleries in New York City and in the Hudson Valley; she was the recipient of the Byrdcliffe Award for Excellence in Art in 2015, is represented in numerous museum collections, including the Dorsky Museum of Art, has been extensively reviewed, lectured, and taught briefly at the Woodstock School of Art. After graduating from Bennington College in 1955 and taking a variety of classes in ceramics, sculpting, and casting, she began showing large, freestanding installations incorporating fabric, wood, plaster, and other materials in a Soho gallery in the 1970s, sharing a studio with Eva Hesse and Tom Doyle. She was also always fascinated by the motif of two figures, which she began sculpting in clay while attending public high school in Brooklyn. (“I asked for an art class in sculpture and there wasn’t any, so they put me in a corner of the shop, which was all boys, and gave me some clay,” she recalled.) Much of her later work consisted of clay sculptures in which two figures hug, lean against, hold, push against, or otherwise interact, sometimes forming mirrored images, in other cases at a contrasting scale, with the smaller figure emerging from the larger one. A desire to work in color (Wapner doesn’t glaze her clay pieces) and a love of the various textures of cloth compelled her a decade or so ago to begin constructing fabric pieces that hang on the wall. She taught herself to sew and began making collages fashioned from burlap and Nepalese handmade paper, which she wet, tore, and patched to create irregular edges and uneven surfaces, a process that suggests an immediacy and evolution through time.
The exhibit’s Blues, Grays, With Coral: Patchwork, a large collage incorporating rectangles of various proportions painted in pale greens, blues, pinks, and umbers, recalls the work of Paul Klee, in its rich surface texture that integrates figure and ground and handmade quality; threads from the sewn squares are splayed over the surface, like swimming tails. Purple with Coral Insert is another knockout: a vertical rectangle of distressed lavender burlap with frayed edges has been attached to a ground of glued sheets of thick mottled purple paper, which suggest bolted metal plates. The rectangle is spliced halfway down the middle to reveal a sliver of coral fabric, whose bright luminosity is like a ray of sunshine across the somber, frayed figure. Indeed, the sliver also suggests a human configuration, extending from where the crotch would be on the rectangle downward to define two legs. This association with the figure—a figure whose imperfections and repairs attest to sufferings and the passage of time—and the mournful, elegiac quality of many of the pieces, conveyed by the subdued, whispery colors, their mysterious restraint, the sense of care in their construction and by extension, the artist as a nurturing presence, no doubt relate to the illness of the artist’s husband, who after a long illness recently passed away. (He was the beloved attorney Jerry Wapner, profiled in the June 1 issue of HV One.)
Several of her earlier large installations—which she calls “walls” —were shown at the 2009 retrospective of her work at the Kleinert James Center for the Arts, which have a clear connection with the wall hangings. The pierced wall of Gate with Points and Flounces, for example, constructed of clay bricks stacked on a black wood support, bears a kinship with the fluttery veils of several of the pieces in the current show, which are variously feathered, riven down the middle by a cut-out shape resembling a meandering river, dancing figure, or thick artery, or framed on either side by stiff burlap; the layers of fabric, painted in somber grays that vary in tone from bluish to umber, both obscure and reveal. They suggest flowing movement, yet their fissures and stitchwork emphasize their materiality and associations with a terrain or body.
“I wanted to transmit that feeling of not being able to get there, that there’s always something beyond that eludes us,” said Wapner. “I also love beauty. What do I mean by beauty? I mean this integrity within the parameters of the piece, the transmittal of one’s mind and heart, an immediacy that comes from some kind of singularity and individuation. I believe we’re more alike than singular, but art gives you that avenue for uniqueness.”
Wapner, who notes the limitations of her technical knowledge have proved a strength since “it makes me find my own way,” often starts with an image in mind, but invariably the motif changes as the process of making unfolds with unexpected results. Her inventiveness with materials has lately led to the incorporation of clay into some pieces. The central motif of Outpour, whose splotches of black and gray color on the thin fabric suggest the cosmos, is three long strips of fabric, each of which has been pulled through a ceramic ring to cascade over the surface. While the artist said “the unknown qualities of space and time was there in my head” during the piece’s construction, she also noted the three forms “stand in for us; there’s a bit of a father and a mother [represented by the two longer strips] and a child off to the side. It’s about us and the universe. It became very important to me that the mother and father figures slightly overlap at the bottom, that they flow into one another.” She noted that “often when I work I have my own inner narrative. [Viewers don’t] know what the artist intended, but they feel the intent. They don’t divine the exact meaning, but the piece comes across as something purposeful.”
Steven Alexander, who resides in the woods of eastern Pennsylvania, has shown extensively across the U.S. and abroad, most recently in New York at Spanierman Modern and David Findlay Jr. Gallery. Born in West Texas in 1953, he obtained an M.F.A. from Columbia University in 1977 and has been awarded grants from the Pollack-Krasner Foundation and the Belin foundation and is a member of the American Abstract Artists group.
The title of the exhibition derives from a comment made by the artist in the video of a studio visit posted on his website, in which he notes that color is “a primary material, but not material at all, it’s more like a magical substance, a natural phenomenon, or pure energy.” It has “a lot in common with consciousness, which is also mysterious and constantly changing,” he intones as mediative music plays in the background. “Both are uncontrollable, and both are defined by perception.” Alexander constructs his paintings by laying the canvas or paper on a table and applying the oil or acrylic paint in thin layers of color with a wooden squeegee. Similar to Wapner’s work, the process embodies a history, which is recorded through subtle undertones and overtones, the applied layers creating “a built-in distortion and wash of reverb.” The artist describes the work as a kind of mirror for the viewer, as “invitations, places for the viewer’s imagination to visit, to perhaps create a richer experience of the present moment.”
“Color: The Primary Material,” work by Grace Bakst Wapner and Steven Alexander is on exhibit at The Lockwood Gallery, 747 Rt. 28, Kingston, through July 30, Sat. and Sun., 11-6, or call for an appointment on Thurs. or Fri., 845-663-2138.