“Tightly Unwound” at Gallery W is a Masterclass in Technique
Gallery W might not be on your radar, but it should be. For nearly three years, this large space in the ground floor of the new American Greetings Corporate Headquarters at Crocker Park has held many truly excellent exhibitions, featuring work by prominent area artists like Jenniffer Omaitz, Corrie Slawson, Libby Chaney, Eva Kwong, Eric Rippert, Christi Birchfield, Bruce Checefsky, and many more. The shows are curated by a committee, and a gallery designer works closely with the artists to facilitate installation. My only criticism is their untenable opening hours (only open to the public during regular business hours, save for their opening receptions), but “Tightly Unwound”, their current exhibition featuring work by Dana Oldfather, Jen Craun, and Stephen Yusko, is holding an informal closing reception on Saturday, June 22 from 1-3pm – and you don’t want to miss this show.
“Tightly Wound” might be a better description for this exhibition, as this critic found a bit of underlying anxiety in everything on view, just beneath the surface – balloons struggling to inflate (hot air balloons terrify me to be honest); perfect domestic spaces jauntily painted onto mini houses with still lifes that look a bit melancholy, slipping out of time; carefully wrought, cautiously suspended metal masterpieces, it’s all a bit… “wound up” – but in the very best sense of the phrase.
This show is a masterclass in technique. The three artists represent the very best in their respective fields – Oldfather: painting, Craun: printmaking, Yusko: forging metal. An incongruous trio upon first thought becomes magical in practice.
Jen Craun explores hot air balloons in a new series of work she calls her “Stretched Series”. She describes them as heroic and buoyant, bright and hopeful – but for some reason I see them as yes, cheerful – sure, hot air balloons are beautiful, but they’re also incredibly dangerous.
Precarious is the word that comes to mind – and the bright colors employed only add to the tension. Stretched is certainly the right word, as the nylon fills, sometimes nearly bursting at the seams, other times flaccid, limp.
Tons of movement and struggle, up or down? Craun states that “the work speaks of the duality of both hope and struggle, of optimism in times uncertain.” Maybe for her. Or maybe I’ve heard one too many stories of hot air balloon disasters. The only thing I’m sure of is the tremendous amount of craftsmanship used to create these delicate one-of-a-kind prints. Each one is a spectacular study of color, light, composition, and technique. As Craun explained, “the loyalty of print to record a mark is astounding. This is the magic of ink and pressure that has always allured me to the process of printmaking.”
Similarly, each piece by Stephen Yusko on view is a delicate, carefully wrought gem. Using a variety of blacksmithing and metal fabricating techniques, Yusko make objects that reflect a keen interest in architecture, clean lines, and a reverence for form. As Yusko explained to fellow exhibitor Dana Oldfather in an interview in the CAN Journal: “I once heard a metal artist say, ‘I’m forever a jeweler who does not make jewelry.’ That certainly applies to the way I approach these pieces—a combination of forging, machining and fabricating.”
“The inspiration for this sculpture’s legs (Image Above) was bridge trestles and sawhorses. When I was growing up, my dad and every dad in the neighborhood had sawhorses in the garage and those things would come out and that’s where the work got done. When I made this piece, called The View from Here, I was thinking about what ‘home’ means to people. I think it’s particularly relevant now with all that’s going on in our country, in Syria, other countries and with the migrant caravans. This to me is like a six-and-a-half-foot-long piece of jewelry.”
Each of his works is made with the careful attention and meticulous detail of a true craftsman. “Whether used alone or with other materials, I am drawn to steel’s industrial history, working properties, methods of joinery, and range of finishes. When heated in the forge, steel moves like clay, allowing this tough material to be transformed into elegant and graceful shapes.” To learn more about his impressive technical skill, I highly suggest watching this ThinkCraft video from CIA of Yukso discussing his career and work.
One of the quirks of the space at Gallery W is the two small “houses” that serve as hanging space in lieu of walls. And while they can be moved around, they cannot be removed from the space. Instead of letting this odd quirk work against them, Oldfather decided to embrace them, using the boxes as the perfect vehicle for an in-depth exploration of domesticity. The resulting hand-drawn interiors using only blue paint are a bit of a departure for Oldfather, known as a painter of large-scale canvases with heavily layered abstracted subjects.
The still lifes also clearly hold memories – plastic bags just from the store, fruits and veggies, meals about to made and shared. And perhaps most notably, glimpses of the blue floral wallpaper that adorned the walls.
All of these paintings are little windows into the past, and a bit of a departure for Oldfather. The attention to realism in them differs greatly from most of her work, and I can’t help but feel a tinge of sadness too. Memories of our youth are such delicate things, if we’re not careful, they can easily slip into oblivion – and I get sense that this is the artist’s attempt to hold on.
The single large-scale painting in the show, The Laundress, is exemplary of Oldfather’s amazing technical skill. Those sweeping gestural brushstrokes are part and parcel for Oldfather’s frenetic but highly composed paintings, along with dripping spray paint, wide swaths of solid color, and bits of exposed canvas. The subject is there, you can make out a laundry basket, some clothes, and the sun oozes through a window – but the intense mark-making, hints of spray paint, dozens of layers of swirling brushwork, tiny skulls and glowing stars – this is the kind of work where Oldfather truly shines.
I had the pleasure of visiting her studio a few years ago – there she explained that she starts her paintings with recognizable compositions – men working on a car, her family on a porch at Halloween, a person with a laundry basket… this she calls the “skeleton” of the painting, and it sits on the underpainting in the very first of many many layers of paint. The subsequent layers become the flesh on this skeleton, and by the end, the viewer may or may not find a hint or clue of the figural composition that lies hidden beneath. The resulting painting, like The Laundress, is a testament to Oldfather’s incredible technique. I could happily lose myself in the surface of it.
I have to hand it to Gallery W, I would never have thought to group these three artists together under one roof – their mediums, ideas, and style being so disparate… But somehow it works. The three artists in this exhibition represent some of the best work being made in the region, and if you have a chance to stop by on Saturday, you will not be disappointed.
Tightly Unwound will be on view through June 27 at Gallery W, in American Greetings Corporate Headquarters at Crocker Park. The will be holding an informal closing party on Saturday, June 22 from 1-3pm – info about the event here.