Kittredge Gallery exhibits abstract sculptures and Chinese ink painting

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Sculpture by Michael Johnson. Photo courtesy of artist

University of Puget Sound’s fabulous Kittredge Gallery is running two art exhibits that are very different from one another. In the main space is a show of work by Michael Johnson. The show consists of five big sculptures, all of which are three-dimensional configurations made of plywood. Each has its own unique form, surface texture and color. The works are abstract and some of the shapes are complex. “Confluence 4” is made of unadorned plywood. Its straight lines make a labyrinthine form – reminiscent of an architectural drawing by M.C. Escher. A big untitled blue thing is a simpler form that seems almost like something familiar, but never quite gets all the way there. The yellow one (another untitled piece) is a slanted polygon, while “Confluence 7” is coated in dark graphite, sealed with urethane. The last sculpture (untitled) is orange-red and cream colored and is like two fat taco shells intersecting one another.

The sculptures are clearly works of art, but do not behave as such. They lay awkwardly right on the floor like intruders. Better behaved art would perch itself tidily on a pedestal and act in a dignified manner. These are like the toys of some giant, mathematical-baby-genius who does not know how to return them to the toy box after they have been brought out to be enjoyed. Now you get to walk around them and enjoy them for yourselves.

Johnson’s craftsmanship is impeccable. Plywood is made to bend in sensual curves and the works are so seamlessly constructed that they look like the products of some highly refined industrial process.

Johnson is a distinguished professor of sculpture at UPS. As a fabricator, Johnson places manual labor in the realm of undervalued human endeavor. Johnson has participated in one-person and invitational exhibitions in the United States, Slovakia, and Japan.

In Kittredge’s “small space” there is a very different show called “Rewriting Tradition: Modern Chinese Landscape and Calligraphy.” This is a student-curated show with pieces from the Studio of Gathering Hearts in Seattle. The exhibit features influential 20th-century artists such as Xu Bing, Gu Wenda and others who have challenged and reinvented the age-old traditions of Chinese calligraphy. The show features ink paintings and calligraphy made by Chinese artists who are rooted in age-old artistic traditions, yet are taking the old forms in new directions.

One ink painting by Gu Wenda is a weird landscape in which variations in the darkness and diluteness of the ink and the texture of brush are used differently for each different feature of a rural landscape of hills, fields and farm hut. Each hill and item in the scene is done with a different mix of ink and quality of brush. The result is a scene that is expressionistic and dynamic.

Many of the paintings include calligraphy. The script, the gestural brushwork, the images conjured by the written language as well as by the style of its rendering all enhance the overall experience of the art. Image does not have to bear the entire burden of evocation of mood and memory associated with a given place. The use of text can enlist the mind of the viewer and stimulate a shared cultural knowledge and sentiment to bring something extra to the viewing experience. An example is a large painting, also by Gu Wenda, in which calligraphic script floats atop imagery that is done in washes of watered-down ink.

A particularly attention-grabbing part of the exhibit is a glass case that contains white rocks that artist Cynthia Wu used as a surface for tiny landscape scenes and rows of minute calligraphy. Here, the shapes in the surface of the rocks are utilized to form features of the tiny landscapes painted on their surfaces.

These days, in a flashy, digitized world, it often takes extra bright color to draw our attention. Paintings done with watered- down ink displayed on the white walls of a gallery seem bland and uninviting. Once there, however, the artist works his/her magic. The gestures of the hand, the skill with the brush, the economy of means in conjuring something haunting and expressive and interesting are all there to absorb the viewer’s quiet attention.

An artist talk for the Johnson show is scheduled for March 22 at 2 p.m. and there will be a closing reception with visiting artist Henry Mandell April 13 from 5-7 p.m. Kittredge Gallery serves as a teaching tool for the UPS Department of Art and Art History, and a cultural resource for both the university and the community at large, exhibiting work by noted regional and national artists. Exhibits and talks are free and open to the public.

Both shows run through April 14. For more information, visit pugetsound.edu/kittredge.

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