Contemplative Spaces

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Some people live for NASCAR, and some painstakingly build sailboats out of matchsticks. You see the same extremes in art, from Red Grooms's riotous pop environments to minimalist Robert Ryman's investigations of white. Four artists currently on view at James Gallery and Devin Borden/Hiram Butler Gallery weigh in on the subtler end of the scale. Their works are contemplative and personal, although with a faint whiff of the obsessive.

In "Coming Clean" at James Gallery, Patricia Hernandez's paintings meld faint figural references with fluid abstraction. The surfaces are painted and scraped down, again and again, in a dialogue between the materials, the surface and the imagery. Hernandez has an obvious love for the media and its manipulation, remanipulation and reremanipulation. Her figures shine through their abstract environments of drippy dots and sanded-down brush strokes. The burnished surfaces are wonderfully light and matte, and the colors run to pale greens, cerulean blues, taupes and beige-pinks. The hinted figures of women emerge through sanded-down brush strokes and scraped-back paint, like overexposed photos.

In untitled (2000), a figure holds up a piece of a haphazardly patterned fabric created with loose and gestural dripping strokes. The figure is indicated only through the negative shapes of her fingers and the faint features of her face. A black hair/hat shape blows up from the face, which is dominated by the mouth, a slightly goofy, toothy version of a Mona Lisa smile. These strangely wonderful mouths reoccur in other Hernandez paintings. A floating, dipping line of them runs across the bleached-out aqua surface of simultaneous conversation (2000). The mouths linger in retinal afterimages that are, by turns, chatty, enigmatic or expressive.


Patricia Hernandez's "Coming Clean" and Monica Pierce's "Pattern Book - An Inventory of Familiar Objects and Patterns"

are on view through May 20 at James Gallery, 307 Sul Ross.

Hernandez displays several purely abstract untitled works that she refers to as ground studies. They are competently executed, but you feel the absence of her figural elements. Her strongest works occur when the figure is integrated into the abstraction, subtly intertwining its presence with the painting around it. The figures themselves have a serene ambiguity. You don't quite know what they are doing there, but they seem mildly pleased to be where they are.

Walking into the James Gallery's tiny alcove space is like entering a studio microcosm. Part of her ongoing "Pattern Book" project, Monica Pierce's sincerely decorative drawings are casually tacked up on the walls in clusters. An art historical kleptomaniac, Pierce absorbs and reinterprets patterns from a vast range of cultures and time periods. Their origins lie in everything from Kashmir paisley swirls to Islamic geometricism to '50s moderne.

The patterns are drawn in ink, gouache and God knows what else on the kind of random scraps you find in artists' studios: yellowed leftover pieces of cardstock, graph paper, translucent vellum, a stray piece of pinkish-peach marbled paper. The investigative nature of the drawings is very appealing; sometimes Pierce starts to fill an entire page with a pattern, but more often than not trails off when she has created enough to satisfy herself. In others, pattern fragments are composed on a page. The repetitive process of creating the patterns is obsessive, but only to a point, since Pierce's drawings lack an air of compulsive doodling. The works have a fresh, exploratory feeling that differs from compulsion. Her book of drawings is more self-consciously presented, but its fragile translucent sheets allow the overlay of myriad patterns, gradually altering the image each time the viewer turns a page.

Matthew Sontheimer has created affectionately conceptual works from a map of his hometown of New Orleans and a drawing of his third-grade shoe. His appealing blend of elaborate concept and melancholic nostalgia continues in an untitled exhibit at Devin Borden/Hiram Butler Gallery, where his small drawings of snaking and looping lines are the result of an involved process.

They're derived from a collection of his father's scrawled signatures, retrieved from postcards and letters. After overlaying and partially obscuring the signatures, Sontheimer took 26 unrecognizable fragments of the handwriting and created his own personal alphabet. Using a light box and photocopied enlargements of his "letters," he overlays them to compose his drawings. In M&A (2000), the "M" symbol and the "A" symbol are overlaid, forming the first two letters of the artist's first name. It is a kind of monogram, constructed from marks made by his father. The piece creates a closed circuit between father and son, with subtle allusions to the complex relationships that exist between them.

The enlarged letters have that fuzzy-edge quality caused by repeat photocopying. After enlarging, Sontheimer traces the outline of the blown-up fragment with a tender, wavering line quality, the artist's painstaking record of the original. It's obsessive, but in a thoughtful and sentimental way. Signatures are the trademark of an individual, and graphologists study them to discern character traits. There is a psychologically interesting element in dissecting, analyzing, enlarging and faithfully reproducing a mark someone has made. Does it still contain or represent something of the person when it has been so transformed? If not, at what point does it stop representing them?

Two small pieces of paper used as palettes are included in the show, the tidiest palettes I've ever seen. You can see where Sontheimer has meticulously taped them to a table with drafting dots, as evidenced by the naked semicircles on the edges. The palettes are filled with tiny marks made by the artist cleaning his pen, as well as the occasional word or phrase microscopically jotted down in stream-of-consciousness style. While the marks and comments are mildly interesting, the palettes function primarily as a record of the artist's process. I don't know that they are necessary to the exhibition.

Darryl Lauster has a long-standing fascination with preserving the ephemeral, or at least trying to. He has attempted to stitch onion skins back together and to reconstruct broken eggshells with a comical lack of success. It's the attempt and the results of that attempt that are important. Magnolia Blossoms (2000) is a collection of blooms cast in plaster and Hydrocal. The results are aesthetically pleasing, waxy white plaster flower forms. The preservative impulse of casting something transient oddly calls to mind the morbid practice of making death masks, but instead of the slack postmortem face of Napoleon, you get the fragile and lush petals of a flower thickly captured in plaster, caught at various stages of development. Lauster began casting the blossoms two years ago, and they are an ongoing project. Fifteen different casts are placed along a shelf for the exhibition. The number shown is slightly problematic; it's in between -- too many to allow the viewer to focus on the shapes, too few for an overwhelming accumulation. I am curious to see the piece when Lauster has cast every magnolia inside the 610 Loop.

The works on view reiterate the individual and quirky nature of making art. Why does one person fixate on putting on and scraping off paint and another on infinitesimal fragments of handwriting? Through whatever process, artists isolate concepts that appeal to them and find media that are pleasurable, evocative or necessary to them. Figuratively speaking, some people head for the glue and kitchen matches, some for the Labonte brothers.

Works by Matthew Sontheimer and Darryl Lauster are on view through June 6 at Devin Borden/ Hiram Butler Gallery, 4520 Blossom.

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