White is a loaded color. It is absence and emptiness, but also purity and simplicity. White is often extrapolated into the boredom of vanilla, something ordinary and plain. However, the current show at Katie Gingrass Gallery, 241 N. Broadway, Milwaukee, simply titled “White,” is anything but dull. It offers works full of delight and surprise.
The premise of the show rests on the color white as a unifying hue. Color is a basic building block of art. It is one of the formal elements that most all art uses, in combination line, space, form, etc. In the way that music is comprised of the same notes arranged in multitudinous ways, so art relies on these formal elements in ever-inventive relationships. By minimizing color, our attention is cleverly refocused on other aspects in intriguing ways.
Material and texture become more prominent in many works, such as David Schaefer’s “Silver Birches.” This large painting is absolutely laden with paint in a heavy impasto that suggests the vertical forms and contours of birch trees. The color isn’t really white, but rather a mix of shades that settle on an overall effect of pale, luminous jade. The translucent feeling that comes from the shimmering undercoat of silver recalls the reflective nature of birch trees in crepuscular light, or under strange skies before a storm. The surface is built from hundreds of gestures. Small waves of paint seem to have crested and dried just as they were starting to spill down the surface. So much motion, yet so very still.
“White” is a tough show for people who really, really want to touch the art. Schaefer’s paintings are as much about tactile qualities as they are about visuals, and this can also be said of the encaustic paintings of Sarah Budensiek. Encaustic is an ancient form of painting that consists of pigment suspended in hot wax and applied to a support. Known to the Egyptians and Romans, it was used notably in the mid-20th century by American artist Jasper Johns. Budensiek works down into the surface of her pieces, carving and scraping to expose color below, leaving patterns like organic sprays of curved grasses or cosmic forms of space.
The emphasis on tactile sensation and physical material reaches another level in Kristin Haas’ three-dimensional works. From across the gallery, a white, lace-like form appears draped on a pedestal. Come closer and this lace reveals itself as “Echo,” a winding interlace of caulk, sinewy and layered into a gathered pile. Industrial chic indeed.
Haas also explores the beauty of entwined lines of caulk in wall pieces that are organized into floral and framed shapes. But the most lively are the spilling exuberances such as “Duet” and her chandeliers. Painted in a soft antique white, the chandeliers hang down from the ceiling on chains. Draped on them are thin strips of white, subtly moving in the air. These skeins of dried latex paint are like post-industrial cobwebs, the patina of time and age, but also the action of painting frozen in midair.
The aforementioned works are elegantly and overtly dramatic in their surfaces and materials. But many others in the show offer aesthetic delights through the subtlety of their compositions, as seen in the pigment prints of Brian Manci. These are diminutive photographs, printed with pigments instead of dyes. They create a rather lighter quality, something more like a drawing. The thinnest of lines and breathiest of gray tones create different types of landscapes. Some bring to mind the vastness of the sea through a wave-life wash, where the pale water darkens to meet a strange shadow of a horizon. In others, the urban sky is evoked by judiciously selected power lines. These exquisite and thoughtful images pare the world down into delicate bits and pieces. The low horizons used throughout the series create an expansive air in small pictorial spaces.
Works by nine artists comprise the full scope of this exhibition, which includes other media, such as ceramics, sculpture and furniture.