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Democratizing Art

Thunder-Sky exhibit of abstract works leaves room for visitors’ own interpretations

By Kathy Schwartz · January 10th, 2012 · Visual Art
Infrastructure represents opportunity. That was the thinking of “construction clown” Raymond Thunder-Sky, the quiet, self-taught artist and downtown icon who saw possibility for improvement whenever a wrecking ball swung. In his world, police stations gave way to amusement parks.

Like a demolition crew working on a building, the artists of Infrastructure at Thunder-Sky Inc. are stripping art to its essential elements. Through their abstract paintings, they present opportunities to reflect, marvel and dream.  

“Abstract is boiling art down to its infrastructure,” says Bill Ross, co-founder of the gallery showcasing “unconventional” artists, including those with disabilities.  

This exhibit in particular democratizes art and artists, as viewers inevitably make comparisons to the masters of Abstract Expressionism. The gallery’s blog includes a quote from Richard Diebenkorn: “Abstract literally means to draw from or separate. In this sense every artist is abstract … a realistic or non-objective approach makes no difference. The result is what counts.” And the results here are very good.

Ross and co-founder Keith Banner have gathered locals Alex Bartenberger, Evan Hildebrandt, Chad Rasmussen and Michael Weber. Mindful of the exhibit’s stripped-down theme, the Northside gallery is showing only 11 works in the main space, plus a small portfolio of detail prints “abstracted” from drawings by the late Thunder-Sky. The walls are free of labels. 

The use of negative space gives visitors room to fill in the blanks inherent in abstract art, whether they choose to look at the works from a distance or inspect them with a magnifying glass, as several visitors did at Friday’s opening. I immediately thought of the Mark Rothko-inspired play Red. As his new assistant stares at a red canvas, Rothko barks, “What do you see? Wait! Stand closer.”

You will see Rothko in Bartenberger’s large, vibrant blocks of layered hues. Yet when Ross made the observation to Bartenberger, he responded, “Who’s Rothko?” He had not heard of the artist, though Rothko is one of his inspirations now. Bartenberger says his lifelong creativity has only grown after suffering a brain injury as a teen in 1994. 

Of course, Rothko’s question wasn’t so much “What do you see?” as “What do you feel?” Bartenberger’s “Pink Oil” radiates back the rosy warmth it creates inside the viewer, while “Mirror Reflection” makes veins run hot and cold with its intense reds and blues.


In addition to calling to mind the modern masters, the exhibit, through its use of open space, also encourages comparisons among the artists shown. Banner points out the similarities between Bartenberger’s canvases and the close-ups selected from Thunder-Sky’s felt-pen drawings of buildings and cranes. Strokes from his marker overlap and create a painterly effect. Breaking down depictions of infrastructure into even smaller blocks builds a new appreciation for Thunder-Sky’s ability to see beauty in a real or imagined demolition site. “I like to sit here and get quiet with his work,” Banner says.  

Contrast those clean, quiet lines to what Ross refers to as the “contained chaos” of Rasmussen’s small (8-by-12-inch), mosaic-like works, which are hung on the same wall as Bartenberger’s 48-by-60-inch canvases.  Probably a dozen colors, glitter, bits of found objects and strings of tiny black and white dots swirl in what looks like a bubbling pool of matter from which all life will spring. 

An art therapist, Rasmussen says in his bio, “I’m just especially fortunate to be able to specialize in a form of learning that has the potentiality to include anything and everything that is possible.”

The excitement over such possibilities will draw you over for a study of this busy “microscopic infrastructure,” as Ross calls it. At the exhibit’s opening, viewers thought they could pick out faces from a distance, but then lost them in the morass.   

Like Rasmussen, Hildebrandt creates chaos, but on a larger scale. His infrastructure for building art includes tar, epoxy resins, sawdust, pieces of tarp and caulk. Hildebrandt’s “Side View” invites a view from as many angles as possible. Shiny discs of mirrored Mylar, rimmed in white, appear to float in a golden-gray galaxy with ghostly purple orbs. Like the universe itself, this piece is full of things waiting to be discovered. 

While Hildebrandt and Rasmussen are adding layers, Weber is scraping away. Weber, an artist-in-residence at Thunder-Sky, “has found his voice,” says Ross, “and it’s a paint scraper.” In contrast to Hildebrandt’s works, Weber’s acrylic-on-wood paintings “Looking at Flowers” and “Falling Color” look rough but really are smooth. The textured effect comes from Weber’s use of multiple colors, which rivals Rasmussen’s but is less chaotic.   

Weber’s art is a matter of “serendipity and knowing when to stop,” says Banner, who compares his style to Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann’s. Weber, who also has shown at Visionaries & Voices, says he just likes mixing paints and letting the colors speak as he smears them around with his scraper and blocks of wood. No brush is used. He spends 10-15 minutes on a painting, and he’s done. Yet in the swaths of purple, pink and red-orange, Weber’s painting “Swishing” has an iridescent, dreamy radiance that looks as if it took hours or days to achieve. Maybe part of the effect is the spirit of the late Brian Joiner shining through. The artist’s leftover paint was used in the work. Or maybe the radiance comes from Weber’s obvious joy in working with the basic infrastructure of paint plus wood. 

And in an exhibit dedicated to new ways of looking at infrastructure, it makes sense that the room containing essential plumbing should be included, too. In an effort to keep the main exhibit space uncluttered, Ross and Banner hung extra pieces by Hildebrandt and Rasmussen in what currently might be one of the coolest restrooms in Cincinnati. Don’t miss this little bonus. After all, infrastructure equals opportunity. ©

INFRASTRUCTURE continues through Feb. 11 at Thunder-Sky Inc. (4573 Hamilton Ave., Northside). Visit www.thunder-skyinc.blogspot.com for more information.



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