Amid busy, vibrant abstract canvases and panels, the stark simplicity of a paperboard sculpture captures extra attention at Phyllis Weston Gallery’s Color NOW!
The positive response to Jennifer Wenker’s “Not Enough Greens” is a reaction to not just bright color but also a bright idea.
The O’Bryonville show celebrates the use of color by Cincinnatians past and present. The works of established and emerging contemporary artists are exhibited along with paintings from Jens Jensen (1895-1978), a onetime Rookwood artist, and Harry Reisiger (1922-2009), who worked with Paul Chidlaw.
Wenker’s artworks are the most unexpected; for one thing, they aren’t abstract paintings. The eco-modernist, who is also a nurse and organic farmer, raises the exhibit’s “now factor,” which it needs more of. Considering the exhibit’s insistent name, I had expected a greater effort to contrast today’s artists and the 20th-century modernists.
Wenker’s sculpture plays with three definitions of “green” — a color, an ecological movement and a leafy food. Made of reclaimed paperboard arranged by color and bound into different heights by rubber bands, “Not Enough Greens” is a commentary on the government’s food pyramid and inadequate recycling. The title comes from her 7-year-old daughter’s observation that “Mommy, there’s not enough greens” in the piece when compared with the wider bundles of yellow and orange cereal boxes. Nor, Wenker confesses, were there enough green vegetables in her family’s diet as she relied on processed convenience foods while she pursued a master’s degree.
The sculpture sits on a simple ledge of unpainted lumber, supporting Wenker’s statement that “what we buy is dictated by color packaging and long shelf life.”
Her other work, “My Family Tree: Recycle/Life Cycle,” is a growing circle composed of vivid rings of food boxes placed next to a cross section from a 70-year-old maple. The basic brown of the tree truly is the most beautiful color in the piece, especially when viewed against the harsh reality of paper waste. “Conceptually, this piece can never be completed,” Wenker writes with sadness.
Wenker’s art is shown beside abstract photographs by Diana Duncan Holmes. The simplicity and repetition of patterns in the women’s work is complementary. Holmes shoots extreme close-ups of ordinary objects such as papers and fences, then enhances the pigments. Context is lost, and colors and shapes take over. “For me, abstraction is subtraction,” Holmes writes. Detail is eliminated or exaggerated, “giving power to suggestion.” To my eyes, pieces of linguine now resemble orange koi in a pond.
Holmes’ painterly photography is an introduction to the next room, temporarily dubbed “the Art Academy room,” where paintings by recent graduate Merritt Johnson and incoming freshman Max Unterhaslberger are displayed.
Unterhaslberger was the star of the gallery’s Paper Trail group exhibit in April, his first major show. While it may seem a bit soon to showcase his spray-painted work again in the same venue, the prolific 18-year-old is constantly experimenting and advancing. (He is the gallery’s in-house artist.) Though his dynamic, graffiti-influenced works on paper seem chaotic and random, each dot, drip, circle, line and color choice is deliberate. With rollers and rulers, he transforms the painted surface to achieve the look he wants.
Johnson, working mostly with acrylics on canvas, experiments with shadows and colors in her new botanical-themed abstracts. As she layers shapes, two colors mix to lead her to her next shade and form. Other paintings incorporate the outlines of figures from her growing-up years, such as the musical acts she listened to (including Destiny’s Child, TLC and Brandy). Though her works and Unterhaslberger’s both have a youthful vibe, Johnson’s art more closely resembles many of Reisiger’s paintings in the back room. They both show a tendency toward blues and greens with pops of orange. “Color now” meets “color then.”
Despite the strong individual talent, a feeling of sameness settles over the exhibit as a whole. Nearly all the selected works, past and present, are abstracts and two-dimensional. Recognizing this, gallery appraiser Morgan Cobb included some eye-popping hand-blown glass vases from Oliver Debikey. A green one placed in the back room makes the colors in Reisiger’s paintings dance anew. Color NOW! just needs more of that kind of wow.
COLOR NOW! continues through Sept. 1 at Phyllis Weston Gallery (www.phylliswestongallery.com). Holmes will give a guest lecture at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 16.