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Untreated, as in a natural state: Axford’s works in clay.

Form and Fun
By David Brickman

JoAnn Axford and D. Jack Solomon

Firlefanz Gallery, through March 26

If Firlefanz Gallery has re opened for the season, then spring can’t be too far off. The current exhibition is a classic pairing of Glenmont ceramist JoAnn Axford and downstate painter D. Jack Solomon that makes the most of contrasting palettes and styles: Axford’s a pale, subtle dream in delicate porcelain and Solomon’s a vibrant, jubilant fantasy in rich acrylic paint.

What the artists have in common, aside from clear personal vision and mastery of their chosen media, is a steadfastness, an impressive sense of purpose. In Axford’s case, this translates into the daily habit of “clay journaling,” as she describes her intuitive explorations of form in hand-built, unglazed porcelain.

Inspired and informed by nature, Axford’s pieces emanate the therapeutic calm that comes from working with clay and the potency of the life force that all plants and organically-shaped creatures (such as coral) exude. The decision to leave the work in its original eggshell-colored state (except in two cases where 22-karat gold leaf embellishes it) gives Axford’s basket, pod and pitcher shapes an almost pure aura, so understated as to perhaps lull the viewer into missing out on their deeper energy, their hidden edges of playfulness.

This, however, is remedied by the presentation: In pairs, trios and larger groups, her Nested Forms and Improvisation series animate the fragile shapes and point up their textural contrasts. Like a lexicon of hand-building techniques, the groups titled Nested Forms #1-4 offer pinched, slab-built and coiled shapes in various combinations, each cleverly and skillfully showing off its advantages.

The larger groupings titled Botanical Improvisation on a Pedestal and Landscape Improvisation, together with Copland’s Moods, express a jazziness that’s hard to resist. Axford has retained the sense of impulse from which the pieces were born to the extent that the gallery’s notices not to touch them are quite necessary.

Otherwise, we’d be inclined to get in on the act, to join Axford in rearranging the little, possibly undersea tableaux to our momentary liking. Doubtless, this is part of her intention—but she’s coy. She seduces us with beauty and spontaneity, then she teases us with inaccessible purity and risky fragility. It’s a fun game, and she succeeds at it very well.

Solomon is even more playful. At 72, he paints with the energy of a man half his age, gleefully injecting images from the comics—not to mention a panoply of other influences that range from advertising art to the ancient Greeks to higher math to Picasso—into his extremely quirky compositions.

Based in Surprise, Solomon has taught at Parsons School of Design for more than 20 years, and his exhibition resume runs for several pages. But, for the last couple of years he’s suddenly shown quite a bit in the Capital Region; this selection of more than 30 paintings and collages made from 2001 to 2005 is the most comprehensive I’ve seen, showcasing both his range and his consistency.

Extremely adept with acrylic paint, Solomon loves to indulge in the push-pull relationship between pure, intense color and monochrome within the same painting. Working as small as 6 by 9 inches and as large as 50 inches, he jams every composition with countless elements, and layers these elements with a complexity of colors and textures.

Typically, a Solomon painting will be crisscrossed with numerous straight lines running in all directions at different angles; intermingled within this strict yet random structure will be all manner of shapes and squiggles, some symbolic, some clearly stolen, some just loopy. Along with these sort of hieroglyphs, there will be many characters and objects and figures from his various sources: Jiggs and Maggie, for example, or disembodied arms and legs out of Leger, which float and frolic in the space he’s created. These hard-edged shapes can be in shades of gray or in brightly outlined primary colors, and the fields around them are usually in a fairly narrow but intense color zone, say a green and yellow combination, or a purplish blue.

Everywhere, light and dark, soft and hard, flat and deep all commingle and clash in these complex visual exercises, described in Solomon’s artist statement as a “duality of whimsical content and formal structure.” It’s easy to see how the paintings were developed out of collage, and there are a lot of collages (with paint) on view to help show how the process goes, but it’s also quite clear that the paintings stand as such, providing a gratifyingly finished sensation that owes much to Solomon’s great skill with acrylic.

One can approach this work almost entirely as pure form and come away happy—there are wonderful passages of grays (in every color of the rainbow, visible when you compare them) and equally luscious sparks of aqua, crimson and safety yellow. Solomon’s edges alone can hold your attention, with the layers of color they reveal.

But, at some point, you’re going to ask the inevitable question: “So, what does it all mean?” To that, I can only say, “Who the heck knows?” Not Solomon, I suspect—and that’s alright with me. A little mystery is a good thing, and in my opinion, it’s not an artist’s job to remove it with boring explanations. Solomon’s work is goofy, and it’s serious—like life. In his case, probably a bit more goofy, thank goodness.

By the way, it was just announced that Solomon has received a $25,000 grant from the Pollock/Krasner Foundation. That’s a distinction very few can claim—I think the Kat zenjammer Kids would be pretty proud.


David Arsenault: Time Standing Still
William K. Sanford Town Library through Mar. 31

Inspired by a childhood love affair with Edward Hopper’s paintings, David Arsenault transformed himself as an adult from working graphic designer to working painter, adopting Hopper’s realist style and adding his own twists. Now, years later, he has earned a strong following and reputation (even winning a Metroland readers’ poll a few years back), and his entrepreneurial skills have kept him solvent and regularly showing.

His current display at the Loudon ville library’s spacious, spotlit Sted man Room features 24 oils on canvas from as early as 1995 through brand-new work. This quasi-retrospective offers a well-organized look at Ar senault’s genesis and evolution—fans won’t want to miss it, as many of the best older works have already sold, and will likely disappear forever into private collections.

Having dubbed his style “the art of solitude,” Arsenault strikes a softly alienated pose, favoring isolated houses and, when present at all, self-absorbed individuals. He’s at his best when capturing qualities of light, whether natural, artificial, or both at once—and his sense for color is quite strong. Where Arsenault occasionally falters, however, is in describing form; here, his brushwork sometimes seems rushed and imprecise, which can rob a painting of its true voice.

But this is a quibble. Arsenault’s a really good painter—and there’s still plenty of time for trying to achieve greatness.

—David Brickman

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