and serenity: Miller’s Night Light.
By David Brickman
Gallery, through Sept. 13
This review must begin with a disclaimer. I have been friends
for a long time with two of the three artists in this exhibition;
my family members and I own examples of their work; and I
even represented the two of them for a time during the ‘80s,
when I did that sort of thing.
So, it goes without saying that I was very impressed by what
I saw in Abstracts on Nature, the current show at Firlefanz
Gallery featuring paintings, prints and collages by Lori Lawrence,
paintings by Monica Miller and ceramic sculptures by Audrie
Sturman. Not exactly a theme show, Abstracts has brought
together three mid-career women artists whose sources of inspiration
and exuberance are similar, but whose styles are not, making
for an enjoyable opportunity to compare and contrast different
modes of individual expression.
In Lawrence’s case, the title might better have been Abstracts
on Human Nature, as most of her work in the show is figurative
(and some is really not at all abstract, either). There is
something of a battle in Lawrence’s work between line and
color—of course they work together, but they also vie for
Hence, when using strong color, she often lets herself go
a little wild (as in the piece titled Purple Circus,
which you’ll either love or not, depending on how you feel
about that color), then backs off into the safety of black-and-white
in the form of an etching, block print or heavily-lined monoprint—all
media in which she displays an easy mastery.
Me, I’m a color man, so I can’t resist Lawrence’s riffs on
Matisse in the two most ambitious collages in the show, Stumble
Up to Stand (after Mark Morris) and Black Lake Urns.
Both pieces are elegant yet playful, serene yet sensuous.
The first uses layers of colored fabrics and embossed papers
on a white ground, drawing a meditation on shape and texture
from the gestures of dancers. The second employs similar materials
but, with its black ground and vertical sweep, is rather more
spiritual—yet, at the same time, it’s unabashedly and tastefully
Other mixed-media pieces play up Lawrence’s playfulness, where
she sometimes uses children’s trinkets and little block prints
to liven up the surfaces. A pair of dragonfly studies includes
pastel-colored pencil erasers, and a paper umbrella forms
one dragonfly’s body; her window installation adds floating
elements that dangle in front of a quiltlike hanging, another
In addition to mixing it up, Lawrence has always painted in
oils on canvas, with mixed results. The three-by-four-foot
Green Heron places a carefully rendered bird into a
natural paradise far greener than its namesake. A smaller
painting, Eva’s Lily, takes the boldest step into near-abstraction
with twinned petals that celebrate form and color as an end
in itself; perhaps a bit simplistic, but effective.
Miller simply revels in form and color, and it is easy to
get swept up in the drama of her six paintings titled Time-Frames.
All sized 29-by-41 inches, these watercolors on paper vary
greatly in mood but use a consistent strategy of combining
structure with looseness to tell their stories.
With titles such as Introduction to New Ground and
The End of Things, these paintings are clearly intended
as much more than the complex and colorful visual exercises
they appear to be; rather, Miller is recording the story of
her life, in code perhaps, but nevertheless visibly. So, when
it’s dark it’s dark, when it’s light it’s light—when things
are stirred up, so is the painting—and so on.
The result is that it takes time to properly absorb a Miller
piece—but the time spent is well-rewarded. In addition to
a geometric overall design, each of Miller’s paintings features
a network of micro-marks, building greater intensity into
the experience of studying them. One painting, Motorcycle
Kachina, takes the small, almost frantic markmaking up
into the larger structure of the piece, where you feel the
power of the wind rushing by in a multitude of bright stripes.
Switching gears, the serenity of Night Light is equally
affecting, with its huge moon hovering over a mountain lake,
all the mystery of the cosmos embodied in the swirl of small
and large shapes. Though this is probably the least colorful
of the cycle, upon close inspection it reveals surprises in
the deep, dark palette of the night-sky border that are typical
of Miller’s highly honed technique.
Ceramic sculptor Sturman fills the 3-D role in this show and
she is, in this case, somewhat the odd woman out. (Firlefanz
co-owner Cathy Frank, a skilled ceramic artist herself, has
made the commendable decision to include sculpture in all
the gallery’s shows, maximizing the use of its small interior
space—and especially a lovely garden out back—with the three-dimensional
work too often neglected by sales-oriented galleries.)
Unlike Lawrence and Miller, Sturman is rather sparing in her
use of color, though when she does go in that direction it
works well, as in the blue-tinged Celestial Spheres II
and subtle gray/white/blue of Inside Out II. Instead,
her fired pieces usually exploit the iron content of the clay
to remain within a narrow range of red-browns, with a minimum
Her best deviation from this formula comes when she goes to
a rich charcoal black in the nearly monumental pair Midnight’s
Children and the three-part outdoor sculpture Being
and Becoming. In both pieces the choppy texture creates
a slate-like appearance, and the deep color looks more like
burnt wood than clay, a welcome transformation after so much
But mud and what lives in it seems to be the central theme
of Sturman’s selection shown here—snails, cephalopods, termite
mounds and other twisty, slimy things come to mind again and
again throughout her sections of the show.
Two of her sculptures consist of eight pieces each—titled
Lifecycle and 9/11, it’s apparent that they
are meant to evoke the evolution of primitive animal forms
and the destroyed shapes of twisted metal, respectively. But
there’s another association I couldn’t shake off—due to the
size, shape and color of the clay coils, they also look, unfortunately,
like so many turds. Now, I’ll admit that’s part of nature,
too, and probably worthy of study. But better, perhaps, in
a laboratory than an art gallery.