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Mystery and serenity: Miller’s Night Light.

Oh Natural
By David Brickman

Abstracts on Nature
Firlefanz 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 dominance.

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 decorative.

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 fun variation.

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 of decoration.

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 brown mud.

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.

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