softness: Pam Barrett-Fenders Prayer Skirt.
Barrett-Fender: Drawing & Painting
Gallery through July 24
There’s a special thrill that comes from seeing a solid veteran
and a promising rookie together for the first time. Though
artists’ careers generally last a lot longer than athletes’—hence
there’s not the same passing of the torch—it is with a frisson
of excitement that I prepare to tell you about the major exhibition
debut of Pam Barrett-Fender, paired wisely with the far more
experienced Chris Duncan at Firlefanz Gallery.
Barrett-Fender arrived in the Capital Region in the fall of
2001, with young baby in tow, to direct Albany Center Galleries.
Naturally, in those circumstances, she wasn’t getting a lot
of painting (or showing) done; but a year ago she left the
gallery job, promising herself she’d get busy in the studio
and get shown, too. (In addition, she began writing art reviews
As a painter who draws—a lot—Barrett-Fender tiptoes along
the line separating the two, in an ethereal world not quite
abstract, not quite figurative. Most of the works she shows
are on paper, mixing media like graphite, charcoal, ink and
gouache rather freely, and occasionally breaching the limits
of the paper itself to tear, patch and piece. Many of the
pieces are strictly in black-and-white; only a few of the
latest works in oil on canvas have any color to speak of,
and in those it’s a pretty narrow palette.
Juxtaposed with Duncan, a sculptor who’s taught for 13 years
at Union College, Barrett-Fender’s misty gray world provides
a nice foil for his muscular forms and occasional forays into
strong but controlled color. Neither artist’s work argues
with the other; neither do they flow uncomfortably together.
In a graceful nod to their affinity, they swap dimensions
by the inclusion of a single Duncan painting and one three-dimensional
work by Barrett-Fender (a book).
The result of this quietly intense dance is one of the best
commercial gallery shows Albany has seen for some time. Duncan’s
cool, almost retro modernism combines surprisingly well with
Barrett-Fender’s urgent searchings. They share a certain refined
sense for form and texture, but there is also a connection
below the surface, where each is a process-oriented artist
who follows an uncharted trail to create each piece.
Duncan has been reviewed in this space twice in the past year,
for a solo show at Union (written by Rebecca Shepard) and
for his part in a group show at Hudson Valley Community College;
so I will be brief in detailing his work here. Suffice it
to say that the 20 or so pieces on view clearly reflect Duncan’s
impressive credentials, whether in the form of shelf-sized
bronzes or larger outdoor steel constructions.
One of the finest sculptures in the show, Kouros, is
presented indoors but is fairly large (about 6-feet tall),
combining steel and plaster in an additive-reductive process
at which Duncan excels. The balance of white plaster to dark
steel, along with touches of pure red and blue that reveal
themselves as paint left on found material, gives the piece
a hint of playfulness that takes the edge off the gravity
of its form and gestures. It is dated 1998/2004, suggesting
a rethinking that, I trust, had a part in making the piece
so good in its present state.
Other works by Duncan include wall-hung pieces that resemble
masks; very tasty pedestal pieces such as the red-hued Drunken
Stone; and new, smaller bronzes. Of those, the 2004 Metro,
with its soft green patina, is particularly likeable.
Near these sculptural gems, a marvelous drawing by Barrett-Fender
hovers like a specter. Titled Visitation, it features
three ghostly birds arranged in a torn and reassembled composition
about 9-by-12 inches. As the perched bodies rotate position
in the drawing, one is reminded of similar forms in Barrett-Fender’s
other drawings and paintings—whether they be figures, fish,
vessels, nests, cocoons, skirts or even a turban, they flirt
with abstraction, yet somehow remain representational, symbolic
and mysterious by turns.
Relying as much on feel as vision, Barrett-Fender works and
reworks her drawings, building up a degree of texture and
tooth not typical of the paper medium. Some of the drawings,
such as 2000’s ink-and-charcoal Eleichda, are spewed
with violent splatters; others, like 2001’s Path of Santiago
are enveloped in a delicately burnished fog. The working process
behind this arc is plainly apparent in Barrett-Fender’s remarkable
and remarkably personal sketchbook—though it’s displayed in
a glass case, gallery staff will let you hold it and turn
its pages. Don’t be shy about asking for this too-rare privilege
to touch the art.
The themes and techniques of Barrett-Fender’s drawings are
transformed in the paintings, most of which are brand-new
and seem to indicate a change of direction. The diminutive
Winter (about 7-by-14 inches) portrays a chilly, leafless
tree against a white sky—but below ground there beats its
living heart. The larger, square Unsaid Things appears
to be of a nurturing sheaf—or is it an exploding firecracker?
Finally, the tallish So Shall He Descend presents a
rising, bowing form one would probably be hard-pressed to
identify. New territory, it seems, for this very promising
Firlefanz Gallery will host an interview with artists Pam
Barrett-Fender and Chris Duncan by Times Union art
critic Timothy Cahill at 7 PM on Tuesday, July 13.