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Palpable softness: Pam Barrett-Fender’s Prayer Skirt.

Mist and Muscle
By David Brickman

Pam Barrett-Fender: Drawing & Painting
Chris Duncan: Sculpture

Firlefanz 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 for Metroland.)

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 young artist.

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.

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