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Buena Vista art exhibit plays with memories

click to enlarge Sean OMeallies Stinker-loper-shrieker-stomper Cranker-spewer-seeder-raker, Loose
  • Sean OMeallies Stinker-loper-shrieker-stomper Cranker-spewer-seeder-raker, Loose

If you missed any of the recent exhibits featuring the work of Rodney Wood, Sean O'Meallie or Jean Gumpper, then this is a rare chance to correct an unfortunate omission. Sure, it's a drive, but what better excuse for a ride through the mountains on yet another glorious summer weekend?

Layers of Memory and Meaning, the latest exhibition at the Chaffee County Center for the Arts Courthouse Gallery in Buena Vista, makes a worthwhile destination not only because it includes these three established local artists. (Wood and O'Meallie are among the three finalists for the Pikes Peak Art Council's "Best Artist" award for the past year. Gumpper, meanwhile, is a meticulous and prolific printmaker who can boast ongoing shows at the William Havu Gallery in Denver and at Pasta di Solazzi in Colorado Springs.) Layers also deserves a stopover because it features new work from printmaker Conrad Nelson of Buena Vista and Cheyenne, Wyo. artist Lillian Francuz.

In spite of a great diversity of work in the show, the various artists argue that there are plenty of connections among their work. Of course, layers of meaning can be discovered in virtually any abstract artwork of consequence; hence, at least this one connection. But the artists in this exhibition have also focused on elements of time and memory that create different strata of meaning in their work.

The most easily identified affinities in this regard are probably between the contributions of Nelson and Francuz, a pair of female artists who, surprisingly, had never met until this show. Both use old photographs including family portraits, combined with more abstract elements, to create a sense of memory and the amalgamation of past and present.

Nelson's work includes a number of excellent hand-colored solar etchings, including expressive images of abandoned buildings in the ghost town of St. Elmo, Colo. Her "Past-Present Connection" series, however, has a special haunting and metaphorical component augmented by the contrast between the sepia tone of the torn photographs and the more colorful and textured appearance of the background etching. Nelson sees the content of her family photos as having a universal significance, evoking childhood memories in others.

Similarly, the work of Francuz uses a combination of print techniques such as monotype, transfer colle and recycled prints. Historical photographs are collaged together with images of stamps and newsprint. Monocromatic elements in her work are offset by deeper color components resulting in fractured, richly hued pictoral spaces.

In her artist statement Francuz indicates that her goal is to dissect past moments and reconnect them in a loose and intuitive way. "I am intrigued with the taking apart of an old family photograph and, in the process, rediscovering something new," she said. "The past is remade and renewed and brings a sense of continuation in my life."

Rodney Wood's solar etchings, made from photos taken in an old house in Colorado Springs, seek to create the same sort of cognitive link between the present and past. Wood's work stimulates our sensibilities in a way that doesn't always rise to the level of memory; instead it invades our consciousness as a feeling akin to dj vu. "It's like when you go into an old house and get the feeling that something bad happened there," Wood said.

In addition to the two-dimensional pieces Wood has contributed to the exhibition, there are a number of cathartic sculptural works designed to invoke a recognition of the role ritual once played in our lives. These sculptures make up a truly remarkable series that Wood has created over the last six months. Each piece in the set uses a limited range of materials including rock, wood, sand and goatskin. "There is a quote from Duchamp that I keep coming back to," Wood explained, "about the most creativity coming within the severest restrictions."

One of the newer Wood sculptures titled "Hecatomb" features four goatskin rectangles stretched over humanoid forms. The skins are fastened to the face of black boards set in a base of red sand. Between the boards an oblong granite shape hangs, wrapped and suspended by rawhide tethers. The visceral image that results is at once inhabiting and disturbing.

Printmaker Jean Gumpper, who was the driving force behind the show, contributes work that is most concerned with layering, at least in a technical sense. Her reduction woodcuts are made from a single piece of birch plywood that she cuts in stages to print the various colors in her pieces. The result is the impressive statement of depth and poignancy that seems to characterize all of Gumpper's recent work.

The other level of meaning for Gumpper is best demonstrated by four prints with smaller insets, titled "Views."

"I think they imply the idea of different seasons," Gumpper said, "with a close-up combined with views from farther away." The four seasons set is dedicated to Gumpper's father who recently passed away. "So there is one level which is about the subject matter," Gumpper said, "but another level that is about life changes."

Perhaps the most difficult work to nail down in term of layers of meaning is that of Sean O'Meallie. His brilliantly colored wood sculpture presents a graphic mlange of optically vibrating images. A number of his pieces give the impression of eccentric toys for grown-ups. Just as the work of Wood, Francuz and Nelson seeks to bridge the gap between the present and childhood memories for the viewer, O'Meallie's sculpture suggests an earlier time and place.

O'Meallie is deeply concerned with semiotics and most of his work in the show incorporates multiple layers of symbolism. "Stinker, Loper, Seeder, Raker," for example, is a playful caricature of the human body. With a whistle for a head and matchstick feet, the "body" of the piece sports painted feathers on one side and a tornado on the other. Around the leg the sculpture trails a candy cane--looking hank of rope that emphasizes the movement of the piece while adding to the boisterousness of the color scheme. "I got bored with replicating nature," O'Meallie said. "I'm curious about engagement, intention and impetus. I enjoy playing with line and shape."

The Layers of Meaning exhibit gives viewers an opportunity to see a variety of work from artists numbered among the very best in the Pikes Peak region. This is an exhibit that's well worth the trek to Buena Vista, and the drive isn't so bad either.

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