Four artists get a chance to explore a master's territory in 'Donald Judd Remix'

Kurt Shaw
| Wednesday, April 13, 2011

With its spare geometrical shapes, solid colors and, to most people, hopelessly little in terms of content, minimal art is rarely on display in museums these days.

Especially here in Pittsburgh, squares and stripes just don't exert the same allure as the pop art paintings in the Andy Warhol Museum or the impassioned expressionist brushstrokes of the Impressionists on display in the Carnegie Museum of Art.

But a small, tidy exhibit of contemporary minimalist works on display at Fe Arts Gallery in Lawrenceville has changed all of that, at least for the moment. Titled "Donald Judd Remix," it features the work of four regional artists -- Jeremy Boyle, Bill Radawec, Mark Franchino and Janet Towbin. All are too young to remember the Donald Judd-Dan Flavin generation that defined minimalism in this country, yet they have managed to create sublime works in their own right.

Minimal art relies heavily on its ability to create a feeling out of the simplest of shapes and forms, which in this setting is somewhat dimmed by the architectural details of the hollowed out storeroom that surrounds the works. When viewing minimalist art, the viewer needs to be patient and wait for the essence of the work to come forth. At that open-minded moment, the clarity and depth of the art can be fully absorbed. Sometimes silence helps, but in this case, Jeremy Boyle's "White Noise" (2008) helps set the mood. Comprised of nearly a hundred tiny white boxes, all containing speakers, it sits in the middle of the gallery, on the floor, and emanates white noise at a low hum. Boyle, whose specialty is sound-based sculpture, has managed to create something here that is both visually arresting and aurally enchanting. It's as if the muses are calling. And not just the artist, but the visitor.

Boyle's white boxes are a sound nod (pun intended) to the work of leading minimalist sculptor Donald Judd (1928-94), the poster boy of minimalism who is the show's namesake. Radawec takes the notion of Judd's smooth, sterile boxes quite a bit further with his installation piece, "A Study" (2007).

Attached primarily on one wall in the gallery, 10 small, simple wooden boxes, set at sporadic heights, look more like barnacles than anything else. Hugging the wall, they otherwise don't look like anything much. But get closer and you will see they are anything but simple. Inside, if you look from above, you will see all kinds of scenarios playing out via tiny little figures -- people the artist has arranged inside these simple environments, but posed in rather complicated ways. Some of the scenarios are violent, some are erotic, and some are both. Quite a surprising piece for a minimalist art show, in more ways than one.

Boxes of a different sort are Franchino's focus -- shipping boxes, that is. Here the artist displays two types -- wooden crates made of poplar and birch wood and foam-lined cardboard boxes. They look like ordinary shipping containers, until you realize how meticulously well-crafted they are. An art professor at Clarion University, Franchino is known for his expert craftsmanship, especially with wood. "Nesting Crates" (2008) proves it. A set of wooden boxes of various sizes are neatly tucked one inside the other, much like a Russian nesting doll. "Nesting Boxes" (2009) is built on the same principle, but with fewer boxes. With this piece, the notion of nesting is more elaborated upon by the inclusion of thick blue Styrofoam insulation that lines each box -- perfect for shipping Faberge eggs, or some other uber-delicate objets d'art you might think• But no, this IS art. And just as beautiful in its own way.

Finally, Janet Towbin takes the box completely apart in several drawings on display. Basically life-size renditions of store bought boxes, flipped opened and flatten, they take the notion of the box down to its basic geometry. A plane perpendicular to a plane, perpendicular to a plane, and so on, eventually forms a box.

But Towbin's boxes are extrapolated from real life. For example, "Glad Pleated Sandwich Bag" is just as the title refers, a drawing of a flattened and splayed sandwich bag. And "80 Envelopes" (1997), well, you get the idea.

Towbin gets fancy in "Damask Cookies and Cream" (1997) and "Wm. Morris Wheaties," which both feature the detailed designs that originally graced those boxes, but here meticulously redrawn in graphite.

These last two might well be this reviewer's favorite. They sport decoration, after all. And, in a room full of minimalist art, who can resist that?

Additional Information:

'Donald Judd Remix'

When: Through April 23. Hours: Noon-3 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays

Admission: Free

Where: Fe Arts Gallery, 4102 Butler St., Lawrenceville

Details: 412-860-6028 or

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