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Pittsburgh-area artists display their visions of the 'Rust Melt'

| Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011

Given the heavily concept-driven world of contemporary art, there is a new exhibit of abstract art on display at Fe Arts Gallery in Lawrenceville that proves that abstract art still is alive and well, if not a little affected.

That's because almost all of the works in "Rust Melt: New Abstractions From Pittsburgh" seem to have conceptual force behind them.

Take, for example, the work of Carnegie Mellon University art professor Clayton Merrell who lives in Forest Hills. The three pieces by him in this show are part of a body of work in which he was playing with a few dichotomies -- such as the solidity of sculpture against the immateriality of painted color, as represented in "The Desert Speaks," in which a rainbow-colored word balloon rises from a gold-gilded mountain range. In "Amphitheatre," representational carving (again gold-gilded mountains) rests against flat abstraction -- painted sky that somewhat represents a funnel-cloud formation.

"I think of them as still being essentially landscape paintings," Merrell says about these pieces, "but ones in which the burden of representation has been entirely shifted onto what would ordinarily be the frame, so that the painted portion is free to be almost entirely about pure color."

In similar fashion, Meghan Olson of Squirrel Hill creates work that references landscape, but in an almost monochromatic way. This, thanks to her unique choice of materials. In both of her works on display, "River Unit I" and "River Unit III," Olson has marked, pressed and rubbed small sheets of pure compressed graphite (a form of highly compressed coal or carbon used for electrical conduction) with pigments and carbon, in a successful effort to represent centuries of flooding, altered waterways and urban reconstruction buried, then unearthed, then buried again, within our region.

That goes a long way in explaining why these works look like little topographical maps of Pittsburgh that were formed or made of mud and industrial sludge. Small but detailed, they are a joy to look at and offer a seemingly endless sense of discovery in regard to the artist's mark making.

Then, there is the work of Jessica Langley of Lawrenceville, who chose to display six smaller framed works that offer a pseudo narrative where the main subject is an enigmatic character that has chopped down a tree. A rather puzzling series of drawings of trees and tree stumps, each with a different title, they are like pieces to a puzzle that cause the eye to dart back and forth between each, catching the occasional glimpse of a blazing orange figure lurking throughout several of the images, yet sticking out like a sore thumb. The series is about as close as one could come to creating a suspenseful thriller through drawing alone.

Just as disconcerting are the drawings of James Schaffer of Penn Hills. In his untitled works, there are no boundaries, save for the edges of the paper on which they are created. For Schaffer, everything is an available form of inspiration -- sports, music, art, TV, politics, religion, education -- everything blurs into one another. "I try to create formally interesting works that show how I feel about the interconnectedness of everything," he says. Thus, the works are chaotic, eventually, evolving and becoming cohesive. They look calculated in areas, while other spaces are loose and organic.

Finally, Sean Glover of Oakland shows works he calls "disembodies" that look like cracked and crushed geodes spread upon the gallery floor, but what they really are, are frescoes on foam. Specifically, it is the technique of the Italian buon fresco method with lime-based pigmented "secco" that Glover ingeniously has coated on the inside of each piece.

"They clearly resemble crosscut or punctured geodes, but their scale and form also subtly refer to the body," Glover says.

The colors of the foam Glover used, which is layered in striation like a rock formation, also is reflective of a disparity between new and old. Yellow ochre with fluorescent yellow and iron oxide with fluorescent red are two examples of these paired colors within this series.

"I'm interested in how a new material, such as foam, can alter how we approach a medium that has remained relatively unchanged for several millenniums," Glover says, referring to the fresco material.

It's an interesting combination that makes for compelling objects that are sure to catch the visitor's attention.

The remaining works on display, such as Adam Welch's massive painting "Of I and the orgy (unfinished iteration #2)" and Karen Seapker's much smaller, but just as dynamic paintings "Cascade," "All Good Things," and "Combust-A-Move" are good examples of more traditional abstraction. But the works with a purpose are what hold this show together.

Additional Information:

'Rust Melt: New Abstractions From Pittsburgh'

When: Through Sept. 17. Hours: Noon-3 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays

Admission: Free

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

Details: 412-860-6028 or www.fegallery.org

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