Apocalypse, an Inquisitive Nude, and Complimentary Color! 

November First Friday in Indianapolis

click to enlarge Inquisitive by Hima Chennamaraju
  • Inquisitive by Hima Chennamaraju

I walked into the swank iMOCA at CityWay gallery on Friday afternoon and it was completely empty: no patrons whatsoever. Nadie.

click to enlarge iMOCA at Cityway
  • iMOCA at Cityway
For Justin Chase Lane’s Choose Your Own Adventure, which runs through December 31, the emptied-out ambiance couldn’t have been a more perfect setting to contemplate Lane’s handmade miniature dioramas that are the subject of his photography. And like the gallery when I entered into it, the photos are devoid—save for one photograph—of people.

The evidence of human habitation, though, is everywhere in his work. One of the most striking – and disconcerting – is called “Starless Night,” which depicts a sort of Japanese rock garden without the rocks. Also, there's a container full of red liquid. I’m morbid enough to think that the liquid is blood. And the overhead sky is completely black. Maybe it’s the model for a future Quentin Tarantino samurai flick.

“Puzzle and Paper Chair, Funhouse," a revealing pair of works with the same name, are illustrative of Chase’s process; one of the works is a black and white gelatin silver photograph, the other is charcoal and spray paint on paper. And the drawings are the starting point for his photographed dioramas. The setting of both the drawing—one in the same—is claustrophobic, not unlike the postcard photograph for this exhibition, “Last Supper in the Bomb Shelter” in which you see cans of beer and foodstuffs on a table in the middle of a shelter lined with shelves, but with no humans around.

click to enlarge Last Supper in the Bomb Shelter by Justin Chase Lane
  • Last Supper in the Bomb Shelter by Justin Chase Lane
Not to go off on a tangent here, but somewhere in this state of ours, a system of missile silos has been converted into a bomb shelter large enough for 80 people, built by the company Terravivos. And if you are willing to pay around $70,000, you can reserve a space here but it’s your responsibility to arrive before they seal off the entryway for lockdown, which could last for years. Or forever.

From the pictures, this particular bomb shelter appeared as swank as, well, this particular iMOCA gallery. And apparently, in this shelter, you’d be able to feast on gourmet meals for a year. It might be cool to work as a chef in such a facility, although something tells me that you’d need to know your way around a pack of ramen noodles. (You’re not likely to get much in the way of fresh veggies 50 feet under.)

Anyway, it’s hard not to admire the inventiveness in which Lane went about making his model bomb shelter, which is very makeshift, low-rent version in comparison to the Terravivos version. But at least Lane’s version is filled with a soft glow coming from a skylight overhead. It’s also easy to let your imagination run free here. Were the inhabitants killed? Or were they forced to leave? Asking such questions, I guess, is part of the adventure here. And with 19 works on display here, there’s ample opportunity for many adventures. Of course, the apocalypse is an adventure that I'd rather avoid.....

As if to banish my unsettled thoughts, that song infamous for its cowbell came on the overhead, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult.

To further banish apocalyptic thoughts, I subsequently had a cup of coffee in the Plat 99 Mixology Lounge in The Alexander—the hotel that’s part of CityWay, with its dead-on view of Lucas Oil Stadium.  It felt strange to be surrounded by businessmen drinking complicated $12 cocktails. I felt, somehow, that I was airborne, at 30,000 ft. altitude. The design of the mixology lounge was ample enough topic for an article itself, with its jellyfish light fixtures designed by Jorge Prado and airy ambiance. And then there’s another several articles that could be written about The Alexander as an art hotel. (And actually, I did write something about this back when The Alexander first opened in 2013.)

The music playing overhead at Plat 99 was Oasis’s “Wonderwall.” The previous song had been “Mountains Beyond Mountains” by Arcade Fire. These were songs I would (and have) listened to in my car or while at home. I wondered if CityWay management stole my CD collection.

On my drive over to the Harrison Center for the Arts, however, I was listening to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ first full-length album Fever to Tell, and, pumped up on the crazy energy of the song “Y Control.” So pumped, I arrived at the Kyle Ragsdale show at the Harrison Center Gallery, entitled “Watching & Waiting,” to find this poem posted at the entrance:

Waves upon waves of loss
Dealing with the whys and what ifs
Perusing the enigmatic
Wondering if anything will get better
Or if everything will get worse
A time of waiting and watching
Close to hopeless
Yet drawn to irresistible hoping

The color palette of many of the paintings in this exhibition reflected the mood of the poem: somber olive greens, browns, and grays. And the mood of the paintings here reflects his recent period of loss including the recent passing of a family member.

As Ragsdale has done before, he has used photographs of models dressed in period costumes for his references. Indiana Dunes is a setting for a number of these works and there are many depictions in this exhibition of people dressed in period garb against washed out beach shore landscapes. And in some of these beach settings, it seems unsure if the sun will ever want to come out again from behind the clouds.

click to enlarge Sunday in the Park by Kyle Ragsdale
  • Sunday in the Park by Kyle Ragsdale
 There’s also much in the way of dilapidated industrial settings as backdrops for his costumed subjects. The juxtaposition works well in the painting “Sunday in the Park” with the four female subjects wearing evening dresses in front of a coal burning power plant. The figures in the foreground are represented in very broad strokes representationally, and there are gestural touches throughout. There are also drips and gobs of paint reminiscent of the old abexasauruses. You know: Pollock, and those guys.

And, on a more local and probably more relevant level, some of the largely grayscale industrial landscapes are reminiscent the landscape paintings of Tyler Meuninck who had a show at the Harrison Center back in 2014.

You could probably write a whole book about how Harrison Center-connected artists influence one another but that’s not what I mean to do here.

Anyway, I’m not so sure about another painting entitled “Awkward Waiting 1,” which depicts two dudes dressed in contemporary casual in front of another industrial landscape. Here the dudes appear to be dissolving into the backdrop, almost if they were in the process of being teleported onto the Starship Enterprise.

There’s a mood here that is clearly being conveyed by these often indistinct portrayals of our fellow humans against palettes as washed out as a pair of denim jeans on its 1000th spin cycle.

But Ragsdale’s playing such mood music, as it were, doesn’t always hit its mark.

Something’s a little off in the painting “Waves upon Waves,” to take one example. Here you see a beautifully rendered seascape with overlapping waves, grays and aquamarines. The sense of movement is palpable and the colors are just perfect. But the head of a girl bobbing out of the water is almost as featureless and indistinct as that of a buoy.

In contrast, one of the most striking paintings in the exhibition is “Cathedral.” It depicts a man standing in a dark factory. This time around, the indistinctness in facial features works to great advantage as there is a genuine David Lynchian/Fracis Baconian –maybe we should just call it Ragsdalian—creepiness to the subject being portrayed. That is, his face is pretty much rubbed out, like the faces of those deported to Siberia in those Stalin-era family photos from Soviet Russia. (The model for this particular photograph was Harrison Center stalwart Kipp Normand. In this painting,) Ragsdale painted with cold wax in some areas and metal in his paint in others to heighten the contrast.

And then there was the lovely painting “Fountain Square Magic Light” depicting three girls in evening dress with the Murphy Building and St. Patrick’s Catholic Church glowing rosy red in the sunset-lit background. Anyone who loves Fountain Square must also love this painting (even those amazed or perplexed or annoyed by Ragsdale’s amazing artistic productivity).

What “Fountain Square Magic Light” and “Cathedral” have in common with each other is use of vivid color and contrast. And maybe we can think of vivid color as lifeboats for artists, especially ones making their way through a sea of sadness, and “drawn to irresistible hoping.”

Moving on from Ragsdaleland, I was hoping to see something new on this particular First Friday, and arts promoter/all-around-man-about-town Clayton Hamilton, who I encountered in the halls of the Harrison, had the scoop for me, a gallery off my radar—and off the November map/gallery listing of the Indianapolis Downtown Artists and Dealers Association (IDADA) for that matter. I’m talking about the Meridian Street Gallery in the Chamber of Commerce building at 302 North Meridian Street. So I went there, took the elevator up to the eighth floor and had a conversation with Kelly Wantuch, the owner/manager.

click to enlarge Gallery Door with Photograph by Don McCormack
  • Gallery Door with Photograph by Don McCormack
Wantuch herself is a recent transplant from South Bend, IN and her gallery is new. This particular show was a group exhibition, the gallery’s third. Entitled “Reflections,” it showcased 22 artists from 10 different states. And about half of them are from Indianapolis.

“When I moved to town, I looked for places to show art,” Wantuch told me. “And I couldn’t find very many that had open calls like in Chicago and New York. So I got to thinking maybe I should open a studio and have an art gallery downstairs. I started looking in Broad Ripple. I couldn’t find anything, and then I started looking downtown.”

Wantuch has two of her own works on the wall in this show, one of which might fit into the well-trodden genre of Midwestern landscape painting except for the fact that the window depicted in her painting, entitled “Abandoned Roundhouse,” was broken.

“The subject’s an abandoned roundhouse in South Bend,” she says. “It’s in a location that you can’t paint from life, it’s very dangerous…. I like to have my own sources to paint.”

click to enlarge Abandoned Roundhouse by Kelly Wantuch
  • Abandoned Roundhouse by Kelly Wantuch
There are some provocative photography in this show by a New York based photographer Don McCormack. There are paintings by artists I’d encountered before – work by locally-based Gina Soo Golden was a standout. Her still life oil painting entitled “Chalices” was mesmerizing in its hyper-realistic depiction of reflections in polished silver. But by far the most captivating work in this exhibition was by Hima Chennamaraju, a 2015 MA graduate in Art and Design from the University of Indianapolis.

Her chalk pastel portrait, entitled “Inquisitive” depicts a young woman, nude, with her legs crossed in front of her, fingers of both hands crossed in front of her knee. The depiction is razor sharp down to the interlocked fingers. But there is something else going besides technical mastery. This subject is, against a plain gray background, and floating in air like a nonchalant yoga master. And she is staring directly ahead, at you as if to say, “So what do you think of me?”

My next stop would be something of a reckoning, a way for me to ask myself “So what do you think of me?”

Let me back up and say that my final destination of the evening was Gallery 924. Mary Lou Dooley Waller’s exhibition there, simply entitled “Paintings and Works on Paper.”

Let me explain.

When I began writing reviews for NUVO Newsweekly way back in 2008, when there was still a Mark Ruschman Gallery, I wrote a review of Waller’s show, “In the Balance.” And this is what I wrote: “Looking at abstract art is sometimes like looking up at the clouds: To you a particular cloud might look like an antelope, but to another it might look like a Volkswagen Beetle. Your own way of looking at the world matters in the appreciation of such work.”

O.k. Can I say that I’m embarrassed? Because, of course, there is so much more to say about Waller’s work. Just for starters, there’s relationships between colors and forms and the problems she sets up—and tries to resolve—in her paintings.

“I’m very conscious of the fact that I’m working on a two-dimensional surface but I’m trying to create on a flat the illusion of the third dimension,” she told me when we talked on Friday night about an oil painting entitled “Red/Green.”

“I love the way colors interact and the psychological effects that color has,” she continued. “I set up this problem of putting in two complementary colors and trying to make that work in the context of the drawing that I do.”

click to enlarge Red/Green by Mary Lou Dooley Waller
  • Red/Green by Mary Lou Dooley Waller
In “Red/Green” (oil on canvas) you see squares of pure red and green snuggling up to each other’s edges against a swirling in the upper left hand corner of the composition against a backdrop of much muddier colors and then you see a red and green square at some remove in the bottom half of the painting. In between these two sets of squares, there’s a swirling storm of red and green brush strokes....and some muddiness. It’s as if these two colors are going head to head, both making love and going to war with one another. If they mix it up too much, they annihilate one another and make a gray mess. As if to illustrate the danger, there’s a swirling band of grayish white, like an eruption of volcanic ash, between the two sets of squares.

“I use very little color other than just red and green,” Waller says of the painting. “These complementary colors you mix them, they tend to gray; I didn’t want that to happen. That was another problem that I had. I finally thought, ‘Well, it’s an experiment… That’s what I’m doing.”

In another painting, entitled “Surge,” it’s almost impossible for me not to read into it images and forms. Because the movement of blue color in the painting resembles a surge of water in a canyon beyond a black form that vaguely resembles Chinese calligraphy.

But she didn’t have calligraphy or water/landscape in mind when she created this painting. There was something else, instead, that she had in mind, a principle that she applies to all of her art:

“I think all painting is abstract,” she told me. “You’re working on a two dimensional surface and you’re trying to create the illusion of space on a flat surface. And any painting no matter how figurative it is from the earliest times is abstract because the way it goes onto the surface has a kind of structure and that structure can work for you or it can work against you. You have to think in terms of that. Plus balance…. There has to be a balance, an equilibrium there.”

And yet, there is one of her paintings which, she concedes, verges on representation. It’s entitled “Remembered Sight,” and it’s one of the last that she created for this series. It’s a painting where you see these towers of colors in the foreground with horizontal lines in the background, suggesting a skyline.

The reason why this painting verges on representation, however, has to do with her modus operandi of painting rather than any intention of portraying a landscape.

“The reason for such a strong vertical was because of all that horizontal movement,” she said. “Balancing the horizontals with those verticals.”

If only I could balance my life like Waller does in her paintings! Achieving a work/life balance as a writer, though, is kinda difficult if you work a day job like I do and have a daughter.

But like Kyle Ragsdale, I’m “drawn to irresistible hoping.”

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