Fig Comes to a Studio Near You

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BY TRACEY O’SHAUGHNESSY | REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN 
Sunday, May 4, 2014 1:06 AM EDT

You can’t blame Joe Fig for being curious. An artist himself, he had to have wondered:  What’s it like to be in another artist’s studio, creating art?

And Fig was not just curious about the emotional aesthetic — that is, what goes through the artist’s mind when they approach the canvas. He really wanted to know, with the kind of elemental specifics of a kid: What does it look like? How do you arrange your paint? What kind of a stool do you sit on — 

 
or do you stand up? Do you arrange your paint by hue, by type, by size — alphabetically? And what about the brushes and glue guns and drills and latex gloves and the occasional condom an artist needs in the heat of inspiration?

For the past several decades, Fig has been answering that question in an oeuvre that is part documentary and part art. Much of that work, including the eight intricate pieces now on view at the New Britain Museum of American Art, is expressed in meticulous dioramas that depict the studios of contemporary artists.Fig’s New Britain exhibit is one of two in the area that feature the Collinsville artist’s work. Five Points Gallery in Torrington is also hosting an exhibit of Fig’s work —  most of them large-scale color photographs of Fig’s celebrated dioramas. The Torrington exhibit is in concert with a spectacular array of Power Boothe’s masterful paintings, some of the most mesmerizing work the plucky gallery has shown since its inception.
For the past several decades, Fig has been answering that question in an oeuvre that is part documentary and part art. Much of that work, including the eight intricate pieces now on view at the New Britain Museum of American Art, is expressed in meticulous dioramas that depict the studios of contemporary artists.

Fig’s New Britain exhibit is one of two in the area that feature the Collinsville artist’s work. Five Points Gallery in Torrington is also hosting an exhibit of Fig’s work —  most of them large-scale color photographs of Fig’s celebrated dioramas. The Torrington exhibit is in concert with a spectacular array of Power Boothe’s masterful paintings, some of the most mesmerizing work the plucky gallery has shown since its inception.
“New/Now: Joe Fig,” in New Britain, presents a series of sculptures and paintings representing the studios of some of today’s leading contemporary artists, including Petah Coyne, Tara Donovan and Ursula Von Rydingsvard. All of the artists represented are women working in the New York area, and each portrait reflects the intimacies and subtleties of who they are as people and what they do as artists.

The interest seems almost academic, until you look at the precision of the work, the lapidary detail, the uncanny knack for getting the atmosphere of a space into a confined space, and the variety of ways what we think of as wild inspiration is accomplished by a particularized set of tools all handled, placed and categorized in specific ways.

For the rest of us non-artists, Fig’s sculptures raise equally piquant questions: What does our work space say about who we are if it says anything at all? What do our ways of arranging the limited space we have available for the lion’s share of our waking hours reveal about how we make our daily bread? How do we stack our pencils, our jump drives, our notebooks, papers, personal mementos and the like?

What’s fascinating about these artists’ studios in Fig’s representation is that while all of the spaces are customized to the artist’s medium, none are personalized. That is, you will not see a child’s drawing on a bulletin board in these studios, nor will you see any bumper stickers, New Yorker cartoons, Smurf figurines, empty beer bottles or family photos.

What you will see here are optimization and improvisation. If Chinese take-out cartons work for mixing paint, they are here. Ditto for joint compound buckets, Christmas ornament storage boxes and pickle jars.

“Hillary Harkness” features a relatively austere, horizontal room, ornamented by a single, spotlighted easel, a black metal cart and swivel stool and two suitcases, each opened. One reveals tubes of paint; the other, paint brushes wrapped in slender plastic bands that make them look like kindling.

For years, Fig has been devoted to abstract expressionists like Pollock and deKooning, whose spaces he painted and sculpted. He’s kept up with the times, too, moving through to Barnett Newman to Roy Lichtenstein to Chuck Close, as well as April Gornik and Inka Essenghigh. In recent years, he’s even worked backward to Matisse and Michelangelo.

Fig’s book, “Inside the Painter’s Studio,” now in its sixth printing, details the quotidian lives of 24 contemporary artists in transcribed interviews as well as images of these dioramas. The book can now be found in more than 500 libraries in 16 different countries. It is a trove of delicious detail for artists, who usually work alone without prescribed cubicles and desk space and can therefore be alternately stymied or enlivened by the prospect of creating their own space.

The eight artists on view here are all contemporary women and all widely different from the splattered wood floor of Inka Essenghigh to the relatively ascetic apartment studio of Harkness. Kate Gilmore’s studio is a high-ceilinged, industrial-looking space, animated by a huge yellow canvas and two aluminum ladders. “Tara Donovan, Nov. 21, 2013,” features the large-scale installation artist working on what look like a series of glaciers formed by stacking bits of geometrically shaped paper or Styrofoam on slabs.

The sculptures, Fig said in an artist statement, “allow for a rare look into the self-made universes of these artist’s studios. The resulting artworks are both a collaboration of the wonders of the creative process and a revealing look at the real, intimate and sometimes mundane tasks involved in making art.”

At first blush, the oversized color photographs at Five Points Gallery, appear to be photographs taken from life. Perhaps these were the photos from which Fig worked to create the meticulous sculptures. But look closer. The images are actually photographs of the sculptures. This is art work Fig might as well have skipped. It’s the sculptures that are magnetic, including one rather large one at the center of the gallery of Ross Bleckner’s barn studio. It’s all here — not just Bleckner and his cubbies of paint, cookware pots of encaustic and endless rolls of paper towels — but also Bleckner’s abstract paintings. They’re stacked end on end against the wall of his barn and Fig looks like he’s done miniatures of each canvas.

But the real show stopper at Five Points is Power Boothe. The former dean of the Hartford Art School creates rhapsodic abstract canvases based on a grid pattern. But the grid pattern is not sterile. It’s not inert and it’s not mechanical. Boothe’s work moves beyond the cerebral frigidity of conceptual artists like Sol LeWitt, into a refreshingly intuitive painterly style.

Here are large — 72-inch-by-72-inch — canvases of primarily one color — red, say, or azure blue. Each is webbed over by a series of largely geometric patterns. Sometimes the patterns cut across in staccato diagonals. Other times, in long hyphens of primary colors. More often than not, these lines connect, or at least relate in some way. In “Perfect Red,” the lines arc and point in jigsaw-like patterns that Boothe articulates with a slender blue line.

In “Doors for Dorothea,” a largely white background is scudded up here and there with more translucent and textured areas, all of which is overscored by slim black lines that delineate space and depth. It’s a hauntingly captivating image in the way that Boothe moves the viewer into regions of depth and then shuts the door, so to speak, with more traditional two dimensional imagery.

Whatever the system Boothe employs to create these patterns, it is far from robotic. It is an emotional response to a world that demands to be divvied up into spaces. In works like “Zero,” Boothe creates a heavenly blue sky over which he imposes trim white lines that link and then evaporate. Occasionally, a narrow, baton-like black line divides this seraphic sphere.

It is as if Boothe is saying that even in the most paradisaical vistas, we insist on an order, even if the order falls apart. Perhaps this marriage of intuition and order is a reminder that the visceral and the analytic are forever at loggerheads, the resolution of which can be beautiful to watch.

Contact Tracey O’Shaughnessy at tosh@rep-am.com.

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