I continue to be amazed by the places people will cram a gallery. Mark Wolf Contemporary is an oddly L-shaped little gallery on the third floor of a building sandwiched between the triangle at the beginning of Sutter and Market. Their current exhibition is called Chance/Adventure, a two-person show of new works by Gundrun Mertles-Frey and Shawn Kurueru. For a show title with such grand notions, the actual work was less than what one might hope for. The “Adventure” was more of a light jog around the block and I had a hard time finding most of the “Chance.” It says a great deal about the contemporary art scene that galleries and artists continue to present this kind of work as adventurous. The rhetoric is more than a bit much, and diminishes both the art and our culture, but that’s an opinion. What matters most is the work and how one sees it.
Kuruneru’s “Adventure l – Xlll” and “Big Adventure” were exhibited in the main portion of the gallery and the first thing that struck me was how underwhelming the size of the work was. For an artist who claims to “seek intuitive responses from abstract forms, and balance between physical and psychological presences,” you would think that the work would project a real presence in the space. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. It was quite easy to stroll past these humble 11 x 14 inch paintings. I’m not equating size with importance; it’s just hard to take these little paintings seriously. I never felt that Kuruneru, given the limited scope and technique of his work, was truly investigating the nature of the abstract or any notion of adventure.
Out of the thirteen smaller “Adventure” works there were two, “Adventure Xl” and “Adventure Xlll” that made me stop, but only to imagine what they might have felt like if they had been large enough to establish a true physical relationship with the viewer and the space. Every one of the smaller “Adventure” series seemed more like a study for a larger work than a finished work unto itself. Again, I’m not one to condone the misconception that bigger is better, nor does this work need to be of monumental size. In their current state they function more as glimpses into the space of “Adventure” rather than a real invocation of the feeling or sentiment. If the paintings had been bigger or just equal or slightly larger than the viewer we’d be forced to interact with the work rather than pass it by. It’s a question of understanding the relationship between theme and form.
The elephant in the room was really the “Big Adventure” which consisted of hundreds of black ink beads poured onto a clear plastic tarp and laid on the ground. The press release suggested that this would allow the viewer to connect the dots and make his or her own image—in his or her own mind! Thank you, Mark Wolfe Gallery for reducing the abstract to the level of connect-the-dots, how fun. These works missed the mark on what it means to create abstract work and to even make something “abstract.” Here the notion of the abstract operates on the level of decoration. There is no consideration by the artist or gallery on how to address the space. It’s a copout abstraction. When I look at abstract work, I want it to make me think, to see something new and to engage with the world. These paintings do the exact opposite.
What I did find of Gudrun Mertles-Frady’s work I found to be far more compelling, although its placement in the gallery made me feel like I was viewing the work in an office. I entered that section of the gallery with some trepidation for fear of interrupting important business. Mertles-Frady’s work was confident, simple line work on 22 x 30 inch sheets of white paper. Using minimal color and delicate balance within the page, Mertles-Frady’s work maintained what Kuruneru’s work lacked, an awareness of how the viewer processes the abstract. “Red River” stood out among her work: simple lines of copper stick and iridescent watercolor layered and removed created an enticing void and yet still maintained a tangible depth. It’s a complex effect done with skill and precision.
The use of the gallery space and the organization of the work left much to be desired. The space combined with the size of the work made it seem more like decoration than fine art. Although I enjoyed Mertles-Frady’s work, there was so little of it and it was placed in such an awkward place in the gallery that I had to go back and look at the work online to remember what it looked like. It’s frustrating to see a two-person show that is so lopsided, where the stronger, more interesting work is crammed into a back corner. We should never expect perfection, but a little more care would help.
©The CCA Arts Review and Will Buhler