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From Many Angles: Daniel Ludwig

Spread over three distinct locations, in three different municipalities, the retrospective of Daniel Ludwig’s practice—currently on view at Heike Pickett Galleries in both Versailles and Lexington and at the Georgetown College Art Galleries—presents a multidimensional perspective on the artist’s work over the last 35 years. Working primarily in painting, with a handful of works of sculpture, Ludwig has developed a clear aesthetic that combines elements of “the great art of Europe” with that of American vernacular painting; presented in this distributed fashion, this retrospective offers the viewer the opportunity to ruminate on specific elements of his practice in relation to the totality. 

Heike Pickett Gallery & Sculpture Garden: Versailles

Nestled in a 1792 Federal House just off of Main street, Heike Pickett gallery is a small, independent gallery, open to the public on Friday and Saturday from 11 am to 4 pm or by appointment. Ludwig’s retrospective dominates the main gallery space, comprised of one large room with various alcoves that serve to further divide up the area. The age of the space, which exudes with the creak of every step along the hardwood, stands in stark contrast to the body of work on display, focusing exclusively on Ludwig’s work in the last several years. 

Daniel Ludwig, “Graces”, Oil painting, 60″ x 46″, 2017

From this exhibition, it becomes readily apparent how much Ludwig’s recent practice has been informed by a reimagining of canonical themes and motifs. For instance, one of the first images that you encounter is his work Graces, in which Ludwig presents three nude forms—only one of which is identifiably a woman—standing in interconnected poses, with free floating drapery dashed around and between their bodies, clearly alluding to the “three graces” of Greek Mythology and the myriad representations of these figures. Yet Ludwig subverts the conventional depiction of these figures by imbuing the work with a heavy use of arbitrary color, rendering two of the figures in a pale purple, as well as invoking the visual rhetoric of Surrealism by portraying the figures as somewhat translucent, revealing elements of the background landscape through the outlined form of their bodies. 

This juxtaposition of many different painting traditions thus offers something altogether new, an illustration of the spectral presence that these historical depictions maintain within the current art world. They make clear to us as viewers the long legacy of art history that the artist must engage with in the name of innovation and provide one indication of the implications of that gesture. Other works in the space similarly engage with this long, Euro-centric art historical convention, making clear that as Ludwig looks back on his own art practice, he is both acutely aware of his personal history and his position as inheritor of the legacy of the European canon. This balancing between old and new, canonical and avant-garde is thus further affirmed by the relationship between the works and the architecture of the gallery.

Heike Pickett: Lexington

Whereas the Versailles gallery is an historic setting, the satellite space at CMW Architects — which is open Monday through Friday from 8 am to 4 pm — is a new, more industrial space. Located in the active offices of an architectural firm, the gallery space comprises of a long corridor, adorned with work on both sides, culminating with a large piece on the wall opposite the hallway at the far end. It is a unique sort of aesthetic experience, one in which the viewer may expect to have their experience interrupted by the sounds of typing or the faint smell of one of the employee’s perfume, all of which, undoubtedly will have some form of impact on their engagement with the work. 

Daniel Ludwig, “Figure and Clouds IV”, Oil, 40″ x 30″, 1989

Proceeding through the space you get a greater sense of previous elements of Ludwig’s practice, revealing a different tradition that is prominent throughout his body of work from the middle of his career, specifically the rhetoric of American Realist painting. While Ludwig frequently cites the influence of seeing European Masterpieces during his time abroad in college, it is also abundantly clear in works like Bathers (1989)—which features three nude swimmers wading out in the ocean—the debt that Ludwig’s practice owes to the traditions of artists like Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, and, especially, Edward Hopper. Ludwig’s attention to the light and shadow, and the volume to which he gives his figures combined with a clear painterly quality of his brushwork and the high concentration of color all give the image this sense of a uniquely American experience within a singularly American landscape.

The particularly pastoral character of this work plays off the industrial nature of the space in a way that parallels the viewing experience in Versailles. Yet again the visual elements of the artwork diverge from the setting in which they are immediately found, allowing the viewer to experience the stark character of these scenes through the distinctions and contradictions that emerge in their presentation in this particular site.  

Georgetown College Art Gallery:

Whereas the two previous sites have a clearer focus on a particular era of Ludwig’s practice, the exhibition at Georgetown college fits more in line with the traditional retrospective, a fitting gesture given the conventional nature of the gallery space itself. A well-lit white cube in the art building, walking into the Georgetown College Art Gallery, the viewer can expect to engage with the work in a more conventional and academic way. It is only fitting then that this space offers a more comprehensive survey of Ludwig’s practice, highlighting his early career, starting in the mid 1980s and extending to his most recent work. 

Daniel Ludwig, “Anne with Necklace”, Oil on Board, 24″ x 16″, 1982,

In this space the viewer can see clearly how elements of European and American painting have always been present in Ludwig’s career, but that the extent to which he engages with one tradition over the other varies at any given moment. For instance, during the 1980s he made very clear references to German Expressionist traditions, such as the almost uncanny parallels between Paula Modersohn-Becker’s 1906 Self-Portrait and Ludwig’s Anne with a Necklace (1982) with regard to color, texture, and composition. At the same time, his more recent works, such as the painting Disfruta, maintain a clear reference to early 20th Century American art, evoking the social realist elements of works by artists like Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and Kentucky’s own Edward Melcarth through the clear depiction of industrial labor and American manufacturing in a manner reminiscent of WPA muralism.  

The context of a university gallery thus affords a more academic and historical consideration for his work, preparing the viewer to engage with the full range of his practices through the site specific cues that prime the viewer to approach the art in a particular museological manner. 

A Complete Retrospective

Taken as an aggregate, these three galleries do ultimately form a cohesive retrospective and offer the viewer a unique way to consider the life and career of a particular artist. Because it is impossible to see all three shows simultaneously or even within quick succession, the viewer is given a chance to pause and reflect between sites and to consider elements the various narratives surrounding Ludwig’s practice constructed in each space. It is, therefore, a unique viewing experience to construct an understanding of an artist’s work through deliberately stepping away and then back towards his work.

In addition to offering the viewer an opportunity to see concentrated pockets of work and take time to consider the show in each of the three spaces, the distribution of the exhibition across three different gallery sites also means that, more so than in other exhibitions, the experience of the viewer is heavily informed by the order in which they see it. Recognizing this to be the case, my experiences reflect only one possible permutation with which the audience can engage with this exhibition and should be noted as such. Moreover, what is unique about this model of a retrospective is that it presents multiple angles from which one can consider Ludwig’s work, effectively creating a more open curatorial experience through dispersed viewing.   

 Reference Note: Fowler, Harriet, “Essay,” Daniel Ludwig Retrospective (Georgetown, KY: Georgetown College Art Galleries, 2018) 8.

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Daniel Ludwig: New Works 2016-2018

Heike Pickett Gallery & Sculpture Garden

110 Morgan Street, Versailles, KY 40383

Through June 8, 2018

Hours; Friday and Saturday, 11 am- 4pm and by appointment

(859) 233-1263 www.heikepickettgallery.com

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Daniel Ludwig Retrospective: 35 Years of Artworks in Kentucky Collections

Ann WrightWilson Gallery at Georgetown College

Through May 25, 2018

Hours; Wednesday through Saturday, 12 am-4:30 pm and by appointment

(502) 863-8399

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Daniel Ludwig: Selected Paintings and Drawings

Heike Pickett Gallery at CMW

400 East Vine St. Lexington, KY (859)233-1263

Through June 8, 2018

www.heikepickettgallery.com

Hours: Monday through Friday, 10 am.- 4 pm.

Gallery Hop with the Artist, Friday, May 18, 5- 8 pm

Arts

Ron Isaacs: Shelf Life

What an odd thing a shelf is. A shelf is just a shelf really, right? Put a thing on it, though, and it is immediately transformed into something else. Once we begin to populate our shelves with objects – whether with precious memorabilia, beautiful images, feathers, or found knots – the whole thing becomes something else. We put objects on shelves to somehow honor them or know them better; we may even wonder if time will reveal something more about them. We might also believe that they could withstand the test of time – simply by being placed on a shelf.

On a recent couple of visits to the home and studio of Ron Isaacs and his wife Judy – both avid art collectors – I could not help but wonder if there was some parallel between the object-laden shelves I saw there and the work of the artist himself. Was it the manner in which they were so masterfully composed or something else? Something life-giving? So, I decided to look a little closer and to listen.

The artist Claes Oldenburg once declared that the harder he looked at a thing, the more mysterious it became.  “I know the feeling,” Ron writes in his artist’s statement – quoting the Modern/Pop artist often. “Objects have voiceless, inscrutable physical presences, and memories, as well; these memories are borne on their surfaces as signs of growth or manufacture, use or care, neglect or entropy.”

Ron Isaacs was trained as a painter receiving a bachelor’s degree in art from Berea College in 1963 and an M.F.A. in painting from Indiana University in 1965. For many years he worked and taught as a painter and considers the period from 1969 to 1973 as one of rapid development in his artistic career. In the early 1970s, he began collaging elements, attaching three-dimensional objects to his canvases and then painting this and that to combine. They were, in his words, clunky. Then, after a little experimentation, Ron had an epiphany realizing he could make a painting any shape he wanted. He threw out the canvas. In time, he found Finnish birch plywood constructions. For over 45 years, Ron has created nearly 15 works per year in wood.

Enormously prolific, Ron has found home for his works in many collections across the nation, including the Racine Art Museum, the Southern Ohio Museum and Cultural Center, the Huntsville Museum of Art, the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, the Yeiser Art Center, Berea College, and Chase Manhattan Bank to name only a few.

“My work stakes out a territory almost exactly halfway between painting and sculpture,” Ron explained as we examined an old painting and his first plywood construction. The move from Camel Ride, 1970 to Jigsaw No. 1, 1971 (the first wood construction) to Ron’s Plywood London Fog Freaks Out, 1973 clearly shows the artist’s growth toward his mature style. Where heavy black line once unified disparate elements, considerable finesse and a good deal of sanding are now employed to unite later compositions.

Camel Ride, 1970, acrylic on canvas and wood, 30″ x 22″

Jigsaw No. 1, 1971, Acrylic on fir plywood construction. 28 1/2″ x 26″ x 2 1/2″ Collection of Bert and Cherie Mutersbaugh

Ron’s Plywood London Fog Freaks Out, 1973, acrylic on fir plywood construction and coat hanger, 42″ x 30″ x 6 1/2″



In the end, his goal is to trick the eye, but unlike traditional trompe l’oeil painters, the illusion of real objects is not Ron’s primary concern. “The illusion is an interesting and useful byproduct of my attempt to make a strong image that has the authority of direct observation.  If the illusion fails, which it always ultimately does either sooner or later, you still have an image to respond to, which is pretty much what you get with any painting or sculpture.”

Why would a trompe l’oeil artist want the illusion to fail? This is one of Isaacs’ chief strategies: he sets out to render something ‘real’ and then interrupts our impression with metamorphosis or paradox – turning the final construction to a thing more surreal.

In the series of images below, the process of creating these works is illustrated. Ron moves from the composition of real objects on a grid board, to tracing paper patterns with detailed instructions for the final shapes, to contour line patterns, then transfers these shapes to varying thicknesses of birch plywood, sawing, sanding and the gluing, to compose a final form.

Trained as a formalist, composition is one of Ron’s major concerns, as his works take on freer shapes on the wall. He understands that negative space is as important as the form and shape of each of the objects included. This construction was in its beginning phase on my first visit and completed on my second, one week later. It is titled Just a Thought and is just 8 1/2 inches tall by fifteen wide.

Juxtaposing man-made garments and natural objects in most of his constructions, Ron delves deeper into the mysteries of both; for him this combination reminds us of our relationship with nature – “either being a part of it or apart from it.” Alter Ego (Waterfall), 2008 and Birdies, 2015 bears witness to these dueling realities.

Ron also admits to liking the fact that, “the garment is fixed in time and the leaves are anytime.” Although he rarely works on more than one construction at a time, he will, when necessary, turn to a natural object that will eventually fade or die and recreate it for use in a future work.

The vintage garments, on the other hand, have a more stable shelf life and Ron’s friends like to joke that he has more dresses hanging around than his wife. For Ron, these garments have rich structures, colors, and shapes which lend themselves to endless design possibilities. “They continue the life of the past into the present, and they function in my work as anthropomorphic presences which become effective stand-ins for the human figure.”

Ron Isaacs,"Alter Ego (Waterfall), birch plywood construction prior to painting

Alter Ego (Waterfall) in process, 2008, 44″ x 33 3/4″ x 7 3/4″, collection of John Michael Kohler Art Center, Sheboygan, Wisconsin

Ron Isaacs, "Alter Ego (Waterfall)"

Alter Ego (Waterfall), 2008, 44″ x 33 3/4″ x 7 3/4″, collection of John Michael Kohler Art Center, Sheboygan, Wisconsin

"Birdies"

Birdies, Finnish birch construction, 2015, 22 3/4″ x 18 1/2″ x 2 1/4″

"Birdies," 2015

Birdies, 2015, 22 3/4″ x 18 1/2″ x 2 1/4″

“Trompe l’oeil (‘fool the eye’) could be a gimmick for an artist to show off technical skills, a fairly shallow if entertaining enterprise, but its devices seem an appropriate response to my love of the visual world.  I am still enamored with the old simple discovery of resemblance, the first idea of art after tools and shelter:  It means that an object or image made of one material can share the outward appearance and therefore some of the ‘reality’ of another.”

Sticks are crucial. In design terms, a stick is basically a line for Ron Isaacs; he frequently uses them to draw forms whether they be partial, as in Alter Ego, or whole, shelved forms as seen in Metaphor, 2005.

"Metaphor," 2005

Metaphor, 2005, 24″ x 51 1/4″ x 8″

Ron does not consider himself a conceptual artist, but I couldn’t help but see a bit of ideation playing equal part to the aesthetics in works like Coincidence from 2014. In fact, this composition had more to do with his sense of humor than anything much deeper; he commented, “It was even more fun, when the actual stick – the inspiration for both of my sticks – was still around.” Quoting from American writer and poet Joyce Kilmer’s short poem titled ‘Trees’ from 1913, Ron humbly states:

Maybe, ‘Only God can make a tree’, but I can make a pretty good stick.

"Coincidence," 2014

Coincidence, 2014, 2 parts; 26″ x 9″ x 1 1/2″, overall

Ron considers his job is to make things that are evocative and allow viewers to interpret his works as they will. While not all easily accessible, ‘simplicity’ and ‘directness’ are two terms used by Rick Snyderman, Principle of Snyderman-Works Galleries in Philadelphia, when describing Ron’s works (catalogue essay to accompany Ron Isaacs: A Retrospective in 2 1/2 D). Isaacs connects the viewer in tight constructs, but never requires a specific interpretation. The content is open content.

Muted gray, brown, and off-white are favorites in Isaacs’ palette. Just a Thought is a good example. However, given that all of this is to challenge himself, he will work in bolder colors as in Recurring Dream in Red from 2011. If a particular object requires that he push himself, he turns always to his judgment and artistic licensure. Ron does all of this because he must; he cannot really say in words exactly why. His works are visual poems, frequently quoting American realist painter and printmaker Edward Hopper:

If I could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.

Recurring Dream in Red, 2011, 36 1/4″ x 55″ x 3 1/2 Collection of Michael and Christine Huskisson

If only you could say it in words. “I combine imagery, often using paradoxical interruptions and metamorphoses, in hopes of creating visual ‘poems’ of sorts; these suggest metaphors for the relationships of human life and nature, memory, and the passage of time.” In fact, the inspiration for Improve Each Shining Hour from 2010 is a poem by Isaac Watts titled How Doth the Little Busy Bee.

Mediating the artistic experience in words is, we all know, a difficult thing to do. So, thank you Ron for improving each hour by bringing to us these masterful compositions, may they sit forever on our shelves of life.

"Improve Each Shining Hour," 2010

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!

How skillfully she builds her cell!
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labors hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.

In works of labor or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do

In books, or work, or healthful play,
Let my first years be passed,
That I may give for every day
Some good account at last.

- Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

Ron is represented in Kentucky by Heike Pickett Gallery in Versailles.

The artist’s retrospective Ron Isaacs: A Retrospective in 2 1/2 D was held in the fall of 2011 at the Doris Ulmann Galleries at Berea College.

Related in UnderMain: Other Lexington artists who mix mediums

Patrick Adams: Lights Mystery 

Patrick McNeese in Scene&Heard

Arts

Between Reality and Dream: The Nostalgic and Surreal Drawings of Patricia Bellan-Gillen

Patricia Bellan-Gillen, Your Cruel Tears 3, 2016, colored pencil and collage

“We often dream without the least suspicion of unreality: ‘sleep hath its own world,” and it is often as lifelike as the other.” – Lewis Carroll, The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000), 67.

The recent drawings of Patricia Bellan-Gillen channel Lewis Carroll’s diary entry from February 9, 1856. Similar to dreams, her drawings are sourced from a cornucopia of stories, fairytales, and time periods. Symbols overlap and intermingle to evoke fragmented new realities that merge past and present. Bellan-Gillen relies on negative space and obscured references—the absence of contextual signifiers—to evoke both nostalgia and surreality.

Installation View, Heike Pickett Gallery, Versailles, Kentucky

Bellan-Gillen’s exhibition, Willful Wondering, originated at Carnegie Mellon’s Miller Gallery and includes drawings completed between 2011-2016. Currently, a smaller version of the exhibition resides at Heike Pickett Gallery and Sculpture Garden in Versailles, Kentucky. While it lacks Bellan-Gillen’s large-scale installations and grandiose mixed-media assemblages, Heike Pickett’s reinstallation focuses on the artist’s application of color, commitment to detail, and use of allegory. The gallery’s bare wood floors, high ceilings, and copious windows subdue any white-cube effects. The building, according to its Pickett, was constructed in 1792—its weathered brick façade and residential appearance indicate Versailles’s architectural roots.

Patricia Bellan-Gillen, Phantom Limbs/Cheshire Grin, 2016

Symbols from Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland make frequent appearances in Bellan-Gillen’s drawings, accompanied by other anthropomorphized figures. These readymade images are warped, multiplied, and accentuated by vibrant pinks and blues. As if pulled and stretched by the compressive gravity of a black hole, leopards, birds, and the iconic Cheshire cat smile become vaguely recognizable.

Two works rely on “phantom” tree limbs—their intricate and condensed lines mimic the verdant etchings of Carl Wilhelm Kolbe. The subjects of Phantom Limbs/Cheshire Grin (2015) and Phantom Limbs/Guardian 1 (2015) emerge from amputated tree trunks—some ooze from the trunks’ concentric growth lines and vacant hollows. In Cheshire Grin, floating leopards smile in unison alongside the iconic cat’s glib expression, tethered to the limb through wispy branches. As they spiral down toward the empty space below, the cats melt into amorphous black clouds—spots, paws, and tails are reduced to formless amoebas.

Many of Bellan-Gillan’s works are monochromatic explorations of literary remnants—they capture ubiquitous symbols from popular fables and stories and recode their meanings, simultaneously questioning the prevalence of specific symbols and their permeation of our collective consciousness. The Lure of the Rabbit and the Pull of the Wale (2016) alludes to both Alice in Wonderland and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick; the animal-child hybrid, marked by its rabbit head and petite Mary Janes, dons a dress pockmarked by cutout pools of swirling sea life and sailing ships. Bellan-Gillan’s drawings often belie their material complexity; an adjacent work is similarly drawn from blue pencil, layered with individual grimacing water droplets.

Through the process of collage, Bellan-Gillan materializes her unconscious layering of fantasy and reality; her cutouts resemble the endless streams of dreams and memories that coagulate during sleep.

Patricia Bellan-Gillen, Regrowth/A Wonder and a Woe, 2016

Conceptually, Bellan-Gillan’s works rely on meditative backgrounds—white paper provides space for her figures to emerge and evaporate. In larger drawings, she incorporates a limited color palette: lush landscapes are enlarged and flattened into atmospheric milieux. Regrowth/A Wonder and a Woe (2016) is centered around a lone tree stump—from its flat surface emerge white thought bubbles that extend outward in multiple directions. Just as symbols and characters reappear in dreams, specific images linger in Bellan-Gillan’s drawings. She frequently collages or draws the same eyeball, ship fleet, or animals. Her works reject a linear or narrative but connect through shared images, implying that dream symbolism is more universal than individual.

Similar to Alice’s rejection of temporal normativity—the endless “tick-tock” that dictates past, present, and future—Patricia Bellan-Gillan abandons her subjects’ sources and time-constructs. Dreams provide similar relief from this monotony, as objects and figures from day-to-day rituals, movies, literature, and news sources are intertwined with one another. Willful Wondering is a reevaluation of fairytales and fantasy and probes the complexities of visual consumption.

Topmost image: Patricia Bellan-Gillen,Your Cruel Tears 3, 2016, colored pencil and collage