Normally, pastels are not colors that thrill the (mature senses). They are not usually described as bold, intuitive or perceptive. But painter and St. Louisan Charles Schwall has done something truly stunning in the nine new works of the pastel variety presented at his second, solo, Bruno David Gallery exhibition. There are also three other shows on at the gallery, Mario Trejo, Bill Kohn, and Brett Williams, which each, in their own medium, uniquely present an awareness and interest in the cyclical nature of life, artistic practice, and memory.
The effect of the pastel colors and organic shapes he uses on large canvases, often presented as diptychs or triptychs, is something completely common and natural, but hard to shake after leaving the gallery. Almost all the works, like Our Waking Tide (2011), a triptych, deal with similar, paired-down organic shapes on a single-colored background. Shapes of the round, curving variety point to animal or human growth in the womb. Typical is one larger, curvaceous shape, inside of which is a smaller womb-like inner shape, inside of which is a seemingly growing thing. The triptych presentation could relate to a trimester pregnancy, the diptych to twins, or the nine-paneled, Falling Into the Beginning (2011) which progresses from left to right with small to large canvases, to the nine months of pregnancy. The growing creature is never identified as a distinct animal or human – it’s simply clear that it is part of an organic, repetitive process that happens again and again in nature. The pastel colors could point to the traditional palette of a baby’s nursery, but they also are reminiscent of the sky, the ocean, or flowers. While their is no clear-cut explanation for what is in the works, there is an instant familiarity with the idea of constant growth, change, and repetition that we know is present in everything around us, even in us, but that we often forget if children or aging parents are not around. Schwall brings back the romance and the comfort of birth and death, new and old, in a way that gives us a sense of our place in a bigger picture instead of the contemporary vision of aging that is so often plagued by disapointment and fear.
Mario Trejo’s Front Room exhibition, “Centered” is a fantastic formal contrast to Schwall: using blacks, whites, and grays on smaller to medium sized canvases, Trejo has also employed similar, repetitive shapes and marks. But, Trejo, using archival pens and enamel on panel, as in I Defy You, has created an attractive illusion of three-dimensional space on an all black background. Some of the pieces employ all swirling, circular lines, and others starkly straight, exact ones, but either way, the power of reduction, to form and content, is at its best with allusions to a kind of obsessive yet controlled and exhilarating madness to create. Trejo is a strong artist, doing abstraction in a contemporary and visually compelling way.
The late Bill Kohn’s “Grand Center Series” occupys the WOP Space, and consists of several paintings focusing in and around Grand Center in a more flat, shape based, pared-down, Charles Sheeler, American Modernism sort of way. Kohn presents familiar images of well-known buildings such as the Pulitzer and the Contemporary Art Museum, but digs deeper as well, painting more unfamiliar, nuanced views like Joe, Pulitzer and Continental Building (2003) that captures the beauty of an im-between space and Pulitzer and Joe’s Shadow (2003) which emphasizes the interaction of the art, buildings, and spaces on Grand Center that make it such a strong, cohesive whole. In these two works, both gouache on paper, Kohn has gone beyond the typical, or even the nostalgic type of city-landmark painting, and demonstrates his keen eye for both the necessity of community, and the abstract.
In the Media Room, Brett Williams’ “Blurs” is a single 1 minute, looping video that features beeping technological sounds and images of brown cardboard moving boxes that, reflecting their name, ‘move’ around on their own, without human involvement. It’s difficult to pinpoint which box has moved, which has stayed, and where it last came from – all pointing to Williams’ artistic interest in the difficulties and unreliability of memory. The score is particularly telling – recalling 90s video games – and it relates to the repetitiveness of gaming and getting lost in time and space without the ability to determine when something happened, partly due to the looping, almost hypnotically repetitive music.
While Charles Schwall is a strong and worthy headliner in the main gallery, he is in very good company with three other men as equally as interested in form, repetition, familiarity, and recognition. Schwall, Trejo, Kohn, and Williams, when viewed together as a whole, challenge the idea of first impressions, make us look harder at the materials and process of their art forms, ask why, and allow us to begin to approach some answers.
“Charles Swchall: Source Confluence,” “Mario Trejo: Centered,” Bill Kohn: Grand Center Series,” and “Brett Williams: Blurs” continue until 17 December 2011 at Bruno David Gallery, 3721 Washington Blvd St. Louis, MO. The gallery is open Wednesday – Saturday, 10-5.