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A Two-Person Show Decades in the Making at Arting Gallery

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BmoreArt’s Picks: April 18-24

What a treat! Rarely have Pat Alexander and Kevin Labadie, artists with two distinct visions and distinctive processes, ever exhibited jointly a range of works from their impressive careers. The show opens this Thursday, April 20th, and is called Rocks and Hard Places at Arting Gallery, a new space in Woodberry’s Parkdale building.

What a title! First, it made me smile. Then, based on the popular expression, it suggested being stuck between two difficult situations or choices, and I thought . . . What? The more it sunk in, however, the more sense it made. Besides, it’s funny. With an edge.

I got the “two” part: they’re married. They’ve been together since 1979, and this is a two-person show. I also got the “Rock” part; for many years, Pat has dealt artistically, magically, profoundly with rocks and boulders. She is still using rocks to break down barriers and as a symbol of “hardness”—think hard knocks or hardships.

As her reverence for nature has deepened, Pat has given the grand, “hard,” beautiful qualities of rocks greater play. This brings with it a heartfelt concern for climate change and how it is damaging our planet, an inspiration for the collaged landscape drawing in this exhibition, “Attempt to Mark the Difference,which is but one of a substantial series.

 

Left: Kevin Labadie, "Button Down," oil on panel, 48” W x 72” H, 2003 Middle: Pat Alexander, "Falls," artist-cast and pigmented Abaca/Cotton, size various, 2023 Right: Kevin Labadie, "Sea and Sky," oil on panel, 24”W x 48” H, 2020. Install view courtesy of Arting Gallery.
Kevin Labadie, "Sprawl" (2003 - present, ongoing) Oil and ink transfer on wood tiles 4.5” H x 552” W. Installation view courtesy of Arting Gallery
Kevin Labadie, "Sprawl," (2003-ongoing). Detail image courtesy of the artist.

Returning to the “Hard Places” of their show’s title, Kevin Labadie’s masterful, 210-foot long (and counting) “Sprawlpainting includes unsettling subject matter. In the five-inch-high strip displayed at Arting Gallery, there’s broken-down barns in barren landscapes. Elsewhere, combat airplanes open fire. Difficulty and conflict is inherent in this work’s challenge to reconcile seemingly irreconcilable subjects.       

The artist is presently exhibiting this polyptych’s most recent 40 feet. Admire his skilled stick-to-itiveness and ebullient stream of consciousness. Enjoy the panels’ often harsh neighboring juxtapositions and sometimes surreal, serious goofiness.      

Arting Gallery, a new, spacious venue in Baltimore’s Woodberry / Clipper Mill area, is the vision of another pairing: the geometric abstractionist painter, Linling Lu and her husband, the architect, Xiaoming Liu, a Professor of Landscape Architecture at Beijing University before emigrating to America. Linling’s abstractions are presently on display in a one-person museum show in Washington, D.C. at The Phillips Collection. Previously, her striking work inaugurated Arting. 

 

Pat Alexander, "Even the Stars," as installed at VisArts, Rockville in 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.
Pat Alexander, “Even the Stars,” as installed in Taiwan for Biennial Paper Fiber Art: Eco-Sublime”, l’Association Chaîne de Papier in 2017. Photo courtesy of the artist.

This, the gallery’s second show, is a no less striking feast for the eyes and mind. For Pat Alexander’s part, rocks, boulders, and celestial spheres cascade, ascend, and float. Beautifully. They suggest motion every which way, except in a horizontal line. That’s Labadie’s domain.    

As if caught in a tornado, one of Alexander’s largest, most ambitious sculptures, “Even the Stars” (2016)—which is unfortunately not in this show—features tons of boulders appearing to swirl. Tons? Spoiler alert: if you do reps with this alchemist’s boulders, you won’t look any better on the beach. Pat constructs the rocks out of abaca/cotton paper pulp. They’re hollow. The artist masterfully textures, shapes, and pigments them, and they’re pretty much weightless. But they’re substantial, visually and conceptually. Her work brings up a slew of heavy-duty issues involving polarities: illusion/reality, permanence/fragility, groundedness/ethereality, seriousness/absurdity, outdoors/indoors, winsome/cataclysmic.    

Inspired by a trip to Laramie, Wyoming, where she saw piles of ancient rocks—indeed, 70 million years worth of ancient—Alexander started molding and pigmenting her own rock forms. The artist’s varied, paper-thin boulders sometimes look dangerous. But mainly they look real and gloriously handsome.  

Boulders in the installation “Even the Stars” teeter overhead, sticking out of their upside-down conical cage as if it sprang boulder-size leaks. The rocks loomed so menacingly that I tiptoed the first time I saw it in the gallery at VisArts Rockville, Maryland in 2016 (it’s also been exhibited in Taiwan), fearing that if I walked too heavily, they’d crash and crush.  

Another of Alexander’s tour de force projects at Arting is “Falls,” a large wall-relief grouping of smaller hand-fabricated rocks. Two earlier iterations of this work were exhibited in The Hague, Netherlands and here in Baltimore at MICA, where both she and Labadie were esteemed teachers for many years. These projects involve a waterfall of rocks. If you view the rock forms together, and if you appreciate them as sounds, imagining the intervals between as rhythmical and syncopated silences or beats, “Falls” is music for the mind’s ear.    

 

Pat Alexander, "Capture," (2020), Artist-cast and pigmented Abaca/cotton and 3/8” steel rod, 44” H x 39” W x 32 D. Image courtesy of Arting Gallery
Pat Alexander, "Conversations with an Asteroid" Image courtesy of the artist.

Ironically, seeing (and hearing) “Conversation with an Asteroid” is grounding. Often, the most telling parts of a conversation happen in the space between words. Here, the exchange occurs between geometry and organic, line and mass, airiness and weight, between action and inaction. The intended gallery lighting causes this last contrasting pairing. The ethereal, animated shadows on the wall (action) are so different from the earthen, opaque thud on the floor (inaction).

“Small Maquettes,” a studio photograph of eight wall studies of cast paper stone forms with bamboo linear constructions, lays out her visual thinking process. One singled out, enlarged, and finessed example is “Capture.” Hanging in this show alongside “Conversation,” it is poignant and, like many of Pat’s works, poetic, while “Small Maquettes” is playful freedom, like a flock of flying birds.        

Yes, groupings have a strange way of transforming meaning. Seeing one of Pat’s cast paper “planets” by itself is lovely. Joining them creates an atmospheric solar system. 

Not surprisingly, her “Out of Range,” a galaxy of 44 forms, got the prime exhibition space in a recent group show I saw at the Washington Sculptors Group. What a superbly crafted, rich piece. Makes you want to board a rocket ship to get a closer look at our heavenly surroundings. Oh wait, no need. The artist has it covered right here at Arting. All the parts are gems. Amassed, they’re stellar.    

 

Kevin Labadie, "Sprawl," (2003 - present, ongoing) Oil and ink transfer on wood tiles 4.5” H x 552” W. Image courtesy of the artist.
Kevin Labadie, "Sprawl," (2003 - present, ongoing), Detail image courtesy of the artist.

In 1997, Kevin Labadie had an idea: working left to right, he would paint on a panel every day, which he’d attach to what came before. The artist humbly explained in a YouTube video to the videographer John Thornton: “Pretty soon I had a line of these things.”   

After Christo’s more than 24-mile, sweeping, wind-swept, run-on-sentence of a masterpiece, “Running Fence,” Labadie’s “Sprawl,” is the longest, most complex, multifaceted one-liner I know of. When the painting was installed in his one-person, one-work show at New Jersey’s Noyes Museum, where the video was created, “Sprawl” was only 144-feet long. 

Labadie explains that his huge “work in progress” addresses the unexplained, inexplicable mysteries of life that build us up just to build us up more. It’s a crazy, inventive, brilliant project. Private and public. In the great tradition of storytelling, you don’t know what’s gonna happen next, or how. I suspect the artist doesn’t either. Will it be portrayed realistically, abstractly, in words, pictures, or as a cartoon drawing? And the subject . . .?

 

Kevin Labadie, "Sprawl," (2003 - present, ongoing) Oil and ink transfer on wood tiles 4.5” H x 552” W. Detail image courtesy of the artist.
Kevin Labadie, "Sprawl," (2003 - present, ongoing) Oil and ink transfer on wood tiles 4.5” H x 552” W. Detail image courtesy of the artist.

There’s a small panel of the single word “Next.” And there’s two panels-worth of the single word “AND.” And there’s a panel that brings up “crow spies” and a painted crow; a wordless image; a painting of an orange slice; a nude man straddling an orange slice that thinks it’s a rocking horse; and an abstraction inspired by fire; several bonsai trees . . . and . . . like that. 

This labor of love is ridiculously impractical. You’re not likely to see it hanging over a couch. It probably won’t make the artist tons of money or get him a good seat on a fashionable bandwagon. Rather, it’s a bold, noble—dare I say, Heroic—idea that only has to do with creating the art that this disciplined person passionately was (is) driven to create, because it seemed like a good idea at the time, because he chose to feed his soul, because he simply trusts his gut, and because his gut is smart. Wise, really.

I betcha Labadie has “becauses” spilling over everything in his and Pat’s three-floor downtown Baltimore home and studios. Along with many other ambitious projects, he’s been working on this spectacularly sprawling line of thought for over two decades. “I don’t work on it every day any more,” he says. “‘Sprawl’ just simmers in the background waiting to be picked up.”     

Artists are bound to question long-term choices like that and to come up with all kinds of explanations. But I suspect they don’t explain anything, fully. Suffice it to say that there aren’t enough works of art as personal, pure, and fanatically impractical as this.

 

This labor of love is ridiculously impractical. You’re not likely to see it hanging over a couch. It probably won’t make the artist tons of money or get him a good seat on a fashionable bandwagon. Rather, it’s a bold, noble—dare I say, Heroic—idea that only has to do with creating the art that this disciplined person passionately was (is) driven to create...
Barry Nemett
Kevin Labadie, “Blow Out,” (2023)
Oil on canvas mounted on wood panels,
120” W x 120”H. Image courtesy of Arting Gallery

In “Button Down,” the jokester jests. Even the title is whimsical. Constant, all-over curves on the left “kiss,” like billiard balls, the three black, white, and gray circles within circles on the right. The littlest button located just below the sparkling, close-up diamond is a period at the end of a zany sentence. Also, the button doubles as a cockeyed smiley face without a smile.  

Talking about “doubling,” Labadie offers his take on two circles in “Sea and Sky”, as the artist caps a starless field of nighttime blue with a boat afloat. The dry humor continues: the painted backgrounds are the same, and the one point where they touch gently rocks the vessel, like a toy boat in a bathtub. 

In the spinning, 10-foot circled square, “Blowout,” Labadie satisfies by not satisfying. The fun begins when the explosive circular system breaks down. The modules are the same, but the textures, lines, and bands curving through them keep us guessing. Filled with interruptions, the music is dizzying. The panels take turns humming and blasting, as they go from minimal to maximal and back.   

Uniquely bouncing sounds, scales, and patterns invite us to join Arting’s festivities. Partygoers include Pat Alexander’s and Kevin Labadie’s rocks and hard places, waterfalls and planets, birds, and boats. What a celebration. What a rare treat!

 

Rocks and Hard Places opens Thursday, April 20th with a reception from 5-7 PM and closes June 22nd. 

Arting Gallery is located at 3500 Parkdale Ave Building 1, Floor 2, Suite 212.

 

Pat Alexander, "Out of Bounds," (2022) Artist-cast and pigmented Abaca/cotton 96” H x 102” W x 6.5” (D Approximate). Image courtesy of Arting Gallery.
Kevin Labadie, "Boots:," Image courtesy of the artist.
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