Art review: Michael Gable and Natalie Petrosky featured at Summit Artspace

By Dorothy Shinn
Beacon Journal art and architecture critic

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Summit Artspace Gallery will feature Michael Gables exhibition entitled, "More Songs about Buildings and Food: Michael Gable and Natalie Petrosky."

When did hiding meaning in one’s work become acceptable?

Among contemporary artists, especially those who work abstractly, it’s become the norm.

More Songs about Buildings and Food: Michael Gable and Natalie Petrosky, on view at Summit Artspace through Feb. 23, offers many fine examples of how (and perhaps why) today’s young artists do it.

This strong show of handsome abstract paintings and drawings is filled with work in which meaning, content, and most references to outside influences have been obscured, or partially or wholly obliterated.

Even the exhibit’s title underscores the compulsion to conceal. It comes from a 1978 Talking Heads album that according to artist Mike Gable “speaks to the variety of references in my work and my reluctance to accept them.”

His co-exhibitor, Natalie Petrosky, says something similar about her work, in which she uses thread to wrap, bind, stitch and draw objects and imagery onto her paintings. She also says she stitches “images or sentences into the backside of a canvas and let the under-stitching show on the front … to obscure valuable content underneath, while maintaining the structure of the image.”

Likewise, says Gable, “I build stuff up and wipe things off using a lot of turpentine” so that images aren’t too recognizable or focus too much on just one area.

Many of Gable’s paintings seem to reference Monet’s Water Lilies paintings, especially the mossy green depths between images of floating flowers.

Monet did paint about concealed or secret thoughts, but these were meant to evoke a poetical reading of his work, not to hide its meaning entirely. We can sense that in the darkened depths of his late works, where it becomes more and more obvious that he is looking into water and thinking about eternity. As we look at these Monet paintings, we become aware of the depth beneath the surface and the unknown that lingers there.

But in Gable’s works, which so beautifully evoke watery reflections, imagery is obscured in order to conceal, not reveal.

That’s not to say that nothing is revealed.

We see that the focus in Gable’s work is refracted, as it would be in the slightly disturbed surface of standing water, say in a street puddle where traffic is constantly causing the water to slightly tremble and blur or break apart the reflected image.

But we feel that something has been removed from these images, something is hidden or missed. It’s as if we see the standing water as we pass it by, going too fast to catch it completely.

In Petrosky’s paintings, on the other hand, her penchant for needlework, either as binding or as “under-stitching,” comes across as addition, not subtraction.

We feel that she’s striving to bring serendipity into her compositions, or at the very least, to rid it of an abundance of intentionality, reflecting the need that so many contemporary artists have to undermine the craftsmanship that they worked in the early part of their artistic journey to master.

Her needlework-enhanced paintings are thus simultaneously inclusive and exclusive, mysterious and attractive, foreign and familiar.

What prompts these artists and others to call upon strategies of obfuscation, obliteration and ambiguity? Why are we made to puzzle at their endeavors?

Partly, it’s a strategy to slow us down. We’ve become so adept at reading images, what with movies and television where each picture only lasts a few seconds, that artists must do something to make us stop and look.

And it’s part of our abstract arts heritage where recognizable imagery is frowned upon and every effort is made to focus instead upon the surface of the work, the texture, the brushwork, the “happy accidents” that drive away thoughts of the labor-intensiveness (i.e., craftsmanship) in a work of art.

We are told to bring our own thoughts, insights, knowledge and abilities to each work. We are told we get out of a work what we bring to it, and to be fair that’s what we’re asked to do with dance, poetry, music, architecture or any of the other forms of art that populate our world.

It’s just more difficult to accept in the visual arts because for so long they were our only form of representation. They were our “photographs,” and we were encouraged to look upon the craftsmanship, the precision and accuracy of the work’s ability to represent reality.

But the visual arts are no longer our only cameras, nor are they our only means of seeing the world objectively.

We have mechanical and digital devices that do that without the need (or the ability on their own) to think, compose, manipulate and/or edit.

What the visual arts do today (or what many think they should do) is to make us pause, really look and perhaps even think.

That’s what this show does, and it does it quite well.

Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or dtgshinn@att.net.


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