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Art History at the Target Gallery: Carol Dupre on “Optical Studies”

Currently on view at the Target Gallery here in the Torpedo Factory, Ruth Gowell’s “Optical Studies” joins glass with fiber, straight lines with bent, and organization with distortion.

Although Gowell’s pieces are made with woven fiber and kiln-formed glass — not paint and canvas — for Art League instructor Carol Dupre, the strong sense of pattern and culture brought to mind one of this area’s most famous art movements: the Washington Color School.

Long celebrated in the DC area, the Washington Color School was a local interpretation of the color field movement, identified with the local painters in a 1965 exhibit: Morris Louis, Howard Mehring, Tom Downing, Gene Davis, Kenneth Noland, and Paul Reed. At the nascent Art League School on Cameron Street, then named the Art League Workshop, Davis gave occasional critiques, and Reed taught a class on staining unprimed canvas with acrylic.

That unprimed canvas, liquidy acrylic paint, and washes of color were the common thread in the Color School, Dupre said. Gowell described the school as “an emphasis on pure color and color interaction. And shape, and line.”

Their paintings followed on the heels of abstract expressionism, but taking a structured, orderly form, often with hard edges — as exemplified by Davis, famous for his vertical stripes.

Gene Davis, seen painting a Philadelphia street for Franklin's Footpath in 1972.
Gene Davis, seen painting a Philadelphia street for Franklin’s Footpath in 1972. (Source)

Since then, the repetitive forms and geometric patterns have cropped up all the time in the DC art scene, Dupre said, without really taking on a new life. Gowell’s work, though, advances these primary elements, and could serve as a worthy finale to the movement, Dupre said — even though her own artwork takes a very different direction, as you can see below.

“The art establishment has yearned for both advancement and conclusion to its love affair with ‘color school’ tendencies,” she writes. “(Gowell’s exhibit) could turn into a new age of pure optical art.”

Gowell’s pieces — some kiln-formed glass, some woven fiber, and some combining fiber and blown glass — build on the Color School tradition with new shapes, such as rows of trapped glass bubbles, and new patterns, like the straight lines refracted and distorted through glass spheres. Compared with the organization of Color School canvases, “this exhibit marvels in playful precision, in organized distortion where straight lines become curved,” Dupre writes.

Compared to the Color School, much of Gowell’s work is less colorful. “I actually tried to keep the show mostly black and white with the emphasis on optical effects, but color was clearly too important to me to be left out,” Gowell writes. That color comes to life most vibrantly the in the fused glass pieces.

Leon Berkowitz, Seven Lights Series, 1975. (Source)

Gowell said the Color School has been a huge influence on her work, but that for this exhibit, she focused on her Pop/Op Art influences. “Both the ‘bubble glass’ that I make, and the blown glass with bubbles that were made by my son Ian Kessler-Gowell, are used to distort what lies behind, and I was really trying to keep this show an exploration of that effect,” she said. (Read her artist’s statement here.)

Of the Washington Color School painters, Gowell pointed to Leon Berkowitz as her greatest influence. Berkowitz, whose paintings are covered with large, diffuse fields of color blurring together, was Gowell’s favorite because of “the shifting of colors across the surface of the painting, which is what I’ve always tried to do in my weavings,” she said.

Berkowitz famously spoke in 1976 about “the depths through which we see when we look into and not at color” — a phrase that seems to echo in “Optical Studies.”

Ruth Gowell is the 2013 Artist of the Year for the Torpedo Factory. “Optical Studies” is on view through July 28 in the Target Gallery on the first floor, just down the hall from her studio.

Carol Dupre is a Torpedo Factory artist and Art League instructor. She will teach “Potential Space and the Found” this fall at The Art League. This class explores concept and theory with painting time, printed lectures, discussion, and films. Check the School catalog soon for details on the Fall schedule.

Ferris wheel - Carol Dupre
By Carol Dupre

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