Painting as Sculpture 

Katy Stone at the Boise Art Museum

Lately visitors have been treated to several exhibitions of contemporary art at the Boise Art Museum in which multicultural (particularly Asian) interests, recent and distant art history, and innovative visual imagination combine in unusual and stimulating ways. Pat Steir and John Grade for instance, Olafur Eliasson in Thin Skin, and artists in the current Artists of the Northwest show, all demonstrated a knack for reaching beyond the familiar Western perspective to bring us complex, intensely poetic works. With Seattle artist Katy Stone, occupying BAM's Sculpture Court through mid-October, we have yet another striking example of this aesthetic eclecticism.

For this, her first solo museum exhibition, Stone created a site-specific sculptural installation entitled Fall. Comprised of three monumental vertical elements of cut and painted transparent archival acetate called Dura-Lar, they hang from the ceiling approximately 20 feet in height, with one continuing onto the floor. The work is a merging of mediums, a hybrid of painting, drawing, sculpture and installation which uses light, shadow and air movements to suggest a multiplicity of images and effects within BAM's towering architectural framework.

This convergence of mediums and art forms reflect Stone's own evolution as an artist, and the range of precedents that have resonated with her along the way. Stone completed her BFA in drawing, painting and printmaking in 1992 at Iowa State, getting her MFA in painting at the University of Washington, and all three art forms play a role in her work (one recognizes drawing and printmaking techniques in her handling of acrylic paint.) Her roots are in abstraction, with the abstract expressionist canvases she did as an undergraduate giving way to organic renderings on paper in graduate school. The scale of her work grew to the point where she was pinning up big sheets of paper, drawing and painting in a way that explored the materials metaphorically and experimenting with the effects of projected light and shadows on her surfaces.

Through her background in printmaking, Stone has been inspired by 19th century Japanese woodcut prints with their stylized forms, bold decorative designs and bright, flat colors characteristic of the ukiyo-e school. These artists' emphasis on landscape and scenes from everyday life has also left its imprint on Stone's approach. But there is a dominant contemporary aspect at work here too. Her source material is distilled through a postminimalist aesthetic relying on negative space, projection, reflection, accumulation and transitory phenomena. Focused light and backlighting are crucial elements to her art and are rigorously controlled, (patrons will notice the windows in the space have been covered.) In this, and her emphasis on process and accident, Stone has been influenced by women artists like Eva Hesse and Lygia Clark, who pioneered an alternative to the crisp lines and calculated purity of minimalist sculpture.

Stone's art also echoes the sculptural ideas of Jessica Stockholder, a Seattle native. Although Stone's sculpture is not freestanding in a strict sense, it invites the viewer to circumnavigate the piece like Stockholder's does, and view it from behind. A recent quote by Stockholder could be equally applied to Stone: "I didn't stop making paintings ... I still make paintings, only they are also sculpture."

In addition to the element of chance and ephemeral effects in Stone's art, natural forces and processes have long been her focus. To this day, her art is a series of fragments recognizably abstracted from nature, much as Kandinsky's was during his first explorations of abstraction. The romantic notion of the sublime in nature has had its impact on Stone's work, and Leonardo da Vinci's studies of water surging forward in a deluge have found their way into her more rhythmic organic imagery. Living in the Northwest for the last decade has, no doubt, enhanced her affinity for biomorphic form and moist atmospherics. Yet her work has its glamorous side too, as demonstrated here. Throughout, Stone's imagery walks a fine line between the literal and the allusive, the organic and the artificial.

I had an opportunity to observe the artist preparing "Fall" for installation. Laying the clear acetate on the floor or tables, she applies the paint with thick bamboo brushes, filling them with water-based acylics. Even where the paint looks like spilled pigment betraying her AbEx roots, it's not. Stone carefully "draws" the paint on, controlling its viscosity and opacity to the desired result, leaving the edges of the transparent film unpainted. She then cuts the acetate into long strips, repeating the process several times, building three-dimensional form with multiple strands and layers.

A short poem by the artist reiterates the downward thrust of the work, a theme of organic substances in a free fall. In "Cascade", curvaceous gold-yellow strokes and contours evoke tumbling locks of human hair, painted in a post-Pop style reminiscent of Lichtenstein's comic strip technique minus the irony. (Leonardo too saw the swirl of rushing water in the falling curls of women's hair.) The descending, icy fingers of "White Roots" have the chilly look of willow branches after a hoarfrost. Center stage is "Red Fall," 70 strips of acetate fluttering to air currents and reflecting light like a sequined gown. Despite the work's glitzy veneer, its red paint oozes like blood for a striking beauty-and-the-beast dichotomy-glamour with a macabre twist.

Especially intriguing is the drawing effect Stone achieves with spotlights and projections, using light as a carrier for color. Each work hangs before a sheet of frosted acetate onto which the painted imagery casts its shadow, creating a visual echo. Viewed from behind, the frosted screen becomes a full-length simulated drawing, dramatically realized in its own right. Stone's intense colors permeate these bonus backside images-"Red Fall"-looks rendered in dried blood.

Also on display are small scale works and studies pinned to gallery walls, offering up-close viewing of Stone's technique and numerous botanical and meteorological subjects. These range from the dramatically beautiful ("Wounded Flower") to unexpected cloud bursts of blood-red color ("Gusher", "Inky" to whimsical eye-candy. But the shadow play remains magical throughout.

Katy Stone will discuss her art at BAM on Thursday, May 5 at 5:30 p.m.

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