Two to Tango
Art Review: "Panda's Exercise," prints by Jennifer Koch and Gregg Blasdel. 215 College Gallery, Burlington. Through June 16.
Collaborative works are rare in art history, seldom executed (or at least acknowledged) until the postmodern era. Even now, only a couple of internationally known couples are jointly producing pieces judged to be of museum quality: the Starn twins, who recently built a bamboo maze on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the British duo Gilbert & George, best known for their large-scale photographic double self-portraits.
Husband-and-wife collaborations are rarer still. The list of big names begins and ends with installation artists Christo, 75, and Jeanne-Claude, who died last year.
This is but one reason a current show at the 215 College Gallery may pique visitors’ interest. “Panda’s Exercise” presents 14 block prints, each a product of the marital and artistic partnership of Jennifer Koch and Gregg Blasdel of Burlington.
They’ve been making art together since 2004 — but only in a series of prints known collectively as “The Marriage of Reason.” Koch, owner of Frames for You and Mona Lisa Too, and Blasdel, an associate professor of fine arts at St. Michael’s College, create their work separately most of the time.
The pieces in the current show are visual counterparts to the “call-and-response” musical pattern, Blasdel explains. He says each print began with a Koch carving of a shape resembling “a hank of rope,” to which he added a 38-part geometric image that varies in color from print to print but retains an identical shape in all but two or three of the pieces. Blasdel’s polyhedron always floats on the top half of a sheet of heavyweight white paper; Koch’s twiny, stencil-like form always occupies the lower portion.
It’s impossible — for this viewer — to look at these prints and not think about sex. Blasdel’s pointy, hard-edged form thrusts insistently downward toward the pouched part of Koch’s soft, receptive shape. Viewers may feel the urge to step outside for a cigarette after experiencing 14 of these visual copulations in succession.
The show’s formalist temperature isn’t nearly as hot. In fact, there’s not much visual variety here, what with every print made in the same dimensions and with the same arrangement of forms. And, perhaps surprisingly given Koch’s day job, only one of them has the put-together look that framing can produce.
It’s the color shifting that makes this series appear austere rather than monotonous. Koch’s organic form, which she says originated as a drawing of a skein of yarn, consists in each instance of white strands bordered and shaded by one other color, while Blasdel sometimes uses as many as five colors on the faces of his angular constructions, all of which create an illusion of three-dimensionality. Some of his combinations involve variations in color values as well as subtle alterations in the overall shape.
These joint compositions of like and unlike elements are usually harmonious and occasionally entrancing, in a minimalist sort of way.
Why is the exhibit called “Panda’s Exercise”? Koch says the series was initially titled “Emerald Buddha,” based on the resemblance of Blasdel’s gem-shaped configuration to the forehead jewel included in some representations of the Buddha. That got scrapped, however, after Koch began seeing a panda’s face in the conjunction of the two forms in each of the prints.
Maybe other viewers will perceive that likeness. I did not.
Regardless, “Panda’s Exercise” is an intriguing exhibit, less aesthetically (the prints don’t leave much of an imprint in the mind’s eye) than for the questions it raises about the creative process. A big one has to do with whether a work of visual art can be cohesive and effective when it’s the product of more than a single pair of hands. This show leaves the answer … in the eye of the beholder.