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Hard and Soft

Works by Dennis Barraclough and Tommy Nguyen at Buffalo Arts Studio

Hard edge and soft meet in the current two artists show at Buffalo Arts Studio. The straight lines and right angles high-gloss enamel paintings of Dennis Barraclough, and the soft sculpture pillow talk ambience installation of Tommy Nguyen. What the two shows have in common is lots of color. Sometimes extreme color.

When Matisse said art should be like an easy chair, he probably wasn’t thinking a bean bag chair. Nguyen has taken the idea to that degree and beyond. You don’t so much view this art as flop into it. Art as a funhouse, an experience, a happening. As a performance in which the audience is the performer, after the artist sets a scene that infallibly elicits play. A roomful of colorful, bouncy pillows in multiple irregular shapes and sizes, evoking benign monsters, docile dragons, feather boas, jesters’ caps with multiple flaccid horns pointing out in as many directions. Pillows everywhere, including hanging from the ceiling and sometimes emerging from the walls, from the fabric weave of lengths of bolt cloth in various hues and patterns—calicos, plaids, geometric figure dress designs. Nonesuch art with only an occasional reference to any previous artwork or artist, like on the crudely painted canvas floor carpeting with occasional Jackson Pollock paint swirls and spatter.

What is it? Nguyen’s art immediately and inevitably evokes this question. In a talk at the opening, the artist—draped in a pillow creation or combination of several that gave the impression of something attacking him, except that he didn’t seem the least bit apprehensive of any such violence—kind of the way wild animal tamers show no fear getting right in the cage with lions and tigers—asked that very question. His answer, “I don’t know. It’s whatever you want it to be.” Or to elaborate, “It’s meant to just get people to come together. To touch, to hug. It’s part of my personality.”

Art for one thing as a way of breaking down barriers, between people as individuals, and people as nations, as ethnic groups. Nguyen is of Vietnamese ethnicity. An additional feature at the opening was the brewing and distribution of tea by Japanese tea ceremony instructor and practitioner Atsuko Nishida.

Barraclough’s art could hardly be more different. Painting about painting, reduced to very basics. The application of paint on canvas, with brush and in this case T-square. And severely restricted formal vocabulary. No figures, no pictures, just lines, stripes, boxes, boxes within boxes, areas of bright and subdued colors, but eschewing representation. Painting not about representation, the world outside the work. Rather, an elaborate semaphore of signs and signals to the outside world, if interpretable.

Painting in two dimensions. All about surface, not depth. Until you look closer and come to see the erroneousness of that initial impression. In some of what at first looked like uniform flat areas of impersonal gloss paint, evidence of brushwork, so-called painterly qualities, thickness and thinness, and gesture, slight, subtle, but unmistakable. Particularly noticeable in contrast to some more genuinely surficial areas. And surficial is part of painterly as well, you come to see and appreciate in a new way.

What was surprising was to hear from the artist in his introductory talk of how these paintings were made, with numerous alternate layers of paint and varnish. A depth aspect you don’t see. He also talked about how his process was essentially intuitive. When he started on a painting, he had no plan about what it would look like in the end.

That may not be entirely for the good. What can be problematic in this work relates to composition. The plethora array of straight lines, right angles, rectangles, can sometimes seem more arbitrary than inevitable.

The Dennis Barraclough exhibit is called simply New Works. The Tommy Nguyen exhibit is called Me PLUSH You Long Time. Both shows run until March 6.

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