Michelle Cooke, Lora Fosberg, and Shaun Gilmore

Richard Tobin
11/01/2011

Don’t Miss This—it runs to December 3. “It” being the current group show at Eight Modern, which features work by Michelle Cooke, Lora Fosberg, and Shaun Gilmore. An initial sense of serendipity in the gallery’s choice of artists for the show gives way in time to the awareness of a shared aesthetic that links this unlikely ensemble. That aesthetic is based on a graphic sensibility and an eye for understatement common to three artists whose works are—and look—very different from one another.

Lora Fosberg’s work embraces India-ink-and-gouache sketches, on paper or paper transferred to canvas or panel. These mixed-media works on paper, along with several relief prints, fall into three series dealing, on different levels, with the environment. A common theme is the stark contrast between what we do to the earth and how we frame those actions. The relief print Focus on Growth shows a large tractor treading over downed lumber as it carves a path through a pristine pine forest. Another Dig Deep, depicts a tractor in the same forest perched above a vast hole excavated by its backhoe, the bucket on its hinged pole pulling up fallen vegetation from the depths below, like some atavistic predator. The images give the lie to the aspiration claimed by the upbeat titles by conveying instead the term’s literal meaning, in which ‘aspiration’ denotes a sucking process that evacuates a cavity and leaves a vacuum. Fosberg’s droll visual style carries over to what pass for textbook illustrations of sections of tree trunk whose spare depiction in India ink, gouache, plaster, and wax portrays them as carcasses. The tongue-in-cheek labeling in Then and Now, purporting to indicate a cut tree’s age by the gap between the trunk’s inner core (Then) and outer bark (Now), functions instead as an epithet for a depleted forest. Fosberg’s droll conceits find expression in her India-ink-and-gouache drawing of subterranean dwellings below the surface of some rust-belt urban landscape. Satire appears as explicit statement in her epigrammatic signage set out against a striped backdrop evoking the American highway—fusing Jenny Holzer’s truisms with Ed Ruscha’s Standard Station, a eulogy to America’s restless and ruinous on- the-road culture.

Fosberg’s spare, graphic style and its understated commentary are matched by Shaun Gilmore’s ink-and-mixed-media drawing of the topography of Southwestern landmarks, like the mesas of La Bajada, Los Alamos, and Acoma in New Mexico and the petrified forest of Big Lithodendrum in Utah, (with a brief foray to McDougall’s Forest, Wales). Gilmore’s placement of colored collage strips on the drawings belies their aerial perspective and broadens topography’s reference to the elevation contours of a relief map to encompass a figurative connotation embracing the local culture as well. Works like Early Horizon (2006), North of Acoma Pueblo (2010), and The Wave of Sandia (remembered) (2010) imbue the entire series with a sense of cryptic narrative quietly charged with elements of myth and nostalgia. Even a chance but striking visual similarity between Gilmore’s ink-and-mixed-media small study, titled View from La Bajada (2010), and Fosberg’s ink-and-gouache line drawing, titled Everything and Nothing (2011), seems to reinforce a common tact that informs their lean, linear imagery with tacit, understated commentary.

The low-key graphic line and spare imagery in the work of both Lora Fosberg and Shaun Gilmore are rounded out in the graphic drawings and glass installations of Michelle Cooke. The graphite-on-panel Pear Series drawings depict the fruit with an accuracy and immediacy that elevate each rendering to the level of a pear portrait, evoking that same curious anomaly in Cezanne’s errant apples. The elegant economy of Cooke’s graphite studies of old leaves conveys a simultaneous effect of intimacy and monumentality at work in some of Gilmore’s topographic reliefs. And by far the most dazzling fusion of the immediate and the ephemeral is found in Cooke’s glass installations: rows and echelons of transparent glass squares mounted on white-ground wall panels and projecting perpendicularly from the panel surface. Each configuration is marked by the disarming literalness of the glass squares—at once aggressively tactile and effacingly transparent. The simplicity of each grid configuration reveals a directness that is unassuming and unpretentious and at the same time maintains the unmatched purity of a geometric square and its self-activating sequences. That gives the material medium of the transparent glass squares an enormous evocative power. The chiastic configuration of Cooke’s Double V (2010) commands the space in the way that Ronald Bladen’s giant 1967 X installation straddles the courtyard of the Corcoran Gallery—at once a structural truss and transcendent apparition. As in Square 44 (2010) and Zeta (2011), the action of light upon the transparent grid of glass creates a reciprocal exchange in which the sequence of shadows assumes the grid’s sculptural identity while its projecting squares dissolve into insubstantial pattern.