Mastery in mixed-media pieces

“Feel Better” by Natalie Hardcastle incorporates stitchery, drawing, watercolor and collage into a contemplative composition that borders on surrealism.

The Page Coleman Gallery is back after a hiatus of several years and is coming on strong with “Touch,” an exhibition by emerging artists Natalie Hardcastle and Jessica Kennedy through Oct. 5.

The gallery re-opened in January in the old Microsoft Building on Linn Avenue near EXPO New Mexico. Owner Page Coleman completely renovated and redesigned the interior in order to house a contemporary emerging artists’ venue, personal studio/office and display space for modernist works on the secondary market.

“I thought I could retire to my studio and just paint but after a while I was climbing the walls. I need the interaction with other people that a gallery offers and I love helping artists to move along through their careers,” Coleman said during a recent gallery visit.

Hardcastle and Kennedy offer a stunning collection of mixed-media pieces that incorporate a variety of materials and techniques paying homage to nature while revealing skillful mastery.

The show reminds me that some art does not fare well in digital reproduction and that female artists have a special sensitivity to materials that require an up-close and personal encounter with their work.

Hardcastle is hyper-aware both visually and tactilely of the paper fiber on which she applies graphite, ink, watercolor, collage and stitchery. In her artist statement she cites her personal heritage that includes a long line of women who handcrafted their own clothing and made dolls and other toys for their children.

“I am a materials person and paper is my material … every detail of each piece is a record of its journey in my hands,” Hardcastle said.

When viewing Hardcastle’s intensely intimate images, other artists spring to mind like photographer Betty Hahn, who included stitchery in her imagery, as well as Nancy Kozikowski and Judy Chicago, who hire other women to turn their drawings and designs into embroidered textiles.

But Hardcastle doesn’t rely on pop culture icons like Hahn nor does she allow others to remake her ideas like Kozikowski and Chicago. The events, based on personal observations that Hardcastle painstakingly depicts, are the result of hours spent looking at the world while having materials in hand to express what is seen and felt.

Hardcastle reveals the essential quality of things, ideas and abstract emotions within a vertical composition in works like “Feel Better.” Her compositions are made up of impossible spatial relationships and juxtapositions of shapes that border on surrealism.

In “Poured Out” she implies fertilization with phallic undertones while creating a beautiful drawing. The piece, with its diagonal movement, is a graphic masterpiece.

In contrast to Hardcastle’s subtle tonal passages, tiny stitches and carefully drawn lines, Kennedy’s tropically hued acrylic paintings are like a brass marching band playing John Philip Sousa.

But Kennedy is equally skilled in execution and beautifully assembles her layered imagery. Both artists produce surfaces that look embossed as if molded by some strange device whose nature hovers somewhere between something industrial and something manifested through magical means.

Kennedy accents the edges of shapes with metal leaf appliqué that lends a feeling of antiquity to otherwise very contemporary imagery. Her work reflects Kennedy’s attraction to and fear of nature.

Albert Einstein once commented on his fascination with the human mind that was able to hold two diametrically opposed ideas simultaneously. Kennedy’s paintings reflect her own inner conflicts while expressing her overriding joy.

Her “Seeing Spots” is one of her largest paintings and is composed of several layers of checkerboard patterns in varying scales. The design is a stylized version of what you see after inadvertently looking at the sun or an electric arc.

There is an untitled and dazzling array of 16 small-format paintings by Kennedy on the west wall of the gallery that truly plays with scale. When viewing individual works online, like “Untitled #200” or “Untitled #201,” one is unaware that both paintings are only 8 inches square. When seen together in the gallery each complex composition becomes one stanza in a tone poem. These small paintings could be depicting amoebas, cancer cells or new insights into string theory.

Both Hardcastle and Kennedy reach for the illusive nature of time, what Marcel Duchamp described as the fourth dimension.

Their layered, erasing, reapplications and subtractions make both of these artists worth a relaxed visit. The show is contemporary to a fault while delivering a contemplative respite from the constant visual and audio noise surrounding us. Two thumbs up.