I was pleasantly surprised after trundling upstairs in the Richard Levy Gallery building to reach the Central Features gallery, where I found a stunning show by Jami Porter Lara and J. Matthew Thomas arranged in a beautifully appointed and well-lit contemporary art space.
Actually, the artists are having two solo shows together. Lara is exhibiting luscious ceramic sculpture titled “Unhyphenated,” and Thomas is showing mixed media paintings titled “Geometries” through May 21.
I have been curious about Lara since I saw her work last year in the “Public Selects” exhibition at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History. Her work is also featured in a “Colores” segment through the public television network.
Thanks to a weeklong visit to Mata Ortiz to work with master traditional potters and her own independent research several years ago, Lara uses ancient methods like coil building, reduction atmosphere wood firing, stone polishing and the use of a puki (a Native American round starting base for pinch and coil pottery making).
Lara’s visit to Mata Ortiz was the result of her participation in the Land-art Project at the University of New Mexico. During that time, she explored the U.S.-Mexican border, where she discovered prehistoric pot shards intermingled with 2-liter plastic water bottles carried and discarded when empty by migrants.
The breathtaking shining black sculptural results of Lara’s studies and hard labor bridge our contemporary throw-everything-away culture with traditional Native American conservation-dedicated cultural norms.
In “LDS-MHB-KABR-0316CE-01” Lara offers a jaw-dropping design incorporating the body form of a plastic bottle with a hollow circular handle/spout. Without references it stands alone as a contemporary abstract sculpture that would be comfortable in any museum setting.
Her vessel-inspired forms are elegant abstractions embracing and co-mingling the ubiquitous 2-liter plastic bottle with prehistoric wedding jars, bowls and water carriers from the Anasazi, Mimbres and Casas Grandes pottery traditions.
To achieve her Maria Martinez-inspired polished black finishes on what is a natural red clay body, Lara fires her work after stone polishing the surface, using a reduced-oxygen wood fire that prevents oxidation of the iron-rich clay. The result is a lustrous iron black.
Her designs are at once industrial and organic, and her impeccable mastery of her craft makes these objects quite seductive. Lara has harnessed the “wow factor” and isn’t letting go of the reins.
Thomas is an artist/architect like the late Robert Walters, whose creative efforts move between designs for buildings and the painter’s studio. His outstanding palimpsest surfaces are achieved through layering and sanding smooth scraps of paper ranging from newspaper to canceled checks and junk mailers. Over the haphazard albeit lusciously variegated paper surface, Thomas draws and paints highly structured geometric – one would say architectonic – patterns.
And yet Thomas is not satisfied with the resulting imagery until he sands and retouches the painted areas until they too have been antiqued and have taken on the character of an ancient sacred manuscript.
Only then does Thomas finish the job with a clear varnish that intensifies the pale and bold colors alike.
One beautiful example titled “SG951, 2014” allowed Thomas to truly integrate the aesthetics of fine art and architecture. The black-, white- and yellow-colored geometric pattern visually shifts between flat graphics and relief sculpture.
In “SG050, 2014” Thomas achieves a fluid organic image that feels like sunlight filtering through leaves in a light breeze. It has the look of a digital photo that has been enlarged enough to become pixelated.
Both of these beautifully integrated and compatible solo exhibitions are well-worth the climb from street level. This gallery stands up among the best in New Mexico.