Space invaders
Local artists collaborate on DAC’s ‘Foreign Spaces’

“Foreign Spaces,” an installment piece by local artist Sandra Butler and Joan Levine-Russell, will be transforming the Durango Arts Center’s Barbara Conrad Gallery through Feb. 25./Courtesy photo

by Stew Mosberg

Artists Sandra Butler and Joan Levine-Russell have turned the Durango Arts Center’s Conrad Gallery into a remarkable installation experience – Foreign Spaces.

Most installation art is a curious mixture of interior design and two and three-dimensional art. It is also ephemeral, often defying description and created to be experienced in the round.

Butler and Levine-Russell, both local art professors, have incorporated a variety of materials to temporarily change the environment of the Barbara Conrad Gallery in a way that DAC regulars might find intriguing, mystifying, odd, fun and mentally stimulating. While some of the art occupies wall space, much of it hangs ceiling to floor. A few pieces are kinetic, relying on human intervention, mechanical operation or ambient air current. Like mutant slinkys, giant wire forms dangle from over head and invite touch, and the artists offer viewers instruments to “play” the coils.

Butler and Levine-Russell suggest that the individual pieces are best viewed as inter-related, each part having an impact on the whole. There are repetitive design elements appearing in many of the objects, and the spiral form of the hanging coils reappears on stacked bricks, in wall-mounted canvases, on fabric and elsewhere throughout the installation.

Among the more interesting treatments in the space are the windows lining E. Second Avenue. The crumbled newspaper that shrouds almost the entire pane makes an interesting textural pattern and provides contrast to the other objects in the room. The artists allude to a relationship between the windows at the west end of the room to the walls of the east end as well as the grid pattern of the floor.

In addition to the hanging coils, there are several large sculptural shapes in gauze-like material that are reminiscent of Butler’s previous dimensional explorations. The pieces sway or gently twirl like ghosts caught in a vortex. Attached to the bottom of some is a stylus that continually scribes a patch of sand with concentric circles or other design.

Flat panels of color are mounted alongside flowing, wave-like canvases swathed with paint that brings to mind unframed paintings by exalted 20th century artist Mark Rothko.

Bricks from a demolished Main Avenue building rest along the floor at various intervals, and they were included in the show for their historical value and because Levine-Russell finds them “so gorgeous!”

A “mutant slinky,” where viewers are inivited to “play” the coils./ Photo by Steve Eginoire

The collaborators agree some of the work was intentionally selected to be raw and pure and is more “anti-craft” than craft.

Interestingly, as with most any installation art, none of it is for sale. “You can’t commidify it,” says Levine-Russell, “It is here to inspire and educate, to make you rethink your catalog of memory, the association and function of materials.”

This is definitely not your usual DAC art show. And while the show is named Foreign Spaces, the room itself is not alien to Durango art lovers. That is what makes the show so much fun. Being a collaborative effort between local artists, the installation is also uncharacteristic for the Arts Center, and the two women clearly enjoyed combining their talents for the benefit of the DAC.

The overall concept behind the show is for attendees to experience the space and to be engulfed by it. Walking through, around and under the art will provide that very sensation, and when the room is filled with people, it will only enhance the effect.

When exploring the motivation behind the two artists’ work, the similarities of their thought process surface again and again.

For example, Levine-Russell has said the content of her work follows a range from abstracted to more literal depictions of what she calls visual poetry. “In many ways it takes the raw emotion of color, pattern and mark making and combines that with symbols of objects, man and more abstract hieroglyphics that seem universal,” she says. “I am a storyteller that leaves a lot of mystery and room for interpretation by the viewer.”

Butler, on the other hand, acknowledges that her concepts begin with a metaphoric idea and evolve during the construction process. In describing her methodology she has said, “The process of building a sculpture is a journey and the finished work is always a surprise.”

Foreign Spaces will be on display at the Durango Arts Center, 802 E. Second Ave., through Feb. 25. An artist’s reception is set for 5-7 p.m. Fri., Feb. 11, and will be followed by a presentation about installation art from Sandra Butler.



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