The Order and Randomness of It All | painting exhibition review

The Order and Randomness of It All

New paintings by gallery painters at GVG Contemporary address the intersection of order and chaos

By Christina Procter

Blair Vaughn-Gruler, GVG Contemporary co-owner, set up a basement painting studio as a child. She was fortunate enough to have parents who encouraged her creative explorations as a young artist, gave her a set of oil paints for Christmas when she was 8, and nonchalantly accepted her proclamation “don’t bother me when I’m in the basement.” Over the years, Vaughn-Gruler’s non-objective work has become large-scale and methodically process-based. Now, along with her husband, fine art furniture maker, painter, and sculptor Ernst Gruler, she’s run GVG Contemporary for 10 years, providing a formal exhibition space for an extraordinary group of artists.


The two have now curated a show of new paintings by gallery painters whose approach in an array of media could not be more unique, and yet work in conversation with each other. It’s a conversation that is at once contemporary, nostalgic, futuristic, and imaginative. After a buzzing opening reception with many returning and lots of new visitors on Friday, July 5, the show will be up through Sunday, July 28, 2019.


The show borrows its title from a piece by Lori Schappe-Youens, an abstract expressionist painter who used to live in Michigan, where she met Vaughn-Gruler, but has spent decades now in South Africa. “Lori is a self-taught painter who’s done some training at the University of Michigan,” says Vaughn-Gruler. She points out the cascading turquoise and pops of other colors in Schappe-Youens’s additional, dreamlike pieces in the show, Viscosity and Light I and III. “Pure expressive mark making is what she’s accomplishing here, and she does it remarkably well.”


Schappe-Youens has worked in many mediums, often using acrylics and pencil before applying oil paints. “Part of the charm is you can get engaged in all the tiny marks,” notes Vaughn-Gruler, pointing out the not-so-immediately-obvious. Schappe-Youens addresses ideas of order and chaos by creating a series of similarly composed, turquoise-based paintings for this show that conjure associations of dilapidated structures and new, burgeoning forms that Vaughn-Gruler says “build containers” for the playing she does with the viscosity of paint.


In a very different style, painter Kathleen Hope presents delightful new works that continue to push her unusual play with mediums. Hope works with a mix of cement, plaster, and powdered pigments to creature textured, high-impact, design-oriented pieces like Hydrangeas, which moves from abstracted hydrangeas and blue skies to thick, horizontal gray lines, and Imprint, with bold reds, grays, and blacks exploring patterns likely sourced from the natural or animal world. “Kathy is a powerhouse,” Vaughn-Gruler says. “The media is guiding her. This work is not sourced from dreams or concepts but a physical relationship with her medium.” Hope’s new work joins the two large pieces she has in the gallery, some of the pieces most regularly commented on by visitors, including Red Ballad, which many say looks like an ancient book, and Night Moves, a mysterious, dark piece that incorporates adobe-colored collage-work.


Present at the opening was another longtime GVG Contemporary painter, Elle MacLaren. Also a sound healer, MacLaren works in the challenging medium of encaustics to evoke a sensory response from tactile, abstract expressionistic representations often inspired by landscapes. In the encaustic practice of melting beeswax and resin, MacLaren doesn’t always know what she’s going to get, as the process itself often necessitates incorporating surprises. Her pieces El Malpais I and II are a nod to the surreal and majestic National Monument in western New Mexico. Another piece by MacLaren, the evocative Meltdown, is a stark black and white encaustic and mixed media painting embedded with pine needles. It seems to hold a dark chasm within, one that is, however, being broken up by white forms. “There is so much feeling in MacLaren’s work,” notes Vaughn-Gruler. “She’s shown all over the country.”


Popular in the show was Mary Tomás’ new large piece Fusion, a splash of color, joy, and one what visitor simply called “peace.” Vaughn-Gruler notes, “Tomás creates an atmosphere in her work. She’s working in an ethereal, splendorous form of abstract expressionism.” Tomás uses mixed media to create a textured layer below her swaths of sometimes muted, sometimes bright color work in acrylic paint. She owns a gallery in Dallas, Texas, where Vaughn-Gruler is also represented.


Last but not least, it’s the work of the show’s curators that brings it all together. Ernst Gruler, who started off as a high-end furniture maker and has become a sort of maverick of the arts, creating repurposed steel sound sculptures, lamps made from old steel tanks and tree saplings, and furniture so remarkable in aesthetic and design that a few visitors have said “this should be in Game of Thrones.” On top of all that, he’s also a painter, working in abstract expressionism, but not in the realm of ideas, but rather physicality. “It’s not about the emotions for him so much, I don’t think,” observes Vaughn-Gruler. “He’s letting the medium guide him.”


For Gruler, art is a kind of meditation, a practice he started informally since he was a teenager. Like him, Gruler’s work is always moving and evolving, and perhaps never arrived. “The way I see it, even enlightenment is just another step on the way to enlightenment,” says Gruler, who has studied various Eastern philosophies but ascribes to no doctrine. “Enlightenment is just another phase so long as we’re in this mortal casing.” The meditative aspect to his work aside, Gruler creates aesthetic objects that are also often functional: a sound sculpture one can ring like a bell, a tank that becomes a lamp that you can turn on and off (and fade) with a tap, a wave-like table that brings people closer together than typical designs. One visitor at the show, David Haines, whose daughter is also an artist, commented: “I like Ernst’s bells best—original, rustic, and functional.”


Vaughn-Gruler’s work might be that which best addresses the show’s theme: Order and Randomness. Her large work Lineage exemplifies her process-based approach to painting, in which she buildings layer upon layer of shapes, curves, and lines in a meditative progression. “It could be interpreted as putting order to the chaos,” says Vaughn-Gruler, pointing out the graphite scribbling at the base of her Equilibrium I and II paintings. Interestingly, Vaughn-Gruler never plans her compositions, though they come out perfectly balanced. She follows her hand and thoughts as she moves the paintbrush, starting in one area and building out.


“I like the space between organization and chance, so there’s a tension back and forth,” says Vaughn-Gruler. She adds, “I also listen to talk radio my studio, which seems to foster a process of re-contextualizing emotional reactions to politics into shapes and lines.” Each painting seems to work through chaos, arriving at a point where “the chaos smooths out.” Vaughn-Gruler, who started painting as that little girl with a studio of her own, completed a BFA in Painting in 1974, and her MFA in Visual Art in 2010, 30 years later. She says doing this later in life has had a profound impact on her painting practice. She says, “it is endlessly compelling to use the vocabulary I discovered in grad school, and keep folding it over on itself, mining it for more meaning and connection.”


Visitors can infer their own meaning to the abstract expressionistic and non-objective work currently up at GVG Contemporary. At the opening reception for this show, we asked people to vote on what they thought was “Best in Show.” What’s most fascinating is that most people had an entirely different answer, with very few votes for the same piece. Vaughn-Gruler’s Little Drawings, however—5 x 7 pieces that compress the skill of the painter’s larger works—came in first. One visitor, however, gave a compelling vote for Elle MacLaren’s piece Haywire. “A view from my childhood,” reflected Karen Heiken. In the midst of The Order and Randomness of It All, perhaps it doesn’t get much better than that.