Art Beat // If the walls could talk

THE WEDGE — Jehra Patrick paints the places where the paintings hang.

Patrick is interested in the ways art museums shape our understanding of art, and so in “New Muséal,” an exhibition of recent paintings and photographic works at Soo Visual Arts Center, she makes the gallery walls talk. And, though they’re designed to be neutral, unobtrusive spaces, they turn out to have something to say.

Several of Patrick’s paintings are based on photographs of various Walker Art Center galleries, some culled from the museum’s archives and others she shot herself. She visits the galleries during those in-between times, when one exhibition has come down and another has yet to go up, when there is no art on the walls and no didactic labels to tell us who made the art, or where or when or why.

“What I’m looking for are compositions that, for me, trigger my own relationship to art history,” Patrick said.

In one of these paintings, a Walker gallery is being prepared for Kai Althoff, one of four artists who participated in the 2006 exhibition “Heart of Darkness.” Eventually, Althoff will transform the space into a chaotic installation work filled with art and artifacts — a piece, he explains in an interview preserved on the museum’s website, that is supposed to be about “love,” but which is later described in a review in the state’s largest daily newspaper as “sex-obsessed” “junk.”

That critical flogging is still in the future in Patrick’s piece. The empty gallery is being repainted a shade of lusty, crimson red, but the job is just half done and the white walls are partially uncovered.

Patrick’s recreation of this scene alludes to the color field paintings of Abstract Expressionists like Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman made a half-century earlier. Rothko, in particular, claimed to seek an emotional or spiritual truth in layers of pure pigment.

It’s a stark contrast to Althoff’s effusive visual style, but Patrick isn’t making any glib comparisons. Again, it’s those walls she’s concerned with, not to mention the building they’re in.

Patrick used to work for the Walker, an institution she maintains a “loving relationship” with, she said. She isn’t just out to critique museums.

But she does remind us of the structures — museums included — that attempt to separate great art from what is merely good or plain bad. Museums, action houses, academics, journalists, wealthy patrons — visualized here in two black-and-white paintings based on 1940s-era photos of Walker receptions — all have a stake in those judgments.

It takes some time to unpack the layers of meaning and implication in Patrick’s paintings. But there are more immediate rewards in the work, too.

After some time with Patrick’s paintings, it becomes clear that, for all her meticulousness in depicting this austere architecture, there’s something not quite right.

Lines of perspective are slightly skewed. A wall jutting out into the center of one composition appears solidly three-dimensional, but then morphs into a series of flat, vertical strips. A thin blue line with uneven edges lurks at the bottom of one painting, a jarring and purposeful reminder of Patrick’s hand, like a strip of painter’s tape left behind in a room with fresh white walls.

“After a while, it becomes less about replicating this photograph and more about creating a painting that is a painting, basically,” she explained.

The artist has taken control of the gallery, and the tables are turned.

Also showing in Soo Visual Arts Center are recent oil paintings and drawings by Kayla Plosz, a Master of Fine Arts candidate at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, in her first solo exhibition. This marks the 10th year SooVAC has hosted exhibitions by the school’s MFA students.

Plosz’s painted abstractions feature loose, energetic brushwork and nimbly balanced colors. She likes to play blue or green off of orange and makes yellows pop with somber grays.

The compositions reference the body, especially the face, but you might also think of architecture — a façade brightened by the sun, a portal cast in shadow.

Some smaller drawings are more explicitly biological in nature, with inky squiggles standing in for feet and legs.

A series of four “Night Drawings” look like they could have been made before just bed, or late on a sleepless night. The mark making is tight and repetitive, like compulsive drawing, and you want to think Plosz is drawing the little night creatures that lurk in her dreams.

Go see it
“New Muséal” and “New Work” both run through March 25 at Soo Visual Arts Center,
2638 Lyndale Ave. S. 871-2263.