OCC These Exhibits From Kiyo Higashi and Julia Klemek

A Los Angeles gallery owner devoted to Minimalism. A beloved teacher and artist who died of ovarian cancer in 2013. The two women honored at the Frank M. Doyle Arts Pavilion for the next month couldn't be more different, the exhibitions bearing their names a tender blend of the cerebral and the emotive. But the well-considered pairing of the two is a welcome combination that adds up to one of the finest dual exhibitions I've recently seen.

Art dealer Kiyo Higashi became a fan of Reductivist art after meeting artist Larry Bell. Bowled over by the Zen qualities of his work, she let him design what would eventually become her gallery on Melrose, their ensuing friendship leading him to ask her if she'd represent his work. Higashi had never sold art before that request, but the world Bell opened up inside her made it easy to talk with potential clients, and she said yes. The 15 artists represented in Orange Coast College's (OCC) “Distilled Essence: Selected Artwork From the Kiyo Higashi Gallery” were all featured in her exhibitions; this low-key show, curated by Leland Means, serves as an easy introduction to those heavy hitters and provides a sturdy primer for the uninitiated to a difficult movement.

The intentional limitations of Minimalism—precise lines, monochromatic colors, obsessive specificity of brush strokes—create a certain visual uniformity (it's more about aesthetic than image), but several pieces made me think in pictures, regardless. I appreciated the candy-striped jail cells of Penelope Krebs' oil works. Roy Thurston's 94-5 L&R feels like the blackest of sunlight in a dark forest, its subliminal rays “shining” from above on one canvas and from below on the other. Max Cole's untitled 1997 ink on paper is easy to miss if you're not paying attention: placed behind a small piece of acrylic, the white sheet almost disappears on the white wall. The 12 lines dissecting the page contain hundreds of overlapping hash marks, darkening the lines and creating grades of black and white, bringing to mind immobile black figures on a slave ship. John Swanger's acrylic-and-other-media canvas, Pink Distance, resembles a bacteria cluster on a petri dish or appears as though someone spilled the contents of a hole punch on a counter top.

In the lobby, Guy Williams' cork sculpture Asia 16 has layers of the soft bark laid out as if they're a geological cross-section. Because Minimalism is inherently contemplative by nature, this isn't short-attention-span day at the gallery, so prepare to spend some quiet time with each piece. Up close, peering at details, or back a few steps, looking at the big picture, the time spent is its own reward.

If you're looking for a heart twist with your brain massage, walk into the smaller gallery, where late sculptor Julia Klemek gets a retrospective in “Julia Klemek, Artist: Tribute.” A teacher at OCC for more than 20 years, her finely crafted work is curated with love by Tom Dowling and Patrick Sparkuhl. There are graceful, affectionate sketches of dogs and flowers, some in black and white, others color. Open notebooks sit under glass filled with more flowers and figurative drawings, scale models of leaves and eucalyptus seed pods, a photo of the artist sitting among her finished creations. The nude sculptures, at rest or attention, are jagged bodies, rippling, Klemek refusing to smooth out the rough edges of her work, so that the rocky roughness trembles with energy, a palpable life yanked breathing out of static clay.

Her work is also deliciously macabre: black crows with beady white eyes perch on shelves near the security cameras; an oversized wishbone, broken; a fat nude man lies on his side, feet kicking in death throes, a single bite in the shiny red apple he holds in his outstretched hand. That connection with cessation continues in her nature studies: Hung on the wall in a pattern suggesting they're falling from a tree, Klemek's dried leaves curl up like claws, vainly grasping at life. And the more abstract pieces feel very much at one with the rest of her work: 2008's Sentinels are deformed, vaginal trees growing up and out from perfect circles of broken stone on the floor, one tree's branch-cum-roots stiff, ropey limbs curled in on themselves, the other a mass of whirling, swirling knots; Clay Box Forms (1980) resembles the recently uncovered vertebrae of a long-dead dinosaur.

The mournful subtext adds a poignancy for those of us who didn't know Klemek, with even the simplest of pieces a totem: An unidentified grouping of painted stones on the floor suggest the pebbles left on Jewish gravestones, and a vase resembling a tree trunk at the front entrance, full of flowers, becomes more funeral arrangement than sculpture.

 

Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.

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