At first glance around the gallery, George N'Namdi's pairing of art by Gary Kulak and Allie McGhee might appear to be a strange one. Kulak, who was educated at theory-based art schools here and in New York City (Cranbrook and Hunter College, respectively), has always displayed welded-steel sculpture with an awareness of its status as art with a capital "A." Allie McGhee's recent paintings and mixed-media assemblages, for all their elegance, retain their connection to the street. His colorful abstract imagery has its origins in 1960s social movements, and is slathered on in slips and dashes like the smears and glissandi of free-jazz improvisation. And yet this show demonstrates a symbiotic relationship between the two artists, one that illuminates something about art, namely that all artists, realist and abstract, must deal with questions of form and content. These two artists, with different approaches, have figured out how to best marry the two.
Kulak is interested first and foremost in conceptually making sense of the world. McGhee's inspiration, on the other hand, is what he terms the "micro" and "macro" rhythms of nature. But instead of looking at the external environment from a detached perspective, he tries to get at it from his own perspective of being in the world. It's not that one approach is preferable to the other, or even that they're mutually exclusive. Both artists end up pretty much in the same place only they come at it from different angles.
Kulak starts with a preconceived notion his signature chair figure which he systematically breaks down. By cutting and bending the metal and applying various finishes, he creates a series of unique compositions. McGhee takes different materials, be they liquid paint or wooden stir-sticks, and works with them until they coalesce into a structure. In Kulak's work, form is given content; in McGhee's, content is given form.
This is Kulak's first show in quite a few years, due primarily to the illness and subsequent loss of his longtime companion, noted art patron Mary Denison, and it's his first show at N'Namdi Gallery. Here he's had to fill in N'Namdi's large space with some older work, which provides an opportunity to track the artist's development. The work done over the past two years or so (about half the show) features an expanded palette of vibrant color, announcing renewed energy and commitment, that stands up well against the backdrop of McGhee's flashy hues. Check out "Red on Orange," from 2005, with its electric color stripes that jostle the eye over twisting metal.
McGhee's recent paintings have been criticized in some quarters for being facile, too easily understood. That may be true here and there, but most simply they reflect mastery, the handiwork of a guy with years of experience making damn good paintings and who just gets about doing it. "Six in Nine #1, #2, #3" consists of three large side-by-side canvases in which swooping arcs of paint spill over into one another in a symphony of dazzling color.
Immanuel Kant, the father of modern aesthetics, wrote: "Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind." Art illustrates that for us. Kulak and McGhee represent different, equally valid paths to the convergence of content and form.
Allie McGhee, Rhythms: Micro to Macro, and Gary Kulak, Re: View, runs through Feb. 25, at G.R. N'Namdi Gallery, 66 E. Forest Ave., Detroit; 313-831-8700. The artists engage in a dialogue at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 12.Vince Carducci writes about art and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org