Commentary

At AVA Gallery, Dazzling Sights

The four shows at AVA Gallery and Art Center offer a jolt for eyes dulled by the winter landscape.  But more than that, they give us a feeling for what painting can do. The four men whose work is on display share nothing technical, but they are all exploring their media and subjects in startling ways.

One of the four shows stands out. It isn’t often that an art show – or anything, for that matter – makes me giddy, but that was how I felt when I walked into AVA’s E.N. Weinberg Gallery and saw Paul Gruhler’s jewel-toned geometric compositions.

Gruhler, who lives in Craftsbury Common, VT, paints sharp squares and rectangles in smooth coats of acrylic on linen, punctuating his compositions with spaces, contrasting lines and borders. He describes his own work in an accompanying leaflet: “During the past five years, my paintings have explored vertical and horizontal relationships in space, the harmony and tension within color, line and form.”

That’s a fine description of what Gruhler has done, but it doesn’t really indicate what he has achieved. His paintings are almost literally electric, like neon signs advertising something that can be attained only through devotion.

The earliest of the works on display at AVA were both painted in 2005, and both share a color palette. Gruhler contrasts two shades of red, both of which glow like hot coals. The exhibition feels as if it’s built around these two extroverted paintings, each of which occupies the middle of a long wall in the gallery. It also feels as if Gruhler worked to develop colors that would complement the 2005 paintings with their subtlety. The individual canvases are less important – none of them are titled – than the overall feeling they induce of someone engaged in work that is entirely and unabashedly holy.

Gruhler makes the kind of paintings that people who claim not to “get” art tend to reflexively disparage. But the paintings at AVA are accessible to anyone willing to stick his or her head into the gallery. For all their formality, minimalism or whatever label one might choose to apply, they pack an instantaneous wallop, an emotional impact attributable to their clarity. I can write here that Gruhler was influenced by color-field painters, by Mark Rothko and the New York School and by Chinese art, but his work stands, and even soars, on its own.

—        Alex Hanson, Staff Writer, Valley News

See paintings and AVA gallery exhibition by clicking here

 Life Lines

Art Review:  Paul Gruhler, abstract paintings, Governor’s Office Gallery, Montpelier.

With the contemporary art world wallowing in ironic narratives, graffiti, angst and “new media,” Paul Gruhler [1]’s coolly nonobjective paintings may seem anachronistic. Gruhler is an unreconstructed modernist, practicing hard-edged geometric abstraction in the tradition of Barnett Newman, Josef Albers and other greats of the 1950s and ’60s. His current solo exhibition, at the Governor’s Office Gallery [2] in Montpelier, is a challenging show featuring nine acrylic-on-linen abstractions and several works on paper. The exhibit is best approached without a preconceived notion of minimalism.

People often discount minimalism. A viewer may ask: How serious — or how difficult — is it, really? But one can hardly sustain such a reaction when standing in front of the actual paintings. Gruhler’s works are alive with subtleties that are largely invisible in reproduced images. His colors are closely calibrated, and he juxtaposes textures with equal precision. His use of line becomes a narrative in itself.

Barnett Newman referred to his lines as “zips,” and the same moniker would work for Gruhler’s sharp lines. The fast movement of a solo line bisecting a sheet of saturated color imparts tension as well as structure. A good example of this power appears in Gruhler’s 40-by-40-inch “2009 #20.” A central vertical red strip layered over a blue line is the focus. The vertical red element bisects a blue rectangle surrounded by deep purples. Like one of Newman’s “zips,” the red line seems hot and ferocious in contrast to the surrounding cooler hues.

Texture also plays an important visual role in “2009 #20.” A slight border of raw linen around the edges of the picture plane outlines the entire composition. Linen is a sort of greige color, an earthy counterpoint to Gruhler’s intense acrylics. In other pieces, lines with a glossy sheen contrast with matte masses of color.

“2010 #19” is another 40-inches-square piece, but this one is divided into quadrants. A range of purples — from a shade darker than lilac to a hue close to alizarin crimson — define the four quarters of the painting. Demarcating the quadrants, deep blue lines seem to shimmer in relation to the purples. Optical mixing is common in Gruhler’s pieces, including “2010 #19,” as the blue, surrounded by purple, begins to shift into gray.

This phenomenon was first explored in painting by pointillist Georges Seurat, and it was taken to extremes by Bridget Riley and other “op” artists. When closely keyed colors resonate to fool the eye into seeing tonal variations of the hue, color takes on a life of its own. Pure formalism, stripped down to color and line, can be as dramatic as any figurative subject in the hands of someone who comprehends the essential elements of painting.

“2010 #14” is a somber work on paper. A monochromatic aggregation of purple rectangles has an almost black horizontal line running through its center. It’s a quiet piece, without any warm color to set off the cools. “2010 #17” is a smaller, 15-by-15-inch canvas that is also built around a horizontal line. Excessive stasis is avoided by Gruhler’s use of varied tonalities of crimson in the painting’s corners. Bands of dark blue border the center horizontal line.

Gruhler was born and raised in New York City, and in his artist statement cites the Sung and later Chinese dynasties as influences. Certainly the balance and grace of Asian art are evident in Gruhler’s paintings. Still, considering that he learned his craft during the most heroic days of the New York School, it’s no wonder he remains such a classic modernist.

—       Marc Awodey [05.05.10], Seven Days

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 Paul Gruhler: Building Bridges

Here in Vermont, where Paul Gruhler lives and paints, abstraction and works of art often identify the creator as a “flatlander” whose fascination with the non-objective took root other than where one resides today. So it is with Gruhler, born and raised in New York City, whose foundation as an artist first found nurturing amidst canyons of steel, in the studios of artists he happened upon.

Fast forward 50 years, and Paul Gruhler of Craftsbury Common, Vermont regularly earns the respect and acclaim of his colleagues, as a distinguished, confident — if “brutally abstract” painter, disarmingly sophisticated, elegant and gracious. Whether applied to Gruhler the artist, or Gruhler, the person, the former businessman, the curator, those accolades ring true.

Gruhler, in life and in art, is a seeker of harmony. It shows in his work as early as the 1960’s where he plays with rectangles on the diagonal, with shapes falling down across a canvas, using pure colors (reds and blues) in random arrangements. He found his voice, way back then, giving velocity to hard-edged rectangles and squares, as though telling an action story in a language he was inventing.

Over the years, that voice has sought many contexts, as bold and traditional as his 70’s paintings that explore the balance between the horizon and an abyss, in an order reminiscent of the most sophisticated Navajo explorations, or as fluid and lyrical as his monochromatic, ink on paper paintings of the ‘80’s and ‘90’s.

It is in Gruhler’s work of the past five years, however, that his voice achieves its legacy — mature, elegant and affable, while not giving a hint, a word, a title, as to how it got to what it has become. The precision of Gruhler’s shapes, the resonance and luminosity of his saturated colors, the fullness of his statements on canvas after canvas are an outgrowth of the complexity of his quest and the joy he has found over years, in his pursuit.

Paul Gruhler, painting in his home studio on a dirt road in Vermont, bridges the worlds of art and organization, creating and curating, applying the principles of order and design to the vicissitudes of color and form on canvas. While there are clues, only clues, to his relationship to Asian aesthetics, and 20th century abstract expressionists, Gruhler has developed his own visual language, which has grown stately and majestic over years of exploration. The contradictory demands of Gruhler’s life, as a former businessman, now curator and artist, have found a stunning balance in the precision and complexity of his most recent work — a culmination, a celebration, an acknowledgement of his roots and his rootedness in the world of abstraction.

 

                                                                                                                                —Mickey Myers, Executive Director
                                                                                                                                    Bryan Memorial Gallery,
                                                                                                                                    Jeffersonville, Vermont