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Circles and Conversations

Paintings and sculpture form a dialogue at the Temple Gallery; Katherine Josten reflects on space at Davis Dominguez



David Longwell is a quiet man who begins each day with meditation and drawing. But his luscious abstract paintings at the Temple Gallery are anything but still.

Longwell attacks his canvases with brushes and palette knives, dashing off energetic arcs and swoops of thick white paint. Beneath this storm of curving action, he goes for an unruly geometry, using rapid strokes of black to paint loopy-edged squares and rectangles.

The paintings are almost purely white, black and gray, but when Longwell throws in a few sly sages and pinks and maroons, this austere palette jumps.

"Untitled #1" is typical of the pure black-and-whites. A horizontal oil on canvas, it has a thick top layer of curves, and a squishy grid of angular shapes below. "Untitled #3" turns this template on its side, and goes vertical instead. Semicircles float over squares in a big field of whites and blacks, but dots and dashes of color pop up unexpectedly.

Even in the most abstract abstractions, humans tend to see the real world, and I find it hard to look at these paintings without thinking of them as city maps. They're like an aerial view of a metropolis, with tangles of streetscapes below and cloudbursts overhead.

If so, Simon Donovan is the lightning in Longwell's storms. Hung in between the paintings, Donovan's sharp-edged sculptures flash like bolts out of the blue, their jagged borders and three dimensions energizing Longwell's beautiful canvases.

In fact, the two-person show is called Action/Reaction, and it's conceived as a conversation—or argument, if you will—between Longwell's eight paintings and Donovan's six sculptures.

It's a discussion made more interesting by the artists' personal partnership, and by their public personas. The more retiring Longwell works by day as chief art preparator in the quiet galleries of the Tucson Museum of Art. Donovan is a well-known public artist in town whose most famous work is the Diamondback Bridge over Broadway.

If that gargantuan snake sculpture—with its open mouth and fangs—is an erupting drama, so are Donovan's much smaller sculptural zigzags here. One untitled bolt is an anarchical mix of order and rebellion. Tidy red stripes dutifully follow the piece's borders, but a mutinous pale-gray stripe strikes out in its own direction.

The two artists' works are most evenly matched in the pairing of Donovan's "Untitled #2" and Longwell's "Untitled #5." In these dueling works, their preoccupations come closest to converging.

Donovan's bolt turns painterly; shades of gray from dove to dark cascade across his wooden surface, explicitly evoking Longwell's lovely color tones. And Longwell's "#5" is every bit as bold and graphic as Donovan's thunderbolts. Its circles have grown in size and intensity, becoming great whirling dervishes spinning across the canvas. Inside each orb, smaller and smaller circles spin and turn, the tiniest disappearing into infinity. And in the interior, a scribble-scrabble of black lines are tossed about in the whirlwind.

In his meditative circle drawings, Longwell leaves tumult behind and turns to introspection. Filling almost an entire wall, the circles are from a project that lasted more than a year. The title tells the story: "Marking Time: 432 consecutive days of mark making, January 1, 2012—March 7, 2013." Drawing the circles is an early morning ritual for Longwell. He creates them freehand in black ink on white clayboard, and their perfect roundness testifies to his fine drawing ability.

The circles also prove that a simple shape can embody many moods. Longwell's morning suns convey not only the changing weather, but also the mercurial shifts of the human heart. Some are pale and nearly untouched, cheery harbingers of a day's clear skies. Others are savagely cross-hatched into midnight black, portents of darkness and storms.

The circles' metaphorical link to a heavenly body connects them to the meditative space paintings and drawings by Katherine Josten at Davis Dominguez Gallery. Josten, a Tucson artist best known for her Global Art Project, also works in mostly black and white. Her enormous painted canvases key into time, infinity and space.

Circles appear throughout her minimalist works, conjuring inner and outer space, from the birth canal ("Origins: One/All") to the moon ("Moon Phase").

"Source Recordings" is a big canvas cut and shaped into a circle about 5 feet in diameter. Josten cleverly makes this piece into both a big old vinyl album and a vision of outer space. Working carefully and methodically, she's painted 28 black concentric circles in raised lines that mimic the tracks on old-fashioned records. But she's also painted floating white globes that look like distant heavenly bodies. And some text written in a delicate script suggests that sounds gathered from outer space might connect us to those distant worlds.

"We spin together and our being touches the world," says one. Another declares, "It is in those moments, the quiet ones, that our voices can be heard."

"Frequencies I and II" are two canvases that work as a triptych. With thick, black oil paint formed into tiny raised circles, Josten conveys the vastness of the universe. Precise white circles painted on this textured background suggest the stars and planets, but they're arranged in orderly zigzag patterns that key into the title's hint of radio waves.

In "Space," a similar painting, the stars have been set free and scattered across the blackness. You might be reminded of Van Gogh's exultant "Starry Night," rendered minimally in black and white.

These works were made way back in the 1980s, when vinyl was just starting to wane. But just as vinyl is once again up to the minute, these powerful, calming works feel new, as contemporary as the double storm visions over at the Temple.

Josten has created a whole installation at Davis Dominguez, complete with dangling blackbirds, starry nights and moons. It closes this weekend, but it's well worth a stop to take a trip into deep space and the outer limits of consciousness.

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