Faceless portraits and figure paintings minus torso and head. Mountain vistas like blueberry, raspberry and lemon dribbled ice cream sundaes. RNG Gallery promised it wouldn’t lose its edge when it relocated east in Council Bluffs. For the most part, its inaugural exhibit delivers

New Work: Stephen Azevedo and Christina Renfer Vogel offers five large landscapes named after famous mountain peaks from him and nine medium and small portraits and figures from her. All New Work are oil on canvas, and though they are strikingly different in subject and style, they share a possible theory or school of art regardless of their individual aesthetic.

Vogel, the development manager at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, is an adjunct instructor in painting at UNO and Bellevue University and a frequent exhibiting artist in the Omaha area and on both coasts. She will also be featured in a Governor’s Residence Exhibition sponsored by the Nebraska Arts Council next spring.

The more elusive Azevedo, an Omaha artist, made a big splash in the art scene in 2010 with his provocative installation, Heavens to Mergatroid, in the Bemis Underground that drew graphic attention to the Manson Murder rampage in 1969 and its media coverage. His current work is more abstract and introspective.

In fact, it can be said that both artists in this show take a more indirect and minimal approach to their separate subject matter, thus placing greater demands on, and presumably greater rewards for the viewer. At least that is a bond Azevedo and Vogel share as indicated in their brief artist statements

“My portraits have often invited viewers to confront the subject through a direct gaze,” Vogel says. “I intend for (these) portraits to be true representations…but without access to the face, the figures become at once anonymous and familiar, inviting the viewer to construct narratives and connect in a new way.”

Likewise, Azevedo says that while there is still a discernible representation of a mountain, “the distortion along with the largeness of scale is intended to evoke a subjective emotional response which helps immerse the viewer in the fantasy of the paintings.”

Nevertheless, viewer impact and point of view to each set of work is dramatically different, and certain curatorial decisions were made by gallery owner and artist Rob Gilmer in hanging each in order to take advantage of RNG’s new, sophisticated and urbane spaces.

Azevedo’s imposing, snow-capped mountaintops, especially the three titled pieces, “Mt. Everest,” “Manaslu” and “Kangchejunga” on the long east wall, are best seen from a distance; say, from midpoint in the gallery, as they then appear to converge into a majestic, singular range, part National Geographic idealism and part Big Rock Candy surrealism.

The two additional pieces, the yellow, melting “Broad Peak” on the north wall and the picaresque “Mount McKinley” on the opposite, bookend the central mountain range in Azevedo’s thematic extremes respectively of escapism and idealism. The show’s opening also included a cyclorama, “Arcadia,” which invited one to physically immerse oneself into, but it was subsequently pulled as ineffective and distracting. It was the right decision, but perhaps it should have been made prior to the event.

Conversely, Vogel’s work, which sits mostly humbly and unobtrusively in the southwest corner and hall of the gallery, invites the viewer to come quizzically forward for closer inspection. What one discovers is less conventional portraiture and figure studies. Mind you, those these intriguing pieces are “unfinished,” they are not to be confused with partial, exercise renderings one does in a drawing class as possible prelude to a final work.

Each piece stands on its own needing only to be completed by an imaginative response to the body language in Vogel’s subtle imagery. For example, her portraits which turn their heads away from their public nonetheless hint/reveal much in attitude or emotion to the discerning eye. “Tana” abruptly looks away though her body doesn’t follow as if frozen in the moment and unable to move or face her emotions or viewer.

Similarly, the sturdy back and firm resolve of “Brigitte” are oblivious to her observer, and a “Self Portrait” turns sideways and blushes with whatever it is that she sees off frame or has crossed her mind. Vogel’s figure studies, especially the couples in “Conversation” and “Stand-off” suggest more than their overt titles. Interestingly, in both pairs the figure on the right appears to be the more dominant, tall and assertive with the one on the left leaning away passively, whatever the standoff or conversation.

In a culture dominated by virtual reality-TV and otherwise- and vicarious video thrills, what possesses or motivates an artist to take a more revisionist, minimalist tack when it comes to viewer involvement or interaction? Nerve and skill certainly, but this approach is to be applauded given its risks and its response to more blatant forms of expression and entertainment.

“New Work” seems to be rooted in Reductionism, a school or theory of art conceived in 1987 by E.J. Gold, Tom X and other members of the Grass Valley Graphics Group in northern California. Though not an exact fit, Reductionism is said to be “inclusive, experimental and evolving” and its three basic qualities of essentialism, space and timelessness are present individually in Vogel’s and Azevedo’s work.

Regarding “essentialism,” their art, though representational, is more important for its effect with the fewest possible lines and details, removing extraneous elements which may deviate or obscure that effect. Check and checkmate, including Azevedo’s gradual transition to the abstract and Vogel’s reductive fore and background.

As for “space,” the intention is to treat the viewer not as a voyeur but rather a participant whether physically or spiritually. Even at a distance, one’s spirit soars or escapes with exhilaration in sight of Azevedo’s red, yellow, blue and purple mountain majesties. With Vogel, one breaks through to the third dimension by imagining what lies beyond the frame, out of sight but not out of mind.

Lastly, issues of “timelessness” may be the best argument for Reductionism here, that is, art that explores another dimension where nothing happens in the usual sense and time does not pass. Look again at Vogel’s and Azevedo’s imagery and you will see the characteristic awareness of posture, freezing the frame and rendering objects physically static. The effect then is to free other forms of movement such as feelings or “motion through emotion.”

Looked at in this manner, the “New Work” of both artists is new not only visually but in its less is more process which can only be completed by one sharing that experience.

New Work: Stephen Azevedo and Christina Renfer Vogel continues through Dec. 4, 2011 at RNG Gallery, 157 West Broadway, Council Bluffs, Iowa. For details, go to dixiequicks.com or call 712-256-4140.

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