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"from the studio"

Dann Nardi and the shape of harmony

Twin City artist holds first major exhibition in 23 years

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The shape of harmony

Surrounded by his "Quiet Echoes" at left, Dann Nardi prepares for his first major B-N exhibit in 23 years at the McLean County Arts Center.

BLOOMINGTON — Entering the McLean County Arts Center's Brandt Gallery, one is immediately struck by an overwhelming sensation of perfect balance ... of shapes and elements in absolute harmony.

Surface textures, geometric contours, earthen hues and the interplay of light and shadow around them create an integrated environment that lives and breathes as one.

Such is the sudden sensory impact of the work of Dann Nardi, whose new show, "from the studio," now occupies the MCAC's biggest space. 

Nationally renowned for his large-scale, site-specific works in public spaces (see accompanying story), Nardi hasn't had a major local gallery exhibit since his monumental "Middle Ground" show 23 years ago in Illinois State University's University Galleries (the former campus location in Centennial East).

Though there was a smaller MCAC show, "Innernature," in the Armstrong Gallery in 2004, the new exhibit, which runs through Feb. 17 and has an opening reception from 5-7 p.m. Friday, is a more expansive survey of his studio work from the past decade.

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The shape of harmony

Nardi's "Closure" wood construction takes advantage of light and shadow in his exhibit, "from the studio."

It is evenly divided between the sculptor's trademark elegantly contoured geometric constructions — which instantly mark this as a Nardi show — to something less well-known and likely new to most of his admirers: a series of abstract ink on paper drawings he began as a result of a trip to Italy some 13 years ago.

"Not more than probably 15 people — friends an family — have ever seen this work," Nardi confesses on a recent afternoon as he surveys with immense satisfaction the manner in which he and curator Lisa Lofgren have mounted the show in the former church sanctuary space.

For those who remember "Middle Ground," the MCAC show is something less overtly transformative.

That 1995 exhibit, a career highlight for the Shelbyville native, was a site-specific project that entailed Nardi literally making the entire gallery space over.

He painted the ceiling (permanently) black ... he designed new wall constructions ... and he filled the entire gallery space, top to bottom, with his geometric constructions.

All of which were described at the time as an "uninterrupted environment of conceptual and constructive processes."

The show, he said at the time, was generated and shaped by the University Galleries space. "It could exist nowhere else," he said.

Twenty-three years later, he recalls "Middle Ground" as "one of the most exciting things I've ever done."

Sculptural components of it have lived on, most recently in Nardi's major Chicago show, "Dann Nardi: Twenty-Two Years," which, in the summer and fall of 2010, filled the ground floor lobby of the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) for his most spectacular career retrospective to date.

The new exhibit is not as overtly site-specific as those shows, but it is a perfect fit says Lofgren.

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The shape of harmony

Dann Nardi's "Solidify" wood construction, foreground, is part of his "from the studio" exhibit now on view in the McLean County Arts Center.

"I was blown away," she says of her preparatory visits to the Nardi studio in the former Illinois Soldiers' and Sailors Home in Normal (now known as One Normal Plaza).

There, she encountered, in one space, the sheer "longevity and breadth of time" represented by Nardi's lifetime body of work.

Culled from that body for the new show, says Nardi, "is predominantly wall work, and that's pretty much reflective of my interests in the studio, unless I'm working on a public commission ... those are public works I do that involve a whole different kind of approach," says Nardi, whose latest larg-scale site-specific work is underway in Rood Bridge Park in Hillsboro, Ore.

The abstract ink drawings, which have their origins in some notebook sketches he did during his trip to Italy in 2005, are described as "loose, long, linear lines" that took their inspiration from various architectural surfaces and textures he observed.

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The shape of harmpony

Nardi's "Now and Then, Part 1," on the wall, and "Now and Then, Part 2," with cast concrete top on the floor, are part of his "from the studio" exhibit.

"They were like writing letters to myself ... like a journal," he observes. "They came from a deep emotional space."

Though not known until now, the drawings represent "a body of work in and of itself. It connects, not in a visual way to the (sculptural) wall work. But it connects to another part of me that feels very natural," says Nardi.

He expects this new passion to continue. "I'm still quite involved with it and doing it on a regular basis in notebooks and drawings pads to keep in touch with those ideas."

The noted art critic Buzz Spector once said that "Nardi's work doesn't scream for our attention, but viewers receptive to its quietude encounter art of an elemental dignity and unexpected emotional impact."

That can be said for both the public-space Nardi we know — be it his "In Exchange" pedestrian plaza on the ISU campus or "Being in Blue" concrete installation at the Central Illinois Regional Airport — to the studio-space Nardi now on view on a smaller scale at the MCAC.

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The shape of harmony

One of Nardi's favorite pieces in "from the studio" is "Quiet Echoes," a construction of silica sand, silicone, wire mesh and wood.

As he notes in his statement for the latter: "It seems to me that the one underlying concept which remains consistent within my work is an ongoing interest in a kind of territory that exists between things."

Common materials, he continues, "such as concrete and plywood have served as my medium to structure the work in various scale and context, to elicit architectural references and subtle organic complexities.

"Within this territory (this location) is where the identities of sculpture, painting and architecture merge, and qualities that are both unique to each, and shared by all, become that which intrigues me ... and that which inspires me."

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