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"Gold Rush" at Phoenix's Bentley Gallery Is a Sophisticated Exploration of Gold's Materiality

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I was a little unsure as I opened the heavy doors of Bentley Gallery's reconstituted warehouse space in downtown Phoenix. The gallery's latest show, "Gold Rush," sets out to "shift cultural associations with the world's most treasured metal." The show's official description goes on to talk about the role of gold as a culturally revered substance throughout history, but my own personal association with the stuff is a little different. When I think gold, I think gaudy.

I proceeded with caution, but quickly discovered that my hesitance was unwarranted. The show, curated by Bentley's director of secondary market, John Reyes, offers a diverse selection of contemporary work from 15 artists working in various media. All utilize real gold in their artistic processes.

See also: "Crafting a Continuum: Rethinking Contemporary Craft" at ASU Art Museum Lets the Artwork Speak for Itself

According to Reyes, Olga de Amaral's work was the starting point for the conception of the exhibition. Amaral is a Colombian-born artist who uses a combination of fiber, paint, gesso, and gold to create strips of color that are woven together into a large tapestry. The resulting pieces, including Cesta Lunar 27 (1989), are large luminescent patterns with incredibly precise construction. The artist has said her work is an homage to her heritage, with the gold subtly referencing Pre-Colombian traditions.

Although the historical references in Amaral's works are interesting, it's the process of producing the art that takes center stage, both in her work and in "Gold Rush" overall. Arguably, the show is less about the cultural implications of gold and more about the materiality of the gold itself.

In Martin Cary Horowitz's abstract sculptural work, the artist uses a process called water gilding, which allows him to adhere gold leaf to sheets of glass. The minimalist forms are attractive, but it's the gold leafing that makes these pieces interesting. When you get close, you can actually see the delicate folds of the leafing, which creates a sort of grid over the whole piece. This same effect is echoed earlier in the exhibition with Makoko Fujimara's Charis (2012), creating a nice feeling of continuity in the show.

Lawrence Fodor's work comes out of an involved process of filling cigar boxes with items from his everyday life, painting the tops of the boxes with several layers of paint, and then sealing the sides with gold leaf. These Koan Boxes are named after the Zen Buddhist concept of relying on intuition rather than reason. The background of this work is important and certainly informs its meaning, but in the gallery, it's easy to become completely transfixed by the reflection of the gold leafing on the wall before reading any description.

This isn't to say that the artists' work is at all lacking. That gold can be the focus of the show without the whole thing turning into a sparkly mess is an indiction of an exhibition well-curated. Color-themed anything runs the risk of being contrived or lacking in substance, but because the artists represented are of the highest caliber "Gold Rush" is both sophisticated and thought-provoking; definitely worth checking out before the new year.

"Gold Rush" will be on view at Bentley Gallery through Saturday, January 4. The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.. For more information, visit www.bentleygallery.com or follow Bentley Gallery on Facebook.

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