Arts & Culture » Arts

Pretty Good


Elliot Smith Contemporary Art

William Shearburn Gallery

As most St. Louis gallerygoers know, the close proximity of the William Shearburn and Elliot Smith galleries can make for a nice Saturday-afternoon outing. But rarely do the exhibitions at both places seem to coalesce as they do right now. Shearburn features Perforations by Sue Eisler, and Smith showcases Golden Bough by Cynthia Nartonis and Spatial Patterns by Judy Child. Taken together, it almost seems that these artists and galleries conspired to lighten things up, get in sync with springtime and give visitors something pretty to look at.

Pretty! In snooty high-art circles, that word is supremely derogatory. Let's move past that. There's nothing wrong with "pretty" at all, especially when it's used to describe works like these, which are visually delightful but also serious explorations of their respective media.

Take Eisler's Perforations. This is a collection of 15 beautiful works, all on paper, sandwiched between Plexiglas panes and set upright on blond-wood stands. They appear at first to be two-dimensional collages, drawings and paintings on paper, with the motifs of a hand and a postal "return to sender" stamp repeated throughout.

But on closer inspection, the more sculptural, dimensional character of these flat works becomes clear. Each one is shot through with thousands of tiny holes. Eisler has used a perforator to produce the same kind of straight-line patterns a sewing machine without thread can make. Running this tool repeatedly over the mixed-media works, she creates countless starburst patterns and veritable constellations that parade across the surface of the paper, piercing it with light, revealing the layered quality of the works.

Some of these works are punctured to within an inch of their lives, looking as if they might disintegrate any minute. That fragile, vulnerable quality is one of their most endearing traits. And Eisler's color choices are luscious: pinks, lavenders, creamy whites and rich reds make these works even more sensuous in their appeal.

Eisler is well known in St. Louis and beyond for the attention she pays to surface texture, materials and the nuances of form in both sculpture and two-dimensional work. The Perforations are subtle chapters in this line of aesthetic and material inquiry. Tucked as they are behind Plexiglas sheets, they are beyond the possibility of touch, but they make up for that in the visual indulgence they invite. Let's get to the point: They are really, really pretty.

So are Child's paintings in the Spatial Patterns show at Elliot Smith. Larger in scale than the Perforations, and rendered in oil and acrylic on panel, they nonetheless engage some of the same formal issues: the combination of flat surface and spatial depth, the use of subtle textural qualities, and, above all, a color choice that creates a visual buoyancy.

It appears that Child has been wrestling with these issues for some time. Her earlier paintings were heavier, darker in color, with a more torturous, abrasive treatment of the painted surface. The nine abstract paintings in this exhibition achieve a kind of airy effervescence while still maintaining an interesting dialogue between flatness and depth that will keep your eye busy for a long time.

The paintings, with titles like "Six Passages," "Entwined" and "Disconnected," illustrate heavily patterned forms passing through ambiguous spaces, living up to their titles as they become entangled, disconnect and reconnect. It's as if you're looking through a microscope, studying amoebas or chromosomes stewing in some primordial liquid. There certainly is some suggestion of the scientific here -- the forms are shaped like wormy cells or structured like models of molecules.

But in place of scientific rigidity there reigns here a wondrous ambiguity: Are these paintings illustrating flat pattern or deep space? Are the forms floating in front of or behind one another, or are they on the same plane? Or do the paintings balance all of these suggestions simultaneously?

Questions of balance and equilibrium appear to be at the core of these paintings. They are also at the core of Child's working method. In her artist's statement, she sums up the challenge these paintings pose for her: "How (do I) convey a sense of spatial lightness using abstract imagery? How do I add paint without adding visual weight to the surface?" Amazingly, these heavily worked and patterned oil canvases appear weightless, crystal-clear and ebullient.

A lot of this effect is achieved through Child's color choices. What colors! Tangerine, aqua, salmon pink and kiwi green, all in slightly muted, milky versions that are extremely easy on the eye. They're the "in" colors right now -- just check out the merchandise at your local Target or the color options of the new Macintosh computers -- but Child uses them to maximum effect in paintings that seem to defy gravity.

Much weightier are the works by Nartonis at Elliot Smith. Golden Bough in-cludes 39 recent prints with anchored imagery and color, expertly rendered in that challenging print medium, the monotype.

As a monotypist, Boston-based Nartonis knows her stuff. She has exhibited gorgeous prints of close-up, nearly abstract irises and lilies around the country, earning some positive reviews that have compared her to Georgia O'Keeffe. (The monotype is the print medium most closely related to painting, so the comparison to O'Keeffe is probably inspired by more than just the flower subjects they share.)

In Golden Bough, the flowers are mostly gone, replaced by studies of tree branches, pears and landscapes, enlarged again to the point of near-abstraction. One gallery is filled with 11 studies of trees and landscapes in winter and summer. Nartonis' monotype technique lends her forms a soft fullness and surrounds them with rich, saturated areas of dense ink. They are meditative and intimate, as rich as any oil painting but with the even surface quality that can only be achieved in prints.

Judging from the red "sale" dots, the works in the adjoining Gallery III are the real crowd-pleasers. Several prints in this room are smallish in scale (15 by 11 inches), featuring close-ups of pears and tree boughs surrounded by flat areas of shiny gold. These works are unbelievably dazzling. The pears are plump and soft, rendered in a thousand colors from white to pink to teal; they look monumental within this smaller format, anchored solidly in the center, casting deep black shadows. Fruit hasn't been treated this well since Cezanne.

But the dazzling part of these prints is the way they combine solid form with the flat, smooth gold areas. There again is that play of flatness against volume, surface against depth, that can hold my attention forever. These prints also evoke the paintings of Gustav Klimt, and his use of soft painted forms and sparkling patterns. But they are somehow more minimal, limiting pictorial elements to those that carry the most visual weight and suggestion.

Now that I think of it, "pretty" seems too weak a word for Nartonis' prints. They deserve something a little stronger. How about "pretty cool?" Spend a spring day at the show and see what you think.

Cynthia Nartonis' Golden Bough and Judy Child's Spatial Patterns are exhibited at Elliot Smith through June 20; Sue Eisler's Perforations is at William Shearburn through June 12.

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