“Small Works”

1708 East Main Gallery

Downtown in Richmond the 1708 East Main gallery, a cooperative effort organized by 21 artists, is an outpost of innovative exhibitions, performance, dance and video. Serving as a multimedia center, it includes archives, a slide registry, and library of art periodicals. “Small Works” represents the work of gallery artists and chosen guests. Again, a toughness prevails in work that is skillfully executed. Almost without exception the pieces here are representational, based on degrees of realism and combined with other forms or structures for personal definition.

A good example is Backdrop by Frank Cole. Taking cows painted in detail as a central image, Cole arranges a three-dimensional canvas of chevron shapes first painted, then emerging from the surface to become forms of importance. Painted in pinks and flesh tones, inserts of illustrations peek through the ripped surface, uniting visually and thematically with the smug line of cows strung along the upper border of the piece. Paint is applied delicately, wiped across the surface as it blends and resolves into varying shades.

The bold image of Cole’s work is repeated in a number of pieces. Kent Shell’s Effort again stresses primitive simplicity carefully approached. Centrally placed, a log embedded with a saw lies on a background of thick browns. All the colors are mixed as if to be thoroughly unattractive; murky greens, muddy browns set the tone of a scene washed in river sludge. Against a bright red backing, the word “effort” glares out in intense green paint, setting up vibrations between the two planes.

Shell’s canvas is direct and blunt; Michael Tierney’s Night Watch is even more forceful. Presenting a large animal difficult to identify, Tierney layers stroke after stroke of line to form a mass of deep dark fur outlining the animal’s shape. Cut off by the borders of the paper, the shape divides the space effectively as it presents an extreme close-up. Black in the furthest background, moving forward in space to open sections of paper, outlined in the foreground with blues and pastel shades, Tierney manages great depth explorations in a limited figurative context. The layers of line work allow play and variation between the tones of the strokes, yet the bold direct outline around the main shape counters the translucence of the overall patterning. Night Watch handles a pastiche of subjects well—presenting a forthright portrait, filling in color in a busily broken field, dividing spaces into planes.

While the bulk of the work is representational, several artists have obscured direct references, retreating into overall markings in a more abstract manner. As if they had put the lessons of realism behind them, Gerald Donato, Marianne Stikas and John Crabbs each explore the painting surface with a multitude of abstract elements, building depth through inferences of color and shape.

Donato’s Untitled Acrylic is typical of his work in that a single figure, obscured and sketchy, provides one focal point. But the entire canvas is busy with layers of swipes that congeal into recognizable objects after careful viewing. Using gray as a primary color, Donato builds veils in various hues, creating surprising depth from single color variations. Gestural elements converge from all directions, interferences that can be read as precise objects or dismissed as part of the mark-filled depth. Donato seems to be playing with great energy, held tightly in control. Glaring light reflects changes in the tones of his colors; forms dissociate into scrambled objects thrown into a living interior. Donato throws in one red accent, a checkmark-shaped line echoing right angles in the canvas, setting up a reference point to similar divisions on the surface, acting as a single contrasting element diverting the focal point to itself, only to veer off into an examination of his overall space.

As subdued and obscured as Donato’s shapes are, John Crabbs’ are bold and obvious. His untitled canvas is all cut-off planes, solid shapes flung around the perimeters of the rectangle. Layers build up over a smudged surface, leaving the central portion almost bare. Pencil marks compete with tempera paints, contrasting quick dashes with solid, stationary color areas. Strikingly off-center, Crabbs’ canvas experiments with elusive line and forms of more solid substance.

Somewhere between Donato’s veiled hues and Crabbs’ more deliberate shades lie the subdued vibrant colors used by Marianne Stikas in her untitled oil on paper. This small sketch repeats motifs found in her large canvases, just as full of activity as the full-sized works. Stikas makes marks over the entire surface, framing one central image with a flurry of smaller referential images. The canvas itself is broken across by straight lines traveling rapidly through the outermost plane; everything surrounding the central form is on the move, animated and directional. Making full use of formal borders to contain the central image, Stikas at once protects it from outside intrusions and thrusts it further into deep space. Throughout, thematic imagery and hand-drawn geometrical shapes vie for attention with incredibly rich colors. Though mark-making and color could each be an independent theme in her work, Stikas’ eccentric shapes and patterns form a determinedly personal symbolism that is at once mysterious and familiar—her iconography suggests a visual shorthand, implies hidden codes or hieroglyphs. Her work exemplifies the diverse richness found in the entire exhibition, whether the work is representational or highly abstract.

Deborah Perlberg