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art: East Meets West

Two very different exhibits meet at Reynolds Gallery: Zen-influenced light studies and lush Dutch-flavored landscapes.


Bigelow works with a stripped-down but graphically powerful visual vocabulary reminiscent of Al Held or Ellsworth Kelly's abstract paintings from the '60s. Large, simple shapes pulse against monotoned fields. But unlike the precise, cutout-looking edges in Held and Kelly's paintings, Bigelow's edges are illusive in nature — in fact, a lack of edge defines most of her work. By scrubbing, wiping and puddling her medium, she produces tenuous climates — the kind hospitable to funnel clouds or rain showers on a sunny day.

Bigelow arranges darks and lights to mutate, compress and stretch, and in this sense, her images are about gymnastics in paint. This mastery of manipulation helps to sustain the viewer's glance, but it is the artist's subject matter — how light affects our perception of the natural world and built environment — that dominates the viewer's attention and turns each image into a meditative exercise. How does Bigelow pull this off? In many paintings, she heightens our awareness of our own place relative to the sun's location — a simple solution with a high yield in metaphor. And in every instance, she reduces what she sees and sets the transitory still, offering it within our reach.

Influenced by Japanese art, Bigelow borrows colors and texture in "Ukeji (After Hiroshige)," a composition from mid-19th century Japanese block prints. Philosophically, the artist seems to follow Zen teachings: The world is constantly changing, therefore meaning cannot be fixed, and it is possible to understand the world intuitively. By pressing her shadows into wood panels, Bigelow awards us with time to get somewhere close to where she is standing.

In comparison to the Eastern sensibilities in Bigelow's "Floating World," Joan Elliot's landscapes upstairs are like overly ripe and abundant Dutch still lifes. Dense, detailed and lush, they celebrate the stuff of nature. Life overflows in these paintings. Grass (blade by blade), trees and other plant life, water and decomposing matter all figure into the artist's plentiful imagery. And if all this visual stimulation weren't enough, Elliott packs her images into small canvases no larger than a magazine cover. No meditating here; you'll get lost in a hurry. But along with an impressive technical ability, the artist is smart when it comes to content, and that means these landscapes offer more than eye candy. Like 17th-century Dutch still lifes, these images may be purposefully over-the-top if only to remind us of a part of the life cycle we tend to ignore — mortality. S

Isabel Bigelow's "Floating World" and Joan Elliot's "New Landscapes" are on display at Reynolds Gallery, 1514 W. Main St. through May 31.

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