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Beneath the Surface

Ray Kass brings Mountain Lake to Reynolds Gallery.

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In his “Garden Series,” artist Ray Kass uses oil emulsion and beeswax sealant to create an otherworldly view of the great outdoors. “Salsola Kali,” above, is one example.
  • In his “Garden Series,” artist Ray Kass uses oil emulsion and beeswax sealant to create an otherworldly view of the great outdoors. “Salsola Kali,” above, is one example.

This strange summery winter offers plenty of opportunities to notice the geometric shapes of bare trees, the curved lines of decomposing gardens and diffuse sunlight shifting across the faces of buildings. Subtle clouds cross the sky while the harsh etchings of dead grass darken, accenting visions from even the most boring daily activity, like driving to work or taking out the trash.

The recent paintings of Ray Kass command notice of these outdoor phenomena, as seen among a series of new works called “Forming Surface” on view at Reynolds Gallery.

The included water-media works from Kass’ “Garden Series” employ oil emulsion sprinkled with brightly colored dry pigment, all secured under a refined beeswax sealant. The result gives an ephemeral sense of being in unhampered outdoor space, with a play of light and form that borders on the spiritual. But Kass claims no overtly spiritual aspect to his work; only that it’s derived from nature though taken beyond any realistic depiction. As he notes, Native American basket weavers incorporate geometric lines in their designs, which essentially are landscape motifs abstracted.

Two of the artist’s most recent paintings, “Virginia Poke” and “Blue Racer,” start with smoked paper as the foundation for the color and form. Kass smokes the paper over a straw fire, a process he developed for John Cage in the 1980s when they worked together at Mountain Lake Workshop. Characteristic of the originator of mid-20th century avant-garde happenings, Cage disliked repeating any particular creative process. Coming up with new techniques for Cage to try, Kass began smoking paper.

The effect is dreamy and organic, a landscape of its own, which becomes in the case of these two particular works, a ground for off-center bursts of color, shape and texture. At 43 inches by 60 inches, both compositions inspire a formidable face-off between the static interior gallery space and the feeling of witnessing nature’s eternal mutability.

Kass is professor emeritus at Virginia Tech and the founding director of Blacksburg’s Mountain Lake Workshop, which fosters collaborative, community-style artistic exploration across all genres and disciplines, specifically drawing on resources from the New River Valley and Appalachian region. In addition to the aforementioned Cage, artists have been involved with Mountain Lake include Mierle Laderman Ukeles, James De La Vega, Bruce McClure and Merce Cunningham.

Kass’ career includes a Virginia Museum of Fine Arts fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts grant. He’s a widely published arts writer and his paintings are in many private and public collections. Kass and Reynolds Gallery have a relationship that spans decades, making his water-media paintings and the natural world they exude seem pleasantly at home on Main Street.

Ray Kass’ “Forming Surface” is on view at Reynolds Gallery, along with new paintings by Ron Johnson called “Between Surface,” through Feb. 25. For information go to reynoldsgallery.com or call 355-6553.

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