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Digging for Meaning

A colorful exhibition of work by the late Richmond artist Cindy Neuschwander provides a soulful benediction.

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From left: detail from "Coda 2;" detail from "Coda 2;" detail from "Coda 1."
  • From left: detail from "Coda 2;" detail from "Coda 2;" detail from "Coda 1."

Fair warning: The exquisite, iconlike, 6-square-inch encaustic paintings on display at Reynolds Gallery might give you visual whiplash.

In some of these 72 pieces by the late artist Cindy Neuschwander, the fields of sheer red, blue, yellow or green pop so vividly you'd swear the pieces were backlit transparencies. Other squares are more low-key and monochromatic with mere traces of black on white. Then there are pieces where bold, architectonic blocks of color co-exist with faint drawings — scribbling, almost. In a few works you'd think the lines' hues were breathed onto the canvas.

But close inspection reveals that these are highly deliberate markings. It's clear that Neuschwander is looking for something. She scratches determinedly, if delicately, into the rich encaustic surfaces of her playing field in search of shapes, lines, forms and meaning that may be percolating deep inside.

Some of the revealed forms appear to have floated to the surface. Other images are more stubborn, mere visual whispers — slight and elegant — refusing to be disturbed. But unlike a puppy futilely digging for a bone, Neuschwander is confident that her excavations in wax will yield discoveries. And it's through this digging for buried forms and meanings that she finds validation as an artist.

But Neuschwander never reveals too much, or is too obvious. Aren't the most successful artists the most enigmatic? So if "Coda," the name of this exhibition that also includes four larger drawings, packs tremendous zing, there's also aching subtlety. This is not surprising when factoring something else: Neuschwander knew she was dying as she undertook these works. The 72 small canvases fell short of the 100 that she intended to produce by the time she died Dec. 4 at age 60, after suffering from a long illness. But she knew that these works would be a self-produced artistic benediction. She hadn't a moment to waste.

Neuschwander in 2002.
  • Neuschwander in 2002.

Neuschwander's career was one that found discovery, revelation and joy in change. The native Texan was educated as a photographer and received a master's degree from Virginia Commonwealth University in photography. But even earlier in her career, she often used her photos as a point of departure, drawing and painting on top of her images. Then for many years she supported herself by painting abstract imagery on dishes. It was while doing these in her Fulton Hill studio that she was discovered.

She once told a reporter that she found confidence in having a photo, or even a bowl as her point of departure: The thought of facing a blank canvas was daunting.

But it would be the medium of encaustic, a technique using pigments mixed with hot wax that dates to ancient Egypt, in which Neuschwander broke free as an artist. There was something deep within the layers of paint and wax that she would apply carefully to canvas — and she had to find it.

And she finds it in thrilling variety. Her works are respectively simple or complex, playful or somber, confident or a little sad and patched-up. Some are awkwardly bulbous, while others, like her brightly colored, striped pieces, are as fashionable as Kate Spade handbags. The works project the range and rush of emotions and urgency that Neuschwander grappled with while she faced her last days.

And in the thrilling and tragic process, it is apparent that she embraces and plays homage to leading lights in the modern idiom — including Gorky, Picasso, Klee, Rothko, Johns and Twombley — whose influence she channels.

A vast outpouring of the city's arts community, more than 400 fellow artists, curators, patrons and friends, turned out to remember Neuschwander at a memorial held in the grand, marble hall of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on Dec. 16. After champagne, many attendees filed out of the museum sensing that the celebration would continue at a future date — at an exhibition or retrospective. It's too soon for a retrospective: That requires more time for reflection. But it's fitting that the celebration continues according to Neuschwander's terms with works that are exuberantly life-affirming, yet knowing.

Another way to consider her work will come May 8 with the publication of "Truth Finds You," a 140-page, hardbound survey of work from Neuschwander's last decade. The foreword is written by Jay Barrows, her husband and an energizing force in her career. And the essay is by Marilyn Zeitlin, an Arizona-based contemporary art curator with whom Neuschwander once worked at VCU's Anderson Gallery.

"Neuschwander creates pure experimentation at every turn ... [with] courage to move forward even at the risk of getting lost," Zeitlin writes. "Her process was to capture the unpredictable and to make chance her collaborator."

And if Neuschwander once admitted trepidation at approaching a blank surface, not to worry. Her four final, larger abstract drawings that hang alongside the explosive and exploratory squares are clear-eyed, confident and full of life. If "Coda" is a benediction to a vital life in art, this quartet delivers a loud "amen." S

"Cindy Neuschwander: Coda" is on display at the Reynolds Gallery, 1514 W. Main St., from April 5 through May 18. 355-6553.

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