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Magnetic Fields

Shows at Reynolds and Visual Arts Center demonstrate how artists' work can attract — or repel — other pieces.

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It takes true insight for a gallery to simultaneously exhibit art that is as conceptually opposed yet as visually complementary as that of Paul Ryan and Ron Johnson, both showing work at the Reynolds Gallery.

Painters Ryan and Johnson, who are faculty members at Virginia Commonwealth University's Painting and Printmaking Department, craft their images in distinctive ways. Each has developed a “look” by focusing on figure-ground relationships. Ryan depends on thematic ideas to propel his imagery; Johnson works by reacting to visual results alone.

Viewers are likely to immediately notice that both artists seem to harvest light with their paint. Ryan models his light, created with contrasts in tone and value, after sun- and moonlight. Inspired by summer camp experiences and, in particular, how they can shape relationships to nature, Ryan composes his canvases with lithe and sophisticated manipulation of silhouettes that seamlessly float from the figurative to the abstract. Swimmers and paddlers commonly surface and then dissolve amidst rhythmic patterns suggesting reflection and shadows.

Ryan sometimes paints on square canvases, but seems drawn to an extreme horizontal format in which he marches various figures across the canvas, creating the implied sequencing of a strip of film. Such masterful compositional strategies make Ryan's conceptual interests tenable.

Johnson also expresses an interest in sequencing by layering what appears as several abstract images within one picture plane. Here he paints with a thick, milky medium of acrylic paint and polyurethane, a concoction of his own that looks like tinted wax infused with neon gas, and glows with an otherworldly sort of light. In each layer of intense color, ribbon-like cutouts expose earlier layers of paint. Each layer retains some of its original character while mostly being transformed by more recent, translucent layers. They are as visually rich as they are materially sumptuous, but themes of time and perception are ever-present whether intended or not, and that is what makes these paintings stand up to hours of scrutiny. Through March 13. 1514 W. Main St. 355-6553.

In contrast to the advantage Ryan and Johnson gain by exhibiting together at Reynolds, the three glass artists showcased at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond gain little by participating in the confusing exhibition, “From Sand.”

Richard Jolley's bold and massive figurative sculpture, mixing references to African art with Bible stories, make sense when played against Joyce J. Scott's overwrought work, drawing on African and Caribbean images and storytelling. But Jolley's wall-mounted bas-reliefs treating banal subject matter with lackluster execution escapes reason.

Ken Daley's conceptual work, involving words written in neon, provides welcomed visual restraint; yet to understand it, the viewer must read paragraphs of explanation provided as accompanying wall text. In the work that reads “mene mene tekel upharsin,” Daley quotes the Aramaic from the Book of Daniel, which originated the expression, “writing on the wall.” Spanning nearly 30 feet of wall space and requiring more hardware and wiring than glass tubing, the installation disappointingly speaks more to a literal meaning of the expression that a prophetic one. In all, technical skill in “From Sand” is impressive, but its conceptual strength is lacking. Through March 22. 1812 W. Main St. 353-0094.

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