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Talkative Plaids

Andrew Havenhand's symmetrical paintings reflect everyday designs but suggest a whole lot more.


His bravery stems not from the fact that he's hung his pieces above classic furniture pieces by the likes of such brilliant and internationally renowned designers as George Nelson and Charles Eames. It's that Havenhand's paintings, on first glance, look too appropriate for this setting.

At quick glance, his works are all boldly unapologetic, colorful plays on 90-degree-angle situations — squares, plaids, stripes and checkerboards. His patterning and colors recall everyday designs for textiles, glassware or Formica countertops of the 1950s and '60s. And yes, a few feet away from the paintings, fabric swatch books are displayed on a wall in tight, 90-degree-angle formation. Many of the fabric samples themselves closely approximate patterns Havenhand obviously relishes.

"I hate to admit it," he said under his breath observing one of his just-hung works, "Back to the Front," last week, "but that painting looks really good hanging above that sofa."

Bottom line, perhaps art imitates life a little too closely in this situation.

Or does it?

Where Havenhand's bravery lies is that he isn't afraid that his work will look decorative in this particular — and much busier-than-usual gallery setting. He must know that his colorful paintings are much more than sleekly patterned surfaces. These are highly structured works that are all about tension — push and pull — and all about the act of painting itself.

As for the push and pull, he divides his canvases vertically into two, slightly unequal sections. Then he goes to work with his clever deceptions. In one section of the work, a play of checks or plaids becomes the dominant, foreground force. The second panel is slightly recessive. The contrast between the two creates an optical flickering.

As to the act of painting, Havenhand builds his surfaces in multiple layers — sometimes as many as a dozen. In certain pieces, such as "Drop Zone," with its intensive (almost electric) yellows, the buildup of paint is so apparent as to create actual three-dimensionality.

There are perhaps historical references in Havenhand's work — Dutch cubist Mondrian, the late Gene Davis, a Washington, D.C.-based painter known for his striped paintings, and pop-meister Andy Warhol come to mind. Havenhand uses familiar plaid patterns where Warhol used Campbell Soup cans for quick cultural references and points of artistic exploration.

And while not ironic like Warhol, Havenhand can be equally playful. This is evident in his color choices and titles. A native of Yorkshire, England (where he studied painting before moving to New York City and later Richmond to continue his training), Havenhand is not shy about making liberal use of florescent pinks or yellows.

And if you think a generic plaid — like one might find on a kitchen tablecloth — can't be sensual, think again. The pink hues in "Candy Corner" suggest something erotic.

But Havenhand's titles, including "Ecstasy Junior" and "Cottonmouth," are actually innocent. They come from popular rock-climbing routes in the West Virginia mountains where he often paints. While his friends are experiencing the exhilaration of scaling cliffs, he stays inside, enjoying the thrill of discovery in painting.

But how and where a painter paints — or how he derives titles — is information unavailable to the casual gallery goer. What is really important is what happens when the viewer affixes a gaze on an artwork, and the piece begins to "talk" back. Therefore, expect quite a conversation with Havenhand's works. They are brash and in-your-face on one level, but manage ultimately to be highly subtle. They appear flat, but they have amazing spacial and painterly depth. And while the repetitive patterning appears obvious, the 90-degree shapes are merely the language Havenhand has chosen to explore movement, texture, illusion and ultimately to express real joy in the act of painting.

And don't let the setting fool you: As good as Havenhand's works look hanging at Starch, these paintings have little to do with mid-20th century popular culture. They are highly formal. S

Andrew Havenhand's paintings are on display at Starch Modern Home, 105 E. Main St., through Dec. 31. Call 344-3334 for information.

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