Looking at Sally Bowring's work is akin to mining -- one sifts through layer upon layer of paint trying to make sense of its construction. Her paintings are built not unlike the garden themes that inspire them. While they may begin with planning and empirical logic, the seeds she plants quickly take over and her paintings become organic things. These paintings are about growth and change, reminding us that beauty is often difficult to understand.
The dense layering characteristic to all the paintings in "Dancing in the Dark," the show now at Reynolds Gallery, works to trap the viewer in a misunderstanding between logic and knowledge. Drawn to the densely layered surface, one feels compelled to untangle the web of color and pigment, to sort through the stenciled and sprayed layers. Yet often after being inundated by the painting, one cannot make heads or tails of where things begin or end.
The cycle of nine paintings that make up the show are extremely subtle in their differences, requiring an extra-long pause by the viewer to begin to break into the individual personalities of each painting. "Clear Sailing," which anchors the front of the gallery, offers a palette of blue and yellow in crisp and vigorous opposition, while "Goldfish," a similar painting that replaces yellow with orange, is washed with thin veils of grayish blue, that cascade down the painting, creating a shimmering waterfall.
Somewhat in opposition to one another are "Fruit Salad" and "Dancing in the Dark." The hyperactive combinations of orange and purple in "Fruit Salad," make it unsettling to view and separate it from the rest of the exhibition. "Dancing in the Dark," the most reserved painting, is almost completely covered by a dark, earthy brown, a solid mulch from which only a few flower forms have sprouted. It is beautifully composed and offers a well-placed break in the show, a calm, inviting painting that urges one to be absorbed into the surface.
Probably the most remarkable work in the show is "Rocks and Rows," whose surface of earthy yellows, browns and grays with bits of red settle into a rhythm across the picture. The feel and logic of the painting make it the most realized bridge between the artist and her natural subject. Though the painting seems ordered in its vertical rows, the application of the paint still calls to mind the chaos of the garden.
While many artists have tackled the landscape and the garden in particular, Bowring, a painting professor at VCU, uses this subject as both metaphor and method in her work. Each painting feels purposely placed in connection to the others at times it calls to mind the cycle of a field, from open and plowed earth to unruly summer growth. The slowly built surfaces evoke the obsessive care needed to prompt germination, but the application of the paint also calls to mind the unpredictability of that natural world. An unpredictability that, like her paintings, we cannot help but find both startling and beautiful. S
The Reynolds Gallery hosts a gallery talk featuring Sally Bowring Oct. 10 at 7 p.m. "Dancing in the Dark" is on view through Oct. 27, along with Theresa Pollak's "Figure Drawings From the 1940's." 355-6553.