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Sally Bowring makes a case for abstract painting.


“What I love about contemporary art is its inclusiveness,” Bowring declares with characteristic passion the day before her opening. “Things are not didactic — there’s not one way to do things. But it’s a double-edged sword because then you have very few criteria. Everything starts becoming everything, and everything’s OK, but ... Is everything really OK?”

A native New Yorker, the 57-year-old artist came of age just as painting’s old guard was being usurped by its new guard. Deadpan ironists like Warhol, Stella and Lichtenstein caused an ideological collision so heady it spawned the bewildering art of the 1970s. At the dawn of the hype-driven ’80s, a disillusioned Bowring fled the urban vigor of Soho for the sleepy South, resettling in Richmond.

It was a baffling context for an emerging artist, so Bowring sought inspiration from quiet, ascetic painters; from feminism’s reclamation of craft, textile and pattern; and from the 20th century’s great visual poet of sensual pleasure, Henri Matisse — an artist whom Bowring describes as “in my studio and in my heart at all times.”

From this nexus of influences, Bowring developed her own unique take on nonobjective painting, that modernist innovation that celebrates “all-over” composition and “paint as paint.” She works in this manner because “that’s the way I think, that’s the way I’m wired,” applying paint in thin layers, loose patterns, washes, drips and smears with a rococo lightness of touch.

The most distinctive feature of her work is a formal device: Her paintings are configured on a right-angle grid. In fact, each painting in “Flutter” is constructed of several small paintings: thin, rectangular birch panels of various sizes that have been butted against each other into a coherent, square-ish whole — an organizing principle that recalls the sequential geometry of comic-book layouts or of computer screens filling up with windows. “They acknowledge the time we live in, in some ways,” says Bowring, who calls each panel a “small event.” “They’re done in segments because I’m busy all the time.”

The dynamic but delicate paintings in “Flutter,” all executed in 2003, are of a piece yet distinctly different. Three are sublimely subtle arrangements of color blocks — furnace red and cloud blue in “Concealed;” sea green and lemon yellow in “Paris II;” airy orange, blue and yellow-green in the title piece. “Flutter” is a work that resembles a nonobjective version of a Monet pond painting. The other two pieces, “The Fall” and “Glow,” are autumnal in palette and contain more varied patterns and forms.

If there’s any criticism to be made of these paintings, it’s that their tastefulness limits their emotional range — they’re almost too pleasant, never veering markedly from joy, peace or contentedness. But that’s like saying Haydn’s too happy or Wagner’s too loud — it’s not a criticism, it’s a preference. Their lack of tragedy doesn’t make them shallow any more than their loveliness makes them trite.

“It’s OK if things are beautiful,” insists the artist. “I guess that’s the bottom line for me. It’s OK if things are beautiful, or make you swoon, or make you smile or want to get next to them.”

“Flutter” does all of the above. It reminds the viewer that hard-earned virtuosity and sublime visual pleasure are relevant qualities in art so long as we have eyes and hearts to see and feel with.

Even in a spectacle- and novelty-obsessed art world. S

“Flutter” can be seen at Reynolds Gallery, 1514 W. Main St., through Feb. 14.

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