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Sweet Mystery

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Miyoko Ito

at Thomas McCormick, through August 21

Brad Durham

at Carrie Secrist, through August 21

Lure: Richard C. Lange, John Slavik, and Shawn Slavik

at Columbia College Glass Curtain Gallery, through September 3

Miyoko Ito's 11 paintings at Thomas McCormick are at once alluring and unstable. Ito--a Chicagoan who studied calligraphy and art in Japan as a child and who died in 1983--painted in layers to create colors of seductive complexity and depth. Though the large shape in Sea Shelter (c 1970) contains bands recalling seashell patterns, the luminous orange of its center is like a passageway, undercutting the illusion of a solid object. Narcissa (1972) suggests a view out a window, picturing what might be a tabletop and a window ledge beyond it; above the ledge is a mostly orange rectangle with bands of red at the bottom, hinting at a sunset sky. The angled surfaces of tabletop and ledge lead the eye toward and through the window, but two curves at its top are atypical of window frames. Narcissa draws the viewer from inside out, from shapes to pure color, past the known toward the unknown.

The gentle, almost pastel colors in this show undermine the shapes' power, as do such details as the oddly curved window. In Euphoria (c 1970) a reddish heartlike blob floats before a brown field, but a few extra protuberances and indentations prevent us from reading it as a realistic heart. Hovering in front of the heart is something that looks like a square piece of wood with swaths of hair or leaves emerging from it. All these elements contradict one another--nothing quite fits. The shapes can't be read according to our ordinary experience, pulling us away from the known in the same way a window view pulls us out of a room.

Brad Durham's 37 paintings at Carrie Secrist all assert the power of the objects depicted, mostly birds. A Californian, Durham was introduced to art as a child by an elderly neighbor who took him to the beach, where they would paint seascapes while Durham's single mom worked. Nature remains a primary inspiration: "I think nature reflects the truth of this planet," he says. He thinks of these works as opposed to traditional landscapes, where we're encouraged to view the land from "a safe distance." Instead he says he wanted to take the viewer inside the forest: "I think of the birds as messengers of an intimate knowledge."

Many of the paintings show one or more birds before a pale landscape. Nine Whispers #9 is typical: a dark bird sitting on a pale branch bearing foggy blue leaves is surrounded by even dimmer evocations of foliage. Painted from a photo--most of Durham's images come from photos he finds--the bird is richly rendered, its feathers tactile, its eye and beak sharp and assertive. Much of it is darkened by a brown cloud, as in most of the other bird paintings. The cloud both enhances the bird's presence and masks it, making it a more mysterious creature. This bird might be a messenger, but the message can't be translated.

A group of large paintings shows birds in flight--or, in the case of Touching Light, just about to take off. A swan standing in water with its wings spread is framed to almost fill the image, its dramatic shape dominating everything around it. In Durham's view of nature, ecological interdependence is less important than numinous but ultimately inexplicable symbols.

Of the three artists in "Lure," two are painters whose works nicely balance the power of objects or the artist's marks with a feeling of unity. Like Ito and Durham, Richard C. Lange creates his paintings in layers--"all very secret," he writes. In the gently lyrical Paradigm No. 15, an encrusted surface of ridges and abrasions is crossed by thick, white marks whose intersecting curves and straight lines are not quite detailed enough to depict either actual things or the characters of some unknown language.

The works in Lange's "Puzzle Pieces" series, represented by five of his nine paintings here, consist of two or three panels differentiated from one another by color. In Puzzle No. 4, two horizontal rectangles display his characteristic lines, the top in black and the bottom in orange and black. These lines occasionally match up at the border between the panels, suggesting a jigsaw puzzle--but hardly ever match up between the vertical panels of Puzzle No. 5. Playing with connection and disconnection, these paintings clearly communicate that their puzzles will never be "solved," or resolved into a picture. The changes in background color between the panels suggest rupture, as if life--or the world--could never be made whole again.

Shawn Slavik's ten mixed-media, paintinglike works are displayed with the mostly abstract sculptures of his dad, John Slavik, whose Once Accepted Always Protected offers a humorous take on safety: a stainless steel life preserver has vicious-looking metal spikes protruding everywhere. And in Apicultura Shawn--who acknowledges his father as a primary influence--presents a forest of life buoys. Pale tan against a dark background, they're all different sizes with different-size holes. These variations and the almost decorative field of designs undercut the traditional abstractionist's belief in the power of form.

Four works from his "It Will Be About the Fall" series show tree branches silhouetted against the sky alongside long, thin rectangular shapes. To create these pieces, he applies multiple layers of plaster and modeling paste to a piece of wood, then burns certain areas away using a blowtorch and a stencil cut to produce the bare branches or the rectangles. He then colors the burned wood revealed by this process by rubbing in oils and stains. He aimed for "depth and softness," he says, and these pieces are wonderfully evocative. The thin branches are literally cut into the hazy, swirling background, while the rectangular wood surfaces both remind one of the underlying material and equate natural forms and the artist's abstractions: a horizontal band in It Will Be About the Fall #4 presumably runs parallel to the ground while a diagonal one approximates the direction of the branch alongside it.

None of these five artists strays far from the modernist aim of creating evocative but ultimately inexplicable shapes. In fact an aura of mystery and paradox is a common goal among artists today, at least judging by their statements. But these artists create visual forms unique and convincing enough to make translation unnecessary.

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