David F. Brown's joyous visions of nature are almost always tempered by gloom.
Take his painting "Plumbing the Depths," one of two dozen works in his solo show at the Temple Gallery. A backyard is painted in crayon brights: The flowers are pink and purple; the oval pool is turquoise blue; the ladder is red; the beach chair is golden.
The painting is child-like, almost graffiti-esque; painted on a single plane, it defies Renaissance perspective. Every element cheerfully careens into the next, with the flowers tumbling down toward the pool, the pool merging with its base, the ladder a crazy twist.
Happy painting, right? Not exactly. You don't notice at first, but at dead-center of this Dionysian scene, floating in the pool, is a despondent Everyman. He's a bare outline, painted in thin gray paint, and only his face, his hands and his toes are visible. The rest of his body is submerged in the water. He's not drowning, but on his face is a look of despair, or maybe it's just simple endurance. Life may be full of color and beauty, but this guy is just floating, barely keeping his head above water.
Nearly all of Brown's works suggest the same thing: Life can sometimes be unbearable, just one damn thing after another, in the immortal words of the melancholic wit Dorothy Parker. But even at its best, life is joy mixed with sorrow. Every Garden of Eden has its scheming snake.
The same depressed fellow seen in that painted backyard can be found in a series of pastel drawings, also called "Plumbing the Depths." He repeatedly takes his position in the pool, surviving, but only just. He's drawn in charcoal, and, in successive drawings, he's drifting in pools of red, blue-green and dreary gray.
Brown has some arty fun with the gray one. He experiments with mark-making, making smudges on the white paper, leaving an imprint of sticky yellow tape at the bottom edge—using art, one might even say, to dispel the gloom.
Elsewhere, a sturdy little ladder is the stand-in for Brown's enduring man. In "Man of Action," a ladder tinted red-orange is as steadfast as the little tin soldier; it grips the ground while a yellow-and-white whirlwind swirls all around. This painting is partly an excuse for some abstraction—the background is a color-field painting, with thin pink deliciously layered over lush turquoise.
Brown is a talented artist, and while he deliberately distorts the drawing in his graffiti-like canvases, he shows off his exquisite draftsmanship in the small drawings.
"Ladderboat" is a masterly charcoal in black and white. A finely drawn ladder stands upright in an equally well-rendered rowboat; swift black strokes of charcoal indicate a storm overhead, and choppy seas below.
Not to worry: This time, the sturdy little ladder is sailing away from danger.
Over at the new Conrad Wilde Gallery location on Sixth Street just west of Sixth Avenue, at least one artist is also using color and shape to mediate life's sorrows.
Mari Marks' "Sedimentary Series, Touch Sensitive," is one of about 25 works in the Fifth Annual Encaustics Invitational. Each year, the exhibition demonstrates the waxy medium's uncanny ability to maximize color. Glistening oranges, radiant blues and earthy browns infuse the lovely works, made smooth and lush by wax.
This year, 80 artists from around the country sent in work, and the jurors, including gallery director Miles Conrad, whittled that number down to 20. All but one of the artists are women, a ratio that Conrad says is typical of the encaustics field, which has some roots in the women's pattern-painting movement of the 1970s.
Marks' piece is a series of three vertical panels, each tinted a different shade of earth green, from light spring to dark sage, and each covered with hundreds of fingerprints in graphite.
While her eldest daughter was dying, Marks writes in her artist's statement, she started making these pieces, dipping her finger in powdered graphite and making mark after mark on the green. One can imagine that the repetitive movement became hypnotic, maybe even comforting, at a time of grief.
Marks says that the fingerprints, lined up in rows on an uneasy grid, suggest both the healing power of touch and "unending rows of gravestones." Either way, even if you don't know the story behind the piece, it's mesmerizing.
Another artist, Fanne Fernow, a Harvard-trained theologian, does not deal so directly with sorrow in her work, but her art is a "search for the holy," she writes. Her luminous "Paper Mantra" puts ordinary modern church art to shame.
It's a meditative assemblage of overlapping papers in golds and oranges. The seven hanging papers, each dipped in a different colored wax and punctured with hundreds of tiny holes, dangle from the ceiling, moving slightly in the air. Arranged vertically, they encourage the eye to look upward, toward the heavens.
Other standouts in the show include four small works in the Kyoto series by Rodney Thompson. The lone male in the show, Thompson makes abstract drawings on small pieces of paper, coloring them in browns and beiges, either in ink or oil paint. Next, he collages these earthy works into the hot wax, placing them into rough grids. With their uneven lines and imperfect squares, the pieces have the look—and the spiritual quality—of Japanese rock gardens.
Allyson Sanburn Malek directly conjures nature in her landscapes, the only works in this exhibition of abstractions that actually picture the real world. "Sandhills Sunset" and "Pastures of Heaven" are painted from memory; the nature scenes that inspired them have been condensed and simplified into sky, horizon, field and pond. Working in a limited palette of brown, rust and cerulean, Malek blurs her edges, turning the paintings into dreamscapes, half remembered in the mind's eye.
Tucson artist Margaret Suchland reprises David F. Brown's joyous colors, but she has none of his melancholy. Her "Marking Time II" even suggests a lake, but no one is drowning or sighing in her waters. Instead, her wax painting is a celebration of life's unmitigated pleasures: of darting line and dancing shape, and of turquoise, red, purple and lime.