Basics And Beyond

Local Exhibits Stretch Artistic Media Into New And Surprising Forms.

By Margaret Regan

GARY SWIMMER CAN make a realistic painting when he wants to.
He even proves it with "Simple Landscape: Back to Basics." Its sky may be red, its tree blue-brown, and its earth blue-green, but this deft little watercolor is an island of realism in a sea of abstraction in Swimmer's show at Dinnerware.

Review With its tongue-in-cheek subtitle, "Simple Landscape" shows that Swimmer could paint the public what it wants, if only he cared to. The thing is, he mostly doesn't. That little stretch of strangely colored land aside, his big exhibition of small paintings has nothing to do with representations of the real world. New Paintings: Abstractions on an Intimate Scale is all about pattern, and texture, and materials. It's about black ink flowing into puddles of color, and lines warring with washes.

Swimmer, who teaches art at Pima College East, uses vellum, an old-fashioned thick parchment, as a base for his experiments with black ink, watercolor and acrylic. The sheer size of his show--81 small paintings on paper and two medium-sized oils on canvas--suggests the artist's tirelessness: You can picture him making picture after picture, spellbound by the different effects his liquid medium creates. Most of them seem to be quick studies, spontaneous improvisations that allow the artist to follow his materials into infinite variations. Sometimes Swimmer spatters ink in an all-over pattern on his paper. Other times he crowds up his compositions with dense layerings of lines. Or he permits loose wet shapes to hover on top, spare and serene, and spills color into his charcoal washes.

In #66, "Untitled," there are soft, watery washes in gray underneath, applied by a brush that's splayed and wet. On top, an intricate pattern of inky dark curlicues has been carefully painted with a brush that's pointier, and drier. Different again is #45, "Trouble Variation (Green/Black)." In this one, the background has been left untouched. Funny little biomorphs of the Gorky school--organic, cell-like shapes--float across the field of white. The green ink in these undulating forms puddles into the black, sometimes mixing, sometimes resisting.

Elsewhere, Swimmer makes full-scale, if tiny, paintings in a full palette of colors. The lovely #29, "Untitled," an ink and watercolor on vellum, has a panoply of little abstract figures, tubular and oval and round. Its greens, yellows, blacks, reds, diluted with water, occasionally metamorphose into patches of strong clear color.

Not all of Swimmer's experiments are interesting enough to warrant the title of painting. Some are ideas that simply didn't work out on paper. "Opportunity (with Green)" is a bit of a clunker: It suggests two vertical rows of flowers in orange and purple, set against a backdrop of bright lime green. And Swimmer's oils on canvas have nothing particularly wrong with them, but by comparison with the delightfully spontaneous works on paper they look too organized, too steady. Perhaps it's because Swimmer's paintings on paper are so persuasive. By the time you get to his oils, he's already convinced you that the best paintings are not planned; they're simply allowed to happen.

ERIC COOPER, A maker of fine handcrafted furniture, shares the space with Swimmer. If the nature of painting is questioned on the gallery walls, Cooper's 10 floor works question, rather more humbly, the nature of craft. When you add found objects to handmade furniture, as Cooper does, do the finished pieces still count as works of craft?

The answer, at least in the Cooper case, has to be yes, because the manufactured objects raise his furniture to a new level of wit. A metal table has three perfectly ordinary legs, while the fourth leg is one of those finely rounded poles used to hold up velvet cords in movie theatres. A glass and metal desk is engagingly transformed by the decorative addition of manufactured finals meant for curtain rods.

If Swimmer works obsessively, pooling and pushing his liquids again and again, Vytas Sakalas, at Raw Gallery, is an obsessive too. But where Swimmer dives into liquid inks, Sakalas stays dry, using the more easily controllable ink that comes out of a soft-tip pen. Still, the two have a lot in common, pushing as they do to see how far they can take an idea.

Sakalas is showing several dozen drawings, every one of them intricate and elaborately worked, in a show called Between Calls: new drawings/mindful doodles. Sakalas is an airlines reservations clerk and, with his boss' blessing, between telephone calls he works away at these felt-tip drawings on watercolor paper. The artist manages to get an amazing number of marks on a single page, and a close look reveals complex cross-hatching. When you stand back, though, these seemingly undisciplined strokes of the pen coalesce into surprisingly elegant drawings, alternating between dark and light, strong lines dividing the planes.

Some are pure abstractions, showers of black lines on white, while others, Escher-like, sketch out fantastic spaces. Still others are faintly aeronautical, suggesting clouds and sky, and one of them renders a common airline fear positively benign. The door of an airplane in full flight seems to have opened, but it reveals not ugly death but all the beauty of the wild blue yonder.

Gary Swimmer's New Paintings: Abstractions on an Intimate Scale and Eric Cooper's Industrial Metal Furniture continue through Friday, January 29, at Dinnerware Contemporary Art Gallery, 135 E. Congress St. Hours for this show are extended: noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, noon to 7 p.m. Thursdays, and noon to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. The artists will give a free public lecture at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, January 14. For more information, call 792-4503.

Vytas Sakalas' Between Calls: new drawings/mindful doodles continues through Saturday, February 13, at Raw Gallery, 43 S. Sixth Ave. Hours are 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 7 to 10 p.m. Downtown Saturday Nights,
and 5 to 7 p.m. on Thursday Art Walks. For more information, call 882-6927. TW

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