Celestial Hues

Mike Stack's soon-to-close exhibit uses lines and color to evoke thoughts of nature.

In this season of short days and long nights, when the winter holidays celebrate the sunlight piercing the darkness, Mike Stack is exhibiting shadowy paintings interrupted by glowing bands of pale light.

All 13 of Stack's paintings, on view at Davis Dominguez Gallery, are assemblages of narrow horizontal stripes, narrower even than the lined spaces in a notebook. He's meticulously painted these multicolored stripes in oils on linen, deliberately sticking with the difficult format of nothin'-but-straight-lines in paintings large (up to 48 inches square) and small (just 12 inches square).

An art professor at Pima Community College, Stack tends toward a dark palette, favoring deep purple, teal and navy. But about three-quarters of the way up, in each and every painting, his dark stripes give way to bands of lemon yellow or cotton-candy pink or sun-kissed beige. The effect is of an ethereal light penetrating the purply darkness.

Abstract though they are, these rigorously structured paintings nevertheless suggest all kinds of natural phenomena. (Stack's titles even give us some clues.) They conjure up the night sky, and the faint glow of a galaxy far, far away. "Helios," from the Greek word for "sun," has green and lavender stripes giving way to a gorgeous flash of ochre and bright pink. "Spectral" is a concoction of dusky night purples softened by pale lavender and peach.

They also allude to the patterns in nature. "Strata," about 48 inches square, gives a nod to geology, suggesting the multi-hued layers of rock you can see on a cliff face in the desert. Painted full out in brilliant purples, blues and greens, this one has its soft gray and pink as well. "Needles" hints at still another of nature's designs, its autumnal tones of burnt sienna, deep red and orange coloring what could be the fallen pine needles of late fall. Besides its distinct palette, deviating from Stack's usual purples, this one varies the composition a bit, too. It's got two of the light patches, one hovering high in the painting, one low.

My favorites, though, conjure up the Western landscape, with its familiar flat foreground, distant low-lying mountains, brightly lighted horizon and infinite sky. "Pusch No. 2" takes its name from the monumental western face of the Catalinas. With its oranges, deep pinks and reds, to me it conjures up the rosy fingers of dawn, as Homer so poetically called the bright colors of early morning. "Gunnison," the name of a Colorado place, has a distant "sunset" of pale lavender.

But this painting, no more than the others, is by no means a realistic representation of place, or of landscape. Counterpoising the strict geometry of his format with nature's organic shapes, Stack breaks down the infinite variability of nature into the elemental stripe. He can render everything and anything in straight lines.

Intellectual as this exercise is, it's also an opportunity for Stack to show off his formidable talent with a brush. The artist trained at Philadelphia's Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which claims to be the nation's oldest art school; with an academic tradition stretching back several centuries, it has a reputation for turning out fine painters of the old school. Stack's works look nothing like, say, a Thomas Eakins or a Peale or any of the other Philadelphia painters of old, but his paint is luscious, his surfaces lively and his colors nothing short of astonishing.

Stack's stripes may walk the straight and narrow, but after progressing across the linen for a sedate 4 or 8 inches, they end with a jump and a curve, heading out into space and leaving the surface behind. It would be stretching it to call the results sculptural, but they are surprisingly three-dimensional. "Far Point" is the most unruly of the paintings; ironically, it has the thinnest stripes. But their compact size permits more of them on the canvas, and the surface is prickly with their 3-D endpoints rebelliously fleeing the linen. For this one, too, Stack has allowed some space between the stripes, revealing a stained underpainting below.

In most of the paintings, the stripes edge up against each other compactly, creating thick bands of color against color. And what color! Each painting has literally hundreds of short stripes, and every one seems to be a different shade. Stack has painted every imaginable variation on purple--blue-violet, magenta, lavender--not to mention an infinity of earth greens, teals and ultramarines; roses, scarlets and vermilions; and burnt siennas, ochres and umbers.

In fact, as I looked at these pictures, I was thinking how limited our vocabulary for color is. Probably some of the colors Stack has mixed here don't yet have a name. What I needed, I thought, was a giant-size box of Crayola crayons, the kind with 64 colors, to help me articulate the vast spectrum of Stack's stripes. And, come to think of it, crayons and toys and other assorted childhood joys are every bit as seasonal as Stack's lights piercing the darkness.

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