More or Less Abstract

Two artists in transition shine at Davis Dominguez Gallery

The current exhibition at Davis Dominguez Gallery overlaps two time periods: It began in the old year, and will end in the new.

Likewise, the two artists in the show are at a cusp, giving up former habits and moving into new terrain. But the two painters, Joanne Kerrihard and Tim Murphy, are going in opposite directions. Kerrihard has abandoned narrative painting and eased into pure abstraction. Murphy has done some narrative work before, but this time around, he's left abstraction almost entirely behind and peopled his works with human figures.

One of the best colorists in town, Murphy has been moving toward figurative work for some time. He's long used giant cubes or other plain shapes as an excuse to make gorgeous layerings of paint. Occasionally, a simple human figure has slipped into the work, but this time around, his figures take center stage.

His large "Moving Day," maybe 6 feet across and 7 feet high, is the single most beautiful painting in the whole show. Painted in thin oil washes, its pigments are light and liquid, tumbling down the canvas. An alluring shade of blue pools around two giant human figures painted a fleshy peach.

The men are plain and simple, like a pair of Matisse cutouts, but Murphy's minimalist outlines—in red and olive—nevertheless convey the power in their massive arms and legs. The figures are not exactly realistic: Their trunks are too short for their long legs, for one thing. But the distortion is deliberate, made to conjure up the strength and muscularity. Murphy has clearly put in a lot of hours doing life drawing to be able to make such unrealistic bodies more than real. These guys are all brawn.

Each man raises up his arms overhead to carry a heavy box; the rest of the moving boxes fall down through the air. These flying cubes are refugees from earlier Murphy abstractions, mere geometric excuses for quick dashes of color—dark blue, orange, mint green. With just a couple of strokes of his brush, Murphy conveys the three-dimensionality of the cartons.

In fact, most of the Murphy paintings have a monumental, even sculptural quality. In contrast to Kerrihard's slippery, fleeting shapes, many of Murphy's are solid, even still. "Whistle Head" is a strange still life of a whistle positioned to look like a human head; it sits atop a sort-of body, with an arching chest and big cylindrical fists. It could be an artist's model posing.

"Blow the Whistle" is even more 3-D. It's a figure-as-Cubist sculpture, with the body rendered in acute angles and flat surfaces. Painted with deep coral shadows, this piece of Murphy geometry is softened by soft mottling.

Kerrihard has been best known until now as a painter of elusive narratives, dreamy canvases in which circus poles drifted among cypress trees, and tiny boats were almost lost in cascades of blue sea. These works suggested stories, but they were always painterly, with passages of pure color and bravura brushwork.

Her new suite of oils is as delicate and as lyrical as ever, but this time, the "story" is mostly about the pigments that are curling and spiraling across the canvas, or flowing out in shimmering layers. The paintings, seven large and three small, are loosely painted and lovely, tending toward pastel shades of pink, yellow and grass greens. Thin fields of paint overlap, and thick lines skitter over the surface.

As those colors suggest, though, these abstract works still have a connection to the real-life landscape. Evidently, Kerrihard is a horsewoman, and the paintings capture up the blur of shades and shapes as she moves through the landscape.

"On Horseback, Moths and Butterflies" is a light-filled bower. A sunshine-yellow sphere circles over the top of the canvas, and a plant-like shape in pale earth green extends its "petals" outward. Small spirals in Kelly green and ultramarine look ready to spring open. Before long, operating under the suggestion offered by the title, a viewer starts to see any number of winged creatures flitting through the air.

In "On Horseback, Rain," there's more surface work, with scribbles evoking the trajectory of the falling rain.

Next door to Davis Dominguez, at Contreras Gallery, Vytas Sakalas is finishing up a show of a very different kind of abstraction. In contrast to Kerrihard's free-wheeling paintings, Sakalas' acrylics on canvas and wood are meticulously plotted and composed.

"Nodal Traces 4," for instance, is an elaborate construction that looks almost like a machine, with intricate small shapes covering the entire surface, outlined and drawn in black. One could get lost in its infinite spaces. (The exhibition is titled Doorway to Infinity.) Like a Pollock painting, "Nodal Traces 4" suggests another dimension on the far side of the paint.

"Nodal Traces 6" is slightly more free-flowing. Its floating circles, curving lines and gem-like colors could be a stained-glass window for the modern age.

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