Imperfect Beauty | Art Review | Chicago Reader

Imperfect Beauty 

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Sara Risk

at Idao Gallery, through September 2

Robert Bridges

at Roy Boyd Gallery, through August 25

The introduction of chance into art making--exemplified in the work of Marcel Duchamp and John Cage--is a method for reducing the artist's role. More modest alternatives to the old goal of aesthetically perfect self-contained art in which every part is in its proper place and the whole is confidently endowed with some version of truth are things that have an offhand, even imperfect look at first; other artists simply appropriate images.

The ten gentle, somewhat scattered paintings and collages by Sara Risk now at Idao Gallery resemble children's art. Risk has been a day-care worker and a nanny, but it turns out her main influence is her own early art. She made "strange collage books" as early as nursery school; for one Risk recalls she drew "little heads," which she then cut out and pasted on pages. Several loosely drawn circular forms in her current show suggest heads. In Signs, black circles and lines set against a luminous color field of deep blue gray and sensuous orange resemble children's doodles, but because they're arranged in rows they also carry a hint of some secret language. Though blue gray is nearly the chromatic opposite of orange, these gentle, almost pastel hues look as if they could be interchanged: at first the picture's darker colors float above the orange, then seem to drift behind it. I was not surprised to learn that Mark Rothko is one of Risk's favorite artists. But Signs has none of the feeling of absolute truth that emanates from a Rothko canvas, in which colors have an almost iconic power. Its organization is looser, its feel improvisational, its impact provisional.

Next Time explicitly refers to childhood. The words "I promise to do better next time" are written in the upper right corner, recalling dreary detention sessions. But Risk could only fit in "bett" on her top line, and so she writes in "to do better" just below it. Her amusement at the mistake--"even as I'm promising to do better I'm being frightfully human"--contributes to the tentative feel of the piece, which also arises from its ticket fragments and scraps of paper, some with letters printed on them. It looks confusing, even incongruous at first, but it's perhaps a representation of how Risk thinks: not in rational linear phrases, she says, but more as a kind of lump sum--When I'm having a thought and saying a sentence it feels more like a ball of all kinds of possible tangents and other appendages and colors and associations."

The text stands out in Next Time despite a certain homogeneity. Several of the brownish tickets seem to be darker shades of the pink background, and Risk often smears her paint over the paper scraps, melding them into her abstract fields of soft, blended hues. At the same time, Risk also reaches for a kind of conceptual unity. A scrap with handwritten calculations and a hand-drawn checkerboard complements the printed tickets with its simple geometry. But its wavering lines were obviously made without benefit of a ruler. Such images link the poles of pure color and words, and the viewer begins to see them as part of the same continuum. It's not far from the free, imaginative play of children.

The 30-year-old Risk was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana, and now lives in Connecticut, where she teaches drawing at Central Connecticut State University. She recalls both her mother and grandmother--"a painter of fairly traditional still lifes and landscapes"--as being "very spiritually oriented [and] psychically inclined." About her own spiritual strivings she says, "I'm probably more Buddhist than anything, though I don't declare myself." Risk says some of the tickets in Next Time are for amusement-park rides, and each ride is like a different incarnation in life. That certainly didn't occur to me, but the way the tickets link the disparate parts somehow suggests Risk's "ball of...associations." In an untitled collage of 57 matches arranged in a grid around a drawing of a candle, 56 are burned. When Risk explained, "I've never lit a candle without saying a prayer that was utterly focused in intention and desire," I felt not that the work had been fully explained but that this record of repeated ritualistic actions had been given one possible interpretation.

Much of the beauty comes from Risk's mixing of colors: never saturated, they're as sensuous as skin. And they seem to reach toward neighboring colors. The tans, oranges, browns, and blue grays of Angel come together to connect a jumble of circles, doodles, daubs, lines, and text fragments. Near the center is a small human figure rendered in tentative black lines (perhaps the angel); its wispiness is belied by the way nearly every other part of the picture echoes the figure. Various circles throughout the image suggest its head; irregular shapes recall its torso; stick legs connect with a bundle of lines used to tally groups of five. Risk's world is infinitely suggestive. A figure can become almost anything, and the human presence seems eternally connected to the cosmos.

If Risk uses her fertile imagination to suggest the interconnectedness of all things, Robert Bridges's method is more modest: he begins by copying nature. The 14 exquisitely delicate new abstract works now on view at Roy Boyd Gallery evolved from an earlier series, "Arboreal Notebook," shown there two years ago. Bridges describes the earlier works as "pretty close to a literal interpretation of various tree barks" painted from reproductions in books. That's also how he began the works in the current show, but the "abstract patterning of tree bark became a jumping-off point.

...Once I had the drawing on the gessoed panel, I didn't look at the tree bark again." Bridges's modifications of nature's patterns create a pleasing continuity without seeming to alter nature very much: his images often have the neutrality of natural forms. Instead of conveying the personal emotions of some traditional painterly abstraction, he creates a poetic vision of nature as a continuous whole.

He does this partly by unifying his designs. In From the Thicket #1, a maze of gray patterns recalls an aerial view of a marshy landscape, bark, and honeycombs. The gray is often very pale, as if seen through a mist or partly eroded; the gray shapes spawn similar gray splotches, as if they were the products of cell division. I thought of Mark Tobey's abstractions, filled with dense networks of tiny lines inspired by natural patterns. But his lines collide, fragmenting the visual field: Tobey creates an ecstatic, near-musical rhythm out of these continual interruptions. Bridges's work is less manipulated, and less intensely aesthetic: his patterns look more like pieces of unspoiled nature. The various shades of blended gray place the viewer in a calmer, more meditative state.

All six "From the Thicket" paintings are oil and wax on wood. From the Thicket #5 is dominated by a pale turquoise pattern, but here Bridges deals with issues common in abstract painting. A vertical red line at the left bears no resemblance to an organic form. But whereas the collision between different kinds of shapes typically makes an abstract painting seem a self-sufficient world, here the red line hovers behind the turquoise as an actual object in space. The pinkish halo that surrounds it and some red dots to the right emit a glow of sorts, almost like a living presence, suggesting a physical realm beyond the painted surface.

This isn't a nature we've seen before, but the Peoria-born Bridges, 32, recalls that his father often took him and his brother on nature walks. For a time they lived near an abandoned Boy Scout camp in Alton, where the boys played. His study of printmaking in college, he says was a big influence on the way he approaches painting: "building up layers and color combinations, one transparent color on top of another like the multiple passes of color printmaking."

From the Thicket #6 has some of the qualities of a print; its vertical shapes create a surface like wood grain, giving it solidity. But the delicacy of its varying degrees of transparency could only have come from paint. This painting contains a small square with the same wood-grain patterns, only stained red and enlarged, as if the square were a rose-colored magnifying glass. I loved this little box. Clashing visually with Bridges's organic patterns, it's a reminder of how different human geometry is from natural forms. At the same time the way the box changes the patterns while keeping their essential outlines implies a kind of Platonism. Nature's forms are everywhere, but they exist beyond our power to completely see and comprehend them. Bridges's pictures point to a nature he sees as boundless, larger than us all.

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