Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Fresh Visions

Kevan Smith and Karen Woods at Stewart Gallery

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For a refreshing change of pace after the numbing saturation of Christmastime commercialism, I would recommend visiting Stewart Gallery, where concurrent shows of new work by Kevan Smith and Karen Woods are on view. This show is a double treat, in that Smith and Woods are, in my opinion, two of the best painters working in Boise right now. They could not be more different in terms of style, subject matter and temperament, with Smith being an adventurous, imaginative abstractionist while Woods is an evocative, urban landscape painter. Yet they both have a wonderful way with paint, providing fresh images that are very satisfying, and one is never quite sure where they are going to take us next.

Since returning to painting in 1998 after a detour into found and computer-generated imagery, Smith has been going at it with a vengeance, tapping into his early excitement over abstract expressionism which motivated him to paint in the first place. He has also experimented with unusual supports, choosing a lightweight signboard material called Alumalite on which he pours, brushes and slabs copious amounts of enamel paint, creating crisp, dense surfaces in both minimal and complex abstract compositions. Formal concerns, as well as color relationships, have always preoccupied him.

Smith's new work is another departure for him, although his art remains very much in the abstract expressionist mode. Because of the toxicity of enamel paints, he has switched to acrylics, mixing the pigment with gel mediums like Golden to get a creamy consistency. He has also found a new support called Dibond, which is an aluminum surface that Smith mounts onto wood blocks and primes. As a result, these new pieces are considerably smaller than the 30-by-24-inch Alumalite panels we're used to seeing. Nevertheless, they project an even greater presence than Smith's paintings did before, having more weight to them and capturing such an exuberance of color and technique that they truly earn the moniker of "action paintings."

Entitled "Compositions with ...", these small-scale formal studies are visual powerhouses. Using a more keyed-up palette (sometimes enlivened further by the use of gloss varnishes), Smith's new paintings have gotten progressively brighter, an evolution reflected in this series. Smith also makes greater use of his palette knife here, layering on thick impastos of pigment, mixing colors in the process, creating peaks and valleys in his surfaces. The high-pitched Composition with Yellow Line grabs you from the moment you enter the small gallery, pulling you toward it with its rich, violent contrasts of bright oranges and dark blues, and its de Kooning-esque gestural power. It's a beautiful piece.

His Composition with Elevated Form, which displays Smith's penchant for mysterious rectilinear forms, has an architectural aspect to it and a vague slapstick quality reminiscent of Philip Guston's late period, when Guston's imagery shifted from gestural abstraction to a new found appreciation of figurative humor. Composition with Green Square and Composition with Red Glow are earthier, timeworn abstractions with matte surfaces. Smith's Composition with White Portal is another work of high-keyed hues whose textured layers of paint are alive with marks, flecks and strokes through which a bright red line zips down and makes an abrupt right turn, pulling our eye to the center of the piece.

This brings up an important point. Without Smith's sense of design, his formal ingenuity and his understanding of spatial and chromatic relationships, these paintings might be dismissed as mere theatrics. Energetic as they are, they represent the controlled work of a mature, confident, constantly exploring artist.

I was surprised to learn that Karen Woods was also weaned on abstract expressionist painters, particularly Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning and British artist Howard Hodgkin, as well as neo-expressionist Susan Rothenberg. Woods' art has always seemed a bit of a throw back to the modernist aesthetic, from her dark, barren tree subjects so reminiscent of Piet Mondrian's early expressionism, to her singular, Edward Hopper-esque renderings of local cityscapes. The influence of Japanese sumi ink drawings can be seen in the graphic details of her imagery as well.

A California native, Woods has lived in Boise for 10 years. Upon settling, she switched from large-scale canvases to small oils on wood, selecting seemingly ordinary aspects of her new environment as her subject matter. In her Boise subjects, Woods avoids the picturesque, taking a frank, matter-of-fact approach that captures the essence of the place. Her cropped views of empty lots, storage tanks, neighborhood streets and traffic intersections have the detachment of the outsider taking in unfamiliar surroundings, rendered without irony, nostalgia or emotional overlay.

Woods has an uncanny ability to capture the local light, and her art has the freshness and immediacy of plein air painting even though she works from photographs. Taking a cue from the landscape artists of the Hudson River School, she strives for a smaller scale version of the transcendent, what she half-kiddingly calls "those golden moments" that impress her on her outings, presenting Woods' vision of what might be called a contemporary urban sublime. It is an ambiguously melancholic vision that resonates despite the unexceptional nature of her subjects.

In this latest series of paintings, Woods takes us on the road with scenes of the I-184 Connector and I-84 in and around Boise. We are her passengers, borne along on the stream of commerce and traffic, interacting with the city's infrastructure. It may not sound like riveting stuff, but it is a different visual experience.

In truth, the moments captured here are not all that "golden." Given the time of year and the monochromatic subject matter, these paintings tend to be rather dark, especially those like Cole Road Overpass and Dark Overpass II, in which our passage through concrete structures further crops the view, lending a claustrophobic air. The long shadows and minimal light of dusk in Dark Overpass, with its forms silhouetted against the darkening sky, seem almost ominous. One exception is Franklin Road Exit, which has us coming out of the cool overpass shadows into afternoon sunlight. The dark, chilly concrete giving way to warm air and earth makes this one of the most appealing (and optimistic) works in the show.

Woods' more effective pieces are those on the open road, especially those with low horizon lines and lots of sky. In these, Woods comes closest to realizing her notion of the sublime. Her restless, loosely painted March skies in works like Yellow Line, Heading West and Eagle Road Exit capture both the brusqueness and poetry of natural forces, while the latter piece, with its curving skyline, suggests a more planetary panorama.

One feels a bit cheated upon learning that both artists had works in the show that were removed immediately upon their sale at the preview or opening. Customarily, sold pieces remain on view at least for part of the run before they disappear forever into a private collection. It's our last chance to see those works, and the artists' public gets short-changed.