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Seeing red

Chilly? Warm yourself amid a universe of red at the current Cambridge Arts Association show

If the dreary winter has got you down, stop by University Place Gallery in Cambridge, where the Cambridge Art Association has mounted ''RED," a color-themed juried show. All those rose, cherry, and burgundy colors can warm the soul.

Pity the juror of any juried show -- in this case, Nick Capasso, curator at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park. The job involves sifting through hundreds of photographs of works of art. Assessing a picture of a painting, sculpture, or drawing is like trying to judge the measure of a man's soul from his passport photo. Then, during a marathon slide show, there's the potential for brain freeze to set in after viewing, say, 200 images. Capasso had more than 600 artists to sift through for this competition. This brings us to what could be the last straw for any juror with fortitude: the quality of work.

There tends to be a high quotient of Sunday painters who throw their hats into the ring of juried shows. I imagine ''RED" drew its share of adequately painted sunsets. Watching a few dozen of those flash past would be enough to make any juror groggy. More accomplished artists compete, as well, and they're usually the ones who win the prizes. Capasso opened the gates to accept more than 90 artists into the show -- and handed out seven awards -- all well-deserved. Close to 100 works fill University Place Gallery, which is actually the lobby of a Harvard Square office building. The work gets better exposure to the public here than it would in a traditional gallery.

But the show sprawls, and there's a lot of work in it that, while well crafted, lacks substance. Those pieces could best be described as pleasant. Viewers would have been better off if Capasso had been asked to fill a space half this size.

But there are also gems. Judith Cooper won Best in Show for her delightful ''Red Patchwork Chair," upholstered in velour in a jazzy, crazy-quilt pattern that gets denser the closer it gets to the floor.

Linda Hicks's ''Meltdown" received a juror's choice nod; the dense, waxy painting on gold leaf recalls the horrors of a Francis Bacon portrait, with the face appearing to soften and melt in a frightening evocation of inner angst.

Giclee, an inkjet print method of producing photographic images of paintings, is a great way to copy something, but it is not often used to make original art. Lisa Costanzo's giclee-on-canvas work, ''Facial Composite of the Mona Lisa," which garnered first prize, crops the famous portrait so closely that it feels as if we're within kissing distance of the lady; the close-up is magnetic.

Gregory Thielker's sophisticated yet wonderfully accessible painting, ''Junction," another juror's choice, riddles the viewer with the pictorial illusion of depth versus what's going on right on the surface by showing us the view through a rain-spattered windshield. Outside, the world is blurred and gray, lit up by the flash of brake lights and traffic signals. Only the raindrops on the windshield have crisp-edged clarity; and they, too, glitter with the reflections of the road.

Many strong pieces didn't win prizes. Joan Mullen's ''Concretions No. 2," a wall full of small sculptures, is daunting and funny; they look like bloated clamshells, lolling open as if laughing or chatting.

Cheryl Jaffe's intricate ''Contemplation" paper collage is crafted from tiny scraps of what might be holiday gift wrapping: The overall effect is abstract, but recalls both Japanese painting and Persian miniatures.

Rich Brouillet's Edward Gorey-like ''Dead Bird for Dinner" sets a willowy, white-skinned woman at the table gazing at a dead blackbird on a plate.

Juried shows are one place curators such as Capasso find soon-to-be-big fish swimming in small ponds. For every 20 painted sunsets, there's a piece like Cooper's or Costanzo's that really pulls you in. Who knows -- maybe in a year or two, we'll see work by one of them in the DeCordova.