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A closer look at an abstract explorer

Rothschild paints with subtlety and style

In 1993 the Boston painter Jo Ann Rothschild became the first recipient of the Maud Morgan Prize, now awarded annually by the Museum of Fine Arts to an underrecognized woman artist -- as Morgan, who died in 1999, herself was.

Glancing at Rothschild's resume, it's obvious that the award didn't exactly propel her onto the national stage. She hasn't had the steady commercial gallery representation that would give her a solo show every couple of years, bring her paintings to art fairs around the country, and otherwise get her work seen by as large a public as possible. Today's artists without galleries can at least have websites. Rothschild's -- -- is a particularly comprehensive and well-constructed one.

A website can provide certain information, but it can't convey scale, texture, or all the other aspects of painting that make seeing it in person mandatory. Rothschild shows whenever and wherever she can -- currently in the South End branch of the Boston Public Library.

Her paintings hang on a zigzagging ground-floor wall interrupted by large windows. You have to concentrate to see them, to block out the bustle of Tremont Street and other distractions in the crowded library, with bookshelves, desks, and chairs that prevent your standing back to see the art at any distance.

Despite this, Rothschild's paintings hold their own, a tribute to her 40 tenacious years of abstract painting, whether or not it was in fashion. The works in the library are small to medium-size; they're condensed, boiled down. She'll layer one hue over another, scratch into the surface, or allow the paint to clot so that it projects from the surface.

Most of the works are untitled. When they come with a name, it's provocative. ''After Giotto," a jewellike painting just 9 by 8 inches, doesn't have any obvious associations with the early Italian master except a shared modesty and seriousness -- which, come to think of it, is quite a lot to have in common. A first glance at Rothschild's works might make you think of the Abstract Expressionists, but her paintings have none of their macho swagger. They really are closer to Giotto than to Pollock.

Animated vertical brush strokes are a persistent presence in the work. They suggest flames, fountains, or, in more stationary cases, doorways leading into deep, unknown spaces. Both the palette and the brushwork change every couple of inches. One passage flickers like autumn leaves, then cedes to a less staccato rhythm. In all cases the paint application is complex but also seems balanced and natural, as if it were a particularly vivid and varied mineral specimen instead of something made by a human hand.

The mixed-media-on-paper pieces are larger -- 30 by 40 inches -- and tacked directly onto the wall, so the paper is slightly rumpled and refuses to lie flat; it has its own identity. A paper piece called ''Profound Disaster" has enough going on to keep you looking almost indefinitely. There's a part that looks like basketry, coils that suggest bedsprings, and a thick, snaky line at the bottom, translucent for part of its odyssey, then drifting into an amorphous haze. Amid this dissonance, you eventually notice tiny, insidious words: ''so frightened," ''what I know," ''what I fear," ''flay, fillet, flail" -- small voices of panic. Skeins of inky black act almost like barbed wire, holding together a disparate universe of shapes and colors.

Unlike mid-20th century predecessors in expressive abstract painting, often aggressively in-your-face, Rothschild's work doesn't have anything to prove -- just a lot to explore.

Nesting instinct
Boston's main public library, in Copley Square, has been a temple to art since its opening in 1895. Its murals and sculptures form a magisterial collection of work by the likes of John Singer Sargent, Puvis de Chavannes, and Daniel Chester French. Their presence must be daunting to contemporary artists presenting their own work in these glorious halls.

One young Boston artist, Kathleen Bitetti, has addressed the issue with a deliberately low-key intervention in the library's Bates Hall. Bitetti, whose work is also on display at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln and in public libraries in Lincoln and Quincy, is infatuated with whiteness. She uses the purity of white to offset her often-grim subject matter, which includes domestic violence and the dark side of fairy tales. (She once made a lovely, luminous white paper house that was visually enticing -- until you got close enough to see that it was made of restraining orders stitched together.)

Her work at the BPL is more benign. Bates Hall is a vast, majestic space, with a vaulted ceiling and long oak tables where people sit on Windsor chairs, silently and intently going about their work.

Stately bookcases line the walls, and on top of them are 70 white plaster birds Bitetti made. They look like owls, symbols of wisdom, but Bitetti says they're blue jays, which she cast from ceramic birds she had as a child. The BPL birds are still, thoughtful creatures. They seem settled in -- as Bitetti was, in this very room, while growing up and hungry for books. The birds share the space with marble busts of long-gone worthies, and they seem quite at home together, although the creamy shade of the marble clashes with the toothpaste white of the plaster. Serenity pervades this lofty room.

Christine Temin's Perspectives column runs on Wednesdays.

Jo Ann Rothschild: Paintings and Drawings
At: the South End Gallery, 685 Tremont St., through Sunday

Pretty Sweet: Public Libraries
Sculpture by Kathleen Bitetti
At: Bates Hall, Boston Public Library, Copley Square, through April 17

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