A radiant 'Renaissance'

Exhibit stresses pure form and color

Bill Armstrong's ''Renaissance 1014.'' Bill Armstrong's ''Renaissance 1014.''
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / March 11, 2009
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Leonardo da Vinci coined the painting term "sfumato" to refer to the blurring of usually sharp outlines to create a sense of depth. It was one of several techniques that contributed to the idealized realism - the spaciousness, the gorgeously described bodies - of Renaissance painting.

Photographer Bill Armstrong borrows images from the Renaissance in his exhibit at Gallery Kayafas, and, blurring the edges, vaults them into the realm of contemporary art. Separating out individual figures, he re-creates them in paper cutouts, which he lays on brightly toned grounds. Then he opens his lens as wide as he can and shoots a lengthy exposure.

The radiant results are the work of a master colorist. Red pulses against blue; turquoise throbs against plum. Because the figures blur, they move toward abstraction. We can't read their expressions, but we can read their postures. "Renaissance 1014" sets a whitish figure against a serene, teal ground. The man might be Christ removed from the cross, falling backward, arms open, evoking surrender. The themes are typical of the Renaissance, but the stories are gone in this distillation to pure form and color.

Armstrong has a second body of work, based on obscure erotic engravings from the Renaissance called "I Modi," a brief, Italian Kama Sutra. Each features a couple. Armstrong gives each figure in the pair a different tone. Up close, they're a fuzz of colors knotted together. From a distance, it's easier to make out the twining of limbs. Still, abstracted and blurry, the erotic charge has drained from them. Straddling the line between abstraction and figuration, Armstrong's work teases the viewer's eye, refusing to settle on one or the other.

Daniel Ranalli, who teaches at Boston University, followed a philosophy class for a term, photographing their scribblings. He also visited other classrooms. Ranalli's sharp and strangely mystical digitally montaged photographs of chalkboards are also at Gallery Kayafas.

Ranalli has a fascination with ephemeral marks; in the past, he has shot patterns in the sand. His chalkboards reveal more visual information than I could have imagined. Erasures evoke the marks of a paintbrush. Bits of scrawl chatter and squirm. Complete words or equations grab attention like magnets. Then there's the surprising element of color - who knew there were so many shades of green and gray? Ranalli has even altered one to look gold. In all, these works consider space, mark-making, and color in a distinctly painterly manner.

In "Big Bang - Yin Yang," two green boards hover in an infinite space created by a blackboard, scribbled with formulae, erasures, and stray marks - a kind of intellectual galaxy. The words "big bang" appear on one of the green boards. The other one features a parsing of Eastern philosophy, including a drawing of yin and yang. Ranalli pairs vastly different realms of knowledge, and they fit together.

Mathematical precision
Painter Reese Inman portrays the digital world's precision and determinism in distinctly handmade works at Gallery NAGA. Inman starts on the computer with an algorithm that creates a visual pattern, which she then prints and affixes to a panel. Then the handwork begins: painting, erasing, adding dots. The olive-black background of "Remix IV" is a moody haze over which she creates a clickety-clack of small circles and lozenge shapes, blinking in bright tones but rubbed down or speckled, imperfect.

The paintings impress with their size and complexity. Inman also offers drawings made with a heated stylus burning dots into the paper, creating a lacy, delicate network that seems to go on forever.

Ed Stitt's warm-toned realist paintings make a stark counterpoint to Inman's enveloping, meditative works. Stitt usually paints odd urban corners, and he has a few here, such as "Buried Treasures," capturing the latticework of fire escapes in a Fenway alley. But my favorite work here is "Gnarled Tree, Autumn," a riot of leaves catching the sun like fire sparks, dancing around a dark trunk warted with burls. One jutting branch near the top fuzzes out, as if in a wink of sun so bright the eye can't make out the outlines.

Feminine touch
Young Los Angeles painter Elisa Johns is expressive and deft with her brush, and she takes the social construction of femininity as her topic in her show at Walker Contemporary, casting through history and mythology. Yet I'm not quite sure what she's getting at: Her paintings remind me of the over-the-top thematic fashion spreads in the back of the Sunday New York Times Magazine.

Or worse, the camp of "America's Next Top Model," as is the case with the painting "Daphne and the Laurel Tree," about the nymph who turned into a tree while escaping the god Apollo's attentions. Her pale blue dress flutters like the leaves that drop through the dark air around her. She throws her head back, revealing her long neck, and clutches theatrically at her bodice. Melodrama is the stuff of both fashion and myth, but can it possibly be the route to more clarity about gender? I doubt it.


At: Gallery Kayafas, 450 Harrison Ave., through March 28. 617-482-0411,


At: Gallery NAGA, 67 Newbury St., through March 28. 617-267-9060,

ELISA JOHNS: BOUTS OF EXCESS At: Walker Contemporary, 450 Harrison Ave., through March 28. 617-695-0211,

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