Taking circles for a spin

By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / June 3, 2009
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Helen Miranda Wilson's enlivening exhibition of works on paper at Victoria Munroe Fine Art resulted from a viewing in the ladies room at the Frick Collection in New York.

During a chance encounter at the museum, Wilson mentioned to Munroe that she had some new work. Munroe suggested a studio visit, but when Wilson said she had the drawings with her, the two ducked into the restroom, where the light was good, to take a look.

The gouache drawings follow Wilson's turn, in recent years, from landscape painting to abstraction, from an outward focus to one that is more inward and contemplative, but hardly quiet.

The drawings in this show are a variation on her recent work featuring rows and rows of horizontal bands of color. Here we see concentric circles, hand-drawn, in thin rings and fat rings, some narrowing into ovals, all in a riot of tones. Munroe says they're inspired by a halo the artist saw in an early Renaissance painting. They also must take inspiration from nature. Even if Wilson is no longer a landscape painter, her colors, and the way she gathers them, carry sun and shadow. Her circles have a kinship with flowers (she is an avid gardener) and with radiant reflections on water.

They spin, waver, tunnel, and pulse. "Phoenix" starts with a pale green pinhead dot at the center and quickly spreads left and right into an oval. It's like looking inside a pot as it's worked on a potter's wheel, stretching here, compressing there. The green dot winks in a puddle of orange, then red, green again, and luminous school-bus yellow - and those are just the inner circles.

Wilson is canny and experimental with her tones, so they pop and accrete into particular moods. "Castalia" resonates with luminous blues such as aqua, dusty periwinkle, and the tone of a thunderstruck evening sky; then Wilson threads in yellows, oranges, and greens that jump against the blues.

The colors are crisp; the lines are not. They smudge, without robbing the work of clarity. Indeed, the handmade quality of these works makes them all the more engaging, human amid the tonal intimations of the divine. Like a mandala, you could gaze at one for a long time, and never tire.

Mystery in the images
Brad Phillips is provocatively coy in his painting show at LaMontagne Gallery. His wife appears in many of the works, but we never see her face clearly. In "park and 79th", he beautifully captures the planes and gleam of her bare back as she dresses; in "no comebacks," we glimpse her in a mirror, climbing stairs in a sweatshirt and underwear, but we can't see her eyes.

Amid these works, Phillips throws in text paintings, such as "vancouver scene," copied from graffiti: "Wendy I love you and I miss you Jamesy." Add in a still life or two and an ominous interior, and the canvases coalesce into a dark, angst-ridden short story full of obfuscations and longing. The paintings work best together; individually, the mystery is diluted.

Conversely, with Fred Muram's photographs, also at LaMontagne, one would be enough. Muram shoots people kissing their ceilings. A single image is pleasingly odd, even funny. There are four here, and the artist seems to be trying too hard, like a comedian who stumbles with his delivery and tells the same joke again. And again.

Space, Obuck's frontier
As with Phillips's paintings, John Obuck's are best served in groups. OH+T Gallery fittingly finishes out its eight-year-run with Obuck; he fits right in with the gallery's aesthetic of smart, intimate, carefully crafted work. With Obuck, you almost have to press your nose against the canvas to see what's going on, but it's usually worth it (one trio of paintings focusing entirely on breasts should have been edited out).

Obuck boxes most of his images within broad, painted borders. These act telescopically, creating a sense of distance and focus. Obuck's previous work has been abstract, and he brings many abstract concerns to this work: questions of spatial illusion and surface, in particular.

"Swimming Pool" has us looking straight down at a circular pool, its outline dimpled with divots, surrounded by a patio covered with angled black tiles and white grouting. Only in the water, where Obuck uses feathery brushstrokes here and there, do we get any sense of depth; otherwise, because of the perspective, this might as well be an abstract painting.

Beside it hangs "Diving Helmet," a still life. The round, brassy helmet, outfitted with metallic bits and bobs, wonderfully echoes the shape of the pool, yet this painting is all about the helmet's volume, and, consequently, space.

In the end, Obuck's paintings, and his clever juxtapositions of canvases, cleverly foil our expectations. We never quite know what we'll see next, and that's good.

HELEN MIRANDA WILSON: Halos At: Victoria Munroe Fine Art, 179 Newbury St., through June 20. 617-523-0661,

BRAD PHILLIPS: Journey Into Whatever FRED MURAM: Kissing the Ceiling At: LaMontagne Gallery, 555 East 2nd St., South Boston, through June 13. 617-464-4640,

JOHN OBUCK: Small Works At: OH+T Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., through June 20.


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