Paintings suggest grasping at fog

March 06, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

In recent years the human body has become a popular subject for art, especially for women who have used it to explore themes of gender, identity, oppression and alienation. Gail Foster's paintings and drawings, in a two-person Gomez show with Tom Swanston's paintings, employ the female as the central visual element. But the effect is an old-fashioned romanticism that has little to do with either contemporary concerns or superior picture-making.

In Foster's paintings the figure appears as a partly defined area of light in the center of a darker ground. There is little or no attempt to suggest space or volume, to describe features, to depict the figure as more than a two-dimensional, dress-like shape, or to engage issues -- whether exterior or interior, socio-political or psychological/emotional.

Instead, Foster shows the figure as a light-filled presence emerging from a surrounding gloom, as if a triumphant spirituality were overcoming a force of darkness, or perhaps of ignorance or nothingness. But the portent of these pictures is as vague, generalized and repetitive as the figures themselves.

The same must be said of Foster's charcoal drawings which, if anything, try even harder for superficial drama at the expense of real depth. Examples such as "Stepping Forward" and "Movement" evoke a certain amount of glamour. They remind you of the well-known portrait of Boston collector Isabella Stewart Gardner as a vision in white, bursting through French doors into the viewer's presence. But looking for real substance in Foster's drawings is like trying to grab a handful of fog.

Tom Swanston's abstract encaustic paintings leave much the same impression. Encaustic is a medium that employs wax along with pigment, and it can result in rich, sensual surfaces. When used well, notably by Jasper Johns among contemporary painters, the effect is one of great beauty. But here it adds a kind of glossy sheen to Swanston's kaleidoscopic colors. These paintings look as if they're trying to reproduce the sensation of looking at colors through water; whatever appeal they possess is momentary.

His five smaller gouache on vellum abstractions leave a better impression. Here the crinkly, textured surface and the opaque watercolor medium work well together. Their somewhat more ordered compositions, with suggestions of landscape elements, especially in "Walk IV," add to the greater success of these works.

Art show

What: Paintings by Gail Foster and Tom Swanston

Where: Gomez Gallery, 836 Leadenhall St.

When: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, through March 15

Call: (410) 752-2080

Pub Date: 3/06/97

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