Playing with shape in landscape

January 29, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

The two artists now sharing a show at Galerie Francoise, Stacey McKenna and Greg Otto, come under the heading of landscape painters (if it's defined broadly enough to include cityscapes, Otto's subject matter). But neither is concerned primarily with depicting landscape per se. Both play with structure and with abstraction, however, and so they have more in common than one might think at first glance.

McKenna's paintings of trees in the landscape focus on the bottoms of trees, and particularly on exposed root structures. By implication these deal with organic structure in a more general way, for they bring to mind the similarities between a tree's root system and the human vascular system. (They may also refer to twisted, tortured psychological states.) McKenna's trees remind us that nature's structures reflect one another, as anyone who has looked at the "veins" in a leaf and those in the back of a hand has noticed.

McKenna's one painting in the show without trees takes off in another direction, to compare nature to abstract geometry. Ostensibly it shows water cascading over rocks into a stream. But this horizonless scene filled up with rocks is really a carefully composed group of forms centering on an upside-down triangle of gray rocks. If the part of the canvas this triangle occupies were left open, depicting, for instance, a vista with land and sky, this would be a traditional landscape. By closing it up, McKenna emphasizes the geometry of the entire picture.

This painting has a parallel in "Downtown Geometry" from Greg Otto's half of the show, establishing a parallel between two artists who otherwise appear quite dissimilar. Where McKenna repeatedly emphasizes organic structure, Otto's urban paintings de-emphasize the structural nature of buildings by painting their facades in multiple bright colors that minimize volume and maximize surface. The gray stone of the Fidelity building at Charles and Lexington streets becomes pink, green, yellow, orange, gray and blue, to create a surface that looks alive but hardly solid.

These buildings are usually seen in the context of some day or night sky, however, so they retain some suggestion of volume. But like McKenna with "Nature Symbolized," Otto in "Downtown Geometry" fills up the entire canvas with a building's windowed sides. Only one section of the building is shown in extreme close-up, and Otto pushes everything but colored geometric shapes out of the picture. The image becomes virtually a geometric abstraction.

Otto was earlier an abstract painter who then turned to representation. In recent years he's inched back toward abstraction while retaining recognizable objects. "Downtown Geometry," the most recent painting here (the only one from 1998) and the most abstract, is also the most satisfying. It suggests that Otto's moving ever closer to abstraction and that it's a good move for him.

McKenna and Otto

Where: Galerie Francoise et ses freres, Green Spring Station, Falls and Joppa roads

When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 4 p.m. Sundays; through Feb. 8

Call: 410-337-2787

Pub Date: 1/29/98

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