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Growing Pains

Three talented artists are still feeling their way through their work

Phil Borges' Hand-Toned Gelatin Silver Print "Shasha 9"

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 8/21/2002

Paintings by Kent Williams, drawings by Brian Taylor, and Photographs by Phil Borges

Gomez Gallery through Sept. 7

Kent Williams' previous exhibit

at the Gomez Gallery certainly spoke to his background as a graphic novelist and comic-book illustrator. The distorted figures in his paintings had missing limbs, and their skin was so red that it seemed as if their blood and guts might poke through at any moment.

If those paintings went for obvious shock effects, his new exhibit at Gomez is shocking for entirely different reasons. True to the show's No Bodies title, there are almost no figures in these landscape paintings. Their fleeting figurative references, however, do suggest that Williams' morbid tendencies remain very much a part of his creative skin and bones. In the mixed media on paper "Skull in a Landscape," the skull itself is a nearly ghosted image set in a somber gray and white background; and in the oil and encaustic on wood panel "Two Shins in a Landscape," those detached body parts recline in a neutral brown and green landscape offset against a cheerful powder blue sky.

These reminders of anatomy and mortality are fleeting. Instead, Williams devotes most of Bodies' paintings to landscapes. The best painting in the show, "Purple Haze," is a pretty depiction of a wildflower-filled meadow that recalls the blurry landscape effects achieved by such late-19th-century American Impressionists as John Twachtman. Williams' paintings have a moodiness that recalls Twachtman, who was at his best in his ephemeral white-on-white pictures of fog over snowy fields. Williams also uses the occasional slashing brush strokes to prevent his image from becoming completely melted in appearance, another Twachtman technique.

Williams shows off other impressionistic stylistic flourishes in "Purple Haze," including melted tones for tall trees in the background; alternately smooth and thick painterly passages within the pink, purple, and green hues that form a field in the middle ground; and vegetal slashes that form for a lively foreground. Finally, it is mounted in an ornately carved frame reminiscent of the 19th century.

His work also puts us in a near-dreamy mood when looking at it, achieved through his mix of oil and encaustic, which gives his paintings a milky texture. Another fine painting, "Haw River I," has white and gray brushwork that melts together to suggest the forcefulness of surging water.

It's too bad that only a few of his other paintings rate as highly as "Haze." One of the most disappointing is "Jordan Lake," a high-angle view of a tree-lined lake. Although he has an interesting mix of colors in the water itself, other areas seem rushed and unconvincing. The patchy greens and browns applied in the foreground seem hasty. Rather than energetic paint application in the service of conjuring up a landscape, the result looks chunky and hurried.

The problem may be that Williams tends to pile paint brusquely on the canvas in a manner that calls attention to his process. This finish isn't a good idea when the painter's method is unremarkable and when the subject gets injured in the process. In "Morning at Jordan Lake," Williams' heavily applied white paint includes one passage that's so lumpy it looks like congealed cream of wheat.

If Williams' creative evolution proves a bit bumpy, he's in good company with Brian Taylor and Phil Borges. Taylor's previous works exhibited at Gomez were ambitious large paintings characterized by art-historical references and schematic figuration against abstract washes. His deliberately fragmentary imagery suggested a talented young artist exploring a vocabulary that might develop into career-long themes. His work was technically astute if thematically unresolved, but it promised an artist who might yet startle us all.

His current exhibit marks a departure in medium--from big paintings to small drawings. (There are a daunting 152 drawings and two mixed-media sculptures in this show.) Technically speaking, Taylor is exploring charcoal, pencil, and pen and ink. But he still seems to be testing out his subject matter's possibilities; he's primarily doing figurative riffs with female nudes.

Many of the women here have been subjected to surreal revisions. "In the Labyrinth," for instance, features a nude woman whose face is mostly covered by what appears to be a black hood; she also holds a rope. And one of her legs has some sort of humanoid growing where you'd expect to find a foot.

With such imagery, there's obviously much to look at in his show, but not much on which to linger. Taylor is versatile--in "Susannah" he realistically details a woman's face, and in "Pour" he includes an upside-down amphora, an allusion to classical Greek art. But these drawings feel like the sketchbook doodles that an artist makes while contemplating a major painterly statement.

Photographer Phil Borges previously exhibited a series of portraits of Tibetans at Gomez. His new show, Spirit of Place, includes people from Mongolia, Pakistan, Ecuador, and the Phillipines. Like his earlier show, Borges focuses his camera on traditional peoples endangered by modernity; one of his current subjects is an 87-year-old Siberian shaman who died three weeks after her photo was taken.

Borges' emphasis here is on animist cultures that find the spiritual world directly within the natural world. Each photograph includes a brief accompanying, that provides some biographical and spiritual information about the subject depicted, but should give a little more.

As with his Tibetan series, Borges shoots his subject in their natural surroundings, whatever mountains or jungle that may be. Borges then hand-colors areas of his black-and-white photos, such as putting a touch of fleshy color into their cheeks in the manner of 19th-century tintype photos. It is a process that makes for straightforward documentary photos that also have artistic appeal.

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