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Land Ho

Three Artists at Gomez Offer a Sense of Place

Finger Painting: Betsey Heuisler blurs the line between handscape and landscape in her oil "The End Is Where We Start From"
Grace Taylorís photograph "Yin and Yang" plows sacred ground in Tibet.

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 2/21/2001

Mixed-media drawings, Paintings and Photographs

Elzbieta Sikorska, Betsey Heuisler, Grace Taylor

Gomez Gallery through March 10

Landscape themes connect the artwork of Elzbieta Sikorska, Betsey Heuisler, and Grace Taylor, but these artists come from very different places in terms of geography, medium, and style. If you decide to walk along the streams in Sikorska's mixed-media drawings, you're liable to get tangled up in some marshy underbrush; if you enter the surreal body-scapes/landscapes in Heuisler's oil paintings, you won't be sure if what you're encountering is a human fist or a rock formation; and if you visit the Tibetan people featured in Taylor's black-and-white photographs, you'll be grounded in that culture and its high-altitude terrain.

Of the trio now exhibiting at the Gomez Gallery, Sikorska warrants the longest visit. Her drawings are mostly set in the topographically ambiguous zones where water, land, and vegetation are so crowded together that the distinctions between them blur. From a distance, Sikorska's landscapes seem to be solidly rendered, an impression strengthened by her compositional strategy of having one or several substantial trees anchoring pictures that also include dense brush. Taking a closer look, you will realize things aren't quite as stable as they initially seemed. What looked like darkly cohesive masses from a distance are revealed to be made up of dozens of slashing, agitated lines. It's as if each vine and tree branch is asserting itself--a literal turf war, if you will.

Sikorska is at her best in such graphite drawings as "Stream Bank," in which the sharply defined vegetation at the top of the drawing is softly reflected in the stream filling the bottom half; the geometrically minded "Ladder," with its foreground of tree trunks and background filled with so many thin vertical lines that you'd never be able to count all the trees there; and "Patuxent," in which the complex interweaving of trees, grasses, vines, and water is complemented by the white light playing across this waterside view.

The artist's mixed-media drawings often include bursts of color, but these sometimes seem arbitrary. Some of her red-hued fields, for instance, may leave you wondering: Why red? Is this a direct response to nature or simply a quick way to jazz up an otherwise monochromatic drawing? Even though Sikorska doesn't seem to have mastered color to the same extent as she has black, white, and gray, it's invigorating to watch as she tries out different possibilities. Her streams, forests, and fields are alive.

Betsey Heuisler's paintings depict landscapes that exist in her imagination more than on any map. One of the best, "Entrance to the Cave," has a dark, painterly passage at the center of the painting that evokes the opening of a cave. The cave entrance is flanked by ridged and barren landscape formations whose earthy brown and yellow tones are austerely beautiful. The compositional elements in this and other paintings are so sparely and ambiguously deployed that you won't be quite sure what you're looking at. Sometimes you'll even wonder if you're looking at human fingers or rippled landscape features. This ambiguity is dealt with most overtly in a painting such as "Handscape #12." Indeed, the entire "Handscape" series is based on an examination of hands and other body parts that are considered at such close quarters and so abstractly that they call to mind surreal landscapes more than the surface of the human body.

Heuisler comes up with some engaging variations on images in her 22 exhibited paintings. Likewise, the burnished rust tones she favors are able to make hands (or the land) seem anything but dull. If there's anything to worry about here, it's that this series threatens to slip into the formulaic. Although it's stimulating to look at a painting and wonder whether you're gazing at a finger or a rocky projection, the compositional and color variations aren't always quite enough to make you linger.

Grace Taylor is represented by black-and-white photographs documenting the monks, nomads, teachers, children, and other inhabitants of Tibet. Smiling subjects face her camera, and they're framed so tightly that you often won't see much more than a household wall behind them.

Taylor makes especially good use of windows, as in "Friends," with its placement of one person inside a house who looks out through a first-floor window and a second person standing just outside that same window. You will get a sense of how these people are connected to their dwellings and to each other. The window frame also makes for a pleasingly simple compositional arrangement that encourages you to remain focused on the human subjects.

Just the same, it'd be nice if Taylor at least occasionally gave us a more expansive feeling for the land these people inhabit. "Landscape, Tibet #25" is the rare shot here that provides a panoramic view of the mountainous environment. You wouldn't want too many imposing landscapes in an exhibit celebrating Tibet's inhabitants, because how many people are photogenic enough to compete with looming peaks? However, some of the portraits would be stronger if they showed a little more of the architectural and natural setting.

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