The Conrad Wilde Gallery down on Fourth Avenue specializes in artists who use ordinary materials in extraordinary ways.
In a memorable show in December, for instance, a couple of women tore mattresses apart and converted their contents into art, recycling the foam into arresting "paintings" in every shade of yellow and amber. Gallery owner Miles Conrad, an encaustic artist, last year created a beehive installation out of wax and wire.
"Innovation is something I'm interested in," Conrad says. "The goal of the gallery is to show artists using usual materials in an unusual format."
At first glance, Garry Mitchell, a Maine painter who has this month's solo show, seems more conventional than his predecessors, materials-wise. Mitchell makes elegant abstract paintings on board; in the 13 works in this exhibition, figures and shapes float atop vague grids beautifully colored in earth green or ocher or blue-black.
"Sand Dial" draws on the colors of the Southwest. (Now an art professor at Colby College, Mitchell lived in Tucson in the early '90s and taught at the school of the Tucson Museum of Art). Irregular rectangles of rust orange jostle against warm tan, and spirals and curves in white and brown shoot across this desert-toned grid. "Habit" is a delicious checkerboard of greens, from khaki to lime to gray-green, marked up with arrow-like slashes in white, black and orange.
All well and good, but does this work meet the Wilde standard for wildness? The answer is yes. First of all, the serenity of these cerebral pictures belies their rough-and-tough construction. To get his lovely surfaces, Mitchell slashes and sands and scrapes the paint, sometimes subtracting so much of the pigment that the colored figures on top become barely-there phantoms.
In "Earmark," a checkerboard of dusty blues and grays, vigorous whites and yellows and orange shapes careen across the surface. But an energetic brown line that bounces across the right side of the picture eventually fades to a trace. Other figures are almost entirely erased; faint as memories, they show dimly through the layers of background paint.
Secondly, Mitchell also uses a new kind of alkyd paint, made of polyester resin, which Conrad says is still relatively rare. Combining the virtues of acrylics and oils, alkyd dries as fast as acrylics do, and it's as luminous as oil paint. The quick drying allows Mitchell to go back in and change and subtract and layer to his heart's content. The transparency of the paints allows the beauty of the layers to shine through.
And finally, the artist doesn't limit himself to conventional painting. His works are an ingenious combination of printmaking and painting. In an artist's statement, Mitchell explains how he first creates the surface figures free-form on his painter's palette, pooling his paint into his odd iconography of curlicues and spirals and half-arrows. Then he rolls printmakers' brayers and squeegees over the paint, and transfers the little shapes to his painted boards. But he's never entirely sure how a work's going to turn out.
"I roll that shape onto the paintings' surface," he writes. "The image I 'print' is distorted in unpredictable ways. Over the life of a painting, I rework surfaces many times. I roll out a layer of paint, squeegee the surface flat and sometimes sand it down. Some things emerge out of the process; others are lost."
The painting becomes a record of the process. If you look closely at the surface of one of the paintings, you can start teasing out the techniques. "Past Modified" is a case in point. The grid here is a lush combo of blue-black and black-blue; white paint drips down over the rectangles, and white half-circles spring across the surface. But peer intently, and you feel a bit like an archaeologist traveling through layers into the past. Here, a translucent layer of white allows the dark underlayer to show through; there, a bit of early white seeps into the black on top.
Archaeology seems very much to the point. Mitchell's shapes are jazzy and modern as they dance across his surfaces, some of them suggesting traffic signs and lights; he even notes that the "paintings begin as parking lots for shapes on colored surfaces."
But they also conjure up something much older. Humans have long had the impulse to "mark" up their surroundings, to leave an imprint of their lives. From the earliest prehistory, they painted on caves and, here in the Southwest, they chipped designs into rock, recording the animals they hunted, the water they prized.
Mitchell's works are a little like those, their marks emphatically declaring their color and gesture. As the artist writes, the paintings conjure up "the world beyond (their) edges while seeming to tell nothing more than the story of (their) own making."