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Nature’s Bounty
By David Brickman

Timothy Cahill: Photographs

Anne Francey: Paintings

Audrey Sturman: The Waves and Other Recent Work

Firlefanz Gallery, through July 2

Is curating an art form? It seems in the hands of Firlefanz Gallery codirector Cathy Frank that it can be. This time, two overlapping exhibitions—one a pairing of painter Anne Francey and photographer Timothy Cahill, the other a solo show of ceramic sculpture in the garden by Audrey Sturman that has spilled into the gallery—have morphed into a finely tuned three-person show that, while spontaneously created, looks as though it was meant to be.

This is the first time Francey’s work has been shown in this gallery, though her resume is filled with recent exhibitions at other prominent area venues, as well as a number of exhibitions abroad, mostly in her native Switzerland. Here, she presents about a dozen pieces, ranging from 6-foot-tall gestural paintings on canvas to 2-inch-square scratch-through drawings on paper mounted to wood blocks. In between are four 2-foot-square canvases that combine the representational with the abstract.

In all Francey’s pieces, color is a major player: For example, bold primaries dominate the four large paintings, titled Red Flower, Blue Flower, Green Flower and Yellow Flower. But the titular color of each painting, laid on quickly, covers the background, while the nearly abstract strokes of the flowers themselves are muted and more layered. This makes for an interesting game that flattens the pictorial space, and places the emphasis on the dancelike gestures Francey has derived from the floral subjects.

Conversely, Francey’s wood-block trio titled Insect Life I, II and III takes scale way down to the bugs’ level and features simple but tighter lines in its miniature confines. The playfulness of these pieces is restored, though, by the choice to mount them on magnets, making the four blocks of each piece movable or even interchangeable.

I find the complexity of shapes, lines and, especially, layering that infuse Francey’s four medium-sized paintings make them the most satisfying of the work she shows here. Titled Dido’s Errands I, II, III and IV, they vary in palette from highly contrasting colors (e.g., blue/orange and green/red) to a much narrower range, but are all quite dynamic in their compositions.

Though not entirely abstract, with recognizable vase forms most prominent, the Dido paintings emphasize the floating edges of shapes, overlapping layers of paint and textures of brushmarks. Their obscure visual references and built-up density also make them seem more personal, urging the viewer to contemplate and study them, and rewarding the effort with subtle revelations.

Color is also a key part of Sturman’s new work, a development from her last big show at Firlefanz two years ago, which I recall showed the beginnings of this direction. Now, in addition to the strong elements of texture along with earth or mineral tones of the earlier work, Sturman is building up patinas of reds, blues and greens on her new forms, which continue to explore their physical relationships in pairs or threes.

These formal juxtapositions are at the core of her process. In the current Wave studies, organic water and underwater shapes work in relation to each other but also develop interest from their beautiful surfaces, such as in the emerald- and rust-colored Wave Series 29 and the green and rust Reed Sea. Another pedestal piece, Dark Swell, has similar colors but verges on the figurative; other larger pieces placed outside evoke reaching hands, reminding us that Sturman’s formal explorations will never take her too far from nature. Then again, we don’t really need reminding—with the recent rains making everything grow so fast lately, nature nearly takes over in the gallery’s garden, where Sturman’s pieces are becoming somewhat overwhelmed by the foliage.

Whether working large or quite small, Sturman always lets the clay speak; now she is adding other language as well, taking phrases from sacred texts and rendering them in curling calligraphic Hebrew that sometimes evokes other ancient or imaginary scripts, as in Bresheet/In the Beginning, with its rows and patterns of runic or hieroglyphic marks. Here, too, color plays a role all over the surface of the piece, interacting with the inscribed marks in a way that brings the Middle Eastern traditions of decorative ceramic tile to mind.

Timothy Cahill hasn’t exactly been hiding his light under a bushel basket these past 10 or so years, but his re- emergence from journalistic exile into once again making and showing art is most welcome. Not surprisingly, the writer is very much present in these 14 black-and-white photographs taken from 2000-2004 and printed in an intensive marathon this spring. This is evident in both the evocative titles and the poetic sensitivity of the images.

Most of the pictures are taken in close-up—not macro, like you see flower and insect photographers do, but from a natural distance that allows comfortable scrutiny of the subject within a narrowly bounded context. So we peruse a pair of dead sunflowers, individual fallen leaves, a single pine cone set among waves of needled branches, or a gathering of natural detritus frozen into ice as micro-environments signifying themselves but also intended as metaphors.

Why else would a title such as Apple Leaves As I Found Them be necessary? With his words, Cahill is guiding us in interpreting the pictures—and he’s exposing himself. The intimacy of the pictures, in terms of distance, is matched by true intimacy from the artist. By taking the risk of letting us know how he feels, Cahill is making connections with his art.

One of the techniques that makes this group of pictures particularly affecting is that they are all sized a bit differently—from a lovingly made 2 1/2-by-4-inch print titled Torch Leaf to the 9-by-13-inch, soft-edged Naked Seed, Cahill has treated each image as an individual with particular needs. In a few cases, a print is a bit washed out or has blocked up blacks, showing the rust in his technique. But the majority hit just the right tones, whether gray or contrasty, to give you the feel he wants.

Among my favorites are three from 2004 that are shown together, titled Court, Cloud Hidden (First warm day of February) and Instead of Writing (Not afraid of winter); in all three, a surrealistic atmosphere pervades. Also successful are a pair from 2003 titled Gravitas Levitas and Aura #25, in which leaves have been temporarily fossilized by invading ice crystals.

But the best piece is a long horizontal printed on two pieces of paper butted together that shows a tusklike seedpod arcing above a delicate little almond-shaped leaf against a dark ground. Titled Seed and Leaf (For Andy), this photograph evokes the processes and perils of life: Male and female join, reproduce, nurture, protect—but they also separate, struggle, abandon.

Cahill’s gentle foray into photographing nature at its nadir, in late fall and winter, has produced subtly life-celebrating results. His statement says his next pictures will be about summer—for that effort, I wish him luck. Courage he already has.

The outdoor section of Audrey Sturman’s exhibition of ceramic sculptures will continue at Firlefanz Gallery through July 30.


-no peripheral vision this week

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