Hot Hot Heat

A series of summer shows at Clayton Galleries

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To an urban Floridian in late July, a glimpse of landscape without the yellow-brown of withered grass or the quavering black surface of broiling pavement can seem downright hallucinatory. So Kathy Wright's gentle lavender trees set in a North Carolina winter seemed like a heavenly vision to me as I stumbled into Clayton Galleries, leaving an overheated Honda behind for a cool, softly lit interior.

Wright, a Sarasota-based painter who periodically travels up the East Coast to paint, sets the leafless trees against an abstracted background of green and white shapes; in front, the biggest, darkest trunk anchors the foreground and aids the suggestion of deep space. In other paintings that clearly depict Florida, trademark palms and all, structures that hover between minimalist modern and Shaker simple tower above the trees. (Wright trained as an architect before becoming a painter, and an interest in structure continues to feed her work, she said in a phone conversation.)

Though prosaic at first, something about the landscapes unsettles at second glance. Contorted tree branches, though nature's convention rather than the artist's, seem pained, arthritically tender. The unusually small windows that puncture the smooth structural facades read as tiny eyes peeping out from expressionless faces. Combined with soft, dreamy brushwork and shadowy purples that lend more mystery than brighter, friendlier colors would, these not-quite-right details give the paintings a touch of suspense.

Landscape with a twist, you might say, describes many of the paintings on display at Clayton's Hot Summer series of shows. The group shows, numbered one to three — we're at the tail end of the second right now — offer a once-a-year opportunity to see side-by-side a broad range of the artists the gallery represents; ordinarily, they are exhibited one or two at a time. Gallery manager Mark Feingold curates the shows, which open and close with little fanfare (read: no reception). When he shuffles paintings next month for the final show in the summer series, it's likely that some of the work discussed here will remain on display, while other works by the same artists will be rotated in.

Not all of the work is brand spanking new — though most of it dates from the past couple of years — but revelations aren't always tied to an artwork's currency. A 1999 Manatee River landscape by Jeff Whipple catches the artist at an unexpectedly subtle moment. The Bay area's own renaissance man (known as painter, sculptor, filmmaker and playwright) has developed a reputation for metaphorical scenes that seem at once lighthearted and deep, placing figures amid an onslaught of flying coffee cups or atop a pile of hotdogs.

Earlier this year, a light-panel frieze of his images lit up the courtyard of the Tampa Museum of Art. (It's a long-term installation — go see it any night of the week until the museum relocates.) And at the Gulf Coast Museum of Art, his ironic portrait of office workers, a man and woman heroically posed astride a desk littered with workaday detritus, currently appears in an exhibit of permanent-collection works. (Incidentally, the same painting graced the cover of the Weekly Planet in August 2002.)

At Clayton, Whipple uses a comparatively light touch to render the Florida riverscape, gently nudging naturalism just to the point of surrealism. Bisected by a thin strip of land, the mirror image of sky and water creates a vertiginous symmetry, confusing the difference between up and down, real and reflection.

Cassandra James drives us down a seaside road at midnight, when moonlight illuminates a thin layer of fog and renders tall grass and trees nearly black. Distortion, as the skyline and the sandy path move toward convergence beyond the canvas edge, suggests a glance backward in a rearview mirror. The starkly beautiful scene owes something to the film frame as a unit of narrative and abstraction; blurred, as if by the passage of time across memory, the painting evokes a still or a Polaroid.

Bruce Marsh, one of several former USF professors represented by the gallery, also sees nature through a lens, though perhaps more telescope than camera. He punctuates a vast expanse of blue waves — no shoreline in sight — with tiny red and orange markers, not unlike rifle sights, minus the suggestion of violence. Nevertheless, the markers impose some element of surveillance or human control on the turbulent water; they pop out as artificial against the natural blues and suddenly make you aware of seeing through someone else's eyes.

Susan Klein's landscapes suggest a bit of Van Gogh or Japanese woodblock prints. Unconventional use of color renders a pair of palm tree trunks red and a river purple with orange highlights; obsessive black outlining delineates each blade of grass and tree leaf. Water dominates a Florida scene, while one painted out West shows the rock formations characteristic of that region.

It's not all landscapes. Kate Norris, new to the gallery and relatively new to the Bay area, is one of only a few artists working in pure abstraction. A trio of geometrical canvases — each nearly monochromatic in pink, blue or lime — reveals layers of history upon close inspection. Norris alternates between different types of abstraction — loose, squiggly gestures on one layer, an interlocking grid of shapes on another — in thin coats of oil paint. Between layers, she sands the paint down to create transparency and a burnished build-up of color that makes each canvas seem to glow from within.

Figure makes an especially strong showing in the work of Sarasota-based painter Lynn Davison. A series of enigmatic hand gestures demonstrates her remarkable knowledge of anatomy. (Amazingly, she paints from memory, not models, said Feingold, the gallery manager.) While some past works have involved more than one figure, engaged in a struggle or other tense interaction, Davison pares down information in these smaller paintings to a bare but suggestive minimum.

Hands grasp objects that portend a kind of vague and domestic danger. It's not that an apple corer necessarily looks like a weapon, but its heft and sharp blades create an uncomfortable pairing with the fingers curled around it or the exposed vein of a wrist. In another image, a woman's hand grasps a corkscrew pointed back towards her body; three flexed fingers enter at the edge of the canvas, perhaps reaching out to stop an attempt at self-injury.

Between such hints of menace or mystery and their extraordinary realism, the images mesmerize — something to look forward to when Davison inaugurates the gallery's fall season with a one-person show in September.

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