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May 3 - May 10, 2001

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Abstract distractions

Reeves uses her skills - and her sense of humor

by Leon Nigrosh

JENNIFER REEVES: RECENT PAINTINGS at the Worcester Art Museum, 55 Salisbury Street, through August 5.

Enter the Contemporary Gallery at WAM and the audacity of Jennifer Reeves's 13 large paintings sweeps you into a world of visual, literary, and artistic humor. Splashes of bright color, the extra added dimension of thick paint - really thick paint, playful images of organisms, and even thought balloons combine to present a real treat for the senses.

Selected from three concurrent series, Reeve's paintings vary little in technique but offer a wide variety of content. Her smallish Place (5-9) Text harks back to her early days on the family farm in Michigan. The isolated, painted wood grain rectangle can be thought of as a barn in the midst of flatlands, with delicate tendrils of vegetation off to the right. What brings the magic to this work, and others like it, is the very thick impasto at the top that takes on the appearance of an overhanging bough. Another image, from a second series, Initial Impulse: abstractionist lives in a representational winter, presents the barn as a more realistic weathered structure (with technically proficient peeling paint) plunked in a gray landscape punctured by frantic graphite clouds and a thick impasto totem of stacked earth-toned cubes. Her Place (5-25) Text is so luscious and lumpy because she used a cake decorator to squish out the acrylic paint for the central amorphous "figure" on top of the thick rainbow stripes that run across the birch panel.

In her 6-foot long panel, Initial Impulse: abstraction due east, the visual humor is obvious with its large ark-like boat pressing onward through thickly applied choppy waters. The punning title becomes more apparent when we examine the craft's smokestack. It looks like something from minimalist Kenneth Noland's '60s "Stripes" series - except he would have had to use a trowel to lay on this paint. Does the title refer to the artist herself, moving east? But even if we don't know a lot about art history, or the artist's history, the bold execution, the bright colors, and the thick paint are a joy to experience.

But it's in her most recent paintings that Reeves begins to take on the Abstract Expressionists with gusto. Her 4 by 7-foot panel, Rothko decides to give it another try, is a dark and forbidding landscape populated by creatures emerging from the depths - something Mark Rothko (1903-1970) might have painted if he ever decided to give up his sacred color field rectangles. Her most in-your-face panel in this series is AbExers finally get sick of themselves with its ribald cartoonish thought balloons, splashes and squiggles of "action painting," and her own extra thick and colorful flames.

Yet through all of this Reeves still has a great deal of respect for her artistic predecessors. This is best realized in the large panel, just purchased by WAM, Initial Impulse: black square. Here we can readily see that she works with the panel flat, swiping her thick paint la Pollock, scribbling a pile of spaghetti-like blue across the wet surface like Cy Twombly, and finally tilting the painting to pour on a mad dash of De Kooning colors as though she was Morris Louis gone amuck. Of course there is her trademark troweled-on blades of grass, the technically perfect weathered square of paint, along with the mysterious stalk of organic vegetation, here cozying up to a geometric totem of colored blocks.

Reeves owes a lot of her vision and inspiration to Philip Guston (1913-1980), a long-time associate of the Abstract Expressionists and onetime practitioner himself. In his later years, he gave up the totally abstract for more cartoon-like symbolic elements, incorporating dark humor while making social commentary.

While Reeves's social comments may be just as biting, her sense of humor is genuinely funny, and her images visually engaging.

The Worcester Art Museum is open Wednesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call (508) 799-4406.

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