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User-Friendly Abstraction

Three Houston artists bring a genre new life. Real life.

In the last several years, abstract art -- which had seemed an antiquated practice -- has been resurrected. In Houston, as in other parts of the country, a loose-knit tribe of artists seek to recharge the form by shifting it closer to life. Their user-friendly paintings replace the forbidding seriousness of modernism with humor, lightness and some very recognizable forms. The artists still believe some of abstraction's tenets; they still emphasize the physical facts of their chosen materials and the structural logic of their paintings. But they choose to emphasize feeling rather than problem-solving, and they embrace popular culture rather than opposing it. Their works seduce with craft, warmth and playfulness.

Al Souza's new "paintings" at Moody Gallery are composed of layers upon layers of jigsaw-puzzle pieces -- thousands of them -- and are so visually disruptive that they demand to be stared at either long and hard, or not at all. He treats each puzzle piece as a dab of paint, building the surfaces into sprawling, extravagantly chatty massings of images. Your eye moves from huge slices of cheese-oozing pizza, cuddly National Geographic animals and Mississippi steamboats to Nabisco animal crackers, pastel easter eggs, aquatic flora and swaths of buttons.

The works seem to slide back and forth across your visual field, creating an odd cross-eyed sensation. Your immediate environment seems in flux; the paintings move. By so obviously considering how the eye moves across a painting's surface, Souza pays homage to abstraction.

The paintings' odd interminglings also show connections to Abstract Expressionism and Pop, Surrealism and appropriation. But even when the images are densely layered, the viewer never reads the accumulation as an unordered conglomeration, a reckless pile. Instead, Souza's complex worlds unfold (literally) piece by piece.

His obsessiveness is a fine and awesome thing to behold. The 18-foot Peaceful Kingdom, clearly the masterpiece of the group, balances the retinal jolts of color fields with the syncopated rhythms of disparate images. At a distance, you see New England barns, golden fall foliage, cityscapes, cornucopia, Austrian mountains, Southwestern canyons, white swans and quaint village harbors; all hold their own where no hold seems possible. At the same time, Souza's quirky color choices -- yellow and chartreuse, magenta and violet -- set up an array of shifts and pops; the illusory space between flowers and fields becomes a lush, vibrating zone.

In American Pie, Life Savers packages and jellybeans tumble through space, convene with political-campaign buttons and bump against skewed images of fife- and drum-playing colonial Americans. Your eye moves at irregular speeds; your attention to the various parts seems unbalanced. You find yourself taking stock of mundane objects.

In Trees Lounge, Disney cartoon and Muppet characters are tossed side by side, end to end, one on top of the other. The painting's cultural references whir so fast, and the visual field buzzes so intensely, that the thousands of puzzle pieces seem as though they could be shaken loose at any moment.

At West End Gallery, Kathleen Packlick's small mixed-media paintings and works on paper are similarly concerned with color, horizontal and vertical divisions, and the relationship of parts to the whole. Packlick structures her works around an internal grid. Against it, abstract patterns and representational images reveal or obscure each other. At a glance, her 26 paintings, with their buoyant colors, look like wonderful gifts adhered to the wall.

But as the works unfold, their patterned surfaces open into curious and anxious depths. Sometimes they edge toward narrative order, revealing rhythms of connection, separation and ending. Events organize, dissolve, re-form and coalesce. Chaos collides with geometry; the predictability of the underlying grid gives way to more organic forms.

Like Souza's works, Packlick's paintings unfold as you look at them. A shape seems recognizable only for an instant before transforming itself into another form: a square becomes a circle, the circle becomes an arc, the arc leads the eye dreamily back into the depths, where a mark or gesture cancel the illusion of space, reminding you of the painting's surface.

In Cover Up #1 and #2 for example, variously sized squares containing collage fragments or tiny brushstrokes seem to hover, "windows" through fields of bubble-gum pink and mint green. Like biological twins, the two paintings mirror and reveal each other.

Packlick culls motifs from thrift stores and other repositories of pop culture, yet her paintings manage to seem unique. Rose Cover, In Vein and Flower Dots suggest the ubiquitous patterns of the '40s and '50s (aprons, tablecloths, kitchen linoleum, wallpaper) that litter childhood memories; as cultural signifiers, those patterns are both sublime and degraded. What's more, the floral motifs move from recognizable reference to reductive, abstract pattern as easily as they go from foreground to background.

In Dotty, however, circles and squares seem to float in an ambient, fluid space of acidic yellows, luminous lime greens and fluorescent oranges. The electrified arrangements flaunt Packlick's skills as a colorist and give abstraction the giddy energy of a circus.

Conversely, the mixed-media works on paper are lush, loose, perhaps more psychologically suggestive and complex. In one, gossamer-fine veils of soft hues seemingly melt through collaged pages of text torn from a French medieval history book. In others, the artist floods the paper with pigment, allowing it to luxuriantly bloom and swell as bright-colored circles float through space. In each case, Packlick bends, twists and tweaks the banal into fine-tuned compositions that allude to prior uses and configurations.

By the same token, the densely painted surfaces of Kim O'Grady's intimate paintings, also at West End, reveal a history of revisions that suggests a substratum. Like Packlick, O'Grady deliberately seeks an uneasy tension between intellectual content and sensuous impact, between difficult propositions about abstract painting and light-hearted accessibility.

Balancing gut appeal and practiced smartness, her paintings draw you so close to their surfaces that your nose almost touches them. Their gravitational pull begins the moment you see them. Densely painted skins sometimes wrap around the sides or swell into thick, lumpy crusts. A few surfaces appear out of focus, slightly abuzz with an internal flickering energy.

Whatever memories or associations they trigger, the paintings pique one's interest with fields of indistinct color. A greenish gray-tinted mist fills Jeri Liked This One, but the surface still shimmers with light, as though color were reflected through layers of vaporous fog. Tiny circular pools with minuscule orange dots float upward out of the picture plane. The waxy knit skin of surface, form and color also conveys a sense of the hand in motion, searching.

Lawn Furniture is composed of a delicate orange-and-blue weave that appears to dissolve slowly into a faintly pulsating and deeply affective space. Miracle Whip, on the other hand, is raw and gritty; the vertical white grid looks fatty, venous, blemished and scored with channels of viscous wax. Sugarfree is composed of hundreds of tiny colored dots or fizzies floating on a white ground evocative of saccharin-laced soda. In Freshmaker, O'Grady excavates the lumpy, sickly sweet pink surface, gouging out corpuscular areas, then dropping in replacement dabs or cockleburs of orange paint to activate the gauzy green and blue rectangular planes.

All in all, O'Grady's new work exudes a youthful irreverence toward painterly traditions that both acknowledges its precedents and breaks free of them. Unlike those formalist painters whose purifying activities provide backdrop to her raucous compositions, O'Grady mines the potential of the awkward, messy details of everyday life.

Works by Al Souza will be on view through Nov. 21 at Moody Gallery, 2815 Colquitt, 526-9911.

Works by Kathleen Packlick and Kim O'Grady will be on view through Nov. 14 at West End Gallery, 5425 Blossom, 861-9544.

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