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Abstraction Made Personal

You don't look at Sam Reveles's paintings. You look through them.

But you also focus on the surfaces. Reveles manages to take an unabashedly beautiful lavender, or an intense burning orange, and make it float as if were as light and ethereal as air. Grand sweeps of paint, gnarly clusters of line and brushy strokes seemingly hover, at once defiantly confrontational and vulnerable. Remarkably, though worked, scraped and erased, Reveles's paintings never look built-up or labored; the layers of paint appear thin, flat and intangible. The more you look at those moody, dizzying surfaces, the more they seem to dance.

In Scenes from Journey Group, the apparitions and hues are both comfortingly familiar and disconcertingly foreign. The colors evoke Renaissance Italy: In No. 8, Scenes from a Journey, Reveles uses the radiant blue so prevalent in Giotto's frescoes in the Arena Chapel. Here the vibrant sky and refined temple serve as a backdrop for a scene in which traces of figures plead frantically with the hands. Blood-red abstract masses cover both the victims and the oppressors and seem to quiver with physical violence.

In his most recent work, Reveles seems more meditative. One (Campin), Two (van Eyck) and Adoratrix's Garden are distinguished by their absence of color-- everything is in shades of gray -- and a new poeticism in the brushwork. In these monotones, the image, stroke and color mesh as never before. Each brush stroke seems to reveal a sublimated emotion, and the revelation seems both intuitive and carefully considered. Such intensity isn't achieved so much through a mastery of technique as by a courageous hand.

As good as the works are, the show would have been better if it had included fewer of them. Reveles expects full participation; he demands that we imagine, fantasize, free-associate and fully explore his marks. But this show is too large to encourage such contemplation. Instead of immersing yourself in a few works, you must dive in, again and again and yet again. It's exhausting, and the effort feels redundant. In small doses, Reveles's work seems fresh, the antithesis of theoretical painting; in abundance, it starts to seem mannered and self-indulgent, a display of a formulaic language. After taking in the show, you may feel you've hacked your way through a dense jungle.

But Reveles is worth the effort. His best works breathe life -- our own fugitive lives, caught as they are between culture and personal desire.

"Sam Reveles: Recent Paintings and Drawings" will be on view through June 20 at the Contemporary Arts Museum, 5216 Montrose, (713)284-8250.

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