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Abstraction Made Personal

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

Sam Reveles's hot-blooded, sensual paintings and drawings put you through a grueling emotional workout. Just as you've submitted to the deep melancholy of one, the next yanks you into anguish, and the one beside that, into ecstatic jubilation. The rich, autumnal colors and wild tangles of lines sweep you up. Your pulse quickens; you're caught in the vortex of gestural energy. Reveles can paint.

His works at the Contemporary Arts Museum, from 1996 to 1999, bring together, head-on, those two artistic antagonists, abstraction and representation. His complex over-and-under method begins with an underpainting, a "sketch," he calls it, though it's actually a subtly washed figurative painting of a recognizable subject. Then, on top of that sketch he paints an abstract response to it: feisty scrawls, from inky to diaphanous, blurring the lines, breaking and stretching them. Each work teeters between intention and chaos, control and accident, assertion and whimsy. The apparent mayhem of the marks is astonishing, but it doesn't obscure the presence of a directing intelligence.

The paintings form an environment of sorts, heightening your perception of physical conditions -- you're standing in front of a painting -- as well as your sensitivity to time. You're very conscious of the time it took Reveles to paint all those layers; likewise, it takes you time, as a viewer, to study all those layers, the flow of forces colliding, separating, splitting apart and jostling together.

A few years ago, critic Jerry Saltz noted, "There's never any complete image in a Reveles painting -- it's always once removed and a little obscure." The layered, abstract surface acts as a luminous, transparent membrane. Through its bright colors, we see faint traces of the sketch, a landscape or a delicately rendered painting that invokes art-historical references: Giotto's frescoes, maybe, or Persian miniatures. The sketch is always integral to the abstract field that covers it -- below it, fused with it, immersed in it. The abstraction acts as an emotional commentary on the culturally freighted image that it covers.

Reveles's art is personal. He grew up in El Paso, and in the show's catalog CAM curator Lynn Herbert explains that the place shaped his earthy, primal color sensibility. And through the years he has been interested in Catholic saints, pre-Colombian icons and Arabic calligraphy, all of which show up in his paintings.

Those personal elements, and Reveles's direct representational imagery, distinguish his art from that of other abstractionists. There are links to other artists, of course. His paintings bring to mind Joan Mitchell's canvases, full of gestural energy; sometimes the paint formed a kind of atmosphere, sometimes it seemed to flicker and dart. Reveles's paintings owe a debt as well to Cy Twombly's itchy, skittering forms that coalesce and dissipate in a paradoxical fusion of messiness and grandeur.

Like Brice Marden, Reveles gives substance to slippery traceries of thought and feeling. But deliberate, ruminative Marden never loses "touch" with his picture surface, and his weblike lines seemed to be engaged in reconnaissance. Reveles, on the other hand, travels at high velocity. You can get lost in his paintings' turbulence, their fierceness and vitality. Everything seems willed rather than calculated, about to burst apart or collapse together. The tensions -- expressiveness versus structure, delicate lyricism versus compulsive insistence -- give the paintings the nervous, quirky and altogether unexpected quality of something seen for the first time.

All those changes and shifts put you in mind of the Buddhist belief that all things are transitory, that the world is made up of appearances. And with Spine, Reveles in fact began with an underpainting of a Buddhist priest in a yoga position. Different colors are assigned to different parts of the body, making it appear that energy surges up the spine and culminates in a point above the head. Using Buddhism's injunction to "let go," Reveles almost totally covers the priest with calligraphic lines of indigo, red, yellow and orange.

Arabic script informs the calligraphic abstraction in Mogador, which began with a painting of Hindu goddesses on the right and Hindu gods on the left. Here three "panels" shift colors, left to right, from red-pink to blood-red and yellow-green. The center fairly pulsates with a welter of purple strokes.

Reveles uses color symbolically. Red stands for blood and what makes us sentient creatures; green is often used in Buddhist art as a symbol for infinity. In the gouache Slayer, the searing heat of the desert is evoked by browns and veils of orange and red; its yellow appears to shimmer from somewhere deep inside the painting. The gouaches are vibrant, acute, visceral. Their vibrant grace makes them more immediately accessible.

In the paintings and drawings with sketches derived from Renaissance masters, Reveles seems to suggest that one can never gain perspective on either the world or one's existence in it. Journey Ascent/Descent and Wilderness Hold consist of landscapes -- pieces of trees, rocks and hills -- extending from behind clouds of frenzied brushwork. You try to unravel the biblical stories revealed in and through the dense layers of color, to discern the human presences from the vestiges of hands, feet and profiles visible through the abstraction.

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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