Canyons and Cowboys

Charles Mary Kubricht begins her paintings of the Grand Canyon with photographs -- a vista that she liked during a hike, perhaps. Then she paints those scenes on wood panels -- as few as two or as many as 49 -- and puts them together like a perceptual puzzle, or a film strip, or a photographic contact sheet. The landscapes become abstract elements, and Kubricht feels free to tinker with them, manipulate them, arrange them, condense them. Her configurations read both as abstract painting and as a continuous series of images, a series that can be read both forward and backward, vertically and horizontally. The entire suite evokes memories and emotion, experiences in nature.

In the new works at Moody Gallery, you sense everywhere Kubricht's drive to focus the Grand Canyon experience, to keep each aspect of presentation firmly in hand. She limits her palette mostly to natural blues and earth tones, with a few dark mauve and olive strokes around areas of bleached yellow and daubs of white. Her brush strokes are straight, but they crisscross and elbow each other. Throughout, her touch is steady and even, lending a sense of stillness and order.

Which is not at all to say that the paintings are static. After you look at one for a few moments, its subject dissolves. The quiet vistas, dark shadows and tuftlike clouds dismantle themselves into their carefully considered painterly components. A canyon shimmers like a mirage, then dissolves into abstraction.

The paintings oblige you, too, to figure out where to stand while looking at them. At one distance, the images appear dense and sharp, but if you draw closer, they soften and blur. The experience is a bit like focusing a camera, an echo of the photos Kubricht started with.

The paintings impart a sense of depth and planarity, of far and near, of specific and unspecific. That spatial quality, of course, is part of the Southwest itself, where deserts indelibly alter one's sense of space and light, where views are both panoramic and finely articulated.

You can also see changes in Kubricht's touch and mood as she paints the canyon outcroppings, with their shifting planes, spatial rhythms and variations in tone. You feel the tension between change and constancy; you think about how real landscapes are both constantly in flux and soothing in their permanence. Her variations of hand and mind record a moment in time and make you aware of the act of painting itself.

Some of Kubricht's titles have the specificity of notations made on-site, but there's no way to know from the paintings whether her landscapes in fact describe a specific time or location. And it doesn't matter: The meditative experience of enjoying nature's sensuous abstraction could hardly feel more real.

Listening to the Sun's Shadow, a 25-panel grid, is obviously grounded in real experience, as it's perceived and understood, then rendered with a disciplined intensity. At a distance, you read light and dark passages as if watching the light shift from the passage of time. The massive black outcropping in the right corner of each panel gradually melds with the sky through a slow progression of creamy brown-to-gray shifts. Kubricht's transitions from black through gray and white are so deftly painted that they seem equal to the delicate filtering properties of light itself.

With 49 panels, To Eratosthenes generates a sense of compression, of energy held in a state of tense equilibrium. There is also a compression in the small scale of the painting, which brings a vast panorama closer to human scale, allowing it to be examined in a strangely intimate manner. At a distance, you perceive the intense light of the sun across the canyon surface, practically feel the temperature change from hot to cold as day shifts to night. Up close, you read not tonal passages but individual strokes of varying widths calmly and carefully laid on the surface. Sensory experience gives way to a feeling of transcendence over everyday reality.

Night Sky possesses an unsettling hypnotic power. On close examination, the 49 panels appear as individual abstract paintings. But from across the gallery, Kubricht's strokes of midnight, turquoise and ice blue seem to move as random particles colliding and clinging to one another; profound darkness is interrupted by pinpoints of light. The star clusters give you little idea of scale or distance, but you're totally aware of the painting's own size. You get a sense of space that's far from that of normal experience but that does seem like something you've seen before, or maybe imagined.

With all of these works, Kubricht aims to control and take possession of the expanses she paints, to bring them inward and filter them through her own sensibility. Her Grand Canyon paintings may constitute a contrived, restricted world, but it is a world that is intensely self-absorbed and convincing.

It's always startling to see an artist's life turned inside out, especially when the life is as dashing as that of painter Billy Sullivan's. Such is the feat accomplished by "Life and Still Life," Sullivan's compilation at Texas Gallery; the show manages to be both daring in scope and yet exhilaratingly familiar. (The last exhibition of Sullivan's work at Texas Gallery was in 1974, but you may have recognized it playing the part of Greg Kinnear's art in the film As Good As It Gets).

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