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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).

This show is a visual diary of sorts. Its pencil is the camera; its basic mark is the photograph. Sketches, pastels and paintings enter the mix as well, in sundry images pinned to or hung on the walls, singly and in groups of up to 50. Using traditional forms of portrait and still life, Sullivan depicts scenes from his life with both extreme physical precision and emotional opacity.

His work transcends his time and place, as well as the art world's passing fascination with New York's beautiful crowd. Nostalgia is built into his portraits: There are East Hampton beach scenes from the early '70s and more recent garden parties set at the height of summer. The downtown Manhattan milieu includes art cognoscenti, designers, models and anonymous celebrities all partaking of mid-'80s excess. The photographs -- part travelogue, part fashion spread -- have the immediacy and casualness of snapshots. The brush-and-ink drawings funnel pornographic grist through the mill of a loose but assured line.

Sullivan's art is generous and inviting. Never cynical, it makes insiders of outsiders. One wall blends photographs of curator Klaus Kertess, artist Stephen Mueller, model Naomi Sims and critic Gary Indiana with drawings of fashion designer Kenzo, art dealer Holly Simon, critic Peter Schjeldahl and artist Chuck Close. The lush, light-drenched photos can be unaccountably moving -- sometimes embarrassingly so -- "golden days" of our own remembering.

Among Sullivan's honest, brilliant chronicles of '80s New York nightlife are a few recent photographs, mostly of flowers, but also paintings of Sullivan's two sons; these works are remarkable for their high-keyed, sensuous color.

The '70s -- and Houston -- also put in an appearance: early '70s photos of Texas Gallery's Fredericka Hunter and Ian Glennie vacationing at Wainscott, images of Helen Winkler and Danny Clayton. Little histories of people and stuff abound: freely sketched French bulldogs caught in mid-scamper, a pastel of huge yellow sunflowers set on a hot pink platter and blue tablecloth.

Strewn from one end to the other are portraits of "Ed." Some 20 sketches have "Cowboy Ed" stripping down and beating off. Dressed in military fatigues, "Army Ed" holds a cigarette between his lips as he unbuttons his shirt and loosens his pants. Sullivan also portrays Ed, flushed in desire, as a dreamy hunk in sailor hat and dog tags, his head propped up by a leopard-print pillow. All of the images are cheesy in a cliched Village People sort of way.

But the specifics of such hedonism matter less than the buoyant spirit in which they are offered. Unlike his photos, Sullivan's drawings are pared down until they reach an almost declarative simplicity. He creates a twisting calligraphy of brushed ink. Quivering lines are set down at collision speed. His subjects smolder from the intensity. As with all of Sullivan's portraits, we are allowed to get close and stare as long as we like.

If there's a discernible shift in the works, it is more one of mood than anything else: The pleasure he takes in the vitality of his subjects seems to have both deepened and become more forthright. A life-size pastel of Ed, nude and gorgeous, has the model sitting in a red Eames chair on a purple and blue hardwood floor. Another canvas positions him in the same red Eames chair, with his legs drawn up, his penis exposed toward the viewer.

All of Sullivan's work seems witty and casual, yet much of it belies a complex classical composition. Completing the show are several flower pastels filled with jarringly sensuous slashes of color. Everything is pushed right at the viewer -- all foreground, all marvelously evocative in their freshness. In Elephant Ears, flowers and greenery mingle in a welter of deft, effusive marks that suggest the painterly realism of Nell Blaine and, through her, the wild intimacy and hot color of the French Fauves. Similarly, the pliant beauty and crackling strokes of Buddha hearken to Joan Mitchell's wiry gestures.

In many respects, Sullivan's art can be tied to the moody, achingly romantic and narcissistic narratives of Jack Pierson and Karen Kilimnik, whose works feign a cool distance at first, only to welcome the viewer with their sympathetic, if glamourous, allure. Sullivan, however, maintains a certain dogged optimism, even a kind of loopy good cheer. There's no heavyweight message beyond the simple pleasure of looking at the works. Throughout his career, Sullivan has remained untouched by trendiness. And these days, that's a rare vision.

"Charles Mary Kubricht" is on view through May 30 at at Moody Gallery, 2815 Colquitt, (713)526-5966.

"Billy Sullivan -- Life and Still Life" is on view through June 5 at Texas Gallery, 2012 Peden, (713)524-1593.

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