Melanie Loew, Deer Painter, at Darke Gallery

In "Apparition of a Deer," the current main show at Darke Gallery, Melanie Loew's paintings come across as highly symbolic and associative. She paints women in the nude, bringing to mind vulnerability, femininity and truth. They're often depicted with deer or just their antlers, which could connote goddess mythology and power. And they're painted in strong color schemes -- green or purple or blue -- that then take on their own meaning through the work.

The imagery in these paintings is almost mystical -- there are two-headed deer in one, a woman with a deer's body in another, a deer bounding over a naked woman in a third, the athleticism and power of the movement contrasting with the woman's listlessness.

Uniting all of these works -- in addition to the deer imagery -- are her patterned backgrounds. Whether on canvas or paper, the paintings have these textural backgrounds like you'd find on a wall. They all vary, with some peeking through stains of paint, others obscured only by the subjects of the paintings themselves.

The works are highly personal -- Loew has even used her friends as subjects -- but when added all together, they just didn't pull me in. The message got muddled among all those elements and I couldn't connect with them. There were also some inclusions in the show that didn't quite mesh with the rest. King of Swords and Queen of Fire, which depict the faces and hands of two circus freaks, so to speak, were out of place among the clear cohesion of the rest of Loew's body of work here.

Similarly, Ginormous, a self-portrait of the artist painted on a wooden door, shared some similar elements of the other works, including a richly patterned background and nudity, but was ultimately out of place in terms of shape and subject matter. Regardless, I was glad for its inclusion, as it's one of the stronger works in the show. The painting hits you head on, the door hung low so that you're eye-level with the subject. And it's painted with greater realism than the more surreal works, from the tattoos on her naked body to the contours of her stomach and thighs. Nothing's shrouded in symbolism here, it's just honest.

"Apparition of a Deer" at Darke Gallery, 320 Detering Street, is showing now through July 14. For more information, call 713-542-3802 or visit the gallery's Web site.

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