Orange you glad? Freeman juices the fruit

"Survival I" by Richard Freeman.
"Survival I" by Richard B. Freeman.

Roanoke sculptor Betty Branch tells a story from the days when she was a young bride involved with a fundamentalist church. Every Sunday afternoon, she and her husband would call on people at their homes. In one household, the wife always served mouthwatering biscuits, and Branch finally asked for her secret. "Oh, honey," the woman said, "if you do something everyday, eventually you get good at it."

I remembered Branch's anecdote while viewing Richard B. Freeman's exhibition, "Survival," at Angelo jewelry store. A large, spherical orange occupies the center of each of Freeman's eight acrylic paintings and two graphite drawings. Although the artist offers several motifs and subtly varies his palette and technique, the fruit is always the key ingredient. And the truth is the man knows how to paint an idealized orange.

In his artist's statement, Freeman explains his work reflects his experience with sickness and survival and that the ever-present orange symbolizes of his life force. The precise meaning of his images, however, is clearly personal and remains obscure to outside viewers. Nevertheless, Freeman's compositions, hovering somewhere between surrealism and abstraction, are graphically strong.

In several pieces, Freeman sets his orange on a square slab and overlays the austere scene with vertical bars, resembling a cage, made from collaged fragments that include dollar bills, bits of text, and cut-up book and magazine illustrations. He then surrounds the central image with a painted border that suggests a frame, layering and scraping away pigment tot create the impression of age and weathering.

Another Freeman trope is to semi-enclose his orange within the claw-like roots of a stylized tree (it's unclear whether the tentacles are meant to be protective or threatening). The artist's consistent attention to palette and small details is evident in how the confetti-like dots that push his tree toward pointillism in "Emerge" include the pale yellow Freeman uses as a background for the dotted ground below the orange, which here floats in midair.

One of the most successful pieces in the show is also the smallest. Combining numerous Freeman motifs, the meticulously drawn "Rebellious" features tree roots that not only descend over the central orange but also extend through the bars of the cage enclosing the fruit. Here, Freeman's mix of geometric and narrative content is particularly effective.

Freeman's oranges are undeniably repetitive, but the juice is subtly different from one image to the next–- and it's almost always delicious.

Richard B. Freeman's exhibition, "Survival," is on view through October 31 at Angelo. 220 E. Main St. on the Downtown Mall. 971-9256.