Colorful vocabulary: Baines abstracts the drama

Katie Baines, "tightrope."
Katie Baines, "tightrope."

"These shouldn't work" was my first thought while standing in Ruffin Gallery looking at Katie Baines's recent paintings. A visiting faculty member in UVA's art department, Baines creates shape-strewn abstracts, combining numerous techniques from airbrushing to stenciling to brushwork, in colors that would normally clash but somehow mesh. And work, they do.

The best approach, I discovered, is simply to yield, allowing each of the 10 acrylic-on-panel paintings to unfold. After a few minutes, Baines' visual vocabulary begins to make sense. From piece to piece, she deploys a similar set of elements–- thin parallel lines fluid in their irregularity, waving polyps, scalloped borders, stenciled shapes and their echoes, etc.–- that unite her complex compositions and move the viewer smoothly from one small event to the next.

For instance, in "glowing cell," overlapping vertical rectangles of brown, orange, ochre, and olive drip down like stylized stalactites in the top left corner and have their colors repeated in boxes of lines, reminiscent of topographical maps, at the bottom of the painting. The earthy colors occur again as curving ochre shapes with diffuse olive edges that enliven the interior of a purplish cell–- its hues as varied as a bruise–- at the heart of the painting. Meanwhile, two small tiger-striped cylinders of red and chartreuse occur in an egg shape placed inside the "line boxes" but also have twins afloat in the purplish cell stenciled with overlapping ovals.

Nothing in Baines's paintings happens in isolation–- there is always a call and response between the elements. Although abstract, her compositions are rife with animated drama arising from the cartoon-like interplay of shapes and colors. In "tightrope," forms of pale blue, yellow, grey, rust, brown, and orange seem to hang from a slack aqua line, while below, their "shadows" appear to rest beneath a frosted dome. In the background, a white line suggests a horizon above what seems to be a dark body of pooling water edged by stylized swamp grass.

Baines's paintings are like poetry; each work contains a number of stanzas that resonate with each other and circle back to variations on a chorus. Although her techniques are distinct, the dizzying complexity of her compositions and playful "everything including the kitchen sink" approach to palette recall Wassily Kandinsky's abstracts. The longer one looks, the more "aha" moments emerge and entertain. And what at first may have caused head-scratching suddenly makes brilliant sense.

Katie Baines's recent paintings are on view through September 17 at Ruffin Gallery. Ruffin Hall, 179 Culbreth Road. Katie Baines will give an artist's talk at 5:30pm, September 15 in Campbell 160. 924-6123.

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