Into the woods: Gray drips toward growth

Noelle I.K. Gray, "Melange #53."
No«lle I.K. Gray, "M©lange #53."

Sadness. Horror. Slack-jawed amazement. These were common reactions to the tree carnage wreaked by last month's storm. Artist No«lle I.K. Gray may also have felt secret joy. Where the rest of us saw destruction, Gray perhaps saw opportunity since salvaged wood is at the heart of the 11 wall pieces constituting her exhibition, "Abstracts on Sculpted Wood," currently on view at Mudhouse.

Gray sands and shapes cast-off ash and cedar pieces from a local lumberyard, preserving crevices and bark, to produce elongated flat surfaces with an organic feeling. She next obscures the underlying wood grain by painting each sculpted cross-section in a rich matte color–- teal, carmine, lilac-gray, black–- often subtly varying areas of darkness and light.

Over this base color, Gray drips a family of contrasting colors in seemingly random clusters of splotches. Diffuse- or lacy-edged, light-colored circlets radiate from droplets of pure pigment. Gray's layering is complex, but she skillfully retains a sense of spontaneity in her dripped compositions, giving the impression that strange-hued lichen or algae are growing on the surface of the sculpted shapes.

As a result, her pieces appear to be natural objects, perhaps eroded rocks collected from a riverbed on another planet (although the work closest to the restrooms looks more like a strangely mottled cross-section of a dinosaur bone). Gray has strung her paintings across the wall at varying heights like colorful misshapen clouds or fossilized puddles.

The strongest aspect of Gray's work is her sensitivity to color combinations. In "M©lange #5," branching, interconnected filaments of white surround peach and pink droplets that burble across a sage-grey slab. Nearby, soft-edged splotches of tomato red with shadows of ochre and orange mottle the turquoise surface of "M©lange #16." And in "M©lange #3," frothy white surrounds olive-green clusters on a charcoal-black background.

Although Gray's arrangements of colors are meditative and make for pleasant viewing, her technique veers dangerously close to schtick. "I look at my pieces as an emotional emanation; mental pools flowing from one image to the next," she writes in her artist's statement. Yet any variation in emotion is hard to detect, and each work, though superficially engaging, lacks the depth and substance required to sustain looking.

Still, Gray's ability to create unfamiliar yet evocative organic objects is intriguing. And pulling beauty and the suggestion of growth from the scrapheap is no small feat.

No«lle I.K. Gray's exhibition, "Abstracts on Sculpted Wood," is on view through August 2 at Mudhouse. 213 W. Main St. on the Downtown Mall. 960-0804.