CULTURE- ART FEATURE- Abstract distraction: McCarten's convoluted canvases

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Last month Leslie Banta's minimal yet complex landscapes at Staunton's Kronos Gallery completely caught me off guard— in a good way— with their intriguing, quiet dynamism. The work so impressed me that when I learned Banta's mentor, Joyce McCarten, was slated to show at Kronos in March, I made a special note on my calendar.

But when I returned to the gallery, I was in for another surprise, this time not nearly as thrilling. Unfortunately, in the case of Banta and McCarten, the student has taken the teacher's instruction and run with it, excelling far beyond what the teacher herself produces.

The 17 abstract paintings and mixed media pieces in McCarten's exhibition are a mishmash of different styles and approaches. Several large oils offer diffuse-edged shapes of bright textured color—often yellow or orange— layered over underlying painted areas. Other works incorporate ornamental papers, old photographs, and scraps of hardware to create painting-collage hybrids. In still other pieces, McCarten concerns herself with juxtaposing and defining geometric painted areas with oil pastel marks. 

Given the lack of unity, I assumed McCarten was showing work from several periods in her artistic career (there are no dates included on the list of titles and prices). Gallery owner Kevin Postupack, however, revealed McCarten created all the pieces on display during the past two years.

Which left me struggling— and ultimately failing— to find a "there" there. In her artist's statement, McCarten enigmatically writes that her paintings express "exactly what I wanted to say," but I came away from the current show having no idea what that might be. I could detect no underlying theme or set of questions McCarten is seeking to explore.

Moreover, McCarten's haphazard presentation of her work exacerbates the sense that the show is a muddled jumble. Some pieces are unframed, others are matted under glass, while still others use a floating mount. All the formats are interspersed, leaving the exhibition feeling slapdash and careless.

If you had the good fortune to see Leslie Banta's show last month, you can ferret out some of the gifts McCarten may have conveyed to her— a freedom of stroke, techniques for layering paint and incorporating collage, and the way an unexpected line of color can impact a painting. But whereas Banta presented a unified body of visually stimulating work, McCarten offers a collection of loosely related pieces that fail to cohere into a whole.

Joyce McCarten's abstract paintings and mixed media pieces are on view through the first week of April at Kronos Gallery. 14 Byers St (on the Wharf), Staunton.. 540-213-1815.