CULTURE- ART FEATURE- Unblocked color: Sykes is driven to abstraction

Painter Gresham Sykes had me at orange. Some people are suckers for certain colors, and I admit to a weakness for anything falling between red and yellow on the spectrum. The fact that Sykes' current exhibition in the McGuffey Art Center's main gallery also includes intense blues– from cerulean to azure to teal to cobalt– is just an intoxicating bonus.

Following in the footsteps of the Color Field movement– which had its heyday in the mid-20th century and included artists like Jules Olitski, Helen Frankenthaler, and Hans Hofmann– Sykes creates large acrylic abstracts with no detectable references to the real world (although several titles allude to astronomy). Instead, the artist invents relationships by arranging geometric shapes against large swaths of color.

Although at first glance the strength of Sykes' colors suggest he's working with pure pigments, a closer look quickly reveals that every hue is the result of layering– one color brushed on top of another through which earlier layers show. Edges blur, and nothing is exact. 

For instance, in "Counting Coup," Sykes places a nearly rectangular shape of blackish teal in the middle of a sea of red-orange. To the upper right, an uneven round of ochre floats, while a spot of black-teal sits left of center. Meanwhile, across the bottom, seven not quite vertical stripes of varying colors are unevenly spaced. All these irregularities interrelate to form an unexpectedly balanced composition.

In fact, Sykes is at his best when he makes counter-intuitive sense from elements that logically shouldn't work together. His "Astronomer's Window" presents a block of cerulean blue scattered with bits of emerald green and a small horizontal area flecked with cobalt, on a background of dried-mud ochre. A larger round of searing orange, juxtaposed with two nearby blots of black, electrifies the left third of the cerulean block. But below, a horizontal band of sickly chartreuse, containing a row of muddy dots, stretches edge to edge. The combination should be hideous, but instead it's riveting.

Not every piece in Sykes' show is as successful. "Agrigento" stands out as a hulking, dull anomaly, its drab yellow-grey architectural shape looming against a lackluster brown background. Also, although the blues and violets in "Kuiper's Belt" are eye-popping, the X-through-the-canvas composition lacks the subtle complexity of Sykes' other works.

Overall, though, Sykes' paintings jump with colorful abstract explorations. I suggest heading to McGuffey to gulp some visual orange juice.

Gresham Sykes' exhibition of acrylic paintings on paper, board, and canvas is on display in the McGuffey Art Center's main gallery through the end of May. 201 Second St. NW. 295-7973.