Terra incognita: Parallel shows abstract the elements

Serendipity— so refreshing but so often fleeting. Case in point: until July 10, the ideal way to precede a visit to photographer Paige Critcher and painter Pamela Wallace’s Chroma Projects exhibit, “As Above So Below,” is to spend time with Look3 artist George Steinmetz’s aerial photographs hanging in the trees on the Downtown Mall. By coincidence, the two shows overlap, yet they seem in conversation, informing and enriching each other.

Steinmetz’s bird’s-eye photographs of actual landscapes are beautifully abstract, with compositions emphasizing colors and unexpected patterns. Critcher and Wallace’s abstract photos and paintings, on the other hand, use an array of materials— pigment, beeswax, fabric, water, oil, etc.— to evoke aerial vistas. Unlike with Steinmetz, the fluid relationship between Critcher and Wallace’s work is not accidental; the two took a cross-country trip in a low-flying plane, which became the inspiration for “As Above So Below.”

Although Wallace works primarily with oil stick and encaustic (hot wax, sometimes mixed with other materials), her precise techniques are elusive, as she creates square-paneled paintings that often include the illusion of alluvial features, such as rivers or coastlines. A seemingly organic rivulet of green or blue frequently meanders across a diffuse surface undulating with earthy colors, like rust and ochre. In some works, such as “Desolate,” Wallace introduces loosely woven cloth to simulate the effect of crazing.

Particularly riveting is a 5 x 5 grid of 25 smaller pieces by Wallace. The thickness of the panels varies along with Wallace’s myriad effects and levels of abstraction. The relationship to landscape may seem obvious, as in “Fissure,” or obscure, as in “Scabrous,” but the eye continually makes new discoveries as it moves from panel to panel.

Critcher’s method for creating her photographic subject matter is also mysterious. She drops oil, pigment, and who knows what else in shallow water, and then photographs how the various elements respond to each other. Sometimes, the resulting shapes, ripples, and luminous bubbles call to mind specific associations. For example, “Underwater Plume” recalls flying over lit-up towns along a seacoast at night. Other times, the territory seems unfamiliar but no less convincing, as in “Slick” or the texturally dazzling “Tarballs.”

The longer one looks, the more the poetic relationship between Critcher and Wallace’s abstract work and Steinmetz’s documentary photographs emerges. Oil dots are like Nigerian salt pools, and crackled paint echoes Algerian ruins. What luck the two shows coincide, however briefly!

Part of Look3: Festival of the Photograph, George Steinmetz’s aerial photographs hang in the “Trees” exhibit on the Downtown Mall through July 10. Paige Critcher and Pamela Wallace’s show, “As Above So Below,” is on view through July 23 at Chroma Projects, 418 E. Main St. on the Downtown Mall. 202-0269.