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Natural Beauty

Art Review


Published October 12, 2005 at 4:00 a.m.

EXHIBIT:"Sally Sweetland: Patches of Sunlight and Hope," paintings. West Branch Gallery & Sculpture Park, Stowe. Through October 29.

ARTWORK"Fabric of Life" by Sally Sweetland

While some artists seem to paint the same picture over and over again, perhaps trying to create a recognizable style, Waitsfield painter Sally Sweetland is aesthetically restless. Her exhibition of more than 30 oil-on-linen works at Stowe's West Branch Gallery & Sculpture Park evidences a dazzling array of painterly approaches. The diversity of Sweetland's show, entitled "Patches of Sunlight and Hope," is at first a little jarring, but ultimately it reveals conceptual complexity, nods to art history and a full spectrum of beautifully composed hues. The cumulative effect of Sweetland's paintings is as rich as the natural world to which they frequently refer.

"Secret Waterfall," dating from 1998, is the oldest piece in the show and clearly reveals Sweetland's landscapist roots. Cloudy, coppery patches dance across the canvas, but the composition of naturalistic colors such as lush greens and blues suggest land and sky. Silvery gray and whites obliquely indicate Sweetland's vaguely captured sky and stream.

"Skipped Stones" appears to be influenced by Monet's "Water Lilies." The 52-by-48-inch oil is a vertical Z-shaped composition with a central ribbon of light values flanked by deep bends of highly saturated terre verte and ultramarine. Details in the painting are little more than gestural dabs and scumbling.

"Secret Waterfall" and "Skipped Stones" imply water, but other paintings have no subject matter other than what Sweetland suggests with pigment. "Breakthrough Blue" includes abstract-expressionist, solidified paint drips and non-referential patches of cool color, from deep indigo to powdery turquoise, lilac and pale olive green.

"Raindance" has a similar harmony, but a subtly defined, looped infinity symbol appears in the upper right. Sweetland's introduction of readable figures in a few pieces is a departure from her more ethereal works. However, considering that she earned a Master's degree in architecture from M.I.T., Sweetland's tendency to transition from wholly abstract to somewhat concrete -- from right brain to left brain, as it were -- seems completely natural.

The softly defined squares of "Birthday Party" are sited on a latticework of lime-green, 30-degree diagonals, and are invaded by a block of creamy horizontal lines in the upper left of the painting. Many of the diagonal squares are seemingly stamped with concentric circles, a technique that doesn't appear in any other works. Similarly, the warmly hued "Dance Floor" is the only painting here featuring extensive palette-knife work.

In the 42-by-38-inch "Fabric of Life," Sweetland successfully integrates a patchwork of techniques. Yellow drips appear in a stain-painted, purple square at the lower left of the painting. A few curved lines reminiscent of primitive pictoglyphs appear at the upper center. And nearly every hue found elsewhere in the show is reprised within this work. For an image in which Sweetland seems to gather all the threads of her aesthetic journey on a single canvas, the title "Fabric of Life" is apt. And the warm colors and poetic abstractions dominating this show justify its title, "Patches of Sunlight and Hope."