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Art Review


Published May 11, 2005 at 4:00 a.m.

EXHIBIT: Mary Beth Morrisseau & Susan Smereka, paintings, and Robert Birbeck, sculpture. Flynndog, Burlington. Through May.

ARTWORK: "Blue Pocket" by Mary Beth Morrisseau

A diverse trio of Vermont artists shares Burlington's Flynndog this month. Figurative sculpture by Robert Birbeck, gutsy non-objective abstraction from Mary Beth Morrisseau and spiritually endowed iconic paintings by Susan Smereka are under the same high roof. The two-dimensional shows have titles; the third is simply called "Robert Birbeck's Limestone Sculptures."

Birbeck's nine figurative sculptures are chunky yet graceful female nudes in the tradition of Henri Matisse. While Matisse is best known for his drawing and painting, his sculptural works are an important resource as well. Birbeck's "The Three Graces" is a bas-relief of three nudes, each a tad heftier than the ladies in Matisse's reliefs. The figures here are in frontal, back and right profile poses within the irregular edges of the stone. With its background accented by chisel marks, "The Three Graces" has understated elegance.

"Pensive" and "Reclining Nude" are beautifully composed in-the-round works. Their smooth surfaces are contoured with curves and voluminous ovoid planes. Birbeck sees the inherent soft-edged geometry of human forms; he presents that softness with simple interlocking shapes and graceful proportions.

Morrisseau aptly titled her multimedia exhibition "Colorful Personalities." Four pieces are oil on metal, 15 are monoprints, and 34 are acrylic paintings on canvas. Her paintings on metal have varied surfaces, from pitted to impasto. "Clouds Unfolding Color" is a vertical crimson image on a black background. Hints of cerulean blue appear along the lower left edge.

Among Morrisseau's monoprints on paper are two dynamic, nonobjective cauldrons of color: "Nine" is rich with pale greens and lavender; "The Presence of Me" contains circles interwoven with the print's textures.

Tactile textures are buried within the lush color fields of Morrisseau's paintings. Two pairs of squares probably represent the title shapes of the stormy red "2 Doors," but other invisible squares, perhaps built up with modeling paste, ripple over the painting's surface.

"Reaching In" is a vertical 30-by-24-inch work with horizontal ridges beneath mossy, scumbled greens. An opaque line of alizarin crimson falls from the top edge of the canvas into a reservoir of the same color at the central focal point. Smears of red also lurk along the edges of the canvas. The 30-by-40-inch "Walking Into Astonished" has many similarities, except the central line is a pale green.

Horizontal ridges also solidify the under painting of "Strength of Character," one of the largest of Morrisseau's paintings here. Though less textural, "Blue Pocket" is the most memorable, for its dark patches that seem like islands in an azure ocean. A few passages of bright, hot red and yellow appear in the lower third of the composition, contrasting the coolness of the blues. The use of cooler colors in the center and warmer ones close to the boundaries -- or vice versa -- is a subtle recurring theme in Morrisseau's works.

Smereka's show is entitled "New Studio, New Work," and includes more than a dozen of her most recent paintings on paper and panel. Many feature mandala-like forms surrounded by mysterious dots; her works are infused with metaphysical content. Space is generally flat in Smereka's paintings, and her images seem more referential than narrative.

Unfortunately, all but one of Smereka's works are hung inside the Flynndog office, and while they were on display during last Friday's reception, the office will be closed until May 18. Her work is certainly worth visiting later in the month. For that matter, all three of these collections deserve a second -- or third -- look.