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The Naturals

Works by Huger Foote and John Ryan find beauty in the everyday.

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The titles of the two exhibits currently at David Lusk Gallery are particularly apropos. "Sight Unseen" by Huger Foote and "The Very Idea" by painter John Ryan accurately suggest how the show's artists look deeply into the nature of things while maintaining playful attitudes.

Created within a six-month time frame and encompassing a 10-mile radius of inner-city Memphis, Foote's 11 photographs are sweeping (42-by-60-inch) close-ups that combine the artist's love of energetic lines with an Impressionist play of color and light. Full sunlight turns white clapboard phosphorescent in Untitled 6. Thousands of weed stalks and grass blades become green waves that eddy through a corridor of yellow gold in Untitled 11. Dead grasses and vines slice and curl around the monochromatic picture plane of Untitled 10. And the fading left bumper of an abandoned 1950s automobile appears as rounded and porcelain as the torso of a reclining Renoir nude in Untitled 7.

Untitled 7, one of the most powerful pieces in the show, is a jumble of decay, life, light, line, and color. An intense blue sky is refracted through the windshield of the old car and reflected back and forth between the front and side windows, creating a shifting mosaic of midnight blues. Vines growing through and inside the car record the persistence of nature -- a struggle between the manufactured and the natural playing out as weeds slowly push open the car's front door.

While Foote was exploring back streets and vacant lots in Memphis, Ryan was fishing off the coast of Florida and the inlets of the Mississippi River.

Ten masterfully rendered acrylic paintings on paper record the sensory impressions Ryan experiences while fishing: leaves floating onto the surface of a lake, startled birds turning sharply in mid-air, a nest fallen into the water, and ribbons of red and yellow surveyor's tape flapping on beaver sticks, those pristine white branches with the bark gnawed away.

In a recent interview, Ryan said he hoped that, above all else, his paintings "remind others to notice, to be more aware of their surroundings." The artist succeeds. With his personal iconography of memory and reflection, Ryan takes a nuanced look at both the natural world and human nature.

He takes us deep into his paintings with midnight-blue washes and subtle gradations of color. His ominous palette for birds ranges from pitch-black to nearly transparent gray ochre, and his translucent beaver sticks are shadowed with yellows, blues, and lavenders. Highly textured blue washes are tinted with ochres and greens and accented by shadows on the water's surface.

Ryan distills experiences into images that create feelings and perceptual shifts in viewers. In Untitled 1, the soft brown contours of a bird nest become an eye surrounded by deeply furrowed animal hide. The eye's gaze has been described as bold, unsettling, foreboding, instinctual, cryptic, straight-from-the-gut, frightening.

In other paintings, crows, those intelligent fishing-site scavengers, soothsayers, and savvy tricksters, appear to search their own natures as they bend their heads in flight, observing the reflections they cast on water (Untitled 7) and turning to face their own shadows (Untitled 4).

Ryan's paintings are adeptly executed statements of color, design, and haunting metaphor. Once again, this artist's icons of distilled memory and sensation entice viewers to take leaps of imagination and chase shadows of their own. n

"Sight Unseen" (dye coupler prints by Huger Foote) and "The Very Idea" (acrylic paintings by John Ryan) are on display at David Lusk Gallery through July 31st.

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