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Review: Beneath the Layers at Cole Pratt Gallery

Stephen Strickland’s figurative oil paintings

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Have you ever wondered what calligraphic Zen art might look like if it had originated in Alabama? The answer might be in the work of Stephen Strickland. Ditto abstract art. In his new Cole Pratt Gallery expo, the Jackson, Mississippi-born, Mobile, Alabama-based painter once again focuses on crowds in public spaces such as beaches or concerts, but if his earlier works were figurative while hinting at abstraction, his new stuff is abstract yet about human figures — and the spaces between those figures. Abstraction is a time-honored genre, but what makes these unpretentious abstract canvases different from most is their oddly intuitive aura of personal discovery, a quality more typically associated with Zen and self-taught artists. For instance, abstract art pioneer Vassily Kandinsky made pristine paintings like avant-garde symphonic compositions, but Strickland's canvases resonate more contrapuntal, almost Caribbean, rhythms.

  At first glance, Layered Memory (pictured) suggests a vaguely chaotic array of manic mark-making, as if prehistoric cave painters had memorialized their own version of a mosh pit, or maybe just a crowded dance hall somewhere in Cuba. Look closely and the marks increasingly evoke human forms, and the spaces between them suggest percussive rhythms, as if conga drums were part of the mix. Along the Beach is comprised of an array of pallid earth, sand and cadmium swatches that, while compositionally related, yield a contemplative sense of people gathered on an anonymous public expanse, yet seemingly alone with their thoughts. In Pale Memory, the forms are more ghostly if not amorphous, like specters from mythic notions of the transmigration of souls, or maybe fragments of elusive dreams. Strickland's artist statement says: "My work shows a visual rhythm created by the patterns of crowds and brushstrokes. These regular recurrences evoke more than feelings of sight, but of time, space, movement and sound. When the painting is completed, I hear a new and unique song."

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