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Celestial Navigation 

First, there was light. In the Bible, it came as a divine dictum: "Let there be light." Space was implicit, but there was obviously an abundance of it or else all those light rays would not have had very much to illuminate. Today, light just as often comes to us courtesy of our local power company, but retains much of its symbolic importance nonetheless. Which brings us to Raine Bedsole's new Navigating Light show, an exploration of the physical and psychic implications of luminosity.

After her last show at the Delgado Gallery, I began to think of her stuff as really being all about space. Not just the space of the works themselves, but the way her images and assemblages shaped the spaces around them. That gallery's vast arched window and vaulting ceilings, like a chunk of Grand Central Station transported to the Edwardian fastnesses of Delgado Community College, helped facilitate Bedsole's flair for ethereal spatial dynamics. The Oestreicher gallery, a distinctive two-story dollhouse of a space, represents nearly the exact opposite; it rewards -- and demands -- intimacy, so Navigating Light is something of a case study in strategic adaptation.

Unlike the last show, no gossamer boats or sparkling objects hang from the ceiling. Instead, there are wooden panels featuring a central image embellished with bits of drawings and images from other times and places, usually some dreamy, distant venue or natural phenomenon. Indeed, bursts of lightning lights up the night in works such as Tendre Aveau and By Chance, in which anatomical glyphs and fragments are set into the dense white ground where everything seems to float like a fog bank rendered in plaster, or maybe a moldering masonry wall in postwar Paris. It all blends together like a dream in which past, present and future converge in a kind of ossified visionary ether. From a distance all you see is the lightning riddled atmosphere and the nebulous white around it. Up close the details set the tone.

Years ago, Bedsole painted boats, whimsical crafts like ethereal dugouts built for navigating mythic estuaries or fjords. Here, another ghostly vessel appears in the curiously titled Domicile, a painting of a long skinny boat skimming a speckled white sea dotted with lotuses, children's drawings and old sepia photos. All emerge from the whiteness like dream fragments lingering in the mind upon waking. In Bedsole's world we are travelers on a misty sea; everyone is an island but also part of a greater whole, guided by the light of connection and creation. Here, time becomes space and space contains memory as the infinite and the intimate coalesce.

Meanwhile, at Galerie Simonne Stern, Richard Johnson's colorful abstract paintings are also very much about light, only here the light is mostly incandescent and the spaces are largely illusory. Johnson is a superb craftsman, and where Bedsole's methodology is atmospherically loose, Johnson's is tight as a tick. And where Bedsole's images suggest unfolding personal epiphanies, Johnson's evoke neon mass media dreams from the industrial world's techno collective unconscious. That much is par for the course for this artist, but what's new is his deployment of the female figure. Well, new for him, but nudes and semi-nudes are nothing new in the neon nightscape and billboard environment that appear to have fueled his vision all along.

Oh, sure, they are almost always formally pristine, finely balanced compositions featuring electric colors oscillating with the intensity of over-amped LEDs. Some past examples actually included torn strips of billboard graphics replete with halftone dots, but true to Johnson's pop-culture illusionism you might be hard put to discern where the found lithography ended and his own paint began. Similar dynamics apply in these new works as well. In The Studio, the incandescent forms and crumpled paper effects enclose shadowy recesses where a chesty maiden reclines like a centerfold Madonna in thong briefs. The halo around her coy features contrasts with the techno-pop aura, an implicit atmosphere of colored lights and amplified bass, but there is a sepia quality about the skin tones that harks to antiquity, to Gaugin and even to the Renaissance of Fra Angelico and Giorgioni, an unusual melding of skin and sanctity. It's yet another chapter in Johnson's book of neon dreams from the sepulchral recesses of the popular psyche, the Valhalla of mass media imagery.

click to enlarge Lightning provides some of the light that is so key to Raine Bedsole's latest exhibition, including By Chance, with its anatomical glyphs and fragments.
  • Lightning provides some of the light that is so key to Raine Bedsole's latest exhibition, including By Chance, with its anatomical glyphs and fragments.
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