Art Review: Exhibit offers contrasts in artists' styles

Mary Sims, “Waterlilies,” acrylic on canvas, 1984.

Mary Sims, “Waterlilies,” acrylic on canvas, 1984.

Kit Reuther, 'Abstract 1142,' oil, graphite and quilted fabric on canvas, 72 x 66 inches, 2012.

Kit Reuther, "Abstract 1142," oil, graphite and quilted fabric on canvas, 72 x 66 inches, 2012.

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Mary Sims, “Waterlilies; ” Kit Reuther, “Paintings and Sculpture”

At David Lusk Gallery, 4540 Poplar in Laurelwood, through March 9. Call 901-767-3800 or visit davidluskgallery.com.

Seeing the juxtaposition of work by Nashville artist Kit Reuther, in the main gallery at David Lusk Gallery, and four paintings by Mary Sims, in the back gallery (all displayed through March 9), may induce viewers to subscribe to the premise that life is unfair and so is art.

Reuther’s large abstract paintings are self-consciously modern — I wouldn’t say contemporary — and evince a spirit so wan and pale that they seem like lunar reliquaries. Sims’ equally large paintings of waterlilies, on the other hand, are so brilliantly colored and so taut with the artist’s nervous energy and keen insight that they could blow just about any competition out of the gallery. If I were one of Reuther’s paintings, I’d protest.

Reuther’s work has changed considerably since she showed at the old Perry Nicole Fine Art; in 2007 she was included in the juried “Perspectives” regional exhibition at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. In those days, she focused on botanical and garden motifs, not in any realistic manner but in a deeply symbolic way that served as a touchstone for notions about the organic connectedness of life and art. Compared to those previous paintings, which implied a gratifying and paradoxical sense of delicacy and tensile strength, the work now on view at David Lusk Gallery is blunt, obvious and derivative, with allusions and devices that point to Rauschenberg, Rothko and, especially, Cy Twombly.

Far more satisfying are Reuther’s witty, barely anthropomorphic and slyly totemic sculptures that occur in two forms: tall and very slender, like hairpin robots, or massively bulbous carved head-like forms with scribbled eyes, somehow both inchoate and powerful.

Sims, who died in 2004 at 63, had a lifelong commitment to ultrarealistic painting tempered by a wild and wily imagination and a phenomenal technique that lent her portraits and still-life pieces a dark radiance of magic realism. Granted that her work, with its fey combinations of objects, could sometimes be hard-edge and even cynical.

The four paintings of waterlilies on display at David Lusk Gallery are stunning. One could be tempted to say that they’re too gorgeous and impeccable except that within their expansive scope — three are 60-by-60 inches, the fourth is 60-by-70 — the artists takes so many small risks with composition and detail that the tranquillity is deceptive.

One could also say that the abundance of detail approaches the baroque in density, except that nothing is superfluous. It took me a few minutes to realize that the paintings, executed circa 1980 to 1984, correspond to the seasons and even, to judge by the varying quality of light and color and the welter of shadows on the placid water, to different times of day.

Sims also, in one of those supreme gestures of creative self-abnegation, deliberately subdues the glamour of her work by using an exceptionally dry brush, so there’s no light-reflecting gloss or texture to pump up the surface effect. No, the only sheen lies in the encounter with superb craft and engaging intelligence.

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