art: Capturing the Fleeting 

Giselle Gautreau has a memory rather than an eye for nature.

"Catch the Air," currently on display at Main Art Gallery, is a collection of landscape paintings that focus on the ephemeral qualities of nature — fog, mist, clouds, birds in flight, light and air. In this, Gautreau follows in the footsteps of the Impressionist painters who also were fascinated with capturing the effects of light through color and dashes of paint. Yet, while an artist like Monet attempted to pin down light through numerous canvases of the same subject at various times of day and in various seasons and weather conditions, Gautreau lets go of light in this series and focuses on the even more ephemeral — air.

In "Over and Under," the lime-green sky encompasses most of the canvas. Below, a tree line and stretch of telephone wire create a context for the work. The color is eerie like the strange, unfathomable hue of the sky before a storm. Tiny birds rest on the wire, but in a moment they will be gone. In this work and many of the others there is an almost oppressive weighing down of atmospheric effects that turn these tiny views into palpable fragments of a specific moment in space and time.

"Four and Twenty" spotlights a grouping of birds in flight against a periwinkle-gray sky. Gautreau's brushstrokes are flat and thin yet seem to convey a condition of thickness and mugginess. Motion is created through the blurred profiles of the birds. None of her paintings contains a crisp, hard-edge line or any detail-laden specificity. Rather, the murky Rorschach-blot style of these works successfully reveals the intangibility of air and atmosphere. They do not tell us what the artist saw, but rather evoke it.

Gautreau employs a type of formula to most of her compositions. The upper two-thirds of the canvas is typically sky while the bottom third is land, water, or trees. One is reminded of the Dutch 17th-century landscapes of Vermeer or Ruisdael. Their views expanded across broad sweeps of earth, water and sky, using natural features and detail to produce a sense of atmospheric intensity enhanced by moody clouds and rapt waters. While Gautreau's small glimpses of nature are not the meticulously detailed studies of the Dutch works, they, too, neglect man and his role in nature. Man's smallness in relation to the vastness of nature is apparent in Gautreau's art, but not for a moralizing effect. While a telephone wire or street lamp does make its brief appearance, man does not — not to teach us a lesson, but rather because what we don't see, or at least pay attention to, in nature is exactly what the artist is attempting to "catch." A human figure would be counterproductive. The viewer would focus more on a narrative or human's role in the universe rather than on the air and land as a subject worthy of itself.

These are exquisite, moody studies. The spareness of Gautreau's compositions and their small intimacy go a long way toward making tangible what previously one may have not thought possible. S

"Catch the Air: Paintings by Giselle Gautreau" are on display at Main Art Gallery, 1537 W. Main St., through May 31. 355-6151.


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