At Main Art Gallery, three VCU grad students add to the dialogue of the great modern art debate. 

Ready for Prime Time

Main Art Gallery is currently luring viewers up their spiral staircase by displaying the paintings of Matthew Fisher, Beth Gilfilen and Heide Trepanier. It is an endeavor worth that winding journey. Curated by Shirley Kaneda, a New York painter and Virginia Commonwealth University visiting artist, "Trans" features three recent or soon-to-be graduates of Virginia Commonwealth University's MFA program. At first glance, one may be inclined to think that the only commonality between these artists is their educational background. Some works are quirky, colorful and cartoony while others are dark, muddied and organic. Together, however, they raise the very dialectical issues of modern art such as emotion vs. intellect or subjectivity over objectivity, most clearly enacted mid-century between abstract expressionism and pop art.

The most obvious eye candy in the show is Trepanier's "A Gradual Instant (Fill)." Two adjacent walls are covered with aqua acrylic paint while floating on their surface are rings, drips and bubbles cut from enamel on contact paper. Such care and trouble to make each form pays off in the forms' ability to ooze and flit across the matte surface. The sheen of the red, green and white enamel forms animate the wall, much in the way goldfish, coral and bubbles enliven a tank of water.

Fisher also employs candy-box colors of hot pink, lavender, sky blue and peach. Fisher's paintings are even more derivative of pop art with their sharp edges, cartoon forms and bold, advertising appeal. Fisher varies the size of his canvases from long, narrow strips to large traditional rectangles. They project from the wall and, like Trepanier's forms, struggle with the restraints of two-dimensionality. Despite their physical projection, however, Fisher's works are decidedly flat. Each features either a pool of solid color or a Frank Stella-esque grid as a background with a funny little onomatopoeic blob on top that squirts, dribbles, splashes or plops. The sound of a splash is made more literal by the droplets surrounding the form — comic-strip vernacular for liquid displacement.

Initially, Gilfilen's three paintings did not seem to mesh with the hard edge and whimsical styles of the other artists. Her large canvases are a nod to abstract expressionism with complex expanses of color in rich earth tones. Hovering on the surface are undulating, energetic, contorting lines that seem to have a mind of their own. Much more organic and fluid, Gilfilen's forms seem to be the seaweed in Trepanier's aquarium. Richly layered, dark and yet strangely carefree, her oil paintings seem to explore the world of the internal and biological. "Conglomerate," for example, is purely abstract but seems to reference the double helix of a DNA model or the muddied deep world of an algae-filled pond.

"Trans" is an impressive gathering of "new" artists. Main Art Gallery and Kaneda are to be commended for not only offering a glimpse of paintings fresh from art school, but even more significantly, aligning those paintings together to set into motion the continuing dialogue of the modern art debate.

"Trans: Matthew Fisher, Beth Gilfilen, Heide Trepanier" is on display at Main Art Gallery, 1537 W. Main St., through Aug. 29. Call 359-3499 for details.

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