Boxes' Rebellion 

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When Bev Reynolds moved to Richmond from New York City in the '70s, she was skeptical of the art scene she'd find in the lower provinces. Intending to start her own gallery right away, she began in her home on Allen Avenue, selling prints by the likes of Max Ernst and Jasper Johns consigned to her by dealers she knew from her days working in New York. From day one, she found Richmond customers interested in contemporary art. Thus began the highly successful Reynolds Gallery.

Reynolds says the driving force behind the gallery is to show new and innovative work, and her actions prove it. The current exhibitions of Richard Roth, chair of Virginia Commonwealth University's painting and printmaking department, and New York-based artist James Hyde, who exhibits worldwide, are cases in point. Both artists are making forms that appear new, challenging expectations of what painting can look like and mean. Their solo shows presented in adjoining rooms not only support the gallery's mission, but also ingeniously create a dialogue about how painting can break into the third dimension.

In many ways, Roth's hard-edged abstractions, hanging boxes painted in flat color, operate as 21st-century extensions of what Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman were doing in the '50s and '60s. Roth's austere geometries (which could very well have been airbrushed) reflect a dispassionate attitude toward the artist's hand. His emphasis is brainy commentary, and here he playfully delivers work tangled in mass media as much as art history.

Painting with a limited color palette on wood boxes measuring 11 3/8 inches tall, 8 inches wide and 4 inches deep, Roth creates patterns that turn each corner, requiring the viewer to read these works as forms rather than shapes on a single plane. Thanks to scale and a slick graphic style, many are suggestive of gift boxes and package design. Ribbon-width stripes snake around some, and in others, flaps and tabs are subtly implied. In "Cinzano," a dusty pink hue contrasted with black seems lifted directly from a perfume package.

Viewers may find themselves embarrassed to feel cheated upon realizing that these pristine forms are faux containers -- and that's probably just how Roth wants it. The ever-softening boundaries between art and commerce are made so apparent that even the most visually literate viewer may feel blindsided.

In many ways, James Hyde's "paintings" housed in glass boxes turn Roth's ideas inside-out. In contrast to the covert and cool ambiguity of Roth's work, Hyde lays his cards on the table with enthusiastic abandon. The "paintings" sometimes are actually assemblages of various painted objects, such as scraps of lumber, Styrofoam and tape. He also paints on the inside surface of the glass in order to float visible brush strokes of medium in varying thicknesses. In "Sing Ghost" and "Ghost Looking for Its Other Half" he paints with axle grease — a gesture that's only noticeable if light is cast directly on it. The shadow cast by the grease (the "ghost") falls outside the boundaries of the glass container, thus escaping, literally and figuratively, the hermetic volume.

Enclosing his "paintings" in glass boxes affords Hyde practical and conceptual advantages too many to list here, but the most obvious is the conversion of his work from art to artifact. With that frame of reference, the multimedia "Catalytic" and others like it can be thought of as reliquaries — maybe exhumed remnants of Frank Stella assemblages. French writer Christine Buci-Glucksmann has also associated Hyde's containers with shop windows. Behind the screen, or window, does the artifact become more palatable as an object to consume?

The visual and conceptual games Roth and Hyde play might be directed toward art cognoscenti, but for those less informed viewers, the inside jokes (no pun intended) are certainly worth investigating. S

Richard Roth's "New Paintings" and James Hyde's "Glass Boxes: 1995-2007" run through Dec. 15 at Reynolds Gallery. Roth will give a talk Wednesday, Nov. 28, at 7 p.m. 1514 W. Main St. 355-6553.

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