La Vie en Sunflower 

click to enlarge art51_art_oliver_100.jpg

Richmond artist Amie Oliver spent several months in residency programs last year that offered the use of studios in Paris and Auvillar, a small village in southwestern France. Judging from the inspiration that followed her home, she seems to have absorbed the French culture and landscape to her core. In "Walk the Walk," an exhibition at Plant Zero of work made since her return, she wistfully paints people and sunflowers as if they were the stuff of a dramatic biography.

"Walk the Walk" includes samples of Oliver's books, remnants of a performance executed on-site, and a video. But it's dominated by paintings on unfinished wood panels. Both the portraits and the sunflower series are built on Oliver's realistic style of line drawing -- a skill that allows her to represent subjects accurately with minimal marks.

Oliver's portraits and self-portraits honor the likeness of each subject or, sometimes, elevate them to romantic heroes and heroines. She links some to the 19th century, representing them in tousled curls, high-collared shirts or a three-cornered hat. Others, like "Word for Word," in which the dark profile of a man is framed by what looks like opened stage curtains, are posed in theatrical settings and lighting.

Oliver paints sunflowers in varying stages of life in much the same way she paints people. Representing their dry, prickly faces in charcoal underscores the end of warm days and the flowers' life cycle. In several images, a viewpoint from the ground gives Oliver the chance to represent them as towering figures. The artist endows the flowers with human qualities, catching them as they rise and sway like thin dancers.

There's no question that Oliver knows how to make strong compositions and to express a point of view. But in "Walk the Walk," she puts too much stock in a single visual hook — the paint spill. Random drips and splashes hit every panel as if to add a patina of age or grit — as if the conscious manner of her academic drawing needs to be balanced by random, unconscious action. It's an overused graphic crutch that may solve compositional issues but devalues the content of her work.

"Walk the Walk" cleverly conjures the spirit of France, at least a romantic version of it not too unlike promotional material from "Les Misérables." More than 60 images make up this show, so if you walk this nostalgic walk, wear comfortable shoes and take along some Edith Piaf. S

"Walk the Walk," paintings by Amie Oliver, runs through Dec. 23 at Plant Zero's Project Space. 726-4442.

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