Subtle surface texture and evanescent forms combine in Isabel Bigelow's extraordinary paintings. 

Paintings that Hum

Spring has officially sprung, but one wouldn't know it from the chilly temperatures last week in Richmond. Nonetheless, there are still a few places to go in order to jump-start the new season — one is the Reynolds Gallery.

Isabel Bigelow's recent paintings are on view until Saturday and offer the perfect opportunity to embrace the gentle spawning of spring. These subtle paintings — soft, fuzzy, dreamy, abstract — liken themselves to the tenuous unfolding of crocus buds or the pale blue coloration of a robin's egg. Bigelow's works do not evoke the bright, effervescent colors and sounds of summer, but rather the sublime, gentle thawing of spring.

While everything is quiet and subdued in the paintings, one more striking quality is their incredibly articulated surface texture. Bigelow creates her works by treating large birch panels with layers and layers of gesso, resulting in threadlike lines that run vertically and horizontally across the expanse of the wood. Her pigments are then rubbed into the gesso to create a vaporous stained form that does not sit on the panel but utterly floats. The combination of subtle surface texture and evanescent forms is what make these paintings extraordinary. Unfortunately, it is their very rarefied quality that may also cause them to be overlooked. They do not reach out and grab the viewer; they are not provocative or political or overt. Bigelow's paintings simply hover in the manner of a cloud formation or a patch of fog, dissipating quietly and quickly as if they were vapor.

All the artist's works have a highly organic quality. They seem to suggest the porous nature of human skin in their texture and the variegated character of animal hide in their patterning. Despite the title, "Second Floor" appears to capture the brown-on-pale-yellow spotted pattern of a giraffe, and "Field 13" is reminiscent of the undulating stripes of a zebra. The works that reference a peninsula in their title also seem to suggest an X-ray of a leaf or seashell or fossil.

Bigelow's combination of soft pastel colors and muddied, blurred lines infuse the paintings with a spiritual quality. Regardless of the clear connection to organic phenomena, the works seem to exist above and independent of the material existence of nature. This transcendent quality is specifically addressed in a work entitled "Monastery." Unlike her typical pastel limes, yellows and purples, this panel is covered in a charcoal black. At the bottom, a row of fuzzy rhombus shapes abates to the left, a subtle diminution technique to suggest recession in space simply through shape and placement. This line of forms is infused with a spiritual, otherworldly light, as if backlit in a dark cathedral by a clerestory above — a literal enlightening of the sinful world with the gift of everlasting life. But this perhaps is reading too much into the paintings. Indeed, the great talent of this artist is her ability to articulate subtleties in nature, in form, and in the spirit that are indirect rather than didactic.

Bigelow, a New York-based artist and recent recipient of the prestigious Pollock-Krasner Foundation award, describes her technique: "When I use ideas of patterns or minute repeated forms in the work it is in the interest of creating a visual 'hum' akin to the experience of peering into a forest of light and shadow or the backlit shapes of architectural forms." "Hum" is a particularly poetic and appropriate word to describe these paintings. They do not say distinct words, nor do they demand unmitigated attention — they simply "hum" like the drone of a bee or the wings of a hummingbird — just in time for

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