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Friday, August 29, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 65.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Bold colors, weirdness
Paintings by Huggett and Hutchison at the Watrous

The Wisconsin Academy's James Watrous Gallery closes out the year with another of its serendipitous pairings. While the gallery typically presents what are considered side-by-side solo shows by two different artists, there's almost always some congruence between the two.

The newly opened shows - Shape Pattern Color by Ariana Huggett and New Paintings by Madison's Sally Hutchison - reveal similarities between two painters who exploit bold colors and sharp geometric forms. Each has developed a signature style with an internally consistent esthetic at work. And each makes art that provokes a strange push/pull with viewers trying to uncover its meaning.

While that might sound a little academic, this is also the kind of painting that makes an immediate and bold impact. Hutchison's large-scale paintings sometimes use quirky color choices, such as bright, Christmas-y red and green next to drab, gunmetal gray. Sharply defined but ambiguous shapes seem to face off from opposite corners of the canvas in many of her works.

Hutchison's shapes feel like some kind of psychological test, prompting you to try to "read" them in a specific way, but they resist. To me, a lot of the shapes are like the silhouettes of vases or urns, and sometimes like human figures, but they are always in flux.

Her textures are also quite unusual: some of her areas of green are so nubby and coarse-looking, it's almost like Astroturf. While I wish Hutchison would push herself farther outside her clearly defined style, there's an interesting tension between what seems precise and analytical in one way, and completely mysterious in another.

Huggett, of Milwaukee, makes paintings in unusual shapes. Rather than a traditional rectangular format, her paintings often echo the geometric shapes she depicts: ovals, diamonds, a starburst-like shape. Each painting stays within a particular color family; for example, Oval Ovals (2004) is done in hot, nearly pulsating shades of bright coral, pink and magenta.

Huggett's work clearly adheres to laws of her own invention, taking on a studied, almost obsessive weirdness. While most of it is purely geometric, there is a series of Hair Plaques from the late '90s, in which Huggett paints coiled braids, with each little plaque named after a different woman. Those pieces recall the Victorian tradition of making pictures out of human hair.

The Hair Plaques, coupled with a series of small, round paintings in which the canvases are stretched on embroidery hoops, show Huggett playing with conventionally "female" traditions, even as she blends that aspect with a colder geometric style.

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