The familiar shapes of people, buildings and plants help viewers form an instant connection with many figurative works of art. Abstract pieces often engage observers more slowly, helping them examine perceptions that lie beyond the realm of sight. Featuring works by Wisconsin artists Jill Olm, Beth Racette and Leslie Vansen, the Systems for Abstraction exhibit at James Watrous Gallery (through Aug. 25) dares visitors to ponder things they can't quite see or quantify, from physical experiences to ever-changing relationships.
Olm invites her audience to "pursue an imaginative, associative dialogue with the work," letting their own personal histories shape what they perceive. Repeated marks of colored pencil explore ideas like multiplicity and the inevitable transformation the passage of time brings. These marks appear in side-by-side drawings that seem to represent different facets of the same concept. Their titles remind me of analogies on standardized tests, puzzles to be solved.
The picture on the left side of Companion: Replacement contains large circles composed of blue and yellow dots. They resemble the images on a colorblindness test. A stream of red dots snakes from the top-left corner to the lower right. Laid out on a grid, the adjacent picture functions like a film negative. White space replaces the colorful circles, and bright yellow fills much of the empty space from the first image. The switch made me consider how some people's hearing improves as their sight wanes.
Vansen's works examine the repetitive aspects of memory. The strips of paint in her acrylic painting Rete look a bit like colored masking tape, perhaps suggesting how associations are built and reinforced in layers, through recurring messages and experiences. Some of these strips have rounded edges that are soothing to behold, while others form grids with sharp edges. Thanks to the magic of perspective, these grids sometimes seem 3-D, popping off the canvas to accost the viewer. At these moments, they remind me of small cages, the kind that hold the mind hostage when, say, an earworm pays a visit.
Racette presents circular paintings from her Gaia Series, which looks at how our planet is made up of complex, interrelated ecosystems and physical phenomena that create the conditions necessary for life. As she notes in her artist statement, these works can be interpreted as microscopic lenses or macroscopic images. Cybersphere Clouds demonstrates this point well. In its center is a brown sphere encircled by beams of radiant color. The beams bounce from one point to another, bursting with energy as they intersect. Taken as a whole, this piece is reminiscent of a planet with Saturn-like rings as well as a nucleus orbited by electrons. Nearby, Blue Marble showcases dark swirls that could be the deep sea viewed from a submarine window or a galaxy viewed from Dr. Who's TARDIS.