Neo-rococo

Laurel Sparks at Yezerski, plus Julie Miller, Sheila Gallagher, Darren Foote, and Michael Ellis
By GREG COOK  |  February 20, 2009

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ARCHANGEL: Sparks combines 1940s and ’50s Abstract Expressionism with 1980s Rainbow Brite glam.

Jamaica Plain's LAUREL SPARKS has become one of our best local abstract painters, as her new collection of bright, fun, juicy, abstracted chandeliers at Howard Yezerski Gallery (460 Harrison Avenue, through March 10) attests. They're all charming sweetness and decadence. (She calls them "portraits of glamour and decay.") And, boy, she has a way with paint.

Sparks appears to begin her compositions with meandering marker drawings outlining the shapes of chandeliers. On top, she slathers chalky acrylic paint, silver enamel, marble dust, glitter. The paint is by turns gritty or drippy. The compositions feel like coloring books joyously colored outside the lines.

A 2006 series took off from Christmas trees. Paintings she had in the DeCordova Museum's 2007 exhibit "Big Bang! Abstract Painting for the 21st Century" suggested blooming coral, flowers, and bejeweled, masked ogres. But chandeliers have been her primary motif since at least 2004. In earlier works in this series, she stuck close to the original silhouette of the light fixtures. Here the underlying inspiration has been more subsumed by the act of painting itself, and the paintings are the richer for it.

Aficionados of Boston painting may see connections between Hyman Bloom's sturm und drang Expressionist paintings of Christmas trees and synagogue chandeliers of the 1930s and '40s. (Some were shown at the Danforth Museum in 2007.) Bloom transformed the objects' glow into spiritual force. The painter Bernard Chaet tells a story that Willem de Kooning told him: he and Jackson Pollock saw these paintings at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1942 and thought Bloom a charter Abstract Expressionist.

Sparks has that same sort of painterly sophistication, but six decades on, who can pretend that God and life and existential everything depend on the fate of a canvas? Instead, Sparks's paintings explore unabashedly seductive beauty. Her chandeliers in cotton-candy pinks and bubblegum blues bring to mind the sumptuous rococo gowns, hair-dos, and let-them-eat-cake desserts of Sofia Coppola's 2006 film Marie Antoinette, a portrait of the queen as a moneybags new-wave party gal. Just as Coppola combined old (1770s and '80s) with retro (1980s), Sparks seems to combine 1940s and '50s Ab Ex with 1980s Rainbow Brite glam (which seems to be everywhere these days).

Here and there she sticks on papier-mâché, felt balls, and wire flowers. Some of it turns into unsightly gobs resembling tar or gum stuck under a table — but these ugly bits are accents that make all the rest seem even sweeter.

Steven Zevitas Gallery (450 Harrison Avenue, through February 28) is also focusing on abstraction with a show of JULIE MILLER's new, brightly hued pen drawings. This Bostonian fills sheets of paper with zillions of teensy fine-line circles. Her similar drawings in DeCordova's "Big Bang" exhibition suggested microscopic views of skin or circulating blood cells. The works here feel more like straight-up abstractions focused on a single color or a few similar hues. o (18) features purple and blue stripes; o (19) is a slippery field of red and orange circles that seem to shift and subtly throb. Sometimes they bring to mind dotted color-blindness test charts.

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