The Mackey Gallery is as filled with color as a spring garden. But bright hues are about the only common ground shared by the two very different artists on display.

Lynn Heitler's work falls readily within the tradition of abstract expressionism. Her more or less instinctive formal relationships provide a dense vocabulary of lines and shapes for her pictures, which here include beautiful and lyrical monotypes. Heitler adds a sense for drawing to these works by marking the paper both before and after the print has been pulled. Some also include transfer images from magazines, which lend vaguely recognizable images to otherwise totally abstract compositions.

Like her paintings, these monotypes--all the same, yet all different--prove that abstract expressionism can be an inexhaustible well of inspiration for Heitler. So far, at least. And while the movement and its superannuated appeal may look like an anything-goes method, it's far from that; only a fine line divides a successful piece from a mess. When Heitler combines seemingly incompatible approaches, it's a mark of her courage and her commitment to innovation. That she's not entirely successful is hard to hold against her.

In the large painting "Becoming," Heitler has paired poured color fields on one side of the canvas with heavily overpainted and drippy passages on the other. The two areas are joined down the center, where Heitler has manically scratched and drawn over the painting. She's also spun the canvas while the work was in progress, as evidenced by the running drips of different-colored paint that flow in different directions--mostly up or across, instead of the expected down. Still more colors fill "Emerging," a dark and meditative work in which the paint is thickly applied and some areas completely reworked.

As interesting as these paintings are, though, Heitler may have tried too much. She takes a safer and more conventional approach in "Gathering," which comes much closer in effect to her marvelous monotypes. And even though the painting is mostly white and beige, it still makes a good case for Heitler's skill as a colorist.

Color is also Helen Ragheb's strong suit. Her typical formula is to use deep, rich shades in an underpainting that is skimmed over with creamy, light-colored acrylic paint, creating a frostlike effect. But Ragheb's abstractions are not expressive. Rather than spontaneously create instinctive arrangements of color and shape, as Heitler does, Ragheb pays almost fanatical attention to her meticulously rendered details.

In the jarring "Down the Garden Path," the backgrounds are a maze of delicate linear decorations carried out with great subtlety, while the bold foreground pattern is created through the association of recognizable images reduced by Ragheb to their most elemental terms. These are Ragheb's personal icons: shells, amoebas, squid, the buds of plants, seeds and other kinds of basic life, and ubiquitous knots, which evoke a variety of meanings. Simple forms, simply painted.

Ragheb's wall-hung paper reliefs are much more uneven than her paintings. The surfaces have the same gritty feel, and the five-panel "Farm Stories" and closely related "Trophies" both work well. But sometimes there's not enough happening, particularly in the pieces that feature woven paper.

As usual, gallery director Mary Mackey has given her two artists their own discrete spaces. But if Heitler and Ragheb have taken different routes to abstraction, success for both lies in the same source--the skillful use of color.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia