Daniel Sprick, master oil painter and key contributor to the annual Artists of America exhibition, conquers--and transcends--the stereotypes of that bastion of mainstream representational art. His exquisite but unsettling paintings are on display at Carol Siple Gallery through April 9.

Sprick's soulfully exact portrayals of quiet rooms filled with ordinary objects appear at first glance to be simple, though superbly confident, still lifes. Interior views of Sprick's home and studio, with indirect light filtering in from a natural source outside the paintings' frames, provide consistent settings. Against this genteel backdrop, Sprick arranges carefully chosen items such as fruits, flowers, furniture and drapery, all captured with the aching grace of a Vermeer. And like Vermeer's Renaissance paintings, Sprick's works conceal multiple layers of allegory.

Certain bizarre touches that lend a surreal flavor to Sprick's eminently sensible canvases emphasize an impression of hushed portent. The first uneasy notes--bleached bones and skulls, both animal and human--enter Sprick's serene world as part of the still-life arrangements. Startling reminders of mortality, they hark back to antique medical illustrations or the work of Georgia O'Keeffe. A broken goblet, legless tables floating in midair and tribal masks of ancient, secret societies add further disturbing elements. In one sense, Sprick teases his chosen genre of representational art for its dull claim of realism--after all, any painting offers only illusion. But in a stricter sense, Sprick attempts to build a vocabulary of powerful archetypes or icons that endow his pieces with uncustomary depth of metaphor, boosting them outside the mainstream.

The show's largest canvas contains many of these icons surrounding the figures of a seated man seemingly explaining something and a woman whose face is lit from an unseen source of daylight. Called "The Inscrutable World," this self-portait of the artist and a companion first signals magical intent with its incredible frame, hand-carved with astrological and alchemic symbols and distressed to look like a treasured keepsake. Ornate frames like these, some sheathed in gold leaf, embrace all of Sprick's paintings and add to the general air of hidden meanings and honored traditions. The background of "The Inscrutable World" appears to be a modern-day living room, but subtle traces of wonder gradually emerge. An idle telescope points to the future. Tasteful paintings of nudes on the walls hint at sexual tension. A fully assembled animal skeleton, perhaps of a lion or large dog, crouches against the wall. Luxurious Turkish rugs add a tribal, exotic air, but their geometric designs also speak the language of mathematics.

The most literally stripped-down of these elegant pieces may be "Tibia, Fibula, and Femur," a beautifully lit pile of human bones placed on a pedestal. The ultimate expression of mortality, this still life impresses with its unsentimental and precise rendering. At the same time, the stark but tender portrayal contains abundant emotion and a number of possible directions for contemplation: the mechanical, folded beauty of the bones, the mysteries of the afterlife, the dark comparison of these dead remains with the more common fruits and flowers of the genre.

All of Sprick's pieces create similar effects, with varying degrees of intensity. "Paint Pot" adds the illusion of quick, blurry motion to the luscious depiction of a can of splashed red paint. "Horse Skull" makes an altar out of a cardboard box and draws a parallel to human origins by including tribal masks in the skeletal mix. The messages buried in "Magic Room," with its mysterious floating table and empty picture frames, seem limitless.

Sprick's accomplished work is also available for viewing at the Denver Art Museum, but this solo exhibition is a sumptuous feast for those who like their realism brilliant, but magical.

Daniel Sprick, through April 9 at Carol Siple Gallery, 1401 17th Street, 292-1401.

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Hart Hill