Painter Bill Thompson, who for a long time leaned toward sculpture with the curvaceous surfaces of his paintings, has now moved his work irrevocably into three dimensions. Even so, his sculptures, now adorning the walls at Barbara Krakow Gallery, pivot on painterly concerns of color and light. Now that they’ve burst out of the picture frame, though, they’ve lost something.
Thompson discovered a long time ago that automotive paint works differently from oil paint. There’s a gloss and sparkle to it, a translucency that gives you the feeling you’re not looking at a color, but into it. Although the sleek surfaces of his new sculptures look monochromatic, he applies up to 20 layers in a variety of hues. Light plays within their coats, so that a powder blue winks out in the reflections from “68,” a shimmying droplet of lavender. The colors — minty green, sapphire, Velveeta orange — are not shy. They invite you to dance.
The forms, too, are seductive — too obviously seductive. They scoop, swoop, and swell. Thompson’s earlier, more rectangular works insinuated that great tides of color threatened to surge out of the frame. Now that they’ve escaped, they’re shapelier, but they’ve lost the tension of confinement.
The artist attempts to recapture it. He remembers the hard outlines of a painting in “Skiff,” a glittery blue piece that looks like a plump Nike swoosh, with a crisp edge along the middle. That doesn’t do the trick; such lines recall details on cars, and Thompson can’t afford to venture more in that direction.
More effective: “Stalk,” a vertical, sinuous spring-green piece suspended in a corner. That placement, in effect, turns the gallery’s architecture into the picture frame, except instead of straining to escape, the work invades the structure, as if Jack’s giant beanstalk has erupted on Newbury Street and broken into the gallery.
Thompson could do more along these lines; “Stalk” and another corner piece, the black, comma-shaped “Skew,” feel tentative; each clings to its formal identity as a discrete object, almost hesitating to imply something beyond. His work, with its luster and curves, is almost too appealing. He needs to incorporate edges, real or metaphoric, that give these pieces something to push against. The architecture is a beginning; he could push harder.
Like many painters, Thompson has an ulterior life as a printmaker. He has been working with master printer James Stroud at Center Street Studio for 20 years, and the fruit of some of their efforts can be seen at the President’s Gallery at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.
The show tracks Thompson’s formal interests, beginning with the grid, and then letting loose with more undulating shapes, moving from spare blacks and beiges into eye-grabbing color. Who could have predicted that the artist behind the 1994 woodcut “Walk-up,” all black wood-grain cut up by a white zigzag, would have come up with the sexy baubles on view now at Barbara Krakow Gallery? It isn’t until 1999, in the aquatint “Reformed Square,” that the curves begin to come in.
As with paint, Thompson experiments with how pigment mixes. For the 2009 triptych “GYRO,” he cut copper plates into jaunty biomorphic squibs, inked each with one color, then rolled on another. The forms appear monochromatic, but in each of these panels — hot orange, kelly green, and purple — they darken at the edges, suggesting volume and luminosity.
These vivacious later prints sparkle more than the early ones, but Thompson’s exquisite attention to surface and texture is evident throughout.
Isolation and solitude
Elizabeth Livingston’s meticulously painted realist scenes at Alpha Gallery tend to depict women alone, raising themes of isolation, but also the dreaminess of relaxation in solitude. “The House on the Hill” falls under the first category; a nighttime narrative, with the sky pitch black behind a white house. The porch light shines. A shaft of light falls before another building, and here a woman stands, arms crossed, looking directly at us. Does she sense an intruder? Is it the viewer?
In several paintings, Livingston unfurls vibrant patterns. “Hurricane” depicts a woman in a floral nightgown lying upon a bed with a floral spread. The two textile designs happily clash as the woman sleeps. In “Marshall Farms” the patterns come in an abundance of blossoms, as a woman bends to smell a single bloom.
These patterned paintings are riotous; it’s as if Livingston feels the urge to carpet her picture plane with their painstaking detail and brilliant tones, but then remembers that she’s a figure painter. The figures don’t quite fit. They’re often becalmed, but I’d like to see more tension between figure and pattern.
In several caringly rendered small-scale paintings, Livingston works in black-and-white, as if retreating from all that dazzling color. But the patterns lurk: In “Maria,” she paints an older woman sitting half in the dark, the flower-patterned upholstery on her chair vivid behind her. This little painting pulls off a more tantalizing balance between pattern and person. Because pattern dominates other paintings, here, it simply, and effectively, reads as a threat.
20 Years at Center Street Studio
At: President’s Gallery, Massachusetts College
of Art and Design,
621 Huntington Ave., through Oct. 2. 617-879-7333, www.massart.edu
Gardens and Rooms
At: Alpha Gallery, 37 Newbury St., through Oct. 2. 617-536-4465, www.alphagallery.com