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CUTTING THE MIGHTY DOWN TO SIZE

Art review

Concatenation," works by Barbara Rowe and Peter Sowiski

Through Saturday in Big Orbit Gallery, 30-D Essex St. 883-3209.

In Peter Sowiski's mural-sized, ink on handmade paper work, "Stealth Service" the familiar pointy silhouette of America's famous "flying wing" cuts aggressively across three walls in Big Orbit Gallery from floor to ceiling. With a dominating shape like this filling nearly half the gallery space, the piece can hardly help but project a degree of the frightening dominance associated with this awesome military weapon.

It's part of "Concatenation," works by Sowiski and Barbara Rowe on exhibit through Saturday in the gallery.

But as the title indicates, Sowiski's Stealth is grounded (as are all Stealths at this moment). "Service" is indicated by the presence of a shadowy, slightly awkward figure of a man performing some inexplicable operation on the underbelly of the aircraft. The entire immense shape of the plane, so graceful in flight, seems here to be cumbersomely perched on this sole lump of a figure.

What Sowiski has done, then, is to take a key symbol of American rip-roaring military might (at about $2 billion a throw) and neutered it. The fact that this fearsome shape is made up of 75 single, tacked-up sheets of paper (joined edge to edge to form the overall image) makes this near-supersonic plane seem insubstantial, even wispy.

More dismissive of the steely military image are the delicate nuances of light, achieved by a subtle manipulation of paper pulp and ink, that appear at the edges of the formidable silhouette. They are like sweet vibrating auras. Even the black body of the aircraft is invaded by the nubby softness of the gorgeous handmade paper. The whole thing is sort of soft and romanticized, a Stealth gone cuddly.

This almost impressionistic touch works well for Sowiski's antimilitaristic message. But the opposition does put a strain on the aesthetics of the piece. The chief problem is that the overall flaccidity of the image strips it of much of its visual power. Its flimsy presence can't quite hold the amount of space that it occupies. And the minute modulations of color and texture also make it difficult for the eye and mind to make the leap to the monumental scale of the piece.

"Stealth Service," as fascinating as it is as a concept, loses something when translated to room-filling scale. Geared down to a size more in tune with the refinements of Sowiski's touch, the piece might have gained power and presence without losing its point as commentary.

Barbara Rowe elegantly fills the remaining gallery space with an installation fashioned from a multitude of small inkjet/screen prints set out as a decorative foil for nine large, more independent prints.

Because of the gold paint (leaf?) applied to neat clusters of geometric shapes and a ubiquitous trifoil background, these small prints momentarily project a quiet, medieval radiance. But what they represent is actually more mundane: They are embellished maps of certain Buffalo streets.

The functional point of these prettified maps is to locate the spots in the city where the artist went to photograph, close-up, the particular textures and colors of various patches of pavement. These photographs were then used as the main compositional elements in the big, dark-toned works, which like the small pieces also read as abstractions.

By these means Rowe produces a highly visually pleasing installation that hides its base in a conceptual idea. Rowe could have gone about photographing and mapping streets and presented the result in a bald conceptual manner. Instead of letting the concept stand as the point of the work, Rowe puts it through the delicate machinations of high abstraction.

Any means to arrive at a finished work is legitimate. But in this case I wonder if the concept of documenting broken streets has any final impact on what are -- visually speaking -- strictly abstract images. If a concept doesn't forcefully exert itself, why have it lingering in the background? Does the artist mistrust the unsupported beauty of her fully articulated abstractions?

In the end both Sowiski and Rowe -- for different reasons and in different ways -- insist on giving their work a conceptual base. In my view this is a kind of intellectually beefing up that neither artist needs. Both possess highly refined and individual sensibilities. Who could want more?

e-mail: rhuntington@buffnews.com