Sometime around the turn of the millennium, Karin Davie dramatically turned her painting in a new direction. Up until about 2000, the now-40-year-old, Canadian-born artist raided op art's undulating stripes in stiff, mocking paintings that combined bulging illusionism, gaudy color and contrived abstract expressionist drips and splashes.
These works, begun as early as 1992, were consciously synthetic efforts, laboriously built up, stroke by stroke, in a manner owing something to amateur sign painting and other vernacular art.
As the 20th century ended, Davie -- using the same abstract idea of the snaky stripe -- began to integrate a fluid kind of brushwork with the sinuous rhythms of her compositions. By 1999, a work like "Smother" was a free-swinging effort in which the sweeping, overlapping gestures of the artist's hand determined the illusionistic form.
Suddenly, what were once paintings that only slowly and awkwardly accumulated their effects became big, loose, organic wholes that seemed to come into being by some sort of perfected gestural dance between artist and canvas. These later paintings, even though hardly unpremeditated, seem to encapsule Percy Bysshe Shelley's "harmonious madness" in their wild loops, swerving inward thrusts and swollen glistening forms.
In the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's "Karin Davie: Dangerous Curves," the divide between these two different kinds of paintings is glaring. Not counting the slick, arranged heap of neophrene, nylon fabric, zippers and mirrored metal that is the overstated, pseudo-installation "Induction, Symptom 1" (2005-06), the central gallery holds only early things. It is a display whose main appeal is its audacious application of crude technique and its parodying spirit.
"Something Like This" (1995), the brittle, stridently colored take on Morris Louis (one of abstraction's most gloriously airy painters), is a mockingly clumsy affair in which every dribble and coarse stroke is like an indictment of painting's history of optical pleasure and visual harmony.
"Before You, Before Me," from the "Posturepedic" series, is an openly comic rendition of British op master Brigid Riley's regal, wavy-stripe compositions. Davie takes a graceful, optical brilliance that in Riley seems to perfectly mesh within eye and brain and turns it into a rudely painted, seasick concoction.
The "bulging" paintings, such as "Wow No. 1 & No. 2" and "Chris No. 1 & No. 2" (both 1993), are pretty silly creations with their implications of bodies lurking beneath pleated fabric. (In "Wow," it's evidently a very big backside -- or rather two very big backsides.) I grudgingly admire their audacity and the artist's brave willingness to make patently clunky paintings and hang them on gallery walls. But they are kind of ugly.
This kind of painting is what makes the later paintings seem to come from another, altogether delightful and congruent world. It's as if Davie moved from her own personal and very awkward medieval state to a magnificently harmonious high renaissance of her own making.
A painting like "Between My Eye and Heart No. 12" seems a liquid translation of the deftly shaded spaces of the old masters into an abstract language of extravagant looping, swirling, volumetric brush strokes. Reds glow from within a deep interior while shaded green tubes, like light-seeking plants, weave in and out, leading to a tremendous crescendo of gleaming yellow highlights. It is all flawless opulence, seemingly effortless as a spontaneous dance that is also full and rich in its emotional depth.
The color inventions of the "Between My Eye and Heart" and "Heart's Guest" series (even the titles have given up their smart-alecky ways) are stunning.
The seething, projective forms of the slightly earlier series, "Pushed, Pulled, Depleted & Duplicated," are more consciously found and are more suggestive of real space. The brushwork is wed to swirling shafts that look like glistening serpents stuffed in a box and writhing wildly. With their dynamism and peek-a-boo vistas and implications of cartoon eyes, these paintings have a surreal presence animated by a Looney Tunes excessiveness.
The way the show is arranged makes the glories of these later paintings function like apologies for Davie's early nose-thumbing of the "fineness" of fine art. She is like a humorist used to acid assaults on the good and orderly who has discovered that the serious pursuit of old-fashioned beauty is, after all, a meaningful and satisfying goal.
The sculptures seem to me "pedigree" works, Davie's plea to not discount her as a hard-thinking contemporary artist who may, at times, indulge in unfashionable, emotive paintings.
WHAT: "Karin Davie: Dangerous Curves"
WHEN: Through May 14
WHERE: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Ave.
TICKETS: $10; $8 seniors/students; under 13 free