Intimacy & distance

The subject matter and shiny surfaces of les caison III’s paintings make them seem, at first, whimsical. But take a closer look: The artist is digging deep into other people’s lives.

caisson, whose work is rife with psychological implications, walks a fine line between illustrative and narrative painting. He seems to view the world without judgment or personal involvement; his is a marvelously objective eye.

dirt and Sky People Gallery is now hosting a collection of caison’s work in oil and pencil on birch, alongside wood constructions by Stan Gilliam. The two-person exhibit gives the viewer some relief from artists who take themselves and their work too seriously: Sizes here are manageable, colors are pleasant and the subject matter is generally accessible.

In caison’s “Regardless,” a middle-aged couple stand side by side, gazing with a kind of wistful confidence up into the sky. Their demeanor suggests resolve — they may be dealing with lost love or broken dreams, but they’re committed to making the best of it. The painting, executed in dark blues, has a rose-colored glaze atop it.

“Prevention” is a somewhat lighthearted commentary on alienation: A woman in a coffee house sits stark upright as a potential suitor peers in shocked disappointment through the shop’s window. The woman has made herself completely unapproachable, her hair done so that it protrudes in stiff curls several feet out from her head.

The couple in “Sweet Nothing,” one of the exhibit’s many night-life-focused works, are in a decidedly different situation. The dancing pair are clearly in the grips of an irresistible, though probably temporary, psychical attraction. Lust oozes from the painting!

“Each Need” depicts a leggy, Cher-like singer sporting an enormous Afro, while a bar patron echoes her ostentatious ’70s style. The color, harsh and jarring, is reminiscent of that used by the post-impressionists in painting late-19th-century Paris nightlife. The reflected light accentuates the two subjects’ jaded demeanors.

caison’s world is populated with the walking wounded — with the emphasis on walking. His figures haunt a world fraught with difficulty, but they seem to cope, and to get on with it. “Building Blue” is a wonderful painting of a soft, round man waiting for a bus on a city bench; his patient, resigned face is masterfully rendered in graphite. This is one to be revisited.

By contrast, Stan Gilliam’s quiet wooden constructions give the viewer some respite from the charged emotion of caison’s paintings. Gilliam’s titles suggest peaceful landscapes: “September Sundown,” for instance, or “Evening Wind.” These contemplative works with their intricate forms in pale, soft colors have a gentle, earthy feel.

“Little Landscape” is true to its title: Tiny, lightly stained wood pieces of various shapes and colors create a rectangle only a few inches in size. The subtle colors, coupled with the complex arrangement of the pieces, bring to mind cross sections of rock from science textbooks.

Gilliam’s largest work in the show, “Big Sky,” is again constructed of pieces of colored wood. Its center is made up of painted rectangles, while organic, blue, cloud-like shapes float across a pink sky, an element of figuration in this otherwise abstract composition.

“George Be Good,” the most mysterious of Gilliam’s exhibited works, departs from his more typical sense of serenity.

A raised, door-like shape painted in vibrant horizontal stripes fills the center of this rectangular wood piece, while bands of color at its top and bottom are as soft as those in other Gilliam works. But this time, the surface is shiny and the colors fade gently into one other, offering a sharp contrast to the wood’s rough finish.

An exhibition of works by les caison III and Stan Gilliam runs through Monday, Aug. 18 at dirt and Sky People gallery (51 N. Lexington Ave.; 232-0076). Gallery hours are 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, and noon-5 p.m. Sundays.

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