at A.R.C. Gallery, through April 30

In each of Elizabeth Coyne’s 19 new paintings, on view at A.R.C. Gallery in River West, one or more highly schematic figures, often only faces, are juxtaposed with abstract patterns that cover most or all of the picture. At first the paintings look very much alike, but closer inspection reveals big differences in the patterns that surround the faces.

In White Rain the white streaks that cover and surround the face suggest rain, which identifies the pattern with nature. In My Words a face with wide-open eyes is covered and surrounded by calligraphic marks in blue and brown, suggesting the “words” of the title, perhaps her thoughts. The closed-eye face in You Teach Your Hand to Sleep is immersed in soft bands of color, suggesting the world of unremembered dreams. Three paintings (Beating Heart, I Spoke, and Become Visible) are done directly on rough wood; here the texture and color of the wood and the nearly parallel arcs made by the saw that cut it merge with the figures, imparting to them some of the palpability of wood.

This juxtaposition of masklike faces and patterns suggests that Coyne’s central subject is the way one’s experience–of nature, of thoughts, of dreams–affects, even determines, the self. The faces, often with little more than slits for eyes and a few curved lines for the mouth, serve as metaphoric mirrors that reflect their surroundings.

I was moved by the wonderfully complex relationships–contrasts, tensions, but also connections–between the clearly delineated visages and the more varied, lyrically beautiful surrounds. In almost all of these works Coyne avoids predictable, static designs, and her use of marks that vary in color and shape creates fields that seem mobile, almost alive. In her world very little can be pinned down; “reality” is not reducible to concrete things or words; dream, nature, speech, and daydream are never far apart.

In a few of the smaller paintings the figures seem visually separate from the surround, as distinct as sharp lines are from fuzzy blotches, but in most, figure and surround seem interdependent. The face in You Teach Your Hand to Sleep has hair that shoots upward from its scalp in wiggly streaks of bright yellow, which are different from but not unrelated to the fuzzier bands of blue, yellow, and reddish brown that cover the whole image. The face also has a hint of modeling in the shadows on its cheeks that further links it to the complex surrounding pattern.

The longer I looked at this picture, and at most of the others, the more complex the relationship of figure to surround became. The marks can seem to be in front of the face, right on it like tattoos, or behind it. At times the abstract patterns seem unlike anything seen in daily life, and their insubstantiality–they’re so far away from the realm of things we can touch–almost made me forget I have a body. At other times, as in For Celan, they’re as sharply delineated as the faces.

For Celan sets a masklike visage in right center against a thick black background that’s punctuated by white lines; at left the white lines form a shape that resembles an upside-down though distorted version of the mask’s outline; within it are three lines similar to the mask’s slit eyes. Here the abstract pattern echoes the figure, while the black void against which lines and mask are set injects a hint of the unknown.

In this work, as in nine others, the abstract marks continue out of the picture onto the wooden frame. This is not the first time this has been done. There are, for example, Russian icon paintings in which church steeples bleed into the frame, though this use of the frame seems little more than a mannerist quirk with no special significance. The traditional function of a frame is to lead the eye into the painting while also delineating it in space. But Coyne’s rough frames, hardly ideal surfaces for images, seem like artifacts of nature, and the patterns of these works, by continuing from human-made canvas to natural wood, become an all-inclusive world.

In the pictures where the abstract patterns are visually linked to the figures, the individual is presented not as someone separate from the world and simply reacting to it, but as a being immersed in its flow, constantly being reshaped by it. Viewing these works, I felt I was getting glimpses of something that can never be fully depicted visually. Pictures that at first seem rather simple dualistic descriptions of a self impinged on by the world become visions of a consciousness that crosses boundaries and defies the idea of limits.

The two pictures in the show that I didn’t care for help illuminate the ways in which Coyne’s best work succeeds. In Corona and Into the Spaces We Breathe thick bands of bright colors surround faces, but the colors seem too material, their sensuality too assertive, the bands’ arcs too repetitive–the whole too easily resolvable into “pictures.” Instead of being mysterious and suggestive, the surround is specific almost to the point of being static.

Echo, which hangs near Corona, is even more brightly colored; its colors surround and cover a simple face enclosed in an eyelike shape. But here the colors are constantly changing: red blends into yellow, which becomes orange, which slides into yellow again; an occasional splotch of green adds surprise. One feels one is not looking at any specific color, but at a continuously variable, luminous field whose nature is difficult to pin down. Crossing the canvas are dark brown stripes, some of which stop when they touch the outline of the face, while others continue partway across or stop before they reach the face.

If the viewer were meant to think the lines are behind the face, they would stop at the outline; if the viewer were meant to think the lines are in front, they would continue across it. By varying the way the lines are interrupted by the face, Coyne avoids settling into any specific logical visual relation between figure and ground. Our surroundings are in us, they are separate from us, we are in them.

Coyne, born in 1959 in Duluth, Minnesota, grew up in Crown Point, Indiana. She did her undergraduate work at Purdue, has an MFA from the Rochester Institute of Technology, and recently moved to Niles, Michigan. She recalls feeling as a child that things had spirits–not only animals and plants, but ordinary household objects. When she was seven the family sold a refrigerator they’d had for a long time. “I cried because I thought it had a spirit,” she says. She did Norman Rockwell-style paintings in her teens, then was exposed in college to painters like Pollock and Rothko and saw the possibilities for expressing her deeper feelings in art. Perhaps the animism of her childhood perceptions informs the interpenetrations of her current work, in which an abstract mark can have as much significance as a human figure, or more.

Though self and world may interpenetrate, in those works depicting more than one figure the bodies remain strikingly apart. In A River Between Us two heads, one gray and one white, are placed side by side, but they tilt away from each other and don’t touch. The white head appears almost as a hole in the black background. Yellow streaks cross the canvas, perhaps the “river” of the title; the upper streaks curve, as if their flow were being altered by the white head just as a stream is forced around a rock. Here the figures partly shape their surround, yet in this little drama, perhaps of a failed romance, the flowing lines–Coyne’s metaphor for the world–seem to keep them apart.

It took me several viewings to appreciate Whisper to the Silent Earth. A single figure in profile is curled in an S-shape at right center; the surround is a patchwork of streaks, blotches, and small fields of yellow, green, and gray. Darker lines are curved a bit like the figure, but they don’t really echo it; the whole image is irregular, asymmetrical, and devoid of repetition. The longer I viewed it, the harder it seemed to pin down the shapes, because instead of noticing connections I was noticing small differences. The constant surprises in this work took me even farther away from the physical than did the other paintings. If one reason Coyne presents the world around her figures as abstract is to depict it as it flows through her subjects’ thoughts rather than in its materiality, here she presents thought as transcending all the specifics of rain or words or dreams: as an all-inclusive pure light that’s not reducible to any one facet of existence.