at Deson-Saunders Gallery

At their best, David Russick’s visually uncomplicated paintings go straight to the heart. The initial impact of these ten acrylics on canvas, now on view at Deson-Saunders Gallery, is overwhelmingly positive–Russick often uses quiet color-field backgrounds and simple, schematic imagery to maximum advantage. The directness of this pared-down style, coupled with Russick’s selection of everyday subjects, gives his work an immediate familiarity. But because the chosen emblems may recall a different set of associations for artist and viewer, the meaning behind each painting remains obscure. When the imagery is emotionally charged, this speculative aspect creates a bond with the viewer. However, when Russick ventures into art-historical discourse, the images slip into obscurity and the bond breaks down.

With some exceptions, Russick focuses attention on one object per canvas. The object is usually given a crisp, clean outline (achieved with the help of masking tape) and sits in its own small rectangle, located dead center within the larger rectangle of the remaining canvas. The inner rectangle is painted in one flat color; the outer one is often a flat or graded color. The charmingly self-effacing brushwork is so smooth it’s invisible, permitting us to concentrate on the image rather than on the artist’s temperament.

For Thee features a thick white outline of a bell with a cross emerging from the top. Its stencillike quality is reminiscent of a child’s illustration as well as a road sign. It could be a church bell, signifying collective religious or individual spiritual feeling. The metallic copper-colored rectangle behind it could be a metaphor for spiritual worth and illumination, since copper is a valuable metal with light-reflective properties. The outer rectangle of green seems to have no specific associations. Its bright, optimistic hue simply pleases the eye. The title suggests that the piece may be dedicated to a loved one, and we wonder if that person is alive or dead. Or Russick’s “thee” may be a sacred reference to the viewer, or to painting itself. Either way, the simplicity of color and form conveys a sincerity refreshingly childlike in its directness.

Two of the single-object canvases attempt to comment on the Chicago Imagists’ style of painting, but the nature of that comment is never clear. Russick works as assistant director at Phyllis Kind Gallery, the foremost Imagist gallery in town, and his desire to combine personal and professional influences in a unified visual theme is understandable. However, in these two paintings the personal and the professional never really blend. 5-5-89 (From Mary and Alan) depicts a blue-green beer mug at the center of a gray rectangle. In this work, the outer rectangle is painted to resemble a thick wooden picture frame. Its particular shade of reddish brown and occasional heavy black lines seem to indicate the influences of Ray Yoshida, Christina Ramberg, and other Imagists. But the instant recognizability of the Imagist style depersonalizes the painting and thwarts the intimacy apparently offered by the title.

In Self, we see the Imagist penchant for off colors and heavy black lines again. This work also depicts the outside rectangle as a picture frame, but now the color is a light off green, and the black lines running around the frame are more numerous. The inner rectangle contains a white stenciled outline of a hand surrounded by a burst of multicolored brush strokes. Unfortunately, the message here is confused. It’s clear that the random interior brush strokes, which look like the kind of mark making found in three-year-olds’ coloring books, are opposed to the orderliness of the exterior rectangle, which may indicate artistic maturity. But what is the value of each? Most important, why does Russick use the Imagist style to paint a false frame? We can’t tell if he is criticizing the Imagists or paying them homage.

In his most moving work, Russick replaces the thick, stenciled emblems with delicate, hand-drawn schematics. Resting in the center of their smooth, clear color fields, these fragile images are incredibly touching. Because he uses them only in a diptych format that opposes two images, Russick probably intends them to symbolize a relationship between feelings or people. Although we aren’t told the specifics of the relationships, the paintings eloquently express emotional depth and richness. What You Want pairs a small daisy and a calling card on which the word “Eventually” has been written in watery blue ink. The quiet color-field backgrounds encourage a meditative mood. The effect is that of a visual haiku, functioning beyond the linearity of verbal communication to suggest several simultaneous personal meanings.

Similarly, Life (and How to Live It) creates an immediate psychological impact by combining a diagram of a wheel with a small painted bird. Both images call up a plethora of personal associations, beginning with memories of our first childhood experiences. Each image speaks volumes but doesn’t clue us in to the artist’s specific motivation. We empathize with the symbolic poignancy of the tiny bird, its balletic perch on a slender stem, and the uncertainty of the drawn wheel’s wavery line.

It is interesting to see how diluted the impact becomes when more than two or three objects are included in a composition. Just David (Self-Portrait After Malevich) includes images of a ship’s anchor, a measuring cup or pitcher, an American flag on a pole, and a couple of geometric shapes arranged arbitrarily on a flat white background. Because we’re trying so hard to figure out how these elements might be connected, we have little time to allow each one to prospect a meaning from the mine of memory. We are finally reduced to seeing the piece as a pleasant design that seems to have only a superficial formal tie to the work of the Russian constructivist mentioned in the title.

Russick seems aware that his most complex compositions are problematic, for there is only one other such canvas in the show. Ironically titled The Simple Thing, this rigidly organized combination of geometric shapes and stenciled objects completely stymies all interpretive efforts. As with Just David, we are left with a nice design and lots of unanswered questions.

Despite some shortcomings of communication, the basic visual simplicity of the show is highly appealing. The beauty of the color fields and the emotional thrust of many of the emblems remind us of childhood’s less complicated days. And I must say I’ve never seen so many red dots–meaning a work is sold–in one room. Russick is a very young artist whose creative instincts are solid. Even though his more ambitious paintings need further development, he is right to seek out these challenges. After all, he has plenty of time to discover solutions and perfect his considerable skills.