The popular Buffalo painter A.J. Fries has lately become known for his series of photorealistic oil paintings of mundane scenes, like water streaking across a car windshield or pooling in a stainless steel sink.
Those mostly monochromatic paintings, the focus of a 2009 exhibition in Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, amplified the inadvertent beauty of the everyday and nudged viewers to think differently about what they might have previously considered humdrum.
But in a new body of work on view in Studio Hart through Oct. 27, Fries – along with fellow painter Barbara Baird – has turned his attention to much more loaded subject matter. Cemeteries, those wondrous places where death and beauty inhabit the same physical and psychological space, have served as fodder for countless artists interested in exploring the potent connection between those disparate notions.
But Fries' approach to the cemetery is hardly a common one. It is the aesthetic qualities of the gravestones that fascinate him – something about the shapes of the weathered pieces of stone and the way they are huddled on certain grassy knolls, as if for warmth or companionship.
The 20 paintings in the exhibition represent a little digression into semi-abstraction for Fries. He got the idea for the series after seeing a schematic-like painting from the 2010 Albright-Knox Art Gallery retrospective of the Argentinian artist Guillermo Kuitca that reminded him of the gravestone shape.
The paintings began as watercolors, which Fries painted while confined to his home while fighting off a bout of pneumonia in 2010. In the studio, using a trove of unopened paint tubes from the 1960s and '70s that had belonged to an artist who recently died, he developed a muted color palette of pale purples, blues and beiges. He drew the paint across the surface of his small canvases with a palette knife, Gerhard Richter-like, creating little fissures and pockmarks.
And then he painted on simple little clusters of headstones against the otherwise barren landscapes, creating scenes that are not remotely creepy so much as languidly pretty in the way cemeteries often are by daylight.
Baird's paintings take Fries' gravestone fascination as their starting point, and seem explicitly designed to mess with our notions of what these slabs of granite represent.
On small canvases painted in striking Yves Klein blue, she presents grave shapes as frames for unexpected images like rolling clouds, shimmering water, flowers or checkerboard abstractions.
Aside from a fun quartet of paintings featuring permutations of Fries' self-portrait and others overlaid with ambiguous letters and phrases, Baird's paintings seem slipperier in concept and execution. The conceptual simplicity of Fries' paintings, by contrast, is complemented by the spare but thoughtful and consistent style he employed across the series.
For both artists, it's clear that the symbol of the headstone represents something quite apart from the normal associations with memory and death.
The show, in addition to its uncomplicated visual pleasures, encourages viewers to think about all our meaning-laden symbols in new ways.
"They're not sad at all," Fries said about the objects that inspired his series. "If anything, they're celebratory. You're building a monument to life, not a monument to death."
"Figment: Paintings by A.J. Fries and Barbara Baird"
When: Through Oct. 27
Where: Studio Hart, 65 Allen St.
Info: 536-8337 or www.studiohart.com