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ART REVIEW: Feathers and focus found

Ray Easton/Jean K. Stephens at the Oxford Gallery

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The current exhibit at Oxford Gallery showcases the current works of two skillful Rochester-based artists, Ray Easton and Jean K. Stephens, whose gentle reverence for nature lends a breathtaking sweetness to each work. Through their eyes, we see nuance and minutiae as crucial and worthy of our attention. The artists have in common a supremely sensitive focus, and depict studied encounters with wild fauna and stumble-upon moments with fragile natural relics.

When I visited the gallery to see the new show, owner Jim Hall said he was surprised by the compatibility of the pair, by how the works complemented one another. Ray Easton was a student of Jean K. Stephens' husband, Bill Stephens, at Webster High School. Bill is another artist represented by Oxford Gallery, and Hall describes him as having had many students who are good practicing artists.

Though Easton's acrylic portraits of birds in their native element or in a faded atmosphere are near photorealistic in skill, there is a sort of mythic story quality to the scenes, and the birds are given individual personalities. For all of the crisp-capture of the works, there is also a breathing motion.

Birds are quite reptilian, not only in physical nature, but in behavior as well. And though humans find projecting our own emotions and experiences on mammals to be irresistible, it is a bit harder to make those connections with most birds because they are so alien. Easton shares with viewers the fascination of tiny clockwork-esque, lizard-like beasties, cautious and seemingly about to dart away in his portraits of house wrens and in "The Hedgerow (White-Breasted Nuthatch)," in which we see a wee bird clinging vertically to a scrap of lichen-covered bark, tiny claws clutching.

The larger birds of prey and scavengers are calculating and command feelings of awe. In Easton's "Tales of the Tower," a dizziness-inducing Kodak Tower pops up into the sky at a dusky hour, and startled pigeons take wing to avoid a darting peregrine falcon. The subject in "Hot Pursuit (Peregrine Falcon)" is caught in a sharp dive, and the subtle shapes in Easton's darkening sky frame and emphasize the motion. In "Shattered Silence (Red-Tailed Hawk and Crows)" a glowingly vibrant blue-green atmosphere is soupy around a rough-bark tree, on which a hunched crow and annoyed hawk confront each other on a branch, and a second crow looks on from above.

Easton includes feathered fellows found between the extremes of the speck-like swallows and the predation-prone. Hall finds Easton's "Ladies First (Mallards)" particularly captivating in that it has an almost abstract quality — the heavy texture seen here is atypical for the artist — and an interesting perspective. Usually Easton has the viewers looking up at or across to his birds, but here we look down at the ducks as their velvety heads tentatively reach for strewn corn kernels.

"Tundra Pearl (White-Tailed Ptarmigan)" is a huddled, downy bird on a soft gray, almost shimmering ground, with glowing peach light around its shadow. It is strange to say out loud, but the glistening quality of the work nearly audibly emanates from the muffled silence of the scene.

If the two artists took a walk through the woods together, Easton would likely cast his stare up and around to the sky and trees, while Stephens would most certainly be looking down, careful of where she stepped. She would focus on finding paths and patterns within forms, and collecting the firm armatures of nature's skeletal remnants in stone, shell, and bone.

Only a couple of works in this show represent Stephens' typical sweeping scenes that celebrate the wistful beauty of Upstate New York. "View from Bald Hill" is a lovely scene of a road cutting through trees and rolling hills. In many of this show's works, the artist zooms in to focus on minutiae found in nature, often arranging forms to play with their meaning and subtly prod the viewer down her path of meditation. "Pearl" depicts an egg resting in a seashell, a theme of potential, preciousness, and fragility repeated in more gentle light in "Nestled," and again in "Endearment," in which crab claws frame yet another egg-within-a-shell, this time atop a letter dated 1881.

The bulk of Stephens' oil paintings and pencil drawings in this particular show focuses on minutiae found in nature, the oft-overlooked white noise of the woods and trails, whether her masterful depiction of the beauty found in the forms of the craggy and cracked stone beneath our feet, or the repeated heart-shape found in various natural forms.

Of the former group, the show includes "At the Point," in which Stephens has used vibrantly glowing blue details to make deep shadows even richer and to complement the warmer spectrum of color in the stone. "Iron Pool" is rusty in color, with a slight shimmer at the edge of the water. "Tumbled Path" zooms even closer to the smaller scales that are all around us but nearly invisible, and Stephens has depicted countless small stones in zigzagging paths between larger stones, with a vast range of color in patches of sunlight and shadow.

Included the heart-shaped group are "Bone Heart," formed of what looks to be two ribs, and "The Ennead," which is a grid grouping of nine stones, each with a vague heart shape made much more obvious by the grouping. The dual fragility and hardiness of the symbol are summed up perfectly in the weathered "Sea Glass Heart," a shape of delicate green translucence and light, and the sturdy "Blue Stone Heart," with folds in its pitted, worn surface.

Ray Easton/Jean K. Stephens
Through February 23
Oxford Gallery, 267 Oxford St.
271-5885, oxfordgallery.com
Tuesday-Friday Noon-5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

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