Thursday, March 24, 2005

Miniature paintings convey great power / A&E / Theater/Arts: "For all the painstaking work it takes Ambreen Butt to make one painting, she sure is prodigious. The Pakistani-born Butt has followed up her major exhibition at the Worcester Art Museum last spring with a show of new work at the Bernard Toale Gallery, this one smaller but no less bracing than the Worcester show. Specializing in the centuries-old technique of Mughal miniature painting, Butt uses a brush made from a pigeon quill and hairs from a squirrel's tail to paint over layers of mylar, which she then sews together. The top layer presents a female protagonist engaged in an allegory. Pictures and patterns on the layers beneath whisper through the veils of mylar like memories, feelings, and knowledge supporting the protagonist on her journey.

Jo Ann Rothschild has been painting for more than three decades. The winner in 1993 of the Museum of Fine Arts' first Maud Morgan prize, given to women artists in midcareer, Rothschild is one of Boston's finest painters of large abstract canvases. She has a small retrospective up at MPG Contemporary; it amounts to a show of recent work with a handful of older paintings and prints for context.

The oldest work, a tiny 1974 etching called "Deer Rhythms," features spare, fluid lines that describe a deer's movement. There's a greater kinship between that early work and what she's doing now. In between came bold abstract expressionism, on a large scale, like 1983's "Execution in Queretaro," after a Manet painting. A lunging central form moves against a back wall: It's all strong lines and sharp tones, a reveling in gesture and in the materiality of paint.

Rothschild still works large, but there's more delicacy both to her gestures and to her paint application. "Rocio's Gift" (2002) features a yellow ground across a grid. Black splatters trace a treasure-map path over the surface; occasional squares step out of the grid's frame in different colors. There's less bravado in "Rocio's Gift" than in the earlier work and more sensitivity to the interplay of surface and depth. Other new paintings, like "XIV" (2003) bristle with brushwork; they're dense with small gestures but light with tone. Although this is an ample show, with more than 20 works, it feels like just a taste of where Rothschild has been and where she's going."

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