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Soul Sold Separately (For Jeff Koons)
Painter Ryan Parr divides his canvasses into a grid and paints each square individually. His work is featured in ‘Natura’ at the Saratoga Art Center Gallery. Ryan T. Parr

SARATOGA SPRINGS -- Details can be mesmerizing.

Ryan Parr and Naomi Lewis demonstrate a staggering mathematical precision in "Natura," the current exhibit at the Arts Center Gallery.

A wave of puzzle pieces seems to swirl off the canvas in a giant painting by Parr.

"There is no such thing as true abstraction - it is always referencing something else. I got the idea of painting photo-realistic abstraction," Parr said of his elaborate compositions.

Intricate, rope-like loops - resembling a cross between intestines and tentacles - lure the eyes into Lewis' prints and drawings.

"They represent the messy parts of life that are not easily pulled together," Lewis said of the complicated textures she creates.

The artists, who are both based in Albany, will talk about their work on Thursday during an artists' discussion at the gallery.

"I think we build stuff in a similar kind of way. That's where the connection is," Parr said. "She comes from a printmaker's point of view, and I come from a photographer's point of view."

The final frontier

Ryan Parr recycles the toys and memories of his childhood on canvas.

Like a ball pit of disfigurement, headless action figures entwine in a sea of plastic carcasses in one of Parr's large-scale oil paintings.

"They are Star Trek figures, most of them - the ones in blue Spandex," Parr said. "They are a little bit smaller than a Ken doll. They are what my brother and I had as kids."

Despite the science fiction allusion, Parr doesn't consider himself a "Trekkie."

"I'm a fan of Captain Kirk," he said. "He was a young boy from Iowa who explored the galaxies, and I'm a boy from Iowa, too."

Like Kirk, Parr likes to push himself to new frontiers.

The skin-like yet rubbery surface of the action figures created the unusual challenge of capturing something that is both artificial and yet somewhat organic.

"Thinking of it as both plastic and flesh, that really hurt my brain," Parr said. "I was more concerned about getting the fleshy feel. The plastic thing, that will come. It was the flesh that really took me a long time to figure out."

Parr is extremely cerebral in his process.

"I know what my next three paintings are in my brain. I am always thinking about how I will execute them. I'm always a couple of paintings behind in execution," he said.

Before putting brush to canvas, Parr divide the surface into a geometric grid.

"I needed a rule that told me when a painting was finished. I decided I would paint each square, and when I got to the last one, I was done," he said.

The technique brought focus, according to Parr.

"It forced me to work longer on them, and to think about it a little differently," he said.

Parr has seen an evolution in his work, and the grid has become more camouflaged in recent paintings.

"There certainly is a grid on all of them. But in the older ones, you see it more," he said. "I've gotten smarter at how I apply paint. I've just gotten better as a painter, I think."

Another canvas in the show depicts a Fisher Price submarine battling an octopus.

"That was my most prized possession as a child. That was an eBay purchase. I figured I could rebuild my childhood through eBay," Parr said.

Working from a photograph he took in his bathtub, Parr depicts the underwater toy as if it's part of an ocean voyage.

"I brought the photo studio to my bathroom and shot it," he said. "I think I used dish soap to make the bubbles."

Photographs are the launching place for all of the paintings. The photographic images are as calculated as the finished canvases.

‘They are very staged and thought out," he said. "I take a lot of time considering how to photograph things. None of them are just what I call happy snaps."

The photos allow Parr to capture the surprisingly complex surface of water in several paintings. The swirl of colors and ripples of texture seem surreal. But Parr prefers to see it as reality up close.

"Is it an abstract painting, a photo realistic painting - or is it just water?" he said.

Chaos theory

For Naomi Lewis, texture goes beyond the surface.

"By drawing and redrawing these textures, I developed my own visual vocabulary and abstracted them," Lewis said of the network of shapes that are a common thread in her work.

The designs are like ants in a colony all working toward a single cause.

"Each of these little shapes is an individual shape that has its own characteristic. But when combined together, they create a larger whole," Lewis said.

From the randomness, Lewis brings order.

The symbols combine like components in a mathematical equation. The interplaying textures become hypnotic.

"One of my goals for the ink-wash work was to have a piece that looked old and enticing from across the room, but when you came closer to it you were able to have a different experience," Lewis said. "I think people are looking at the shapes and trying to untangle the knotted masses. It does seem to pull people in and engage them in a different level."

The drawings and prints have an alien feel, yet they are somehow familiar. Lewis finds inspiration form the world around her.

"I have been gathering photographs of textures for years. A lot of them are organic forms from nature. They could be sand dunes or a leaf that is disintegrating," she said.

She likens the artistic process to craftwork.

"It's like a large project of making lace or knitting, and you start one stitch at a time. You think you will never finish, but slowly a network builds and an organic surface appears," she said.

The textures require Lewis to be meticulous in her execution.

"Sometimes I use an enlarging light - one of those desk lamps that has a lens. But I am trying to use it less and less," she said. "I am moving in and moving back out to capture this microscopic world. Sometimes I do find that I am way too close, and I say, ‘Whoa, back off a little bit.' "

Although exacting, the technique also can be soothing.

"There is a nice quality of relaxation about the execution of the work. In a fast-paced world, to have the perseverance to see them through, these are the qualities I need to have in my life," she said. "They seem very obsessive, but there is a Zen quality to the parts where I am not thinking and just executing."

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