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'Four by Four' at Art House Designs

Artists take the challenge

“Birthday Cake,” acrylic on canvas by Susie Engelstad. Photo courtesy Art House Designs

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Art House Designs owner Susie Engelstad challenged three other artists and herself to come up with four paintings measuring four feet by four feet for a show to be called, naturally, "Four by Four". Three of the women, Rose Nicholas, Susan Ujcid and Engelstad herself, rose to the challenge. The fourth, Christabel Prost rebelled and entered smaller paintings in the show, including two wonderful little figure studies. And some of the women stretched the four-painting limit.

All of the work is traditional modernist painting, all semi-abstract and bold. Stuff that would enhance any modern office or home.

Prost's little figure studies are excellent because they are more about the colorful distribution of shapes on a flat surface - the essence of abstraction, which in turn is the heart of modernist art - than about the figure itself. One called "Dance Pause" pictures a ballet dancer at rest (inevitable association with Degas). The heavy white impasto on the model's legs draws attention to the act of painting. The subtle way the figure and background are broken into chunks of space are nice. Notice in particular the way the figure's collarbone resonates with the rectangular shape behind her.

In another Prost figure study, "Diamond Ring," the reclining figure is broken into chunks of dull green, pink and ochre that look like piles of rocks. In both of these, color and shape are more important that the figure, yet they still capture the essence of the figure at rest and in motion.

Ujcid's landscape-derived abstractions feature oval and leaf-shaped forms in motion on a flat ground in earthen hues. This is solid painting confidently executed.

Engelstad's paintings are a joyful dance of short, choppy strokes of color across the surface. Like leaves in the wind, these flat chunks of color coalesce into shapes that indicate landscape without copying the look of nature. They adhere to value-keyed color schemes. Some are high-value keyed with light yellows and equally light purples and grays, and a couple are keyed much lower with intense purples and oranges on a dark brown ground. Her color usage reminds me a lot of the great post-impressionist Pierre Bonnard.

Most impressive of the four is Nicholas, whose interior scenes are as dramatic and solid as Edward Hopper's, and whose color combinations are unusual, verging on the acidic. Nicholas is showing a series of interior scenes with a square table viewed from above, flattened in perspective and placed at odd angles on the square canvas, a picture-perfect use of the square format. It is the same table in each of her paintings. There is nothing on it but a turquoise bowl that casts an ultramarine shadow. The table, and in particular the table legs, also casts heavy shadows, which is what elicited my reference to Hopper. These simple forms and their shadows (in one there is the shadow of a man and a woman, which is dramatic but perhaps a bit hokey) break the space into sharp, asymmetrical designs with a strong interplay of positive and negative shapes.

If you're in Olympia, I recommend you stop by and see the works of these four women.

"FOUR BY FOUR", 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tue-Fri, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sat, through Nov., Art House Designs, 420 Franklin St. SE, Olympia, 360.943.3377,

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