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Some artists push the envelope of a popular style

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The 19th century is alive and well in Charlotte. J. Richards is an art gallery at Phillips Place. The art gallery is in one of many pastel stucco buildings which make up a shopping center which is so clean, carefully proportioned and sterile, one feels compelled to wipe one's feet before walking the sidewalk.

J. Richards sells 19th century impressionist style works painted 100 years later. Hundreds of works adorn the walls and racks, each framed in gold. Ninety five percent of the work is French still lifes, landscapes and village scenes painted by real French people. The paintings can very broadly be described as Impressionist and Post Impressionist. Or NeoImpressionist. Latter Day Impressionist. You get the idea. A prefix is required.

Some are good paintings and some are not so good. They all are painted in a style which was new and fresh and wild in 1888. Time travel would improve my reception of this work.

Impressionism is a small window in the mini-mansion of modern art. That small window has a very popular view, with luminous names swirling around a great time for painting in France around 1885. Vincent Van Gogh, Matisse, Cezanne, Monet, Manet, Gauguin. These household names were either one time impressionist painters or were seriously influenced by the movement. The painters sold by J. Richards are bonded in spirit with that loose confederacy of famous artists.

Almost all the current painters use Impressionism as their base of operations, and many stay close to the remembered masters of yore. Some stay too close. It's good to see some of these 21st century impressionists take the vaunted style down deviant paths, pushing it into untrammeled, unfamiliar territory. These personalized takes on the style are the most interesting paintings in J. Richards' French oeuvre. They're still NeoImpressionism, still light and familiar and safe. But they've got also an audible pulse.

Yolande Ardisson's paintings throb. All the paintings in this gallery are warm, Ardisson is running a fever. She is palette knife painter, part Renoir, part Van Gogh, part Gauguin. But gooier. Paint hangs on the canvas like glowing beads of toothpaste. Boats bob on iridescent blue water, jaunty houses dot the shore, streets and trees are equally animated. Yolande Ardisson is 75 years old and her work is as irrepressible as a giddy six year old. Kids reportedly love her stuff. Fifteen minutes after seeing her painting I came back to look again and I was still smitten. That worries me.

Robert Nyel exemplifies the impressionist painter as graphic expressionist. His seascapes, villages and fields of wildflowers are so aggressively buoyant the canvasses appear convex. His abundant and lush sunflowers attempt to free themselves of the frame. They're coming to get you. I don't know if they're slickly beautiful or just beautiful, so I don't know if I'm a chump for liking them.

Here in the land of French Impressionism, two of my three favorite painters are American, the only American painters in the gallery. What can I say? I'm a patriot.

Gregory Blue paints vivid color-saturated oils on paper. His landscapes are landscapes in name only. The natural formations he depicts are merely his starting line. Ground and sky are split with horizontal lines. Blocks of color, out-of-the-tube intense, are scumbled within the central field of the paper. From a distance the small paintings appear to oscillate on the white paper field. The French landscape painters celebrate a familiar natural landscape. Gregory Blue celebrates a color saturated parallel universe.

James Groody likes to reinvent himself. He distances himself from J. Richards stable of French contemporary staples incidentally -- by dint of national temperament -- not by design. The French painters take pride in working within a hundred years of tradition. Groody creates his own traditions, borrowing visual tools that work for him. Or he can make the tool when he can't find it on the shelf. He doesn't like little boxes or fences. He's a cowboy.

Groody borrows from the big boys at the modern art mini-mansion. Picasso, Matisse, Lyonel Feininger, Willem de Kooning, and the Italian Futurists (who by and large perished in the trenches and toxic vapors of WWI). His latest paintings are reminiscent of the Futurist manic insistence on two dimensional rapid movement, with his use of the human form as point of departure for his dance of lines.

In "All of You" (2000), a couple embraces in a vortex of modernist styles. The isolated couple is comforted by the company of art movements as diverse as abstract expressionism, Futurism and Cubism. Groody's amalgam of styles is hit and miss -- some paintings find their own distinct voice, others merely bleat Moderne.

One distinct painting is "Blue Vase" (2000). A fistful of flowers is stuck into a water glass (not a vase). The still life assembly is inelegant and brutish. White blossoms are applied in a thick circular paste. Juicy horizontal smears define water reflecting through the glass. It's a rowdy floral arrangement, unapologetically offered by the sensitive and calloused hand of a self-taught cowboy artist. Groody even made the frame himself. Giddy up.

The paintings at J. Richards Gallery of Charlotte are primarily decorative. For whatever reason they are made by the artists -- joie de vivre, catharsis, self-expression -- they are bound to end up making a well appointed interior space look better.

In her choice of works, with the help of buyers in France, Gallery Director Sheila Acker Spitz will make sure of that. Spitz offers advice on collecting art which is worth passing on: "If you are interested in acquiring contemporary art, be advised that it is best to avoid the work of artists whose marketplace success embodies the triumph of celebrity over substance. Look for those artists that critics, museums and major collectors acquire and also those who are on the rise whose potential might not yet be fully realized in the market. Be advised that the purchase of any art, whether contemporary or impressionistic, purely for investment purposes, is risky and promises no guarantee in terms of financial return."

She's being up front about the adventure aspect of buying art. She's a gallery director and not afraid to use the word "risk." That's refreshing.

The paintings at J. Richards are not ground breaking, avant garde, challenging or difficult, nor do they purport to be. These are salon paintings that reinforce the notion that art is meant to be uplifting, life enhancing and, perhaps most importantly, beautiful. Many of these paintings are beautiful enough to warrant a viewing, if one-of-a-kind neo-impressionist painting does it for you. *

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