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The beauty might blind you to the message

Colorful paintings, potent antiwar statements.

A photo by Samuel Worthington IV using the Mordencage process, on exhibit at Schmidt Dean Gallery.
A photo by Samuel Worthington IV using the Mordencage process, on exhibit at Schmidt Dean Gallery.Read more

If you want to see sensuous, celebratory painting, rendered with a delicate but absolutely confident touch, go no farther than Locks Gallery, where Jane Irish is exhibiting her work of the last two years.

And if you like art that pulses a potent antiwar message, you can visit the same show.

Irish, who started her career at the height of New York's East Village gallery boom - and, unlike many '80s artists, survived that era - is producing some of her most exciting, provocative work two decades later.

The sheer beauty of Irish's paintings is unusual enough. Besides her deft paint handling, she is a daring colorist in the molds of De Kooning, Florine Stettheimer, and Malcolm Morley. The opulent rococo drawing rooms she depicts, with ornate chandeliers, plaster wall decorations, carpets and furniture, glow like hallucinatory visions.

But then you learn Irish is painting on common Tyvek, not canvas. And your eye begins to follow the raised letters and numerals on the surfaces of her paintings - initially camouflaged by her riveting colors - that form statements, statistical diagrams and poems about the Vietnam War. All that beauty has lured you into Ireland's over-the-top interiors while a harrowing accounting of war has been literally at the forefront of these paintings (the effect is more or less the reverse of Maya Lin's dark, minimalist Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which, under certain light conditions becomes a mirror, reflecting the sky, the trees, the grass, and its various onlookers behind the deceased's engraved names).

Irish's paintings are unsettling even without words, and there are several small works on paper here that depict interiors only. Such seductive, vapid beauty automatically stirs thoughts of its evanescence. With their bas-relief observations of the toll of the Vietnam War, however, they become chilling testimonies to the horrors of all wars.

Elizabeth Osborne, who is also exhibiting at Locks, is represented by a group of her paintings from the 1960s that show her developing the style she initially became known for - large, colorful paintings of interiors and landcapes (she has since moved into near-abstraction).

These particular works depict arrangements of people, or a single female figure, in rooms of typically modern geometric '60s design, and show an affinity with contemporaneous paintings by Alex Katz and Richard Diebenkorn.

Photo finishing

Maybe you've seen it and didn't know it. In any case, Mordencage, a complicated photographic process discovered by a French scientist in the 1880s, has been back in use since the 1970s. One of its younger practitioners, Samuel Worthington IV, has become extremely nimble at what essentially amounts to making two contrasting images from one negative, through bleaching, baths, redeveloping, fixing and toning. (Toning, the final step in a seven-hour process, involves only 10 seconds in a selenium bath, and can destroy a print in an instant.)

Unlike traditional Mordencage, Worthington's prints retain most of their silver emulsion, which, having been briefly separated from its photographic paper during a warm bath, has landed back on the paper in a wrinkled, draped fashion. This peculiar draping looks like part of a landscape in Worthington's redeveloped images of landscapes.

Besides being fascinating images of the wild (and integrating untamed emulsion, as well), Worthington's contemporary photographic experiments are as timely as silhouetting, embroidering and other lost craft techniques that have been reinvented by contemporary artists, but made in the spirit of the avant-garde, with an unsure outcome.