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Getting ‘Physical’

He’s bold, specific and striking.

She’s vague, anonymous and haunting.

On canvas, anyway.

“I felt it was very intriguing to show two artists from Las Vegas with such different approaches to painting,” says Beate Kirmse, executive director of Contemporary Arts Collective and curator of “Painting Physical Presence,” its latest exhibit, running through Sept. 20.

“When I saw them together, I thought there was a great dialogue going on between these two.”

While reducing their respective styles to in-your-face and in-your-dreams may be an oversimplification lacking nuance, the “physical presence” depicted by artists Erik Gecas (he’s the bold one) and Ayako Ono (she’s the haunted one) are an artistic yin and yang.

“I’m still surprised how well they play off each other,” Gecas says.

Ono, originally from Japan, creates scenes of train stations and subway cars as they’d seem in the sleepy, overnight hours, the evening rush a remnant of a day long done, stray travelers wandering in the eerie calm and quiet of a structure built for babble and hubbub.

“These are from my experiences when I was living in Tokyo,” Ono says. “In Tokyo, there are so many people in public places like train stations and nobody knows me and I don’t know anybody. People don’t care about people, people don’t communicate with each other. In those spaces, I don’t need to be myself because I’m just one more person there.”

Every piece is immersed in a lush, blue hue, the kind of cool, late-night color that might bathe a jazz club at 2 a.m. as a muted trumpet riffs in the background.

“My paintings are about my memory,” she says about their dreamscape quality. “I used blue for the relationship between the station and myself. If I paint in realistic, normal colors, it just becomes normal.”

At their core is contemplation and communion with oneself. Ono’s artwork is untitled, thematically consistent with the slight, silhouetted figures she portrays — black and featureless. The scattered travelers — loitering on a train platform, waiting for subway doors to close, gazing into the darkening abyss of a tunnel, two figures passing each other on a steep escalator — are elegantly anonymous.

“To enhance the loneliness, I didn’t put many people,” Ono says. “Those figures are all the same, and I feel like I’m one of those people.”

By contrast, if Gecas’ subjects — vibrant, detailed and conveyed in clean strokes and strong colors — were dropped into Ono’s hushed train terminal, they would shatter its fragile lull like a booming announcement over the public address system.

“I moved to Las Vegas to do nonfigurative sculpture, then I switched to figurative painting,” says Gecas, originally from Pullman, Wash. “Something about Las Vegas sucked the life out of my sculpture. But I went to the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum, where they had a Madonna and Child painting, and it had all this directness that was able to block out all of the distractions.”

Rife with religious themes, they nearly reach out, grab the viewer and demand to be studied. In “Salome Losing Her Charm,” Gecas’ interpretation has the biblical vixen nearly resembling Vampira, lightly squishing the decapitated head of John the Baptist between her fingers, raising it over a platter. “Ten-Miss-iss-ippi” depicts a young girl in a yellow dress drifting in midair, in angelic slumber.

“That was originally titled ‘The War in Heaven Raged On,’ but it wasn’t until I was done and I stepped back and looked at it that I realized, with my daughter as a model, it was like an angel falling from heaven,” says Gecas, who uses his wife and children as models, drawing inspiration from the people he’s closest to, as opposed to Ono’s nameless, faceless strangers.

“Becoming religious and getting a family, which both happened after I moved here to Las Vegas, were prerequisites to my becoming a figurative painter.”

One piece, of a woman flanked by four children shouting with feverish enthusiasm, is titled — appropriately, but with grammatical defiance — “Halelujia.” A quartet of simple portraits of a woman appearing angry, amused, pensive and relaxed underscores Gecas’ engagement with religious echoes when they are dubbed “Eve Becoming Confused By a Serpent,” “King Herod Has Eyes for Your Fancy Dancing,” “Lot’s Wife About to Turn Around, About to Become a Pillar of Salt” and “The Wife of Moses Hearing About the Final Plague,” forcing viewers to filter their perceptions through an entirely different mind-set when discovering the titles.

“It was just a feeling when I saw their paintings,” Kirmse says about the notion to display Ono’s and Gecas’ art in tandem. “They both think about physical presence in painting in such different ways.”

Aggressive and recessive.

Individualistic and anonymous.

Striking and haunting.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0256.

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