Within her chosen range, Christine Neill is an artist it would be hard to surpass, as her current show at Gomez attests. Working in watercolors, she creates lush pictures of palms and other leafy plants, with an occasional piece of fruit, all gathered in shallow spaces against largely neutral backgrounds.
These reveal Neill's mastery of color gradations, of dealing with light and shadow on overlapping planes, and of creating the illusion of three-dimensionality while restricting herself to a severely limited pictorial space. What she does, she does extremely well; but hers has become a rather claustrophobic art, in the sense that it closes out all but immediate visual pleasure. These works are devoid of broader implications, so that what you see is absolutely everything you get.
No one could say that about the work of the other artist at Gomez just now. Joan Erbe's world is richly peopled with characters of fantasy realized in a way that allows the artist to comment upon the human condition with pungent wit and psychological insight.
These strangely formed people with big heads and weird costumes, painted with a palette of vivid colors, are superficially like no one you've seen before. But inside they're like you and me and all of us. Take "Moi?" for instance. The figure puts her hand to her chest in the classic gesture of feigned innocence. "Me? Surely you don't think I would do anything like that." But there's something in those big eyes, opened wide in feigned astonishment, that says guilty as charged.
"Board of Directors" consists of a cast of characters, all masked, who nevertheless manage to vie with one another for the stupidity prize, with the single exception of the monkey on the right, who wears a sly, guileful smile.
There's perfect self-delusion in the expression of the figure in "Carnival Morte," who looks into the face of death with no comprehension at all, even as the pallor of death creeps across her own face. And the deliciously costumed people in the marvelous "Lost at Sea" are lost at more than sea. They haven't a clue about anything, though they want to look like they do.
Erbe is that rare and wonderful artist who offers rewards on whatever level you seek them. She even punctures the silly pomposity of most artists' statements with her own wise words on the subject: "Years ago I armed myself with the statement, 'If I could articulate what my paintings mean, I wouldn't bother to paint them.' " Way to go, Joan.
What: Works by Christine Neill and Joan Erbe
Where: Gomez Gallery, 836 Leadenhall St.
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, through June 24
Call: (410) 752-2080