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A touch with abstraction

Before painter Jennifer Riley moved from Boston to New York five years ago, she was painting lush, ethereal abstract canvases strapped with atmospheric bands of color. Her smart and lovely new show at OH+T Gallery is completely different - except for her unerring eye for tone.

It's as if she's taken a microscope to those stripes and focused us on the hard-edged patterns that make up their very structure, like the ice crystals in cirrus clouds. Her canvases crawl with abutting trapezoid forms that accumulate into jagged expanses with faceted surfaces. These paintings stretch out beyond repetitive pattern into the suggestion of landscape, with delicately modulated skies hovering in the background.

In "Do You Remember Mount Vesuvius?" Riley has touched the pale, luminous sky with peach, creating a Fitz Henry Lane-style backdrop for her abstraction. The trapezoids tilt into one another like the planes in a sheet of used origami paper, a rising hill of flat, bold tones mixed with passages of blue stripes. Though many of Riley's titles reference natural disasters, there's no sense of imminent eruption here. It's more the peaceful aftermath, the sun sweet above the rubble.

"Do You Remember Teahupoo?" refers to the huge, curling waves in the tourist mecca of the southeast of Tahiti. Here the sky is lemon-cream, and the surging form below it is rendered in several shades of blue and green, looking more like a crumbling ice floe than a powerful wave. Riley's message is all about subtle tones and patterns, the collision of geometry's clarity with the more organic and mystical qualities of color and space. It's all about painting.

Pick-up pieces

Robin Dash, another expert abstract painter and passionate colorist, makes work that functions more like the lint trap in your dryer; it picks up and accumulates whatever passes through. Her show at Allston Skirt Gallery includes paintings, ceramic sculpture, drawings, and a video.

The video, "Open Clothes," captures the clean laundry flapping on the criss-crossing clotheslines of Dash's elderly neighbor in Somerville, who died soon after Dash met her. The elegiac quality of this bright, sweet, and engrossingly intimate piece leads naturally to drawings based on obituaries. Dash takes the name of the deceased as a starting point and makes wild designs around it, an automatic-drawing response to what she has just read about the person's life.

Anything is material for Dash: She adds vivid layers to a Jackson Pollock-style painting, recycling and re-creating, then drapes it in old silk pajamas (another callback to the video). There's a sense of the hoarder to her work, but one with a strong aesthetic and hopeful sentiment: the conviction that it all has meaning, if you sift through it and rearrange it enough.

Rachell Sumpter, a young Seattle artist, has a fresh and absorbing show in the Mini Skirt, Allston Skirt's project room. Working in gouache and pastel on large sheets of brown paper, she first hints at vague, powdery landscapes with passages of color, then draws scads of tiny people in bright, hooded jackets migrating with the purposefulness of army ants from one section of the work to another. The dramatic shift in scale from the vast landscape to the wee figures pulls you right in, and up close you find more curiosities - those seeming Eskimos are moving past cacti, for instance.

Her smaller works skip the scale shift and focus immediately on oddities, such as polar bears garbed in armor, again in the desert, in "Ghosts." Fanciful, mysterious, and disturbing, these works verge a bit toward the precious, but Sumpter's sure hand keeps her just clear.

Inscrutable Chi

Tseng Kwong Chi's gorgeous black-and-white photos of himself garbed in a Mao uniform, looking severe and implacable at tourist sites around the world, cleverly captured the tension and romance Westerners felt about China at the time they were taken, from 1979 to 1990, when the artist died. In the 1970s, President Nixon had visited China and the Cultural Revolution had ended; to many Americans, China was a great unknown just beginning to open its doors.

The photos, now up at Bernard Toale Gallery, are equally freighted today, as China becomes an economic powerhouse. Tseng (originally Joseph Tseng, a Hong Kong-born Canadian, who changed his name for the sake of this extended performance) posed in the dunes of Provincetown, or before a stack of wood in Vermont, or with Goofy at Disneyland. His intentionally inscrutable figure embodied all that people didn't know - and might fear - about China. Placing him in gaudy or gorgeous tourist sites played up his interiority. They're funny, edgy works; one wonders what Tseng would be doing today on this topic, had he lived.

Nancy Murphy Spicer's fanciful installation, also at Toale, compels viewers to examine the gallery's spaces. She removed the contents of a closet there and re-assembled it as an installation, then put a video of herself creating another artwork up in the closet. She polished one section of the wood floor that passes under walls and into storage, subtly disrupting what viewers often take for granted. Spicer's work is low-key and delightful, as if she's showing you a treasure map of a place you thought you already knew.

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'Related'

Jennifer Riley: Do You Remember . . .? New Paintings

At: OH+T Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., through Sept. 29. 617-423-1677, ohtgallery.com

Robin Dash: Don't Climb the Pyramids

Rachell Sumpter: New Work

At: Allston Skirt Gallery, 65 Thayer St., through Sept. 29. 617-482-3652, allstonskirt.com

Tseng Kwong Chi: Ambiguous Ambassador

Nancy Murphy Spicer: Provisional

At: Bernard Toale Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., through Sept. 29. 617-482-2477, bernardtoalegallery.com

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