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Pushing past tragedy, to the edge of dissolution

Six years ago, artist Robert Ferrandini had a stroke that paralyzed his right painting hand. When he recovered sufficiently to return to his art, Ferrandini taught himself to paint with his left hand. The fruit of that effort is up in a fascinating show at Gallery NAGA.

It has a double-edged allure. It's impossible not to compare these works on paper with Ferrandini's operatic, pre-stroke landscapes, painted in oil on canvas, and the new pieces are bound to come up short. The older paintings had a Hudson River School majesty and romanticism; they tangled with nature's darkness and found light at its center. Ferrandini brought fear and awe to his canvases, and his work was shot through with the humility of a man standing before something transcendent.

Now he's been humbled in a different way. He works on a smaller scale, in a different medium. Ferrandini paints in watercolor, which couldn't be more different from oil. One is translucent and flowing, the other opaque and more tractable. Sometimes the artist mixes gouache into his watercolor to make a more opaque medium, but he uses that for detail, for mark-making amid the washes of color. Such gestures strain toward but do not achieve the spindly delicacy that appeared in the sun-limned saplings in many of his older works.

The touch isn't as delicate, the majesty is diminished, and the darkness can never be as deep and aching if he continues in watercolor. Yet Ferrandini's fervent visual intelligence makes these works intriguing in their own right. The density of his marks, which have a nervous, buzzing energy, pushes his landscapes to the edge of dissolution - and that's something that hasn't changed.

Look at "Untitled 7." Several gold-trunked trees shimmer against a ground of mottled blue-green over a haze of sparkly water. The trees are just a nod to form; they feel more like an illusion of trees. Everything has a hallucinatory feel, as if emerging from or receding into an oddly bright fog, which imbues the work with longing. In "Untitled 2," Ferrandini sets off the shivering luminescence of a lake with a sharply defined, narrow, blossoming cherry tree in the foreground, marrying the lyricism of Asian landscape painting with the light-and-color confetti of Impressionism, albeit muted under a watery sky.

For someone who has not only mastered a new hand, but a new medium, Ferrandini has created an impressive body of work. At the same time, it suggests that he's only at the beginning of a new path and has much ahead of him to learn, see, and integrate.

Warm tones, cool eye

William Bailey, the iconic American painter of still lifes who stuck to his serenely formal subject while waves such as Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism rolled past him, has a gorgeous show at Alpha Gallery.

The exhibit features drawings and paintings of still lifes and nudes. The canvases are painted with the warm tones and the cool eye Bailey has used for decades. They are purely modernist in their formalism, despite their old-fashioned subjects. This artist has no narrative agenda, no underlying moral to take away, like the 17th-century Dutch still-life painters. He's more like a Zen gardener, raking the same patch of sand every day, finding beauty anew in it.

There's much to see in each painting. In "Turning," his earth-toned palette shifts with whispers of shadow and reflection on the wall behind the array on the table. Bailey paints with small, uniform strokes. They don't change as he rounds a corner, and that technique subtly flattens the two walls onto one plane, making a tension against the cues we get from shadow and light. Vase, pitcher, candlestick, eggs, and more seem scattered over the table, creating another tension between compositional intent and seeming randomness.

Bailey's drawings, also made with steady, repeated gestures, are observant, methodical, and surprisingly gorgeous. It may be that the more pared down and direct the form, the more nuance this artist - and the grateful viewer - can find within it.

Imaginative 'Terrain'

The Cambridge Arts Council has enlisted painter Heidi Whitman to create a mosaic for Lafayette Square Plaza, a new little public space at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Main Street in Central Square. The plaza isn't open yet; officials are now hoping for a late November installation of Whitman's work. In the meantime, you can see her paintings in CAC Gallery at Cambridge City Hall Annex.

She calls this body of work "Brain Terrain." It represents morphing systems of imagining - lovely, layered conglomerations of landscape, cartography, digital networks, biological diagrams, and cosmological maps. There's a Miro quality to Whitman's designs, with their bold organic forms and painterly backgrounds.

"Wired/ Brain Terrain (154)" has a wavy, paint-stroked brown-black ground with a yellow form encroaching from the right that might be the edge of a continent, but it also has lines and plug-shapes coming from it that suggest computer components, although the plugs' prongs have a distinctly painterly drip to them. Other roundish shapes float like planets occluding one another. This, and the others, are clever, deeply imagined works.

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Robert Ferrandini: New Paintings on Paper

At: Gallery NAGA, 67 Newbury St., through Nov. 3. 617-267-9060, gallerynaga.com

William Bailey

At: Alpha Gallery, 38 Newbury St., through Nov. 7. 617-536-4465, alphagallery.com

Heidi Whitman: Brain Terrain

At: CAC Gallery, Cambridge City Hall Annex, 344 Broadway, Cambridge, through Nov. 9. 617-349-4380, cambridgeartscouncil.org

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