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ART REVIEW

Cameras, clocks, and microscopes, in uncanny detail

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By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / November 28, 2010

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Harold Reddicliffe is a fascinating artist, and certainly one of the most accomplished I’ve come across in these parts. Strangely, not a single work of his can be found in the collections of any museum, either local, national, or international.

Not even in storage.

An associate professor of painting, Reddicliffe has taught at Boston University for 23 years, and it is that institution that is now honoring him with a retrospective. It’s a superb show.

Brightly colored and technically virtuosic, Reddicliffe’s work can nevertheless seem fastidious and even forbidding at first glance. He paints utilitarian objects such as cameras, lighters, microscopes, movie projectors, clocks, small engines, scales, and stationery from close up and with uncanny precision. The works are not exactly minimal, and they’re not what we think of as abstract. But they are about as far removed from the emotional burps and blurts of expressionism as it’s possible to get.

Reddicliffe’s work may call to mind the optical intensity and graphic boldness of photorealist artists such as Robert Bechtle, Richard Estes, and Robert Cottingham. But unlike those artists, whose work can dissolve into a kind of optical fuzz when you get up close, Reddicliffe never works from photographs. He eyeballs his subjects.

Human vision is, of course, binocular. That means visual information comes to us through two separate portals in streams that never really stop, not even when our eyes are closed. It is our brains that do the work of combining, selecting, sifting, and interpreting.

Reddicliffe’s looks like a view of the world that has been filtered with particular ruthlessness. He paints still lifes in the confines of his studio. He favors certain kinds of bright and uniform light. And the objects he paints are almost always positioned parallel to the picture plane — we don’t see them, in other words, from jaunty, eye-refreshing angles.

Still, working from this radically limited premise, Reddicliffe gets all kinds of marvelous things to happen. His little menagerie of mechanisms make you intensely aware of the mechanism of seeing. The real revelation — and the riotous irony that underlies all this artist’s work — is that seeing is never just a mechanism. It is an ongoing game, a transaction, a bet, a wager between our minds and what we see, between the world inside us and the world around us, between what we’re seeing now and what we’ve seen before.

Reddicliffe has a thing for obsolete or old-fashioned technologies. But he is eager to suppress any hint of nostalgia (he long ago stopped painting antique clocks for that reason). The virtue of his objects being old, perhaps, is that they seem at once familiar and rather strange. Most of us have seen old-fashioned cameras or slide projectors, but how many of us can name their parts, or explain how they work? (Aside from that they’re weightier and often more beautifully designed.)

Take a picture like “Projector in Case,’’ which Reddicliffe painted in 2007. He shows the machine from side on, resting on a slightly reflective surface. Going by the few shadows, the light seems to be coming from in front and above. Most of the machine’s lines are rectilinear. If they’re not — if they curve or wobble — they’re involved in some kind of dance of symmetry with the lines and shapes around them. (Humans love symmetry — another function of having two eyes.)

What does Reddicliffe do with this setup?

You’ll note first the intense red background. Reddicliffe is a sensational colorist.

He uses color for its pleasures, but also for its spatial properties. He knows that this red, for instance, is deep and warm and tends to push forward, so that what our eyes want to see as background insinuates itself into the foreground, flattening the picture.

Of course, the symmetry and the side-on view — everything parallel to the picture plane — accentuates this flatness. The reel, which in reality must have a certain thickness and weight, looks like a purely graphic circle, its dark lines pushing back against the forward-thrusting red.

In this stringent atmosphere, even the shadows and highlights that constitute “modeling’’ — the created illusion of three-dimensionality — take on a regularity and rhythm that feels more graphic than spatial.

But then Reddicliffe has his marvelous little touches. The flipped-open lid of the projector’s khaki-colored case, for instance, has little trompe l’oeil air bubbles in its lining that make the whole picture suddenly pop with life, space, air.

Note, too, the electrical lead, insulated in orange plastic, that snakes over the top of the case from back to front, catching shadows and highlights on its path. It zings with the red background and harmonizes with the army green of the case. The result is riveting.

It’s no accident that many of the objects Reddicliffe paints are tools for seeing (cameras, microscopes, projectors, lenses). In many cases they’ve been pulled apart and fastidiously arranged on a surface, so the picture becomes about how they might relate or fail to relate, how they fit together or don’t fit together. The analogy with the mechanics of seeing is there to be made, but it’s not something Reddicliffe insists on. (His work is too busy setting up problems and conundrums to peddle in preening metaphors. It’s very empirical, that way; very practical.)

When you look at his work, look especially to the edges of things. What happens at the edges and in the corners of the picture plane? What happens when the edge of one object meets the other? It’s often here that the interplay between depth and surface is most pronounced, most suggestively ambivalent.

Reddicliffe arranges separate objects so that they or their shadows or reflections create symmetries, rhymes, and other abstract relations. In “24 Objects,’’ for instance, a foreshortened wrench that is cut off at the bottom edge of the frame is in line with a cylindrical knob, which casts a shadow that falls directly into the wrench’s “mouth.’’

In so many cases, it’s Reddicliffe’s colors that do the real work of injecting character, making his pictures joyous and witty rather than dry and anally retentive, as they could easily be. “Pink and Green Envelopes,’’ for instance, is an exquisite study in pastel colors that plays yet another variation of the flatness and depth game. (When Reddicliffe paints paper products, he does amazing things by contrasting crinkled or folded surfaces with smooth ones.)

“Microscope in Box’’ — a masterpiece — plays with deeper, richer colors: the primaries blue, yellow, and red in dialogue with orange and green, and with the black and glinting silver of the microscope itself. I can’t say enough how much I admire Reddicliffe’s orchestration of these areas of flat color and cast shadows, his ability to lift what he does beyond the appearance of a dry exercise — like a musician practicing scales — into something genuinely startling and beautiful, something fizzing with intelligence.

Many of his compositions have something anthropomorphic about them — “Device,’’ for instance, which, with its magnifying glass head and two steel arms and heavy base, could be a figurative sculpture by Picasso.

There’s also, not surprisingly, an emotional dynamic at work: a comic ebullience beneath the poker-face, an enlivening, adult tension between scientific fastidiousness and a sensual attention to surfaces, between cold precision and warm exuberance. You see it in the work of Spain’s Antonio López García and in Britain’s Euan Uglow. And you certainly see it in Boston’s Harold Reddicliffe — a very underrated artist.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

HAROLD REDDICLIFFE: Paintings From Three Decades

At: Boston University Art Gallery. Through Jan. 16. 617-353-4672, www.bu.edu/art