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Nathalie Chikhi's childlike constructions awaken glee

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Nathalie Chikhi: Solo Show

Through Sept. 23
Twelve21 Gallery
1221-C N. Orange Ave.
twelve21gallery.com
free

The best part of going back to school: new school supplies. Before they saw heavy use at the art table that sharp new ruler, unscuffed plastic protractor, still-lethal compass and, most of all, the fresh new box of Caran d’Ache colored pencils (or markers, or Cray-Pas, depending on the grade) were the lure that saw me past the first dull-dread-filled Sunday night. Nathalie Chikhi’s show at Twelve21 Gallery, an excursion in tonal variations undertaken with kid-stuff materials, captures that exuberant and simple delight.

Flat wooden sticks, both tongue-depressor and popsicle-size, are the most prominent vehicle of Chikhi’s show. Her Pixels series dominates the gallery like so many Crayola-box portraits, multihued and meticulously laid out in mandalas and chevrons. In keeping with the gradation of bright color, but belying their 3-D, tactile shapes, all but one of the Pixels pieces are stuck flat to discs of white-painted wood. The exception, “Pixels #3bis,” is a spiral staircase of small sticks, adding the element of volume. The allusions to summer-camp arts and crafts and summertime icy treats may be unintentional – though now an Orlando resident, Chikhi was raised in France – but they are inescapable, and add to the sweet simplicity of the work.

Elsewhere Chikhi plays with acrylic paints, markers, pencils both soft and diamond-point sharp, aluminum foil and Styrofoam. A scatter of pebbles is painted in white-and-gold spots and stripes, simultaneously elevating them to something rich and strange and bringing them down to pet-rock naiveté. One wall is devoted to Monograms, a series of Shmoo-shaped imaginary letterforms in gold paint, the cartoony blobs contrasting with the opulent material. The superflat neon-bright acrylics are reminiscent of Damien Hirst’s spin paintings, but also of melted crayons. (The larger ones have titles like “Hope,” “Reincarnation” and “Congratulations,” while smaller pieces are named with more attitude: “Slop,” “Flick,” “Invisible.”)

Several of the pieces exhibit an obsessive or trancey quality – especially the Blizzard series in marker and pencil on paper. Once again Chikhi moves through every color in the box, the rainbow rings of ink surrounded by a stubble of furry-soft graphite marks. In “Gold Star,” the pencil marks are sharp and fine, Rapidograph-precise, but give the same feeling of obsessive doodling.

Earlier this year, Chikhi participated in a group show at Mass MoCA, An Exchange With Sol LeWitt, and her work shares with LeWitt that sly, deceptively simple surface. Beneath the playful colors of LeWitt’s work, though, there were heady theoretical problems being solved; I’m not sure Chikhi’s work demonstrates the same rigor, but like most of the emerging artists exhibited by Twelve21 Gallery, Nathalie Chikhi bears watching.

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