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To beat summer blahs, one gallery turns to blues

Some galleries like to build their summer shows around an unusual idea or device. Not to be outdone, the Nohra Haime Gallery here settled on the color blue as its unifying element, and came up with one of the best hot-weather exhibitions around. ``Blues and Other Summer Delights'' presents the work of 14 well-known and just-emerging painters and sculptors, almost all of whom are represented by one or more pieces.

Yves Klein, for instance, sets the tone with one of his classical statuettes painted entirely in his famous (and patented) Klein Blue. And Jorge Tacla scores effectively with a tiny red male figure located dead center in a vast expanse of brilliant blue paint.

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There's an engaging triptych of cloud formations by Julio Larraz; a large and complex watercolor of rooftops by Fernando Botero; an interesting, if perhaps overly polemic, figurative canvas by Paton Miller; and good-to-excellent works by Christo, Edward Henderson, and Francisca Sutil.

The star of the proceedings, however, is a young Italian artist whose name I hadn't encountered before. Silvio Merlino obviously bears watching, for his two pieces here (and the paintings reproduced in a catalog for a previous show) indicate that he is a painter of exceptional sensibility, imagination, and range.

``The City of the Blue Butterflies'' dominates the far wall of the gallery's main room, both by its size (9 by 12 feet) and its extraordinary vibrancy. At first glance, and at a distance, it appears to represent an aerial night view of a huge, brilliantly lit metropolis. But then, despite the fact that the picture's title supports that original impression, its perspective shifts, and one is confronted by pictorial space that is oddly and totally ambiguous. Even the dozens of blue butterflies scattered strategically over the surface of the canvas don't clarify the issue. If anything, they confuse it, forcing the viewer eventually either to walk away, or to accept the painting entirely on its own terms.

The capitulation is worth it, however, for in this work, Merlino has produced a disquietingly magical effect that not only tantalizes our imagination, but pushes our sensibilities into challenging new directions as well. This ability to enchant and engage is also evident in his ``Faraway Door,'' a small, warmly mysterious composite made up of seashells and other tiny found objects which evokes thoughts and feelings about the sea, outer space, and other faraway places.

At the Nohra Haime Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, through August.

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