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This Is Not a Pipe Dream 

Gail Marcus-Orlen finds new uses for Magritte and de Chirico imagery.

For years Tucson artist Gail Marcus-Orlen has been painting a joyful world where fruit floats in the air and animals wear party hats, but she has enlisted the help of early 20th-century artists to help with her latest magic act at the Temple Gallery. Marcus-Orlen uses icons from Giorgio de Chirico and René Magritte in several of the 19 works featured in her art exhibition Gail Marcus-Orlen: Recent Paintings.

De Chirico, an Italian artist of Greek birth, was one of the founders of the Metaphysical School. Magritte, a French artist, was best known as part of the Magic Realism movement, which was an offshoot of Surrealism. Despite their individual characteristics, all three art movements reflected the age of Sigmund Freud, and the artists in the movements shared an interest in dreams and in interactions between the conscious and the unconscious mind. In terms of imagery, many of the artists captured a sense of mystery and an undercurrent of darkness.

One of de Chirico's finest and most famous paintings, "The Melancholy and Mystery of a Street" (1914), depicts the shadow of a girl rolling a hoop down a street tightly lined with buildings. The deep perspective of the street makes its angled rows of arcades seem threatening and ominous. In her 1999 work "Silence #2," Marcus-Orlen uses the perspective and structure of De Chirico's imagery to her own ends.

Like a number of Marcus-Orlen's paintings, the outdoor scene is viewed from indoors and framed by a window and a windowsill topped with a vase of brightly colored flowers. Instead of a girl playing, an inquisitive cat sits in the middle of a narrow street painted with de Chirico's deep perspective. Another cat slips away into a de Chirico-like archway. One of the touches of mystery in Marcus-Orlen's painting is that there are three cat shadows, but only two cats. Instead of de Chirico's dark areas and suspense, Marcus-Orlen's canvas is a rainbow of colors. The buildings are painted in muted shades of purple, blue and gray while the windowsill runs a brighter spectrum from maroon and blood red to orange and coral. Her street ends in a green tree, a teal sky and a puff of cloud. No one could get trapped in here, but the deep perspective does add an appealing touch of mystery.

Artists have always co-opted, adulterated and paid tribute to other artists' work in their own work. In literature, if a writer uses too much of another writer's work, the writer can be sued for plagiarism and have to pay monetary damages. On the other hand, Michael Cunningham, who based his novel The Hours on Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway, won a Pulitzer Prize. Not everyone agreed with that assessment, and some critics of The Hours said that Cunningham should have found his own plot.

Using the de Chirico imagery adds another level to Marcus-Orlen's work and gives the viewer something else to consider and compare. In the two, smaller, vertical pieces from her "Destiny" series, Marcus-Orlen uses the same de Chirico street scenario with a deep perspective, but the colors of the buildings are darker and the end of the street cannot be seen. The darkness seems appropriate for paintings about an unknown future.

In several of her other paintings, Marcus-Orlen transforms Magritte's famous icon of a man in a bowler hat so that he is shown in color from the back as an observer of strange happenings. In Marcus-Orlen's "Where the Birds Live" series, the man is watching various scenes of colorfully patterned birdhouses floating in air. In a back yard with a prickly pear and a cypress, something as commonplace as a birdhouse has been set free to become an airborne home to birds, cats, flowers, flying fruit and even fish.

The man in the hat is just a touch of Magritte, and it does not carry the weight of a work by an artist willing to paint a simple image of a pipe and write below it (in French) "This is not a pipe." That was in the 1920s, and the historical context of the painting's novelty means a great deal.

Stylistically, Marcus-Orlen paints well with a smooth surface characteristic of painters like Magritte. Her addition of Metaphysical School and Magic Realism references do add needed weight to her paintings, which teeter on the edge between magical and overly charming. Early in the 20th century in the wake of Freud, artists were imagining dark possibilities. Some contemporary artists still are while others would rather escape to a world where penguins waddle down the street and seagulls wear party hats.

More by Pamela Portwood

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  • The Sharper Image

    The Tucson Museum of Art gets real.
    • Jul 25, 2002
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