B y M a r g a r e t R e g a n
TWAS THE MORNING after the big movie shoot at Etherton Gallery downtown, and some Hollywood types were back in the gallery again. You could tell who they were because of their falling-down jeans, day-old beards and thousand-dollar leather jackets.
Seems they were choosing a Gail Marcus-Orlen painting for background for a scene of Silkscreen they'd be filming that afternoon. Jenny Garth of 90210 fame plays an artist in the made-for-TV movie, scheduled to air on ABC in March 1996. The real artist, a Tucsonan in her mid-40s, watched with an air of resignation as her painting went out the door, on its way to a sort of covert fame as the work of the movie's fictional artist.
"I've never seen 90210," Marcus-Orlen said politely of the teen TV hit, carefully avoiding the opportunity to pontificate about the relative fortunes of artists and celebrity actresses. She could have, though. After all, even if her art was going on to fame, if not fortune, in the movies, she wasn't. And she doesn't come close to making what Garth does. Marcus-Orlen's surrealistic, dreamlike brights, easily recognized by their strange compositions, a landscape on a tabletop, say, or a classic fruit still life floating against a black diamond shape, have a solid following of local fans. A couple of times readers have voted her best local artist in the annual Tucson Weekly Best Of Tucson contest. But like many other serious artists, she doesn't earn enough to make a real living out of her art.
"I guess I'm not really the type to go out and sell," she sighed. "But all I wanted when I started was to make enough money for my supplies. I do that. If you start worrying about it, you're not gonna paint."
Paint Marcus-Orlen does, turning out by her own estimate well above 20 major paintings a year. She works nearly every day, following a rigorous studio schedule dictated in part by the demands of mothering a 10-year-old son. She typically shows every two years at Etherton. In the new show, she has a suite of 12 oils on canvas and six pencil drawings, their classic arches and painted marble statues partially inspired by last year's six-month sojourn in Paris with her son and her husband, poet and UA creative writing prof Steve Orlen. (Her work shares the space with mixed-media paintings by Eriks Rudans and photographs by Vicki Ragan.)
Marcus-Orlen's productivity is nothing new.
"I've always drawn since second grade," she said. The daughter of German Jews who had fled Hitler in the 1930s, the artist grew up in a rough immigrant neighborhood of Queens, a block from the dull buzz of a turnpike that slices through the borough. Her parents both worked in the New York garment industry, her father selling fabric, including what his daughter remembers as gorgeously colored silks, and her mother as a seamstress.
Young Gail took art classes at Pratt Institute and the Brooklyn Museum, and in her "awful high school" found one encouraging art teacher. But fashion seemed a more logical career choice, and she enrolled after high school at the respected Fashion Institute of Technology. It was a nasty subway ride from Queens to Manhattan, though, and she longed for escape. One summer vacation she and her sister Carol bought $99 bus tickets and came to Tucson for a summer of art at the UA. That trip changed her life.
She realized she was meant for a kind of art other than fashion illustration.
"Mel Sanger, one of the UA professors, is why I came back. He was an odd guy, that's what was great about him. He taught figure drawing."
After finishing up the program at FIT, Marcus-Orlen packed up and came West permanently. Following a year as a paste-up artist for TNI newspapers, she enrolled as an undergrad at the UA. But the art department was not all she'd hoped. Sanger was gone. And her art was out of sync with the times. Then, as now, Marcus-Orlen liked to "draw" her paintings meticulously. She's interested in an architectural division of her canvases' space--arches and niches are a personal trademark--and she loves the kinds of detail she finds in such masters as Vermeer and Giotto. In her versions, the details are cats and cactuses, fabrics and flowers. All this was not exactly outré in the late '60s.
"At the UA everyone was doing dripping abstract expressionism and telling us to 'paint what you feel.'...But I love the Renaissance painters. I'm real influenced by the old painters."
Shortly after graduation, Marcus-Orlen had a liberation ceremony of sorts.
"I threw out the big brushes they made us use. I like to draw when I paint: that has to do with smaller brushes."
Armed with her tiny brushes, she went off to paint on her own. (She returned for an MFA seven years later because she "felt stuck" on her own, and she was a Dinnerware member for a time.) Her basic conception of painting has not changed: She points to the surreal quality and the division of space in her works as constants over the years.
After last year's trip to Paris, black-and-white checked floors, odd new "frames" painted or drawn at the edges of her surfaces, statues from medieval churches have all shown up in her works. But more than the images she soaked up in long afternoons in the city's museums, she was inspired by intricate spatial compositions devised by the old masters.
"The objects I can pick up and put in. I look for new spaces when I go traveling, architectural spaces I can put things in."
Right now she's longing to travel again, to see the big new Vermeer show now on exhibit in Washington, D.C., an unprecedented round-up of works by this exquisite master of space and color and detail. She raised her eyebrows and groaned when asked if she planned to go. Now if only the 90210 actress was in the business of giving grants.
A show of works by Gail Marcus-Orlen, Eriks Rudans and Vicki Ragan continues through January 13 at Etherton Gallery, 135 S. Sixth Ave. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 7 p.m. Thursday and from 7 to 10 p.m. on Downtown Saturday nights. For more information call 624-7370.
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