Picture Windows

Betina Fink frames realistic landscapes with architectural abstraction.

Painter Betina Fink lives in the wide-open spaces of Oracle, at the venerable artists' colony of Rancho Linda Vista. But in her newest suite of paintings, New Work, at The Drawing Studio Gallery, she fences in her views of the Western landscape with architectural frames.

You can picture Fink in her studio, peering through an arched window at a Catalina Mountain peak as she painted "Landscape, Arizona," or gazing through an open curving door at a patch of sky and desert for "Sasabe." Most of the landscapes on view in this fine little show are framed--or tamed--by architectural fragments, their hills and skies surrounded by doors or windows or grillwork, and most especially by the prototypically Southwestern arch.

Veering from lime green in "Landscape" to maroon in "Sasabe" to pale gray in "White Gate," the arches make for interesting compositions, juxtaposing their curving geometries on nature's messy organics. They also take on a philosophical task, commenting obliquely on the West's uneasy marriage between humans and wilderness. And since Fink's paintings are in part about the nature of seeing, the arched landscapes play with painterly ideas of what's real and not real. "Landscape, Arizona" is a sturdy real-life view of a brown-and-buff mountain piecing a dark blue sky, but the painted green arch containing it turns it into a painting-within-a-painting. Which is more "real": the painted frame or the painted landscape?

Fink pushes this puzzle even further by dividing her canvases and boards into separate camps favoring abstraction or realism. The flat planes of her interior spaces become staging grounds for experiments in color and light; thus, the maroon doors of "Sasabe" are tiny color field paintings, all about the effects of layering pigment upon pigment. But its tiny painting-within-a-painting, in this case the sky and desert outside the doors, is recognizably a landscape, a piece of expressive realism.

Most of the time, these warring styles enjoy a happy truce. "White Gate," one of the best paintings in the show, is a meditative work that places an alluring pale yellow sky above a low-lying range of cherry-red mountains. The whole thing is framed by one of Fink's arches, in colors alternating from blue-green to gray to yellow. A dark stripe across the bottom signifies a window frame. Barely visible in the yellow light is the filigree of the white metal gate that gives the painting its name. Its delicate swirls cover the entire surface. This lovely composition is a triple threat, at once a compelling landscape, an exploration of the optical tricks of light and an abstract assemblage of shapes and colors.

In other paintings, just as in real life--the man-made and the natural, the abstract and the realistic--clash with each other. Sometimes, they go so far as to engage in open hostilities.

Three Arches," an oil on canvas that's large at 31 by 39 inches, is like two separate paintings. The top half is characteristic Fink, with three olive-green arches in a row framing a dark blue sky, lively cerulean clouds and a sensuous swathe of deep green mountains. The bottom, ostensibly the interior wall below the arched windows, is an exuberant abstraction that gives Fink a chance to show off her skills with brush and paint. Joyful brushstrokes head every which way; colors glow upon color, pale yellow and green glimmering over a base of maroon. In an attempt at reconciliation, perhaps, Fink's even allowed the olive from the arches to make a foray into the enemy camp, and the green paint drips from top to bottom in a luscious line. Delightful as each half is, this forced alliance of enemies cannot be saved. But it's hard to dislike this painting: When two fine people just don't mesh, you still want to be friends with both after the divorce.

Fink, an MFA grad of the UA who lived in the Netherlands for seven years, commendably experiments with various art-historical styles. In her last show at Dinnerware, where she once was president, she successfully assayed a Vermeer window, but this show's "Ranch Madonna" is a messy piece of fauvism. Painted in crayon brights, a pink chapel and a green Madonna are glimpsed through a confusing swirl of black ironwork grill that spirals across the canvas like a post-Impressionist out of control.

More satisfying is the disciplined "Gated." Another grill painting, this one has a better-controlled filigree over a typical Southern Arizona landscape. Beautifully, even masterfully painted, it has a big sky galloping over low rolling mountains that glower in brown and navy. The black ironwork that curves over the whole thing alerts us to the artist's hand in shaping the view, and conjures up a West kicking and screaming on its way to being wholly fenced in.