Beneath the Painted Surface

Tucson native Monika Rossa's domestic scenes feature ominous accents.

Monika Rossa paints sunny scenes of family life, but shadows lurk in her corners.

"Love," an acrylic on canvas on view in the group show Six Painters at Wilde Meyer Gallery, could have been an overly sentimental picture of a young girl hugging her dog. The girl, dressed in Riding Hood red and a pair of striped socks, buries her head in her pet's fur; the animal is a diagonal of dark brown slashing across the picture plane. The walls behind this pair are a bright yellow ochre, but the window above lets in the blackest of nights.

A native of Warsaw who's lived in Tucson many years, Rossa brings an Eastern European sensibility to her paintings of children, flowers and pets. The girls' dresses are old-fashioned and Old World, and the young boy of "Street Musician"--one of the few pictures set away from the home--more readily conjures up urban Poland than sprawling Arizona. Rossa paints lushly, with a lively brush, and she's infused her pictures with the sun-splashed colors of her adopted city, but the black accents--reminiscent of German Expressionism--add an ominous note. In "My Cat," a dark hallway looms behind a little girl; a little boy plays violin in an eerily empty salmon-colored room, in "Playing." These pictures have a fairy-tale quality, more Grimm than Disney.

Sometimes, Rossa is less interested in the domestic life unfurling within her interiors than she is in the enclosing walls. "Tea Time" is an ambitious work, 5 feet high and 4 feet wide, that pictures a girl in a dark, blue-black dress carefully pouring tea out of a red teapot. Rossa had fun with the figure, particularly with the girl's expressive bare feet, but she's even more interested in the geometry of the space, the play of its planes. The pink-and-purple table where the girl has set her cup is tilted--à la Cézanne--and the background is a procession of rough rectangles, successively painted tan, pale yellow and gray-green. The floor is an abstract color field, a chance for Rossa to layer on lavish blue-green, orange-red and purple.

Every mother occasionally wants the house to herself, and Rossa, a mother of five, has made a painting or two where the children disappear altogether. "Still Life With Roses," an exuberant exploration of light and color, shadow and plane, pictures a cheerful home space with the family temporarily departed. Like "Tea Time," it investigates the geometric division of space, in this case, a complicated assemblage of a green-cloth-covered table, a wall diagonally split into black and a brilliant royal blue, a floor in ochre and peach. And it aptly captures the Southern Arizona light--flooding through a grilled door, pooling on the floor, glowing through the blinds. It's a light so fierce, and so healing, that, if you're patient, it inevitably dispels the gloomiest of Old World shadows, and gives the boot to fairy-tale monsters.

With one exception, the other painters in this commercial gallery exhibit standard Western fare. Tucson's Barbara Gurwitz produces crayon-bright imaginary landscapes in thick colors that look right out of the tube. Seattle's Thom Ross specializes in graphically drawn cowboy fashions, deployed by their owners in gunfights and chases on horseback. Ka Fisher, also of Tucson, does mushy faux-Impressionist Western scenes.

Catherine Massaro of New Mexico, a well-known animal painter, at least has the virtue of being an excellent draftswoman. She paints dogs in every conceivable Western setting; "Moondoggies" has a pair of exactly rendered pooches gazing up at an early evening moon, their ears cocked just so.

The outlaw in this unwild bunch is Sherri Belassen, an interesting painter from Scottsdale. Belassen makes thick oils on canvas, delicious layerings of glowing color, divided into alluring abstracted space. A couple of the smaller pictures at first seem to be pure Mondrian blocks of thick color, but Belassen regrettably has felt the need to add corny figures. "Dude," a fine quadrangle of greens, unexpectedly coalesces into a surfer, the dude of the title; "Solo Rancheresse," a cubist melange of maroons, mauves and golds, unhappily emerges as a cowgirl in high-heeled boots. But Belassen is a talented painter. Her biggest and best piece, "Take Me Somewhere New," is a large painting of what seem to be boats, divided into wonderfully abstract shapes. Painted in cool purples and blues, and hot reds and yellows, the picture seems ready and eager to set sail, right out of the realms of convention.