Broken Sequences

Cynthia Miller's paintings of seemingly random objects, on display at Etherton, are actually icons from art and everyday life

Cynthia Miller's paintings at Etherton Gallery are bits and pieces of things. Mostly divided into three irregular sections blazing with color, these long, horizontal works might have a painted red bird at one end, a looping lime spiral at the other and golden, flower-like curves in the center.

There's a message in the fragmentation.

"I refer to these as working mother paintings," Miller writes in an artist's statement for the three-woman show, which also includes paintings by Gail Marcus-Orlen and photographs by Amy Lamb. "They begin, and begin again later, reflecting the broken sequence of attention that is modern life. ... These brief sections form a visual reference to time and events."

In the past, Miller has centered her pieces on a significant object, especially in the Domestica series--inspired by common household items. A loopy chest of drawers, a child's straw chair, or even the child herself presided over center stage. But the artist always had lively little dramas going on at the restless edges of her painted domestic spaces. A bird might be gliding across a room, or a teacup sailing toward the ceiling, or a desert moon rising spectacularly outside a window.

Now Miller has zipped off into this charged beyond. The big figures are gone and the flying fragments have taken over, ruling the whole surface of the canvas or paper. All architectural boundaries are banished--there are no floor, wall or ceiling lines to hem her objects in. Exuberant plant-stems and leaves curl everywhere, including a fantasy, blood-red plant with heart-shaped roots ("Studio 4 p.m."). Deer with twisting antlers nibbling at a winter-bare tree jostle against a cascade of flowers and a white spiral that's sprouting leaves ("More Roots Than Branches [for Vera]"). Painted seed packets tumble near a green violin, and turquoise antlers float in an orange space lush with flowers ("Primavera").

Random as these objects appear to be, Miller deliberately picks her iconography both from art history and the chaos of daily life. They offer a few biographical clues--"Studio 4 p.m." celebrates the tools of her trade. Its brushes and knives and pots of paint teeter on a table that juts upwards in a sharp diagonal toward the stratosphere. The joyous veggies and fantasy plants owe something to her painted illustrations in a recent book on Southwest gardens.

"Pompeii Gate" suggests an homage to Matisse, master of delirious color and curves. Spirals worthy of the Frenchman are gorgeously colored at right, white against orange, black against a brilliant green. A fat red bird sails along at left, painted mosaic-like in hundreds of tiny squares.

"When Pomegranates Came to Scandinavia," 2004, joyously plays with the Nordic flair for pale color and pattern. The red pomegranate is alongside a curving white candelabra, and a fairy tale horse takes a stately march up the left side of the paper. "Pow Wow," 2003, all bright pinks and oranges, adds hot Southwestern color to the mix.

Working on either canvas or paper, Miller paints with a seductive roughness, adding grit to her acrylic painting with chalk pastels and oil sticks. ("I am still finding out what they can do together on paper," her artist's statement reads. "Call it 101 ways to get color.") She sketches her objects with a delicious abandon, in contrast to Marcus-Orlen's pristine oils of canvas across the room.

The two artists, both longtime Tucson painters, traverse similar thematic territory, divining the magical realism in everyday life, but their approaches are wildly different. Marcus-Orlen draws and paints with the discipline of a realist, creating tidy compositions that startle with their surrealism and hyped-up colors. Precise drawings--of houses and lawns, of cats and hens, of giant checkerboards and hyper-realist blossoms--are their foundation.

A master of the Renaissance skills of perspective, illusion and symmetrical composition, she's likewise a master of her paint. She uses tiny brush strokes, urging the pigments into a kind of hothouse color that glows like no-one else's--glistening lavenders, limes, blues, oranges.

Three pictures in a series, "The Passage of Time," are classic Marcus-Orlen. A giant window frames each symmetrical picture, three vases of painstakingly rendered flowers standing on the windowsill at bottom. The windows are a domestic jumping-off point for the imaginary world beyond the glass, where the landscape glows neon, and cats and birds and hens preside. Painted in hot salmon, yellow and orange, the ordinary suburban garages of "#1" have been transformed by circus stripes, and a striped cabana stands incongruously between them. In "#2," a big, squared-off arch in blue intrudes on the suburban scene, and in "#3" the houses are transformed into pure Sam Hughes specimens. Humans hover in these dreamscapes, shadowy figures who seem fixed in time, blue men in suits, a child with a beach ball, ladies striding in high heels.

Marcus-Orlen deploys all her illusionist powers in the checkerboard paintings, their squares painted unlikely shades of ochre and pink ("Garden of Delights #2") or blue and lavender ("In the Blue #5"). Floating flowers and fruits cast shadows on the squares, and they look convincingly like real-life roses or plums or hummingbirds. The artist heightens the deception by snaking the plant stems off the edge of her canvases, as though they were vines that just happen to be twisting their way through the gallery.

Photographer Amy Lamb also makes use of illusion in her lovely photographs of pressed flowers. These flowers start off dabbling in artifice--they're first arranged and flattened on paper to painterly effect. Lamb's photographic process makes them even more painterly. Using the digital Iris process, she prints them on thick watercolor paper to heighten their tonal quality. The results are alluring: dense, rich pictures of pale pink mimosas and ochre anemones that travel back and forth between the real and the imagined.