Altarpiece Theater

Joanne Kerrihard's Paintings Wed Medievalism To The Surreal.

JOANNE KERRIHARD IS a painter in love with medieval altarpieces and richly colored Vermeers, with glossy varnishes and oils layered on wood--in short, with all the accouterments of the classical painting tradition.

Nevertheless, she dutifully attended the Tucson Museum of Art's Arizona Biennial in the spring of 1999. A first for the TMA, that exhibition was a paean to contemporary art in all its cutting-edge miscellany--an homage to pointy pin sculpture, to food installations, to video.

"I looked at the oranges, the music, the lights," Kerrihard recalled one day last week at the museum. "Then I came to the bottom (of the museum's ramps) and one painting pulled me in. In a museum full of noise and edgy stuff, to have discovered a two-dimensional image--that was really powerful."

The little painting, of a woman in a '60s dress, re-confirmed for Kerrihard what she herself is all about as an artist: a painter who wants to make an ordinary flat surface come alive through the magic of texture and color.

"I don't see myself in the context of contemporary art," she explained. "I want somebody to look at something I've painted. If I can get them to do that, I've done my job ... I have taken a conscious line in my work not to provoke. (It's) just paint the best paintings you can. Make them beautiful."

Right now Kerrihard's own paintings fill the space once occupied by the avant-garde Biennial works. The Tucson painter was selected as this year's Stonewall Artist, an annual honor bestowed on a living Arizona or New Mexico artist, who is given a one-person show at the museum. She's right that her works are light years away from the experiments of contemporary art. Some 40 paintings, most of them created this year, glisten in oil on wood; some are framed in elaborately carved wooden boxes that give them the air of altarpieces.

The inventively colored paintings are a strange admixture of landscape and interior. Mountains rise up to dreamy skies in the backgrounds, but the foregrounds have the look of open-air palaces, filled with Renaissance arches and balustrades. Checkerboard floors mesh with the earth, while deftly painted tree branches, laden with lemons or grapes, drift downward into the rooms. Gaily colored circus poles float though these spaces, some of them framed by theatrical curtains. An unearthly light glows within.

While many of the images are vintage Kerrihard, the painter said that they represent a new direction. Not only are they larger than her paintings in the past, "they're a little bit more about process and less about narrative."

She paints layer after layer in thin oils, heavily diluted with medium, and rubs out abrupt edges with a cloth, sometimes leaving only a shadow of what she painted. The grapes in a single bunch, in "I Saw Tomorrow," for instance, range from crisply detailed purple spheres to faint whispers that are almost-not-there. A varnish brings them to a high sheen. Sometimes the soft spaces are enticing, but the occasional painting suffers from too little structure, looking more smudged than dreamlike.

Kerrihard has already taken some hits for the show, including a review that slammed the museum for giving such a prestigious show to someone still relatively early in her career.

"I knew it was going to be controversial," Kerrihard said. "I'm following Jim Waid, Fred Borcherdt," two highly acclaimed Tucson artists who won Stonewall shows in recent years. "But (TMA director) Bob Yassin believes in my work. He said the Stonewall was for a working artist who is ready to move onto another level."

The 40-something Kerrihard has been painting full time just 10 years, but she's not exactly an overnight success. She had numerous false starts, and it's taken her a long time to be satisfied with her art. Kerrihard's grandfather was a painter who had to give up art during the Depression and go to work, but he painted in retirement, she said, and gave his granddaughter the idea that painting was something one could do in life.

A poor student in school, Kerrihard remembers that in kindergarten, the students were allowed to draw their houses only after committing their addresses and phone numbers to memory. "I was the last one to memorize my address and phone number, but I drew the best house ... I saw that I could do art, that it was one of my strengths."

Good grades in summer art classes won her acceptance at Northern Arizona University, on probation. She signed up for a college class in Chinese characters; it led to a major in Chinese and oriental studies and a semester of study in Hong Kong. She returned to finish up her degree at the UA, and to find that she didn't know exactly what to do with herself. "I went through some awful years in my 20s," she said, wincing. "Finally I said, 'Pull up, get focused.'"

She got herself into the graduate painting program at the UA.

"I started with large, color-field work, which I painted over and over until I got it," a practice that she continues today every time she paints. Painting was so difficult, in fact, that she dropped it for awhile and turned to monochromatic mixed media. "I did gesso and pencil work. I gessoed paper drawings, added some pastel ... just a hint of color. My thesis work was white on canvas."

Graduate school taught her discipline, she said, but it wasn't until she got to Europe after picking up her MFA that she understood what she wanted her art to be.

"I saw these European museums and some paintings this size," she said, framing a small space with her hands. "I thought, 'My God. I don't have to paint big.' In art school it was all big paintings. ... These 13th- and 14th-century altarpieces were just beautiful. I saw one in the Louvre, a little panel from an altarpiece. It was a man flying through the sky, it was surreal. A little jewel."

Back home in Tucson, Kerrihard began painting small pieces inspired not only by the European medievalists, but by the Mexican retablo painters closer to home. She started having some success. "I got into Dinnerware, I got two grants, I got a show in the Scottsdale Center for the Arts." Nowadays she's represented by Davis Dominguez Gallery.

"I was looking at the religious altar paintings and folk art. That merged into what looked like surrealism. It was narrative, figurative work. ... Several things come into the work. ... Where is the line that painting ends and reality begins? Retablos are about that, they're prayers."

Around the time Kerrihard started getting some attention for her work, she discovered that her great-grandfather had been a magician. "I saw a photo of him doing a magic act. It was a wonderful photo; he was on the stage." The picture got Kerrihard thinking, and brought new imagery into her work. "The theatre, the circus, the carnival all came about because of them. A magician--isn't that what a painter is?"

Contemporary Southwest Images XV: The Stonewall Foundation Series--Joanne Kerrihard continues through Sunday, January 7, at the Tucson Museum of Art, 140 N. Main Ave. 624-2333. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. The museum will be closed on Christmas Day and New Year's Day. Admission is $5, $4 for seniors, $3 ages 13 and up, free for ages 12 and under, free for all on Sundays.
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