Way back in 2019, in the carefree days before the pandemic, David Andres flew all the way to London to see art.
Traveling with members of the Contemporary Art Society of the Tucson Museum of Art, Andres scoured art studios all over the old town and hit gold in the warehouses of south London. He met a trio of talented young Brits who had studied at the prestigious Royal College of Art and exhibited their work abroad. Andres invited all three –– Alice Browne, George Little and Anthony Banks –– to display their work in faraway Arizona at the Louis Carlos Bernal Gallery at Pima College West.
Andres, the gallery’s respected curator, lined up an exhibition for the UK artists to be mounted in the 2020-2021 school year. That didn’t happen, of course; the pandemic forced the gallery to go dark for a year and a half.
But there are silver linings. The three artists all used the lockdown year to do intense work, laboring alone in their studios and creating whole new suites of art. And now they have the honor of reopening the gallery with art shipped overseas from England. Each of the artists made works on paper, richly layered in a raft of materials, from oil and acrylic to gouache and charcoal to pen and pencil and wax.
Their fresh work, made in a historic time of sorrow, is like the proverbial balm in Gilead.
When you walk into the radiant white gallery, the first things you notice are George Little’s out- of-this world colors. Andres sees in them the glorious hues of Matisse – red, orange, blue, green and white. Interestingly, Little’s work is more like that of the modernists of the early 20th century – Matisse included — than the contemporary artists of today.
Little grew up in London in a family of chefs and restaurateurs. He spent plenty of time clearing tables and washing dishes, eventually worked as a chef and bartender. In these new paintings, he uses his beautiful colors to conjure up plates, tables, menus and even leftovers.
At first glance, these restaurant-inspired paintings seem to be pure abstractions, made of appealing shapes and curves and lines. “Tossed,” for instance, is a cheery medley of small irregular forms colored in green and red and orange. But Little manages to make his work both abstract and figurative: squint at the ebullient “Tossed,” and you’ll see it’s also a portrait of a salad.
Likewise, “Menus” is a cascade of white shapes, embedded in abstract curves and lines, framed by rich colors. Those white shapes are also a set of restaurant menus.
Little’s inventive new suite also conjures up the loneliness of the pandemic. In all the clutter of his painted restaurant, there is not a single human being.
Alice Browne’s gripping paintings are more solemn than Little’s. A few of her pieces are colored in pretty pinks and sky blue, but others are somber and even scary. A fetid yellow here, a midnight purple there, give an ominous backdrop to painted ropes, arrows and chain link.
In her artist statement, Browne says, “There is no perfection, no truth; instead, I hope to make works … that embrace the mutability and failings of human experience.”
The painting “Sebastian,” Browne’s contemporary version of the story of St. Sebastian, seems to fulfill this sorrowful goal. The work is covered in square patches of that unhealthy yellow, and dangerous tree branches vault across the scene. In the middle of this troubling work is a human hand, and a host of arrows piercing flesh.
The martyr St. Sebastian, of course, was regularly painted by artists of the Renaissance; they showed him nearly naked and shot through with arrows. The artist’s version makes the saint almost invisible; in 2021 this Sebastian is just a suffering everyman.
Much bigger arrows fly across the midnight purple of “Untitled.” In another piece, another batch of arrows sails past the moon and above a treacherous chain link fence. Its chilling title? “Portent.”
But there is some relief. In the painting “Portal,” a doorway to a house that’s a pleasant pink and blue, seems to offer a shelter from the doom.
Of the three artists, Anthony Banks is engaged with nature and the outdoors. His 12 works are full of birds and boats and the land around the sea. But these pieces of familiar subjects are by no means saccharin.
“Fruit Bowl and Coastline” is an abstraction that boldly breaks the images into quickly dashed outlines. “Sailing Boat” is more a collection of colorful curving boards than a portrait of a seaworthy dinghy.
Banks has perhaps the most interesting layering technique. He does a lot of collaging and he prefers a long “slow layering” of his paper. He welcomes accidental mistakes, he writes, and waits “for the works to finish themselves, for marks and paint to accumulate, for the dust to settle.”
The result is a marvelous, muted texture that reminds me old-fashioned prints in children’s books. The aviary in “British Birds and Finches” nearly disappears in luminous pale green, and the lovely “Heron under Willow,” a mixture of deep navy, golden tan and white, turns into a guessing game of find the beautiful bird. ν