Life, Interrupted

Davis Dominguez Gallery features five female artists working from wildly different perspectives

According to the Swedish-English dictionary, the word "giltig" means "valid."

But what does Barbara Penn's painting "Giltig Landings" mean?

The first panel at the painting's upper left delivers the most obvious clue: The word "IRAQ" is painted in big red letters. And despite the Swedish title, the painting's pale tones of gray, beige and white suggest that bombed-out nation's sun-baked desert. Washed of color, the picture is punctuated only here and there by shots of red and turquoise and shiny copper.

Prominently displayed at Davis Dominguez Gallery in the show Focus—Five Women Artists, Penn's large mixed-media work is made up of 20 little paintings arranged in a grid, each of them bound in sewing seam tape and nailed to the wall.

There's a Middle Eastern feel to the dreamy imagery in these rectangular minipaintings. A veiled woman looks out through her uncovered eyes; curved patterns in white and beige dance across her face cloth. Painted cats and birds float across bands of white and gray. White raindrops tumble down a black backdrop.

Yet this is no languid fantasy. Hints of war and oppression interrupt the pretty designs. Those seam bindings suggest both women's traditional labors and the strictures on their lives, and those nails in the wall carry a whiff of violence. In one painted panel a woman's brown locks of hair hang down over her face like bars in a cage. In another, more dangerously, red crosses appear in circles. And still another pictures women's bodies bound in bandages.

Penn, a UA art prof, has long made works about women's lives, combining poetic imagery and texts with elusive allusions to social or political woes. The ambiguous "Giltig" fits that pattern. Animated both by lovable cats and broken bodies, it's more meditation on the Iraq debacle than pointed political critique.

Penn is not always deadly serious. Her enigmatic acrylic "Her Voice," a combo cityscape and mindscape, juxtaposes painted architecture on one side of the painting with comical texts on the other. Written like a waitress' notations of orders in a restaurant, the texts poke fun at women's dialogues about food and satirize their culinary contradictions. One order is for creamy whipped potatoes and heavy gravy—along with a side of slimming "chix" salad.

The cityscape at left is another symphony in pallid colors; its simplified buildings are pinkish gray and white, with occasional lapses into subdued maroon and ochre. The face of a sleeping woman—surrounded by drifting bricks—floats across the soft sky.

But like "Giltig Landing" this big painting, maybe 11 feet wide and 8 feet high, is also crafted with a conventionally feminine material. Penn honors women's labors by painting her acrylics on lowly Pellon, a stiff interfacing fabric that generations of dressmaking women and girls painstakingly—and sometimes painfully (I speak from experience here)—stitched into the underside of collars to give them "body."

Once upon a time, of course, painting on canvas (mostly done by men) was at the tippy top of the fine arts ladder. Women's crafts—workaday enterprises like making usable clothing and pots—were at the very bottom. Penn deliberately upends that old hierarchy by giving that lowly sewing material an essential place in her high art paintings.

Fiber artist Claire Campbell Park likewise pays homage to women's traditional creations in her radiant wall hangings. The horizontal bands of color in her weavings hearken back to the shapes and patterns found in Mexican rebozos and Guatemalan backstrap fabrics and even Middle Eastern rugs. But Park moves beyond the rough yarns of these functional pieces, and instead weaves with luminous linen fibers. She also embraces metaphor, working like a painter to use her gleaming threads to convey ideas steeped in art history.

Her Golden Weaving Series, for example, is inspired by early paintings made by "artists of unwavering faith," Park told a tour group in the gallery one afternoon last week. Among them are the late-medieval illuminated manuscript artists who filled editions of The Book of Hours with jewel-like religious paintings. The pungent colors of saints' robes and the gilt of angels' halos and wings in these miniature paintings find their way into Park's cloth art, and so do the blocky geometries and glowing tones used by the early Renaissance painter Fra Angelico.

If Penn has 50 shades of gray in her subtle palette, Park has mastered 50 shades of gold in these Golden Weavings. In "Grace," the threads of the linen glisten like paint. At the center section of radiant light—at halo height—bands of pure gold, straw gold, white, pale gold and dark gold glimmer between bands of scarlet. "Joy" has bands in ecstatic yellow, and more gold and white, between what you might call Blessed Mother blue.

Sculptor Julia Andres has long made astonishingly realistic bronzes colored in beautiful patinas, and her "Ode to Arizona Citrus" fits right in with this show's radiant theme. Andres works the brilliant tones of hot-climate fruit here, lining up seven life-sized bronze fruits—in lemon yellow, orange and lime green—in descending order of size. Inspired by a recent trip to Paris, she's detoured into a vive la France celebration, making a series of delicious-looking bronze baguettes, cheeses, napkins and knives.

Moira Marti Geoffrion seems to have been painting flocks of birds nonstop since her retirement from the UA, bringing them to roost in shows at Pima Community College, the Tucson Museum of Art and even a previous exhibition at Davis Dominguez. Twenty-five oils in the Desert Community Series are mostly birds, from the shiny black phainopepla to the crowned Gambel's quail.

But Geoffrion moves on to new subject matter in her Havana Community Series. These lively, loosely painted small oils overturn any stereotypes about "girl art." There are plenty of exuberant painted cars here, from "#6 Yellow," an energetic cropped painting of a screaming yellow canary-colored coupe, to a head-on painting of a pink (yes, pink) convertible taxicab.

Finally, Kathryn Polk turns the conversation back to women's lives, in prints so finely drawn they look more like etchings than the lithographs they are. These fraught pictures seem to summon up the Armageddon days of a distressed girlhood.

Little girls in 1950s-style dresses (which no doubt have stiff interfacing in their Peter Pan colors), are pictured in domestic settings, in the house or in the backyard. But danger lurks everywhere: in the hot iron that burns a girl's hand; in the person of a Boy Scout aiming an arrow at two girls; in the ominous chopped logs that seem to lie everywhere, indoors and out.

But worst of all are the flames that flare everywhere. The same gold that burns with faith and fervor in Park's tranquil weavings feeds a deadly fire here. The golden inferno seems about to destroy family, hearth and home, just as the creeping dangers in Penn's "Giltig Landings" threaten her painted Iraq.