Modern Times

Parisian geometries and pure paint define 'modernism' at the Davis Dominguez Gallery.

There's Paris a-plenty in the paintings of Jan Olsson.

Now on view at the Davis Dominguez Gallery, in a two-person show with Herb Gilbert, these large acrylics on canvas by an American expatriate are rhythmic accountings of life in the big French city. Angular figures overlap, jostling against each other within a constricted urban space. Books, musical instruments, letters and even flowers from the corner shop make their way into the intricate urban compositions, all of them dominated by the human figure. One of the figures is even that archetypal Parisian, the artist's model, who provides an archetypal pose in "Seated Model," brilliantly painted in orange, yellow and cerulean.

Painted in the birthplace of cubism, the pictures are not exactly cubist, but they are all sharp elbows and pointy chins. Unlike the cubists, though, Olsson doesn't shatter her picture space; she builds it up out of sharp geometries, angle by angle, block by block. The German Expressionists who used to hang out in the City of Light show up in her canvases too, what with their black line and imagery on its way to getting a divorce with reality.

In "V" a figure is crammed inside the giant teal letter, which makes a violent slash across the picture plane. This figure--a man? a woman?--apparently is trying to read a book, but to its right a quintet of hands is loudly playing a long musical instrument. Stenciled letters dance across the paint. "Two Sisters" is an angular duet of a pair of sharp-edged women in red and olive, one of them clutching some Parisian posies. The figure is never absent from her paintings and monotypes, but as the painter herself points out, as she "pushes toward abstract expressionism" she's been "reducing the figure to bare essentials."

Olsson veers from paint so thin it's a mere stain on the canvas, to thick slashes of acrylic heading into the third dimension. Plain color fields are juxtaposed with pattern painting (check out the red and olive prints in the two sisters' clothing). Sometimes the artist loosely drips wet paint in lines, and even uses a finger to "draw" in the thick paint. Her flexible repertoire is mirrored in her handling of representation: These paintings are half outline drawings, and half fully fleshed paintings. A face will have one sketched outline eye, and another completely painted in.

But French as these paintings are, there's a surprise. Tucson is in these pictures too. Their wild colors have a radiance France rarely sees north of Provence. Deep ochre and turquoise, lime and rust and bright sunshine yellow, desert hues all, raise the temperature of the pictures' gray Paree.

The artist grew up in Tucson, and during an unexpected visit to the gallery Friday afternoon, she explained her Old Pueblo sources.

"The Southwest influence has been taking more prominence lately," said Olsson, a tall blonde who says her 15 years in France have twisted her English into the occasional French syntax. "The building shapes and the bright colors are part of it."

But more than the desert's generic open spaces and colors is the particular style of the house she grew up in in the Tucson of the '50s and '60s.

"My father, now a retired architect, designed and built our house. It was in a Frank Lloyd Wright style but very '50s: boomerang shapes, angles, safari chairs, oranges and avocados, clean cement floors varnished a dark brown. The things in that house are starting to come to the surface in my work."

The rich jumble of impressions from childhood Tucson and grown-up Paris is disciplined by her study of art "from every period, from antiquity to the present," courtesy of Paris' rich treasure trove of museums. The strong line of her work, partly drawn from the work of German Expressionist Max Beckman, also has a personal source. She picked up an MFA in drawing in 1980 at the UA, where Bailey Doogan was an important mentor ("If I could draw like her ..."). She worked as a graphic designer to put herself through school, and that crisp advertising work still yields "contour, my edge shapes, numerals and letters, and even techniques--I work with rollers and stencils."

On the opposite wall from Olsson's international marriage of styles hang the contemplative acrylic paintings of Herb Gilbert. Now resident in Bisbee, Gilbert lived and worked in New York in the 1950s, during the heady days of Abstract Expressionism. At first his serene abstractions seem almost empty, especially when they're compared to Olsson's work. But a closer look reveals a world of activity within.

A network of organic lines in red and dark green squiggle across the clear lime surface of "As One Soul," suggesting the kind of infinity Pollock sought in his drips. "Comforter" is an eerie lavender dusk, with a faint pink cross emerging in the center, like a vision in the sky. The pale orange "Nightingale Gift" is unexpectedly filled with tiny drawings of khaki airplanes, outlined in pencil.

And the dozen canvases, each one dominated by a single color, work wonderfully as a group. From a distance the paintings make up an elegant color study, moving from lime to pale orange to gray to olive to deep maroon.

Gilbert's drawings-within-paintings may be quieter than Olsson's bold urban renderings, but both painters deliver an interesting take on the great issues of modernism. Olsson finds life in the city, while Gilbert locates it in the realm of pure paint.

American Modern, an exhibition of paintings by Jan Olsson and Herb Gilbert, continues through Saturday, April 28 at Davis Dominguez Gallery, 154 E. Sixth St. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. For more information call 629-9759.

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