Nature Versus Nurture

Jan Olsson's big-city paintings pair with Joy Fox's desert-based sculptures at Davis Dominguez

Jan Olsson, a Parisian by way of Tucson, makes paintings with subjects straight out of the big city.

Street signs, wine bottles, coffee cups and tables float in and out of rooftops and apartments, all of them set free from the demands of ordinary gravity. Disjointed people populate these uneasy cityscapes. Sometimes, the angular figures connect with each other, but more often, they miss.

In "Red Vase," a mixed media on paper now on view at Davis Dominguez Gallery, a man and a woman are crammed into a small room with deteriorating walls. He's patchily painted in gray, with no features at all on his blank face; she's beige/brown. And they're at cross-purposes in other ways. The man turns toward the woman, but she's hurrying off in the opposite direction. Somebody else is climbing an odd staircase near the ceiling. Someone evidently placed the vase of flowers on the coffee table with some hope of domestic happiness, but the colors are seeping out of the flowers, dissipating into the air.

Olsson pioneers an interesting new technique in this edgy body of work. Many of the mixed-media paintings, including "Red Vase," started out as digital photographs, which the artist shoots herself. She has them professionally printed on an ink-jet printer, in large scale: Some of them are 3 to 4 feet long. Once the print surface is sealed, the artist paints on top, while allowing the black-and-white images to show through. The layering creates a kind of psychological archaeology, while pinning the paintings to specific places.

In "Red Vase," the peeling walls, so evocative of decay, are actual photos of old gray stones, presumably in Paris. A real-life photo of a tiny fence slices incongruously across the interior, bringing the outside world in.

The technique is especially apropos in "Orpheus Descending," a modern reworking of the Greek tragedy. In the original myth, Orpheus is a gifted musician. The gods of the underworld are so enamored with his music that when his beloved, Eurydice, dies, they allow Orpheus to descend into Hades to get her back. But he fails to meet all their demands, and she dies a second time, never to be revived.

In Olsson's mixed-media psychodrama, the staircase to Hades looks like the murky entrances to the walkways along the river Seine in Paris. The city's photographed stone walls stand in for the walls of Hades, and photos of twisted I-beams beneath the paint hint at hidden dangers. The characters in this sorrowful drama are painted atop these photographed images, with the paint and photo weaving together ancient themes and modern times.

At the edge of the precipice, a woman and a man cower, their figures simply outlined in pink. Two painted male figures, each carrying guitars, make their way down the steps. At the bottom is a modern hell of dissipation: a café/bar filled with wine bottles and cigarette smoke. A woman, painted large at lower left, sits at a table, her face fixed and hard. At the upper right corner, beyond her reach, is the face of a man, her Orpheus, perhaps, helpless now to save her.

Sometimes, though, the city is a heady generator of creativity. "Reach," an acrylic painting on canvas, is an exhilarating evocation of an artist at work. The artist is bent over a table in a heady rooftop studio, lost in his work, while all around him, jazzy tables and ladders and arcs cavort in cheerful pinks and purples and browns. The ladder leads up to a chalk-blue roof, and on to the gray and white Paris skies beyond.

The prolific Olsson trained at the UA and still has family in Tucson. Every two years or so, she fills Davis Dominguez with her sophisticated Parisian tableaux, drenched in art-historical references from Picasso to the German expressionist painter Max Beckmann. But this time around, the quintessentially urban Olsson shares the big warehouse space with prototypical desert artist Joy Fox.

A longtime resident of Oracle's Rancho Linda Vista, Fox makes earthy clay sculptures that appear to grow right out of the ground. Colored in desert tans and pinks, they're etched with pictographic lines that conjure up the desert's ancient Native American inhabitants. Their odd organic shapes stretch into human heads, animal bodies and combinations thereof.

The 4-foot-high floor piece "Emathian" is typical. The top figure looks a bit like a bird's body, but its tail feathers also trace out a man's profile. This amalgam sits on a metal pole above a slab of clay tattooed with ochre and burned by fire. The cheery "Urania" has two singing figures sitting on black tree branches--a woman in white clay, and a bird with wings joyfully flung out.

The two artists are friends who asked to be paired in a show, says gallery co-owner Candice Davis. Their works--Fox's firmly on the ground, Olsson's tethered to the wall--make a stimulating counterpoint of nature versus nurture, country versus city. Still, the two have certain affinities, including an affection for earthy rusts and pinks, and the drama of black.

Fox scorches her clay figures in the fire, the better to give them an ancient feel, and Olsson heavily outlines her figures in black. Both like the time-honored tropes of mythology, with Fox going so far as to call her collection of 11 works "The Muses."

And even Olsson's oh-so-French works occasionally have a connection to the desert. "Serenade" is a beautiful version of the traditional nude bathing outdoors. A woman, reminiscent of Picasso's classic-period nudes, sits with her feet in a spring shimmering with blue water. Her flesh is a lovely layering of peach and rust and pink, and one breast shines gold in the light. She's dreaming of a man with a guitar--a recurring Olsson motif--who floats beyond her in pale blue.

But she's in a different place, and the photos underneath the paint anchor her to the desert. A sunny adobe wall glows behind her. Desert rocks are piled all around. Another man, a real one, sits by the door. But Olsson rarely paints an idyll unmolested. Danger is erupting, in the form of a coiled brown snake: It's raising its head, poised to strike.

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