Open Spaces, Intimate Places

Greg Benson and Cynthia Miller conjure the spirit of America and the soul of home.

America unfurls in the patchwork paintings of Greg Benson. The artist's nation is a rollicking conjugation of cowboys and skyscrapers, of rocket ships and rocking horses, of boats, of trains, of planes, of rivers and Great Plains, of comets sailing in the inky black night, of city streets pierced by car lights. He paints it all on long strips of unfettered canvas, stretching as far as they want to go, just like the big plucky American continent.

While there are hints of other influences--"Creation Myth" has the name of the French poet Apollinaire, deliberately misspelled, scrawled across its surface--these paintings are about as Yankee as they come. Set to the rhythms of all-American jazz, his paintings use the all-American quilt as an organizing principle. The great sprawling myth of American expansion and the counterpoint saga of the great American city deliciously co-exist in these acrylics on canvas, their childlike painted drawings pushing against the confines of their irregular patchwork grids.

In "Variations on a Theme by Glenn Miller," a cowboy hero in a white hat waves his arms in triumph in one rectangle, while just below this denizen of the wide open spaces is a block of cramped row houses, homes of the urban workers who once set America's industrial engines going. At left is a blue river of transportation. A bad guy, a literal blast from the past in a black hat, shoots off guns from a tiny sailboat, while cars and trucks and planes displace this icon of yesteryear. A cowboy's got wings in "Dream Sequence": He rides a pink and orange engine into America, beneath a dark sky punctuated by shooting stars. Behind him is another dense city, its houses jostling up one against the other.

Benson is a painter of contradictions. He lives in the country at the edge of the city, and he's a student of history and literature who paints like a child. Stick figures ride his childlike horses; his houses are the quintessential kid habitation, all pointy roofs and smoking chimneys, even when they represent skyscrapers a dozen stories high. He paints in the bright and bold colors not just of the nursery school room, but in the saturated hues of the unschooled quiltmakers, who long ago pieced together scraps of rainbow fabric into functional works of folk art. Crayon reds and oranges inflame "Variations on a Theme by Glenn Miller." Shiny gold pumps up the plane and train of "Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams." "Fish Tank" luxuriates in forest green and lemon yellow.

Eleanor Jeck Galleries at St. Philip's Plaza has beautifully paired Benson's work with paintings by Cynthia Miller, another longtime Tucson artist, in an exhibition Jeck's called Variations on a Theme... (Jeck has extended the show, originally scheduled to close February 23, through March 10.) She put the artists together because both had a hand in founding Dinnerware Artists Cooperative Gallery more than 20 years ago, Jeck said, and while their paintings are quite distinct they share some traits. Both painters make repeated images of everyday objects, and endow them with purposes larger than themselves. If Benson's cowboys, cars, trains and planes are all about American life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, Miller's domesticated chests and chairs, dishes, plants and birds are the amas de casa, the souls of the house.

In Miller's magical realist world, objects shimmer and shake. Euclidean geometry disappears in the organic curves of the exuberant furniture in these deft mixed-media paintings on paper and canvas. Plants and birds sprout on walls; even the floorlines of rooms arch upward in antic parabolas. "New Year Dresser" is a bright pink-red chest of drawers topped by a cheerful fan; it's planted its curving self firmly on a green floor, a harbinger of good life in the year to come. Like Benson, Miller is a master of great vibrato color. In "Tropical Cupboard," she lays down a stripe of canary yellow next to pulsating turquoise; a brilliant lawn-green floor curves against a hot-pink baseboard. "Pine Dresser" pitches a screaming orange red next to bright teal green.

One hesitates to call these paintings male and female, but the artists explore the traditionally separate realms of men and women. American expansion, with its romance of transportation, of railroads and flight and outer space, has been mostly a male project. One Benson painting, pointedly named "One House Per Acre," alludes to the end result of masculine Manifest Destiny: little boxes on the hillside that obliterate wilderness and native cultures alike.

Miller's paintings tend to explore the intimate life within those houses, the traditional female domestic spaces. But this is no land of submission--her domestic scenes bristle with subversive creativity. "Willa's Tea Party" and its companion, "In the Red Room," are more Mad Hatter than paeans to domestic tranquillity. These tea parties are souped up with hot pink and orange wallpaper and screaming yellow tables; Willa's wall is a living forest of trees and flowers and birds. "Monsoon Ladies' Tea" is airborne. The formerly well-behaved teacups have taken flight, propelling themselves upward just as surely as any of Benson's soaring planes.

Variations on a Theme..., a show of paintings by Greg Benson and Cynthia Miller, has been extended through Saturday, March 10, at the Eleanor Jeck Galleries, Suite 5, St. Philip's Plaza, 4280 N. Campbell Ave. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. A reception for the artists will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday, March 3. For more information call 299-2139.
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