Space Odyssey

Catherine Eyde's new work is out of this world.

Never mind that the couple at the bar seem so, well, fleshy, so earthbound. They're carrying out their drunken mating rituals right below paintings that soar into space.

Catherine Eyde: Women in Space is the newest show at one of Tucson's newest art spots: the lobby and café at the Hotel Congress, curated and run by high-profile local dealer Elizabeth Cherry. Tucson painter Eyde has ornamented this quintessential urban place with paintings of a woman set free in outer space. In painting after painting, most in fluorescent "watermedia" on wood or canvas, the woman, who looks a lot like the artist herself, floats serenely through a pop-colored universe full of bright flying flowers and equally bright planets.

Eyde has made a name for herself in the past few years with her dark evocations of death and sorrow. In shows at the Temple Gallery and Apparatus, she has exhibited paintings resembling Mexican retablos, filled with dark-eyed women in mourning. If they sometimes sprouted angel's wings, they were often hemmed in by desolate landscapes. The new paintings are light years away from these works of grief. They're similarly surreal, but they're light and free, painted in the cheerful candy colors of comic books. Dressed almost uniformly in retro Eisenhower-era space suits, all white and puffy, the women are traveling unfettered across the universe.

Against the brilliant blue sky of "passage," a 2001 watermedia on canvas, a couple of these super spacewomen bounce planets as if they were so many beach balls. A flying dove, another Eyde trademark, flutters across one sphere. A yellow planet shines in the distance, its surface inlaid with Arabic script, in honor of Eyde's ethnic heritage. In "to return" a woman is in full flight, nonchalantly carrying a globe/valise into deep space.

A couple of the voyagers have alighted on other planets. The woman in "to recover identity" stands firmly among the spacey plants of a universe far, far away. But she still knows who she is, even after the long journey: She holds a tiny helmet containing a picture of her childhood face inside. "Space Walk" has two women exploring the surreal flora of this faraway place, a child space traveler in tow.

In "home landing place," a woman has her feet firmly planted on Earth, a prosaic traveling satchel clutched in her hand. Though the bright sky of endless possibilities is still tantalizingly close, she looks glad to be back.

These pictures have the same kind of endearing sweetness that Eyde showed in her earlier works. They're deftly painted, with pungent complementary blues and oranges reverberating dramatically against one another. And a few, particular the tiny paintings like "to recover identity," have the dense compositions and emotional intensity of Near Eastern miniatures, brought into the Space Age. They're even framed in wood carved into Arabic designs. It's tempting to read the works as a parable of liberation, of coming into the light after a period of darkness. Yet pretty and fun as the paintings are, their lightness can only take us so far.

Cherry, who runs a sleek contemporary gallery on Grant Road, said she likes the hotel's real-life ambiance.

"When people come into this space (on Grant), they get intimidated," she says. "It's pretty hard-core here. The hotel is friendlier, down to earth."

And the art she'll be showing at Congress may be more accessible than the international contemporary work her gallery is known for, a lineup she acknowledges as "pretty severe. There are a lot of local artists whose work I like but I can't show here." At the Congress space, she'll show Tucson artists, such as Eyde and next-up Cynthia Miller, whose paintings don't fit her Grant Road aesthetic.

Meantime, the new gallery, while hardly pristine, interacts in surprising ways with the city life conducted right under its art's nose. While Eyde's women fly freely, a real-life woman tethered to a lonely table looks disconsolately at her watch, again and again, until she sighs and orders a solitary whiskey. A guy idles alone at the bar until the call he's been waiting for comes in, loudly, on his cell phone, and he rushes out drunkenly, car keys in hand.

It's a case of life not imitating art. Eyde's women ride implacably above this human turmoil, as serene and impassive as so many Mona Lisas.

Catherine Eyde: Women in Space! continues through Friday, March 16, in the lobby and Cup Café at the Hotel Congress, 311 E. Congress St. The lobby is open 24 hours a day. For more information on the paintings call Elizabeth Cherry Contemporary Art at 903-0577.
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