Hold The Glitter

Amid All The Wonderful Glass Art, A Few Works On Paper And Canvas Stand Out.
By Margaret Regan

WHILE ALL the town was a-glitter with glass last week, three painters showed more shatter-resistant wares on paper and canvas in two of the few galleries in town that were bypassing the glass festival. Well, that's not entirely true. Even the show of paintings by Tucsonans Eric Twachtman and Michael Chittock, at M. Revak & Co., was punctuated by a handful of pedestal opaque glass works, twisted by Tucson artist Susie Cullen into odd human shapes.

But at Temple Gallery, where ex-Tucsonan and current Parisian Jan Olsson opened a solo show, there was nothing but paint and paper and pastel and charcoal. The only glitter came from some gold paint sprinkled here and there on Olsson's joyously colored mixed-media works.

Olsson trained in the late 1970s at the University of Arizona, where she was part of the avant-garde Paradise Group. Given the strong line of her current work, it's no surprise to learn her UA master's degree was in drawing. Along with 14 small painterly monotypes in the Temple show, she's entered nine mixed-media works whose intricate compositions are enlivened by a cheerful tension between drawing and painting. Line drawings in pastel and charcoal on the surface of the paper do a pas de deux with the paint underneath, creating a satisfying interplay between the artist's nervous darting line and more solid painterly textures.

Olsson's human stick figures are half-sketched in line at one end of the body and then undergo a transformation at the other, swelling out into roughly painted figures. The dimly threatening man in "The Anatomy Lesson II," for instance, is drawn from his waist down in simple blue green line; his trunk, arms and head are a swathe of rust paint. The dissonance between the two disparate parts of the body implies some measure of psychological dislocation, and the vagaries of human life are in fact the artist's subject matter.

Her half-drawn, half-painted human figures sometimes float in an undefined painterly space, blocked out only by irregular patches of color. More often, though, they're unmoored in ambiguous domestic spaces demarcated by vague floorlines or doorways or windows. And if the figures' location is often nebulous, so are the suggested narratives gripping these people.

In "Family Room," a rich symphony of ochres, reds and blacks, there is at once a suggestion of harmony and disharmony. A sleeping female figure floats toward the top of the paper. Below her a gigantic cat head also dozes, while a furtive, headless male figure hurries off to the left. Perhaps the woman's peaceful slumbers will be interrupted by the fleeing man: Is he a departing lover, a thief or worse?

The cheerful colors of these obscure domestic dramas often belie the underlying psychological tension, the sense that something ominous might be unfolding. In "Living Room," a lovely-to-look-at composition in blues, greens and reds, a large figure in the foreground holds a hand up protectively, shielding still another sleeping figure, lying with a palpable vulnerability in the background. "The Anatomy Lesson II" seems to embody a sinister double entendre of sexual abuse: That shadowy man grips a young girl (headless, by the way) firmly by her arm, while leering to their left is a grinning corpse that's the ostensible subject of the lesson.

The small monotypes are less complicated, but they are nonetheless deft, painterly snapshots, in rich chocolate browns and black and beige, of intimate human moments, full of shifting moods and revealing gestures. In these tiny works, the figures are cropped as in photographs, and small objects--a vase, a pitcher--glow like talismans. Maybe it's only because we know that Olsson lives in Paris, but somehow her monotypes' little narratives seem very French: "Taking Exception" features a table with two seated figures deep in combative conversation, the inevitable cups of coffee at either end.

The graphic quality of Olsson's work suggests some connection to her former life in the Southwest, where the lines of ancient Native Americans are slashed across rocks in petroglyphs. Her imaginative compositions also marry the brisk urban sensibility of such quintessentially Parisian artists as Toulouse-Lautrec with the temperamental black line of the German Expressionists. As one French reviewer said, Olsson's work takes in corps et esprit, body and soul, both revealed in the twist of a brush, the scribble of a line.

Over at Revak, a law office which is mounting just its second show, Chittock travels some of the same psychological territory as Olsson. Large human figures, more recognizable perhaps but not quite as imaginative as hers, nevertheless have a similar emotional portent. Using family and friends as models, the painter composes narratives about birth and death, life and religion. An odalisque of a woman whose swollen body will soon give birth is called "Heaven's Gate," an ironic title that suggests the greatest miracles are right here on earth, not in an elusive spaceship traveling among the stars. Chittock uses an unusual mixture of sawdust, acrylic, oils and wax to paint on his canvases: The odd medium gives his work a gritty, almost three-dimensional texture.

More interesting to my eye are Twachtman's dark, evocative landscapes, moody compositions on paper and canvas that bypass all the usual conventions of the Southwestern landscape. In "Honyebee," an acrylic on wood panel, the artist's colors relate more to the aesthetic demands of the work and his own viewpoint than they do to the reality of that sunny green and blue riparian canyon. Twachtman puts his lime green in the sky instead of on saguaros, the pale blue on a rock. Even "Bluff," an acrylic and oil on paper whose turquoise and rust colors suggest the red-rock country of Sedona, manages an original take on what could be the tritest of scenes. His expressionistic brushwork, scrapings in the paint and blurry edges endow the familiar bright land with an unfamiliar melancholy.

Jan Olsson: Mixed Media Works continues through May 31 at Temple Gallery, 330 S. Scott Ave., in the Temple of Music and Art. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. During performances at the theatre, the gallery is open prior to curtain and during the first intermission. For more information, call 624-7370.

A show of works by Michael Chittock, Eric Twachtman and Susie Cullen continues through May 31 at M. Revak & Co., 1440 N. Stone Ave. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. An artists' reception takes place from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday, May 4. For more information, call 624-3445. TW

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