Carnival Capers

Joanne Kerrihard's New Paintings Seem To Run Off Their Canvases And Join The Circus.
By Margaret Regan 

JOANNE KERRIHARD'S NEW suite of works at Dinnerware is full of the things of the circus and the carnival. The gaily painted striped poles of the merry-go-round figure in almost every work. When they don't, you find instead the carousel's checkerboard floors, its artfully pointed roof or its sculpted horses.

Yet for all their theatricality, these paintings and painted constructions are remarkably still and quiet. Nowhere in Kerrihard's subdued palette do you find the garish colors you might expect of a carnival: in their place are pale lemon yellows, genteel faded oranges, polite reds. A Dinnerware member, Kerrihard has for a long time painted in a stately style that does unexpected surrealistic twists on the Old Masters. The old-fashioned, carefully controlled landscapes she showed at Dinnerware a couple years back were full of Italian cypresses, manicured walkways and spectacular skies. But all this gentility was thrown out of kilter by the odd floating head or the stray dress standing all alone in mid-air.

On this outing, Kerrihard's trademark landscape has either receded into the background, playing second fiddle to the carousels and their trappings, or disappeared altogether, giving way to eerie architectural interiors that seem haunted by faded stage curtains or those ubiquitous carousel poles. Plus, like an animal activist unlocking the doors of the circus cages, Kerrihard has liberated her paints from the confines of the canvas. She's always let her painted scenes leak out onto their surrounding frames, but now she's transported them into another plane entirely.

In "An Exquisite Maiden," there is a little painting, to be sure, an old-fashioned rendition of the exquisite maiden in question, painted onto a slab of wood, front and back. But this maiden is riding in her own private carousel, a three-dimensional painted wood and metal construction that perches on a pedestal that stands on the floor. A set of real-life wood poles, painted joyously in a yellow and white stripe, surround the lovely passenger, whose painted costume gives her the look of a wandering circus performer of centuries ago.

Another floor work, "Exquisite Box," is a five-sided sculptural work of wood and metal. It looks like it's going to start spinning around any minute, as soon as the circus music starts, like a wondrous, old-fashioned attraction on the midway. Still, the piece is a direct descendant of Kerrihard's straightforward paintings of the past: It's just that this time they're going along for a ride. Each of the work's five paintings hangs on one of the pentagonal panels. They range from a couple of Italianate landscapes, lovely evocations of sky and rolling hills and cypresses, to some dark, dreamy interiors, claustrophobic little things that look like the back staircase in a stone castle or the gate to the outside. The fine paintings all could stand on their own, powered by the loveliness of their maker's paint against paint, her carefully brushed deep earth green against the pale blue and yellow, purple against the cool gray. But they all keep up with Kerrihard's mysterious circus preoccupations as well. A stretch of lawn in her painted countryside seems to want to conjure itself into a giant checkerboard, a circus pole ascends inexplicably toward the sky.

Those odd poles take center stage in the op-art wall construction, "Still Life: Afternoon." This one is like an illusionist's magic box. We can't tell very easily which of the poles are "real" and which are an illusion. Poles painted on wood intermingle with real-life wooden poles and poles painted on glass. Even this trick box keeps up Kerrihard's classical discipline: The undulating poles make for a surprisingly elegant dance of colors and planes.

Most of the other works in this solo show take their accustomed place on the wall, though several are framed in elaborate carved triptychs that give them a solemn, churchly look. The opposite numbers of these complicated pieces are Kerrihard's quick little oil sketches and monotypes, refreshingly simple takes on some of the same subjects the big pieces investigate: the actor's trunk, the stage's curtain and those striped poles, always.

It's hard to put a finger on just what she intends with all this carnivalia. It just may be that Kerrihard, who ranks as one of the most skillful painters in town, is making some metaphorical points about the theatricality and illusions of art. If so, the point is well taken, especially when we're talking the kind of intensely alluring painting that Kerrihard's gift routinely conjures up.

Joanne Kerrihard: New Work continues through Saturday, May 24, at Dinnerware Contemporary Art Gallery, 135 E. Congress St. Gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 7 p.m. Thursdays, and 7 to 10 p.m. on Downtown Saturday Night on May 17. Kerrihard will give a gallery talk at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 22. For more information, call 792-4503.

At 6 p.m. Thursday, May 8, Dinnerware participates in a special roving concert put on by a cello and violin duo of the National Symphony Orchestra. The concert begins with a string quartet performing at Etherton Gallery at 5:30 p.m., and concludes with a brass sextet concert at the Hotel Congress at 6:30 p.m. See accompanying story for more information on the visit by the National Symphony Orchestra.

At 5 p.m. Saturday, May 17, poet David Bromige will give a reading at Dinnerware. TW

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