Filler Domestic Diversions

Joy And Claustrophobia Clash In A New Show At The Jewish Community Center.
By Margaret Regan

THE NEWEST PHANTOM Mural, on Congress Street between Stone and Scott avenues, is a cheerful convocation of cats carousing in a colorful desert landscape. Artist Monika Rossa painted it on a boarded-up storefront last May, using broad, sure strokes to complete the plywood work in about two weeks, a new record for the Phantoms. Right now the prolific Rossa also has a full-fledged exhibition at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. Like the mural "Cats," it's an ode to joy and color.

Aptly named Color Symphony, the show is full of large, loosely painted acrylics on canvas that move with the rhythm of music and the sensuality of color. There are cats here and there in the 10 large paintings, but they're mostly minor players in this suite. Children, women, musical instruments and plants fill the light interior spaces in these expressionistic paintings, whose loveliness owes at least as much to Rossa's large abstracted fields of color as it does to the figures she paints with such simplicity.

"Dancing with a Bass" is typical. The gorgeous wood tones of the musical instrument undulate through the center of the canvas. The young girl musician serenely plays on, eyes shut, as a crowd of dancers sway around her. This work also shows off Rossa's command of the limited palette that predominates in nearly every painting: broad swathes of white, pink, yellow and reddish earth tones, cooled off by shots of chalk blue and muted green. This musical coloratura is briskly organized by bands of black that somehow recall the European expressionists from earlier in the 20th century. But except for one semi-monstrous child in "Morning Cereal," Rossa's tranquil figures don't bear much relationship to those angst-ridden painters.

Image In fact, Rossa, who shares the gallery space with painter Robert Barber, trained in Europe, first in her native Poland and then in Paris and Barcelona. She's been making a name for herself around town in the last several years, showing most recently at the Ironwood Gallery at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, at Davis Dominguez, at Eclectic Gallery and at the newly defunct Local 803 Gallery. In a statement accompanying the new show, Rossa explains that as a young artist she first was transfixed by her own soul; later, she was captivated by the beauty of the surrounding world. Nowadays, "I think I am in the lucky spot," she says. "I am consciously combining two creative influences: the outside beauty represented through my inner self."

At first glance, her subject matter seems at odds with that statement. Only one painting, "Hot Summer II," is an outdoor scene and even that is a domesticated view of the wilderness from a backyard. Overhead is Tucson's chalk blue sky, then an ochre mountain ridge and a green saguaro, yes, but in the foreground is a white lawn chair and gray fish cooking on red-hot coals in a black barbecue. But Rossa's domestic interiors, filled as they are with child musicians and dancers and animals and light, are not at all the claustrophobic renderings such a theme might suggest. Nor are they political works dissecting traditional female spaces and places. Instead, Rossa's vivid works deal with the world's "outside beauty" by finding the beauty in life close to home.

Presiding over a houseful of children, the artist transforms her life's daily bustle into abstracted patterns of color and texture, and complicated compositions. The boy playing his cello in "Cello Tune," for instance, is almost a pretext for Rossa's diagonal division of her large canvas into two off-kilter planes that investigate the many mutations of lavender and beige. The boy himself is tucked into a corner at the left of this careening room. And though the boy musician is Rossa's own child, her rendering of him is simple and solid. In fact, with the possible exception of "Klara in the White Dress," a view of a girl with flowers, her paintings of children are mostly straightforward rather than sentimental.

Image ACROSS THE WAY from Rossa's happy works are their opposite number, the acrylics on canvas in Barber's Rag Doll series. Interestingly, Barber also paints interior spaces; but where Rossa's are open, Barber's are claustrophobic, Rossa's cheerful, Barber's ominous. And where Rossa's paint looks wet and fluid, Barber's looks dry and almost forced. A retired Tucson schoolteacher, Barber assembles the kind of domestic junk that gives garages a bad name: broken stools, metal tools, ironing boards and assorted hoards. He paints this stuff over and over again in intricately composed monumental piles, creating flat-surfaced, linear paintings that veer toward a dense abstraction. Threaded among the debris is a pink rag doll with long floppy limbs, a limp, sometimes creepy figure who seems to stand in for various human victims. Like the dolls who used to get trapped in an eerie Twilight Zone on TV, the rag doll is caught in the tight, constricting spaces of Barber's savage clutter.

Paintings by Monika Rossa and Robert Barber continue on exhibit through Thursday, August 29, at the Tucson Jewish Community Center Fine Art Gallery, 3800 E. River Road. Hours are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Sunday, closed Saturdays. For more information call 299-3000. TW

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