Wet Paint and Natural Disasters

Three Artists Redefine the Landscape

According to my new Dictionary of the Arts, landscape painting emerged in the West as a distinct genre in the early 16th century. Susan Whyne's "Under the Sun" series and Lilian Garcia-Roig's autumnal landscapes add to this tradition of painting real and imagined natural scenery, with idiosyncratic style. Bettie Ward, whose prints "visually discuss mankind's position in nature," suggests a personal, shadowy interior landscape. UT art professor Susan Whyne's paintings and a mini-retrospective of ceramic sculpture by Claudia Reese are currently featured at Lyons Matrix Gallery. All but two of Whyne's paintings were made in the last year and address a visit the artist made to the French Riviera. Most tourists return with a different impression of the Mediterranean sun and surf than she did. Whyne is interested in the juxtaposition of images of the idle rich - ornate jewelry, gilt clocks, antique furniture, and rich brocade patterns - with a series of world disasters that, she says, seem to occur each time she begins a painting. "Under the Sun: Collapse" and "Jeweled Fish" feature the Kobe earthquake. No doubt Oklahoma's recently demolished Federal Building is working its way, even now, into Whyne's imagery.

The paintings are downright apocalyptic, but no more so than the daily papers. Like The New York Times, they present one disaster after another, surrounded by images of gold time pieces, flashy jewelry, and fashionably dressed women. It is a sad fact that the Times and Whyne's paintings are both a highly accurate reflection of the world today. Personal luxury continues to be pursued, while up-to-the-minute media coverage reminds us of natural disasters - flood, earthquake, tornadoes - and the not-so-n1atural behavior of some of our fellow humans.

The omnipresent visual components of Whyne's paintings are a world globe, rolling tidal waves of a disconcerting color, huge baubles, bathers in swimsuits reclining in beach chairs or on towels, and assorted luggage. The suitcases are frequently falling, flying, or carried by great lines of the dispossessed, migrating across the artist's picture plane.

I can't say that I like the paintings. They don't welcome that kind of response. They are purposely awkward and unevenly painted and jarring in content. On the other hand, I am in complete sympathy with their message and am wooed by their compositions (which range from highly competent to masterful) and the visual language that the artist employs. Whyne wants us to be uncomfortable. She manipulates the viewer with off-putting colors and bizarre scenarios. In "Under the Sun: Firefighter," a woman holds a fire hose to a burning red globe in the sky, and her mission - to stop the flames - is clearly impossible. Sunbathers at the beach on the far side of the canvas are surrounded by bodies in body bags and other corpses, still bound, that have washed up on shore. The rotund bathers don't appear particularly disturbed. I am.

Another UT art professor, Lilian Garcia-Roig, is featured in a one-person exhibition at Galeria Sin Fronteras. Her paintings are significantly different from Whyne's. They are about a thickly painted surface and the absence of human mischief. In her artist's statement, Garcia-Roig says she strives to "capture the essence or feel of being in a specific place, rather than attempt to record all its details." The work is so recent that a sign hangs in the gallery warning patrons about "wet paint."

The exhibition is titled "Fall Spectacle of Colors," and the landscapes the artist includes were painted, for the most part on site, in Central Texas, Vermont, and Maine. The artist is not bent on recreating the landscape exactly, but rather on creating a new and personal reality based on the feel of those places. She paints entirely personalized visions of trees, shrubs, and bushes. The palette belongs to Garcia-Roig, rather than one specific time of day or stand of trees. And what a palette it is. Purple branches, lime green squiggles, dabs of red berries, and blue green foliage against a cool blue sky.

Each painting offers two separate kinds of experience. For the timid viewer who stands half a room away, there is the landscape itself with trees, clearings, intertwining branches. In "Majestic Spanish Oak-Fall" the background slopes down to the right and you imagine the artist perched on uneven terrain making sketches, taking photographs, applying paint to canvas. For a second kind of experience, step closer and watch the landscape disappear in favor of an abstract composition of colors dabbed and slathered on canvas. The image is transformed. The artist says, "[I] want the viewer to feel the tension of a chaotic representation, eased a bit by recognizability and formal coherence." Her success left this viewer literally pacing back and forth in the gallery, taking in the whole of each image, then moving closer for another look at the intricate surface.

San Antonio artist Bettie Ward has taken an especially keen interest in the surface of her most recent monotypes. In her current show at Flatbed Press, several unframed works that hang directly on the wall have been painted with bees wax, which gives them a seductive appearance. With most of the work, however, the surface is unenhanced. "Monet Series #14" is a multiple plate monotype and the only multi-colored work in the show. Ward's more subtle black-and-white Xerox transfer prints with pencil drawings dominate. All of Ward's work confirms her substantial experience with and willingness to push the print medium. Every four or five months, Ward comes to Austin to work at Flatbed press.

She calls the current exhibition "I Am Being." Perhaps Ward's prior history as an art consultant somehow informs her presentation, which, while ostentatious, serves ultimately to enhance and reward her images. The monotype "I Am Series: Flowerheaded Woman With Leaf Arms" is a spare image floating in an extravagantly large frame. "Flowerheaded Woman" is something of a signature piece. In it, Ward uses photographs she has taken, including that of a nude female model. Ward makes variously sized Xerox images of the photos. These are coated with acetone and laid on damp paper by the artist. When they are run through an intaglio press, the Xerox image transfers to the paper. With pencil, the artist has drawn a vortex that swirls on top of this particular figure, and added leaf-arms and a flower head.

While the gallery press release speaks of the artist's discussion of "mankind's position in nature," it is clear that her greater preoccupation is with womankind's relationship to the world. "I am a soft piece of precious flesh," written across the top of one large monotype, seems excruciatingly personal, and yet the vulnerability of the words and the pale print with drawing on top of it appeals to me. In "Flowered Woman Holding Stems," as in the other prints in the series, the female figure appears to be merging with the natural landscape, creating new life. In a sense, all three artists - Whyne, Garcia-Roig, and Ward - redefine "landscape" to conform to their personal sense of time, place, and order in the universe.

Fall Spectacle of Colorsby Lilian Garcia Roig is on view through June 14 at Galeria Sin Fronteras; I Am Beingby Bettie Ward is featured through June 3 at Flatbed Press; and paintings by Susan Whyne are on display through May 13 at Lyons Matrix Gallery.

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