Friday, January 17, 2014

Carla Paine at Olyphant

The Weekly Volcano, Jan. 16, 2013

Carla Paine’s paintings at Olyphant Art Supply in Olympia are as rich and luscious as the settings for her portraits and still-lifes. They harken back to a time when artists were considered to have been chosen and blessed by God, when they painted their pictures for kings and popes and wealthy merchants. (Actually, that part hasn’t changed much in 400 years.)

From distances of 10-20 feet her paintings look hyper realistic but upon closer inspection we see more expressive globs of paint. Paintings by such artists as Jan Van Eyck, Titian and Botticelli come to mind.

Her paintings indicate that she was schooled in old and revered traditions. She studied at the Florence Academy of Art in Florence, Italy.

She lives and works on a small farm north of Olympia, and in a written statement she speaks of using northern light in the old tradition. Prior to the advent of modern incandescent lighting northern light was considered ideal for artists. The lighting in her pictures is dramatic, soft, and almost always enters the scene from the upper left.

She uses dark and light contrast to great effect. The light washing over the figure of a woman playing cello in front of cascading curtains is like stage lighting that brings out the warmth of her deep reds and browns. Red roses in a blue and white vase glow as if on fire. The colors are rich in the deep umber, sienna, red, and natural flesh tones, and her interiors are filled with a rich profusion of flowers and curtains. There is one very large nude with a lighter palate completely out of keeping with the others, there is a large portrait of a man playing a tuba and two portraits of women playing cello — all with unbelievably rich backgrounds.

Her landscapes, three of which are included in this show, are quite different than her figures and still lifes. They are much smaller and more like a melding of pre-Raphaelite and Winslow Homer landscapes with the soft gray colors of the Pacific Northwest.
The paintings are impressive, but they make me wonder why. Why would a 21st century painter make pictures that look like they came out of an Italian Renaissance studio? It has all been done before, and just as well if not better. Van Eyck did marvelous things compositionally, and he pictured everyday reality in an honest if staged manner. Paine’s paintings are definitely staged, warm and comforting, but beyond technical showmanship and nostalgia for a time she could never have known I question the reason for these paintings.

It has long been an accepted notion in the arts that contemporary art should reflect contemporary times. These opulent images reflect a long-ago time and a standard of living that existed only for the very rich and powerful. Promoting such images as the ideal panders to the unrealistic dream of returning to the good old days, heedless of the truth that the good old days in America were not so good for women, blacks, gays and lesbians, immigrants, Native Americans and non-Christians. I have problems with images such as these, which create a false ideal, and yet I cannot help being drawn to their lush beauty. I cannot help but be drawn to Paine’s painting virtuosity.

And the criticism I have just voiced does not apply to all of her paintings. I visited her website at and saw that she has done some realistic Paintings (as opposed to idealistic), which have a decidedly contemporary look. There are some nudes that are more Thomas Eakins or even Lucian Freud than Van Eyck or Botticelli, and one portrait of a woman posing in front of antlers that is downright surrealistic.

[Olyphant Art Supply, Monday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday noon-5 p.m., through Feb. 1, 117 Washington St. NE, Olympia, 360.556.6703]

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