Thursday, December 11, 2008

Portraits and interiors

Sweet and bitter images at SPSCC

Published in the Weekly Volcano, Dec. 11, 2008
Pictured: "Woman with pearl necklace," charcoal, collage and acrylic by Gail Ramsey Wharton.

Two very different women artists fill the art gallery at South Puget Sound Community College with images of many more women — plus a couple of boats and families and urban life.

Gail Ramsey Wharton does fascinating acrylic, collage and charcoal portraits and interiors that seem to be a strange marriage of 16th-century Dutch painting and Romare Bearden collages. Lining one wall of the gallery are a dozen Wharton interiors, each of which has a single figure (a woman) in a room with various items ranging from ironing boards to rabbits. Everything is black and white except for one item in each picture that is in color.

Examples: "Ponder" depicts, in shades of gray, a woman standing in an archway. On a back wall is a portrait with a bright blue background, the touch of blue being the only color in the picture. "Swan" pictures a woman holding a swan — again, in black and white. But she has red stripes on one sleeve of her dress and similar red stripes on her collar. In "Carrot," another black and white picture, a woman stands on a table and holds a carrot that is carrot orange. And then there’s one with big, bright red lips and yet another with a green chair. There are many surrealistic details in these pictures that are easily overlooked because of the startling use of limited color; yet, nothing seems out of place. It’s "Alice in Wonderland" meets Max Ernst.

On the opposite wall is a suite of portraits by Wharton with odd distortions of facial features. They look just real enough to be unsettling. Collaged eyes and noses are mismatched — too large or too small or out of balance. The woman in "Woman with Cherry" has a large nose as seen in profile, but her face is pictured in three-quarter view. Very much like some Picasso portraits. And the disturbing image in "Woman with Blue Hands" is a woman with one eye much larger than the other and puppet hands, blue of course, with wooden sticks for arms.

The intriguing thing about her figures is the balance she strikes between realism and surrealism. They are eerie, verging on horrific. And the tortured, crumpled, rubbed, and scratched surfaces enliven the images.

Suzana Bulatovic’s acrylic and oil paintings are not as strong as Wharton’s portraits. A few are excellent, but a lot of them are too sweet for my taste. Some of her paintings are very loose and energetic while others — mostly the whole back wall — are too tightly controlled, almost as if colored in, and look too much like illustrations. The exceptions are the two largest paintings in this group. One in particular, called "Studio," is an excellent kind of 21st-century update of Impressionism. A woman in a bright pink dress sits by a window in an artist’s studio. Behind her are the accouterments of a typical studio, complete with sculpture bust and a large pot, all painted in a semi-Cubist manner. The things that make this painting work are the sunny color, the energy of the brushstrokes, and the way figure and background lock together on the surface. The same elements can be seen in two little acrylic paintings called "In a Red Dress" and "Return" at the front of the gallery.

Two other Bulatovic paintings that work well are "Rainy Day" and "Yellow Gloves." "Rainy Day" is a moody little painting with three silhouetted black figures in the rain holding colorful umbrellas. The soft and subtle colors in this one are lovely and jewel-like. "Yellow Gloves" pictures a woman who is severely cropped in the manner of a Toulouse Lautrec poster.

I wish Bulatovic had more works like these little jewels and fewer of the more contrived works that fill the back wall. All in all, it’s an impressive show.

[Kenneth J. Minnaert Center, Suzana Bulatovic and Gail Ramsey Wharton, noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, through Dec. 27, South Puget Sound Community College]

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