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Tucson Weekly Sumptuous Sights

Three Artists Display Their Latest Works At Etherton Gallery

By Margaret Regan

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  HYPED-UP COLOR saturates every work in Etherton Gallery's sumptuous opening show of the season.

Gail Marcus-Orlen, a popular local artist, paints surrealistic interiors in her familiar turquoises, yellows and purples, ratcheting up the hues of her drifting walls and unloosed easy chairs to the intensity of neon.

On the opposite wall, photographer Christopher Burkett plumbs the brilliant unnatural colors of the natural world. His astonishingly detailed large-format Cibachrome prints vibrate with the screeching reds of the autumn maple, the strident purples of blueberry fields at sunrise.

Tucked away in the tiny front gallery, local painter Owen Williams delves into undiluted folk-art tones for his meticulously crafted "kinetic paintings," strange contraptions whose wooden slats project different images depending on where you look.

In her new suite of 15 oils on canvas, Marcus-Orlen works her familiar territory, the domestic interiorscapes that mesh everyday images of home with the freewheeling inventions of her imagination. Gone is the wintry spirit of Paris that colored her show two seasons ago, gone too the classical Old World arches that have sometimes anchored her compositions. In their place are rooms of the plainest possible dimensions, tract house spaces with forthrightly angled walls and windows and doorways. But Marcus-Orlen being Marcus-Orlen, these ordinary spaces are transformed by a magical accumulation of un-ordinary objects and figures, and painted in glowing hothouse colors.

Besides her rooms' usual striped chairs, billowing plants and luscious fruits, this time there's a panoply of fantastic circus characters darting about. Cavorting dancers shadow-dance on the walls ("Neruda's Dog"), a penguin balances a starry ball on its head ("Celebration #2"), an acrobat flies through a window on levitating hula-hoops ("Jumprope"). A tree full of roosting pigeons miraculously takes root inside a house, and even a Peeping Tom has a hat with a life of its own: It jumps clear off his head.

And the rooms pull a few surrealistic tricks with their architecture. The walls stop short of their destinations, leaving gaps that don't exist in real life, or open onto landscape views that logically couldn't occur between rooms. Sometimes they're like tiny dollhouse rooms whose ceilings or walls have been lifted off for a better view. The artist is a bit like the imaginative child who doesn't see why her playhouse must abide by the rules of reality. Instead, she slathers the house with painted stripes and checkerboards and dog-spot patterns. And like her own fertile imagination, it shelters any and all images that happen to drift into its confines.

These works are intriguing, and many of them are beautiful ("Small Le Fleur" is an exquisite trompe l'oeil flower painting). There's no one else in town who can manage Marcus-Orlen's readily identifiable combination of tidy brushstrokes and saturated color. But sometimes one longs for her to try a radical change in direction. And a few of the new compositions are overcrowded. "Natural Mysteries," an apparent homage to the artist's own inspirations, is overly laden with a host of objects, from artist's brush and paint tube to jumping cat and golden fish. It's busy rather than harmonious.

The plainness of the rooms in this series makes an interesting counterpoint to the fanciful objects and people that inhabit them. Yet their compositions don't generate the visual excitement of earlier works whose intricate layerings of planes and punched-out open spaces left the viewer dazzled. Luckily, this show does have one of those, the fine "Lush Life." An elaborate kaleidoscope of glimpsed rooms and backyard views, interloping walls and undulating fruits, it even includes a tiny self-portrait of the master magician herself.

The photographer Burkett has also shown at Etherton before, and like Marcus-Orlen he continues to work in clearly staked-out territory. Burkett's specialty is sacred photographs of nature's beauty, rendered in gorgeous prints that he labors over himself in the darkroom. And while Marcus-Orlen roams widely in her imagination, Burkett literally roams the wilds of America, foraging in the wet and leafy eastern woodlands and idling in the craggy canyons of the West.

There are no people anywhere in his wildernesses, and hardly any horizons or skies to speak of. Instead of these distractions, Burkett's photos capture a distilled essence of nature. In "Aspen Grove, Colorado," the vertical white tree trunks march across the plain of the paper so thickly that they crowd out any other reality. So do the infinite lily pads in "Late Summer Pond, Oregon." These dense pictures of repeated shapes can almost be read as abstractions.

Burkett varies his vantage point, moving from close-up portraits of a single tree, such as the luminous "Young Red Maple, Kentucky," to long-view landscapes like "Canyon of the Rio Grande, New Mexico," a lovely view of a shiny river snaking between canyon walls. And while Burkett is very good at conveying the kind of landscape that's richly endowed with thousands of distinctly glistening leaves, one of his best pictures sketches out the chiseled purple canyon wall in Utah's Zion at twilight.

Williams, a Tucson painter who's a retired dentist, uses his professional skills for delicate mechanicals in his kinetic paintings. Each of these 3D pictures is painted over a series of triangular strips of wood, glued vertically. They're ingenious, if a little gimmicky, the strips allowing for two separate paintings in every work. Like Mexican folk art, they're preoccupied with the duality of life and death. Look at "Dark Annunciation" from the left and you see a fully developed baby in utero about to be born. Look from the right and you see a skeletal hand grasping ghostly flowers in its bones, a sign of the death that is that baby's fate.

The show of Gail Marcus-Orlen paintings, Christopher Burkett photographs and Owen Williams kinetic paintings continues through Saturday, November 8, at Etherton Gallery, 135 S. Sixth Ave. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 7 p.m. Thursday and 7 to 10 p.m. Downtown Saturday Nights. For more information call 624-7370.

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