Color My World
In these darkened days it was a relief to step into the Cerulean Arts Collective Members’ Gallery to experience the artworks by Kathleen Craig, Ritva Kangasperko, Bruce Lewis, Claire Owen, and Susan Sullivan.
Each of these artists utilize color in distinctive ways that turns their imagery into theater.
On entering the gallery of Kathleen Craig I am flooded with the memory of the two previous exhibitions that Craig has had at Cerulean Arts and the feelings they aroused in me. Feelings of awkwardness and feelings of activity in a quiet space. Both, as well as this one, have landscapes and still lifes. Now, figurative work from the standpoint of a dog or a cow are joined with portraits of people either sitting or in wheelchairs. All bear the markings of her style of painting subjects. The objects of her perception are stripped down to become shapes and patterns of color. This makes them recognizable but not realistic. Also, the swaths of color and pattern cause a sense of largeness to the composition while the colors chosen are not true to nature as much as true to the composition of the painting itself. Still, Craig retains certain “rules”— flesh color is kept warm, the dog is white, and cows are either black or black and white like Holsteins. In this way I am reminded of artists like Horace Pippin and Milton Avery, and sometimes even Marc Chagall.
In Bingo a woman and a dog are presented. They both have a straightforward deportment making them seem regal. And though I sense from their bodies that both are sitting, it is the line-drawn wheelchair that supports the woman’s figure separating and highlighting her from the dog. She is the queen; the dog is the noble companion and adviser. The position of the dog’s legs mirror the hands and feet of the woman and faces of both are animated, as though caught in mid-expression. Small and joyful notes in a story of notes layered one after another. Color moves the eye around the scene and creates relationships for the viewer to notice. Nearly 2/3 of the canvas has a yellow, floral patterned area while the upper 1/3 is in greens and blues.
These colors are reminiscent of the colors used to describe the woman’s apparel. The white of the dog is that of the socks of the woman. The pinkish-purple of the checkered rug shows itself in the necklace, the eyeglasses, and the ridge in the top, left corner. The color scheme appears to be tetradic—red, blue, green, yellow. But Craig has brought the colors closer together in value and lowered their saturation. This produces a vibrant yet hazy effect, not time of day or season.
In another piece, Red Devils Food, two rectangular towers in the foreground are yellow and filled with shapes of lemon wedges. Curlicues of red, the same color as the cake, are circled by a white, spiky halo to describe frosting. Green and blue in the background with scattered daisies suggest an outdoor celebration. This attention to detail brings whimsy. The shimmery luster of the paint makes me think of the warmth of remembering.
Claire Owen is in the next gallery. I literally feel a change in temperature and light when entering this room. I have stepped into a world of fairy tales inhabited by children and animals where nature can be dark but never drab and the children and animals offer companionship or threat. Although original narratives, that is, stories conjured from the artist’s imagination, they share the kind of storybook imagery you expect to see in “Tales of the Brothers Grimm” or German and Irish folktales. But these are also quite different from illustrations. First, each is an individual scene without prelude or conclusion. Second, their size is more the size of posters—too large to hold in your hands or lap. These are objects. These are statements. Based in the archaic, they do not seem to be telling us a moral as presenting a scenario for us to figure out.
A peaceable version of this is Swallows Nested in Her Hair. A darkened space is lit by the figure of a girl in front of a cut-out of a window. In the rafters sits a bird’s nest with a swallow while other swallows fit themselves into the folds of a girl’s braids. The blond of the girl’s hair and the color of her dress correspond to the landscape behind her.
In Peter Was Taken by the Owl, a boy and an owl are stuffed into a nest beside a wood. The owl blocks us from the boy while the boy’s arms encircle the owl. A twisted tale is The Thing in the Forrest. Two girls—are they sisters?—stand close together. The smaller girl hugs a sprawling wolf to her like a cuddly doll. One wonders who the danger in the forest truly is. The simplicity of the compositions, the saturation of color, the extent of storytelling in the details, and the connection, not the duplication, to the tradition of folk and fairy tales is the third and most important way they differ from illustration. They give us plenty to look at, plenty of mood, and leave us open to questioning and conjuring our own stories.
Consideration of figure/ground, patterns and marks is what I found in Susan Sullivan’s gallery. The vehicle is swimming pools and it is interesting to play along with the artist as she moves through a variety of visual language from representational as in Budget Pool to geometric abstraction as in Backyard Knee High to conceptual abstraction as in Fruit Stripe. Obviously, Sullivan has found a great deal of inspiration using full or parts of this subject. Paintings like Pool Puddle are compositionally simple with their gridded ground of yellows, oranges, and reds and the strange, hard-edges shape of blue—
a little pool of water in a mosaic section of pool. The sophistication in the artist’s choices—a large square to hold many small squares, the just right blue so that the image stays flat and the complementary color does not jump off and create visual disharmony is commendable.
In paintings like the aforementioned Backyard Knee High and Kidney Slide we are presented with areas suggesting the “real world” of textured grass with specific pared-down shapes like the edges of a pool or a red slide and a section of patterns suggesting swimming pool tiles. This entry of narrative details, of materiality from the experienced world, reminds me of paintings by artists like Frank Kupka and Lyubov Popova.
The strangest painting is Fruit Stripe which also has a kidney-shaped pool that can be found in several other works. Here the pool is surrounded with a pink floral pattern. The pool itself is made up of white and layered blues denoting water. Line-drawn figures of a bathing-capped silhouette swimmer repeat at different points float through the kidney shape. Are these multiple swimmers or is someone taking laps? A strange yeloow splat both reminds me of gum sitting in my stomach after I have swallowed it and of another figure, perhaps trying to get out of the pool. In every case I am reminded of times sunbathing and carousing, whether in my own back yard or at a vacation resort, relaxing or exercising at a swimming pool.
Ritva Kangasperko is a painter of the female figure. It is so refreshing to see an artist who presents herself as both muse and creator, subject and artist.
Often included with the female figure in Kangasperko's paintings are animals and they are just as animated. This makes them at least kindred spirits if not symbols—of action, of intention, of mood. Her artworks are crammed with elements, her joy is contagious, her paint is washy and active, and her colors are primaries. This lends to an impression of informality, lightness, and intuition. In Selfie a woman’s face in blue is surrounded with swirls of red, green, and yellow. Outlined forms of jumping crescents, flowers, stars and planet shapes, and words like Art make this spiral even more active—I think of all this as both the churning of her brain and the flow of the atoms that constitute her. This painting is a document describing the artist herself. My favorite piece, though, is Hug the Sun. A smiling, backward curved, flowered-haired, female figure reaches up to embrace the yellow ball of a
sun. A dance for joy! My three daughters, on the other hand, pointed to the three figures of Power Women. High-heeled female figures benevolently looking out. Goddesses acknowledging your presence; each with a presence entirely their own. Which is a hallmark to Kangasperko’s work—it may have only one human depicted, always a woman, but the other parts, be they animal or flower, or planet are integrated into the composition. There is much to attend. For example, in A Perfectly Happy Moment a woman is posed on a goat. The size of both and the overlapping makes these two beings equivalents. It makes me think of Patronuses in “Harry Potter” or of spiritual symbols. I wonder if the animals represent the person featured or a relationship. I also notice a yellow bird sits on the goat’s nose looking at the woman. A blue bird is centered beneath both the figure and goat. All the animals symbolize harmony and balance, and their positioning does the same. the artist herself.
The last gallery I visit belongs to Bruce Lewis. Lewis’s artworks are digital pigment prints which means that he works with a camera. Usually when one looks at photographs the expectation is to see some sort of representation of the real world. Often photographers use their skills with technique—lighting, shutter speed, dark room processes, to name a few—to create a world, a point of view. Formality of composition, clarity of focus or not-in-focus, and range of color and value are very important. Here Lewis has taken his images and processed them to varying results in abstraction. So now there is an additional burden of whether the piece comes together as “one world”. Generally, from this point of view I find his work to be very gratifying. They are colorful and often painterly.
In his series with trees as subject he can range from Autumn Dream with its high intensity of color reminiscent of a Wolf Kahn painting to The Oakbourne Tree with its vague smudginess and soft palette that recalls Impressionism. Several of his pictures incorporate water images. The Pond and Chester Creek make me think of the paintings of Sam Francis, but I am also reminded of the work by early 20th century photographers like Alvin Langdon Coburn (“Spider Web”) and mid-century, William Garnett who is known for his aerial, abstract photographs. Red Rose Tree ends up being one of my favorites from the “Tree” series. It is a powerful image because it deals with two elements that cameras support best—light and cropping. Another series in this group involves flowers. Whole rectangles are filled with them
creating an overwhelming pattern as in Daisies. Strangely, I find myself backing up in front of these beautiful yet aggressive photos as I am left wondering where I am to be placed. I am blocked from entering. Even The Secret Garden / Aster Obstruction with its complements of violet, smaller flower background and yellow leafy foreground lacks a sense of visual depth because of the vibrancy of the color and the density of the composition. With its variation of soft and hard focus, hints of color, and diffusion of saturation and value In the Rose Garden eases the eye into moving around and through the composition. It is easy with these artworks to get caught up in the extravagance of color.
The artworks by Kathleen Craig, Ritva Kangasperko, Bruce Lewis, Claire Owen, and Susan Sullivan will be at the Cerulean Arts Collective Members’ Gallery through February 9th. After the 9th, available artworks can be found at https://ceruleanarts.com/pages/artists by scrolling through until you get to the artist’s name. In the meantime, here are Instagram posts of “The One Minute Crit” for each artist: