My grandmother makes wedding cakes for a living. The cakes are always delicious, but it's their decorative aspects I've alway found fascinating. The tiers are pilled high, seemingly in defiance of gravity, and the sugary coating looks impossibly smooth, like untouched snow.
When I first walked into "Domesticated," Carrie Marill's latest solo show at Lisa Sette Gallery, I immediately was drawn to a large painting depicting what appears to be either a layered cake or five separate cakes piled on top of one another. The work, Panned, features a simple composition with light neutral tones, but at the top of the pristine pile is an unexpected splash of bright, textured paint. This saturated color disrupts the order of the still life, suggesting that this work (and others in the exhibition) are not really about an idyllic kind of home life at all.
Baking skills are, apparently, not hereditary. The first time I made a cake from scratch, the lemon curd broke through the icing wall that was supposed to hold the filling between the two layers. In a frantic rush, I plopped the top layer down (which only caused the curd to ooze out faster) and tried to ice the cake quickly to keep it all together. The resulting blob of clumped white frosting and melty yellow goo looked less like a cake and more like a science experiment gone horribly wrong. But it still tasted delicious.
In "Domesticated," Marill is dealing with this exact kind of glorious mess, I think. But, to the viewer's great benefit, she does it in a gentle way, much more subtle and understated than my cake story.
A San Francisco native, Marill relocated to the desert nearly a decade ago after earning an MFA in painting from Cornell University. Since then, she has planted herself firmly in the local culture. In addition to regularly showing in galleries throughout metro Phoenix, Marill shares her work space at Combine Studios with ASU's international artist residency program.
But when I think of her paintings — even her large-scale homage to late San Francisco artist Margaret Kilgallen, a mural on the southeast corner of Roosevelt and Second streets — I don't associate them with the hit-and-miss vibe of the downtown art scene at all. Her work belongs on the walls at Lisa Sette.
Take Dishberg, for example: The impressive piece depicts a blue and white form that isn't immediately identifiable. Upon closer inspection, it becomes easy to pick out the hints of vessels hidden in the central mass. The clean line work and geometric patterns in this composition offer the perfect vehicle for meditation on the mundane side of domesticity. But the abstract composition encourages viewers to think past that.
When I spoke with Marill over the phone, she said her art often is a reflection of her life circumstances. With two toddlers consuming much of her time these days, "Domesticated" was born from a desire to make work that addresses the dual issues of raising children and having an art career. Being a woman in the art world is one thing, she points out, but being a mother adds another layer to her identity.
Still, she didn't want the show to be a domestic cliché. "I wanted to make work that was uncanny," she says.
And it is. But the art never goes off the deep end, thanks to Marill's characteristic focus on formalism. The limited color palette and the repeated line patterns in "Domesticated" help the viewer retain focus. Form often is echoed between pieces as well, especially in the small works hung together in two rows of five. I especially enjoyed the central pairing of "Closet" and "Talk It."
I couldn't help feeling sad at the prospect of this specific body of work eventually being split up to go home with different collectors, of which Marill has many.
It's clear that Marill is one of Phoenix's art superstars. Like many who hold this distinction (Angela Ellsworth, Mayme Kratz, and Mark Klett, to name a few), Marill is gorgeously represented by Lisa Sette Gallery. This vestige of high-quality contemporary art has held its own in Old Town Scottsdale for 28 years, garnering national recognition in the art world. With Sette relocating to midtown Phoenix this summer, "Domesticated" marks the end of an era. And what a beautiful send-off it is.