Visual Arts

Joan Waters' "20/20: New Sculpture and Painting" Brings Caribbean-Inspired Colors to @Central Gallery

Joan Waters moved to Phoenix from Baltimore 20 years ago, and while the landscape and lighting of both cities inform the artist's work, it's another place altogether that inspired her bright palette.

"When I was about 5, my parents took me to the Caribbean for a week," she recalls. "The rich colors there were in stark contrast to the grayed-down, muted tones that were more common in my own geography, and those colors stayed with me."

They're still there, splashed all over a show at Burton Barr Library's @Central Gallery called "20/20: New Sculpture and Painting," which commemorates the 40 years Waters has spent creating art — 20 of them here, and the preceding 20 in Baltimore. The show's conceit is the contrast between the Klieg-like light of the desert and the more subtle and shady light of her former Maryland home.

"In the desert, we're not under that gray sky or cloud cover," she tells me. "There's less opportunity for that sense of introspection I feel when it's rainy or cloudy. Here, the brightness makes every day feel extroverted and happy, whether that's my mood or not."

Waters' work is very much about light, especially her metal pieces — she calls them "shields" — which draw their dynamic personalities from ever-changing colors made from reflected light. The artist manipulates welded, low-carbon steel into sculptures that look like elaborate facemasks pocked with fissures that recall shadows cast on a forest floor. The patinas come from heat coloring, a torching effect that changes the metal's original sheen from silver to amber, from purple to blue and then dull gray. Occasionally, Waters will rust a piece to add another layer of texture and color.

The rust and the reflectivity of the pieces hint at the coolness and depth of water — which, at this point in a Phoenix summer, is a welcome message. This wet luminosity bounces off the bent, faceted, and die-cut layers of gently twisted metal that has been creviced with invitations to explore the mystery of its illumination. If this thing isn't lit electrically, I found myself wondering the first time I saw one of Waters' masks, why is it glowing?

The works in the @Central gallery show are divided evenly between her shields and acrylic paintings; seeing both together, it's evident that one medium has informed the other, especially in her use of reflective materials in the paintings — a gimmick that typically curls my toes, but that in Waters' work merely adds depth to her canvas from still more reflected light.

Waters' Lake Series: Current pairs a welded steel shield with one of her paintings, an effusive and highly textured piece that's deeply grooved and has an encaustic feel. Separately, these pieces have a decorative, insignificant appeal; seen shoved together, they reflect not only the light that inspired them, but one another with sharp contrasts of luminous texture. I found myself wishing there were more of these pairings in the show.

Yellow Bird Song is perhaps Waters' most playful piece, with great swipes of sunshiny primary colors piled atop one another. I spotted the bird right away, perched in the very center, poking its beak happily to the east. I asked Waters, when we spoke, how deliberate she meant for this image to be, and her response was as generous and playful as the painting itself.

"Frankly," she says, "I don't know where the bird is in that painting. I don't recall putting one in there. But I'm thrilled that it was there for you! We all see the world so differently."

Waters' vision of the world is one refracted through two very different kinds of light. While her work celebrates the white-hot intensity of Arizona's daylight, she admits to sometimes missing the more varied light of Maryland. "It's the water I miss, mostly," she says. "Walking by a lake, it reflects the light in a certain way that you don't get from having a pool in your yard. But a day or two of wet and gray weather, and I'm ready to freak out."

And the light here?

"It certainly changes the energy of my work," she says. "But it can also be exhausting. Especially when it's 115 degrees out, and I'm welding."

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela