Visual Arts


Artist Linda Mundwiler used to collect pieces of dead birds. Today she gathers lists of stupid questions about her art instead. Among her favorites are:

Do you ever paint the tender moments?"
Do you do a lot of drugs before you paint?"
Don't you ever paint in earth tones?" (Her response: No. But maybe I will when I'm really old.")

Mundwiler's paintings are oblique narrative fragments; she favors oil paints (They're easier to manipulate than most people") and large canvases, which she populates with primitive, genderless forms she calls blockheads." The light in her paintings comes from way down low, and her bold use of color and relief sets an eerie, dramatic tone.

While there's always a dark side to Mundwiler's compositions, they are also humorous and compassionate. In Playground With Odalisque," Mundwiler's oil stick scrubs primitive figures Crayolalike into an abandoned play yard. The jaunty character dwarfing this innocent scene is surrounded by childlike drawings of children and their playthings. But there's something sinister about her languid, sexy pose, and she is smiling a bit too widely. Perhaps she's just eaten someone's child.

This amusing ambivalence recurs in Reverse Psychology," a ceramic piece in which sunny, crudely painted wildlife cavorts around a grouping of circus cages. A closer look reveals the source of the animals' glee: The cages are filled with people.

Everyone has a dark side," Mundwiler observes. I use humor a lot, so I'm surprised when people only see the darkness. I wasn't thinking of a child molester when I was working on `Playground With Odalisque.' My paintings aren't manipulated while I'm working on them."

2Mundwiler hesitates to discuss or defend her work, preferring that people take what they get from her paintings. I want people to respond to my paintings, not have to have them explained. Anyway, my work is intuitive, so they're often a mystery to me as well. Talking about them takes away from the visual language of a painting."

Mundwiler's visual language has been warmly received by audiences in Los Angeles and Chicago, but although she's been here since 1975, she's still being discovered in Arizona. Mine is not the kind of imagery that fits into the Southwestern feel that's still popular here," Mundwiler muses. My work doesn't lend itself to just decorating blank spaces on your living room wall."

Although her paintings aren't traditionally Southwestern-there are no cowboys or steer skulls in sightÏthere is a feel for the warmth and serenity of the desert in Mundwiler's canvases. My response to light and shapes is affected by my daily environment," Mundwiler says. I've lived here a long time, and the light here is different. Colors appear brighter and more distinct."

Mundwiler's naive, crayonlike use of oil stick, her peculiar combination of colors and her smiley, androgynous figures may evoke childlike impressions, but there's nothing puerile about the erotic nature of many of her paintings.

In Levitation," a well-muscled, naked female looms smirkingly over the prone body of another, while colossal faces look on from behind. Levitation" is sexy on other levels as well: Although one of its figures is facing us, we see not only her genitals but her buttocks, because Mundwiler has thoughtfully placed them where one's hips would normally be.

I overheard one guy saying that my work really `had balls,'" Mundwiler laughs. Later, he got angry because he found out the paintings were done by a woman."

Although Mundwiler denies deliberate elements of feminism or lesbianism in her paintings, she admits that many of her forms are inspired by her significant other. The shapes are more simplified, but on some level, my knowledge of her body is there in the paintings," she admits. But I don't bring lesbianism to my paintings as an issue; my work is about feelings that everyone experiences."

In the early Seventies, when Mundwiler was studying art (she has a master's in painting and drawing from Northern Illinois University), her professors encouraged her to get a job teaching. Making a living as an artist was considered a man's thing," she recalls. And in some ways, it's still stacked that way."

Although she's supported herself with her art, Mundwiler is thankful for her occasional forays into teaching art to schoolkids. I really learned a lot about my art from working with kids," she says. I was always retrieving things from them that I'd forgotten about, like the energy they had for building narratives."

Most important, Mundwiler's students taught her to answer uninformed questions about art. Art can't be explained in three or four easy steps, and sometimes that bothers people. But I want my paintings to move people intellectually and emotionally, even if they don't understand what they're seeing."

Like the woman who once told Linda Mundwiler, I really love your paintings. But I could never have one in my home."


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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