Visual Arts

“Summer 2009 Show” at Paulina Miller Gallery Proves an Art Retrospective Doesn’t Need a Theme to Be Cohesive

In Phoenix, summer is a challenging time for business owners — partly because the snowbirds have flown north and partly because the remaining population is busy making vacation plans. Some restaurants and art galleries just close for part of the season, while others struggle to find a balance between effort and return. Often, their answer is to put forth a summer retrospective by the gallery's regular artists.

What sounds like an easy solution can prove problematic. Without a pre-selected theme that binds together the works of several artists with different styles and color palettes, a group show may feel choppy and disjointed. That's the uphill battle gallery owner Paulina Miller faced when she imagined the "Summer 2009 Show," on display through September at Paulina Miller Gallery in Phoenix. The gallery succeeds where others have failed. Clever placement of the artwork and a subtle, perhaps unintentional theme tie the pieces together in a way that's intriguing enough to sweep away the summertime blues.

The front room is dominated by the vibrant abstract oil paintings of Marina Rynning, a recent addition to the gallery's artist roster. Her works are carefree, with large, visible palette knife strokes in angelic hues of white, yellow, and lavender. But it's Rynning's darkest piece, Fire, that's the most alive. Placed so viewers immediately encounter the piece upon entering the gallery, Fire is a swirling cone of yellow and red light surrounded by dark, sweeping strokes that look like dancing figures. Imagine a Hell straight out of Dante's Inferno — with demons pulling you down or angels helping you up, depending on your point of view. It's an energetic piece, and one that forces the viewer to question their relationship with self and with others.

Indonesian-born artist Cindy Suriyani explores themes of cultural and gender identity in The Shoju Drinker. A grown woman is depicted sitting at a table, her arms folded over a large drinking vessel of the Japanese brew. Suriyani mixes oils and acrylics in the piece to create a craggy texture that contradicts traditional color theory. The figure's hair moves forward on the visual plain despite being primarily black, a hue that recedes. The light background should pop forward yet remains a flat curtain of white with lacy, organic red patterns. More interesting is the treatment of the face, angled and tilted slightly downward in a pose reminiscent of DaVinci's Head of a Young Woman. It's a classically feminine, demure pose associated with women in more submissive cultures or eras. Perhaps that's why she needs the shoju, a fermented starch-based alcohol that's more potent than sake.

The piece has a similar feel to a nearby trio of works by artist and classical violinist Laraine Kaizer. The background of each painting is sectioned like a world map, with each country labeled with words of war: Ours, Enemies, Them. In the foreground of the first image, titled There Is No Holyland, a group of older women in traditional Middle Eastern garb weep. In Lines of Division, a young woman's body is slumped over in distress. In the final image, an African mother cradles a malnourished infant in her arms. The tiny, withered body is limp, the baby's eyes glazed over, likely in death. They are the three archetypes of woman: maiden, mother, and crone. Why not depict men? Perhaps because women are considered more emotional or, historically speaking, it is men who fight and squabble over borders as women and children suffer the consequences.

Kaizer is relatively new to art, having only started exhibiting in 2004. Her use of color is rudimentary, more laid on the canvas than well blended and shaded. The characters appear flat, two-dimensional. But what Kaizer lacks in technical ability, she makes up for with powerful social statements that deliver an emotional sucker punch to the gut.

The same can't be said of the works by Anton Nowels and children's book illustrator Lynne Avril, which present relationships in a way that's not accessible to the average viewer. Two figures reminiscent of Picasso's cubist portraits stand lifeless in Nowels' Jules et Jim. Thick, gloppy layers of oil paint in stark primary colors make for a piece that looks as though a Crayola box threw up on canvas. It's a sharp contrast to Rynning's abstracts, which use movement and light to blend the bolder tones.

In Avril's La Satyrette Meets Minotaur, a girl with a horse's lower body stands beside a creature with goat hooves and horns. Did Avril think we wouldn't know the difference between a satyr and a centaur? We may not all be mythology scholars, but the American "gen pop" has seen the Harry Potter movies. Avril's figures are inspired by primitive art but lack the flowing, natural style of ancient cave paintings. She could take a cue from the nature-inspired works of Hannalore Fischer, which have a similar primitive style.

Using a foundation of molding paste topped with layers of paint and lacquer, Fischer almost succeeds in one-upping Mother Nature. Her works are as smooth and glassy as polished stone, the mottled texture simulating granite. In Summer, round shapes the color of burgundy wine evoke tart memories of the season's pomegranate crop. In Across Time, turquoise dots and fields of muted brown form primitive glyphs on the rocky surface, their pattern abstracted but recognizable in the same way the human eye sees shapes in the clouds: an egg, a seahorse. Fischer's joy in taking nature walks and practicing what she calls "color healing" is clearly visible in her art. It's as if she transfers her divine relationship with nature to canvas and passes it along to the viewer. Look at her works and you are immediately in harmony with nature, at least by proxy.

Like most group shows, the exhibit is a mixed bag. Some works are emotionally moving, some forgettable and some (like the Nowels piece) just plain ugly. But the gallery manages to connect them together, to find relationships where others see none. A Victorian-inspired piece sits next to a painting of a woman in a long, ruffled dress by another artist. The lone dark image in a sea of light is segregated so the eye is immediately drawn to it. Paulina Miller Gallery's "Summer 2009 Show" proves that trained eyes can find commonalities in any group, regardless of how different each element appears on the surface.