Carrie Marill Leaps Forward with Smart, Playful Show at Lisa Sette Gallery

Long after the ASU Art Museum’s groundbreaking “New American City: Artists Look Forward” show came down in 2007, there was a vestige of painter Carrie Marill in the building, just above one of the baseboards in the women’s room — a bright little fragment of a Phoenix landscape, unobtrusive but impossible not to look at once you knew it was there. It was one of several that Marill had placed around the museum in relatively discreet locations for the group show, which brought together 23 artists who lived and worked in Maricopa County at the time. 

Almost 10 years later, Marill is still living and working in Maricopa County. Originally from San Francisco, she has been in Phoenix long enough to be described as an Arizona artist; both her sons, now 5 and 3, were born here. She is married to fellow artist Matthew Moore, a fourth-generation farmer from Goodyear.

Marill’s latest show at Lisa Sette Gallery harks back to that tiny landscape in the women’s room, with major variations and progressions. Still in play are her remarkable sense of color and pattern, and her insistence that the small things matter. But those small things are repeated and amplified, distilled into what could be construed as interior landscapes disguised as pattern play. Most of these new paintings range from medium to large to “wow,” and they are all abstract, devoid of figures or objects. Characterized by a seductive balance of exuberance and restraint, vibrant geometric patterns and neutral buff linen, they’re minimal and rich, cool and warm.

The aptly named Not Afraid of Color, for example, crackles with thin, clean, saturated lines — pastel, primary, and jewel toned — that cause the painting to seem to telescope back and forth. The boisterous whole is anchored by one neutral gingham triangle that looks like it dropped in from another Marill painting just to center things.

The Gateless Gate, the focal point of the show, is an expansive triptych of three rectangular panels that are almost six feet high, scattered with beige linen lozenges and tiny black triangles that turn into stars if you look at them right; the stars mass in the middle and seem to move in a flock, much like starlings do when they form their murmurations. Linking the three individual panels, almost in the way of buttons, are six large, colorful parallelograms, like elegant Op Art versions of the God’s eyes kids at summer camps probably still make out of twigs and yarn. The neat outlines of the God’s eyes run not quite parallel with the lines that make up the background pattern; you don’t notice this right away, but it’s part of what contributes to the overall dizzying effect. How can something so orderly also be so disarming?

Marill once said that if she hadn’t been an artist, she would have been a fashion designer or an ornithologist. Today, she is an artist, a wife, a mother, and a landlord. (She and Moore own Combine Studios, the artist residency in downtown Phoenix.)

In her work, she’s tackled motherhood and wifehood as well as the visual representation of string theory; painted feathered and furry creatures wild with personality; and chronicled the items auctioned off by Sotheby’s from the estate of Edward, Duke of Windsor, and Wallis Simpson (for those pieces, Marill had ribbons with the Duke of Windsor’s seal made specially). The constant, besides her consummate skill, is the lively presence of a mind that’s both neat and eccentric, serious and playful. (Full disclosure: I have followed Marill’s work since she moved to Phoenix in the early 2000s, and consider her a friend. I am also the Communications and Media Specialist for the ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.)

“One of the amazing things about Carrie is her consistency,” says Heather Sealy Lineberry, who co-curated “New American City.” By that, Lineberry says she means not only Marill’s consistent ability to paint, but also her obsessive approach, her joy in the act of painting, and her consistency in looking at historical art sources that she absorbs and then embodies in her own work: Persian miniatures, Japanese screen paintings, 18th-century European landscape paintings — and beyond the traditional parameters of art history into tapestries, rugs, quilts, jewelry.

Marill cites as particular influences the British Op Art painter Bridget Riley, and Margaret Kilgallen, a Bay Area artist known for her paintings, murals, and graffiti. Like Riley, Marill is interested in investigating space; the two artists also seem to advance more by feel than by formula. “Riley talks about the relationship of color,” Marill says, “how color can color color, and I’m also interested in how pattern can pattern itself.” 

“[Kilgallen] talked about seeing the hand in the work, and that’s really important to me,” Marill says. “That’s why there are a lot of flaws. The paintings are very rigid and formal, but up close you can see my hand.”

Of the several murals that Marill has painted in downtown Phoenix, the first, in 2011, was a large homage to Kilgallen that was defaced twice. Marill says she still doesn’t understand why.

“I had to repaint it [the second time] when I was six months pregnant. I was super hurt, but I was like, ‘Fuck you, I’m not going take this down, it’s going right back up,’” she says. 

“That mural was painted with volunteers on volunteer day. All these people painted it. I kept thinking about [Kilgallen] seeing the hand in it. I think she’d appreciate it. I hope she would.”

About five years back, Marill produced a series of paintings titled “Hi n Lo,” prompted by the question, “What if Joseph Albers was a quilter or Gee’s Bend quilts turned into Abstract Expressionist paintings?” 

In the same way that she enjoys blending and confounding notions of “high” and “low” art, Marill likes stitching across the line between art and craft. She refers to herself as weaving or constructing these latest paintings, and they look hand crafted. Even in the ones where large swaths of raw linen are left uncovered, or paradoxically, perhaps especially in those, the eye registers the time and care that went into laying down tight lines of color. The extraordinary precision is clearly the work of a human hand. And this time, there in the gallery, are the tools to prove it: the “giant tape growth,” as Marill calls it, that resulted from taping off and painting her canvases for months, and a small box filled with the flat bits of wood Marill used to spread paint, which Lineberry likens to game pieces.

In Marill’s earlier figurative work, objects and animals seemed to float in nothingness, foregrounded by virtue of there being no background, producing a kind of only ground that is both immediate and removed. The new paintings play with space and with the viewer’s eyes in a lo-tech, psychedelic way, creating a meeting place between worlds that feels expansive and welcoming and like a good place to hang out for a while. 

From here, Marill says, she’s moving into 3D paintings, produced with the help of an architect for an upcoming show in Dallas this fall. 

“I’ve always been infatuated with [Jean] Arp,” she says, “those wooden painted pieces he has. They’re so strange. I love how awkward they are in the museum compared to what they’re hanging next to, usually Dada or surrealist stuff.”

She has a couple of prototypes she’s working on in her studio, which she considers a kind of laboratory, and she’s looking forward to seeing what happens. 

“I do plan them all out,” she says. “But I don’t see it until I see it. Until I’ve taken a picture of it, I don’t really see it.

“It’s like Christmas if it works.”

Works by Kim Cridler and Carrie Marill are on view at the Lisa Sette Gallery, 210 East Catalina Drive, through June 25.