A lot of “important” contemporary art addresses, more or less successfully, big concepts–sprawling social concerns, meta-ideas and epistemological considerations. This intellectualism can be good, but too often it leaves the viewer’s emotions untouched. Ideally, of course, Big Ideas would be accompanied by Big Feelings. But here in this imperfect world, sometimes small, everyday ideas are what we need to think about. And at times we just want to look at something more personal, at art that arises out of an individual’s idiosyncratic experiences and quirky feelings. Visual art’s importance as a language for physicality, emotionality and spirituality should never be derided.
Two current painting exhibitions in Durham remind us of how engrossing and pleasantly engaging such work can be. Jane Filer, whose work has been exhibited widely in the Triangle for many years, is showing her most recent paintings at Tyndall Galleries, and a very talented young artist, Kathryn DeMarco, who has rarely shown in the area, has some wonderful strong drawings and mixed-media collages on view at Craven Allen Gallery.
DeMarco works life-size, or near to it, and the 19 pieces in her show include several that are 76 by 40 inches. They are all interiors with figures, and–with the exception of three confident charcoal drawings–are made from cut-and-pasted papers. Her technique recalls that of Romare Bearden, as she utilizes all sorts of papers: magazines, newspapers, wrapping paper, xeroxes, as well as papers she has painted herself. She achieves rich color and textural effects, which contrast with her well-drawn simple forms and the large shapes of her compositions.
DeMarco’s primary models are herself and her animals, although there are some portraits of other people here as well. She makes herself a little mysterious, but her portraits of other people and her cats are warm and sympathetic. She deftly reveals their characters through expression and gesture, but reveals herself more through the objects in her surroundings, and by the clever use of cut-out words inserted in the pictures. A piece of art in the background of one of her collages reads: “do not be satisfied do not”; a book title in another exhorts you to “be a visionary and have a house like yours”; and a dishwasher dial in a third tells you flatly that “no one can ever prove that.” Her rooms are full of color, plants, art and animals, and each picture also includes a pair of scissors, a tool this artist must wield incessantly to harvest her supply of papers.
Her work also frequently refers to other artists, particularly the recently deceased Balthus, who was known as a “painter of mystery and silence.” DeMarco’s work has a much warmer, happier tone than Balthus’ painting, and while she does imbue her scenes with a mysterious quality, the only inexplicable thing is why she is not already better known.
Jane Filer is well-known to Triangle gallery-goers, who will have seen her work in many group shows and in numerous solo exhibitions at Tyndall Galleries and various nonprofit venues. Filer has for many years been developing a distinctive personal style. With the work of the last year, that style has really jelled, and while it’s no less filled with odd things, these paintings have a coherence that I had not previously felt from the older ones. This is her best body of work so far. The paintings assert their own truth, and that truth makes perfect sense–even when it is a donkey-headed man with ears like tall buildings who is telling you the story, and you have no idea what he’s talking about.
I’ve always thought that Filer’s work had a Chagall-like quality. She creates worlds where things can happen with a dream-like logic, worlds where a mystical spirituality is to be expected. She loves to play with changes of scale, not just within the picture, but within individual figures, and has now become so adept at this that it no longer seems awkward, but increases the fantastic effect. This new body of work also seems to have been inspired by the great color patchworks and wonderful little drawings of Paul Klee, and these Klee-like structures add considerably to the substantiality of Filer’s paintings.
Her colors and her surfaces have developed a great deal, and are rich and complex in this new work. In some cases she collages in pieces of fabric for pattern or texture, but mostly our visual satisfaction arises from the good qualities of her painting. She combines wet and dry, smooth and scratchy textures. She both lays the paint on with a knife and brushes it; she builds up layers, then scrapes and draws back into them. Her palette is very warm–lots of golden yellows, oranges and reds–and this is part of what makes her bizarre worlds seem like places we’d want to go.
These worlds are full of psychic space, yet have almost no perspectival depth. Everything is flat, and the picture spaces are very shallow. They are filled with birds, fish and strange animals, and with monumental figures that may exhibit some of the traits of buildings around them. Architecture appears in all of Filer’s paintings, and there is generally some kind of conveyance–a car, a boat, a spaceship. There are many things from current life, yet her pictures seem completely outside of time. Who knows what they mean? Probably not even the artist. But you don’t have to know. You just have to feel.