Once upon a time, in my wasted youth, I rode in a Porsche with a risk-loving handsome man, cranked on cocaine. He drove very, very fast through the summer night, and it seemed quite likely I would die in a ditch in a matter of minutes. I wasn’t frightened, but I felt greedy to see everything–to make it all mine, in my mind’s eye, if only for a few more breaths of time. I still remember the perfection of every detail: the car’s stitched red-leather interior and knobbed dash; a sweet-gum leaf precisely focused in the blur of vegetation; gravel sparking up as the driver slid through the curves; the blond hairs glinting along his knuckles as he gripped the wheel. And when we rolled to a stop, unscathed, I was awestruck by the foursquare simplicity of mailboxes and houses and fences, all so clean-lined and simple against the still dark shapes of field and sky.

I can’t help but recall this incident whenever I see Kathleen Jardine’s paintings, because I sense in them that same kind of devouring greed of the eye.

Painters are an often-obsessive bunch, but even in an artistic milieu, Kathleen Jardine stands out. The scenes in her paintings are as still as flies caught in amber, yet they roar like that Porsche with the painter’s passion. Anyone who has been following Jardine’s career will have seen many of the 30 paintings currently on view at Cary’s Page-Walker Arts and History Center, but seeing them all together is a different kind of experience. Individually, their fervor can be overbearing, but en masse like this, their intensity staggers the viewer.

Jardine works mainly with figures, often nude, in interiors, or, occasionally, with empty interiors or figures out of context. This exhibition is weighted with the accomplished paintings of the last few years, but it includes work dating as far back as 1980. It is thus a retrospective look at Jardine’s career to the present and a time-lapse portrait of her son, who has been one of her primary models since he was in his crib. He’s a kicking infant in “I Painted While You Cried, Sweetheart,” and we see him all the way through to young manhood, ending with “Will as a Medici Prince” and “Be Saved By Free Love.” Jardine also paints her husband frequently, and recent paintings depict her goddaughter and other young women.

But these paintings are not just portraits of people. They are full of stuff–furniture, appliances, dishes, things, as well as plant life. The happy fecundity of the natural world becomes a little frightening in Jardine’s vision, overwhelming and entangling. These paintings are also packed with ideas–references to other art, to the artist’s past, and more importantly, to Jardine’s own beliefs about the role of art, beauty and love in a well-lived life.

She uses every detail to communicate. One of her devices is to place her models in front of the refrigerator, and cover the fridge doors with notes and drawings that reinforce the content of her painting. Even the refrigerator magnets do a job. In “10,000 Years of Sacred Love,” the magnets are shaped like miniature Venus of Willendorfs and over-easy eggs. In front of these sits a lovely young woman wearing a slip dress patterned with exotic flowers, eating an egg. Before her, hot-colored flowers spread open their lips, and ripe tomatoes, or love apples, lie scattered across the table. Beside her, a young man holds a bitch dog, nipples outermost. Both gaze into the distance, past the doll baby on the doorframe.

Jardine is a highly skilled artist. Her drawing is almost impeccable. Shape and line, solids and space, perspective, foreshortening, anatomy and expression–all are extremely well done. She understands color and light, is no slouch with oil paint, and her abilities with watercolor boggle the mind. She designs her pictures well, in terms of the arrangement of big shapes.

Yet something seems a little off. Something makes the viewer uneasy: Everything in every picture is in sharp focus. In other words, everything receives equal emphasis. We could, perhaps, see more in them if Jardine’s obsessive desire to see everything did not bury us in undifferentiated detail. These pictures communicate intense feeling and visual experience, but they lack the dramatic force that would carry them from being literal, if lyrical, transcriptions to transcendent artwork. EndBlock

The Page-Walker gallery doubles as a rental space. Call ahead to confirm accessibility: 460-4963.