In an age of continuously expanding and popular new media art—digital, computer graphics, animation, virtual art, internet art, interactive art, robotics, even biotechnology as art– how can easel painting, traced back to the ancient Egyptians, possibly be new or challenging for artists and their audiences?
The answer is merely in the question, really, and artists Jessie Fisher and Julie Farstad take on this challenge in their work in Hardcore Painting: Confessions and Premonitions, at the University of Nebraska-Omaha Art Gallery through September 28.
“This is very high quality work,” Gallery Coordinator Denise Brady said. “Jessie and Julie do really interesting things with great detail, pushing the boundaries within the history of painting and contemporary painting.”
Pushing the boundaries of a centuries-old medium means not just slapping paint on a canvas, though there is something to be said for that of course. But it also implies paying strict attention to each aspect of the process of the most analyzed genres in the art world—manipulating symbol, and recording time and translation into perfect execution, within the intense precedent of the easel painting.
Viewers can see the beginnings of this process through Fisher’s drawing studies from museums of classic figurative sculptures in the hallway leading to the galleries. Meticulously rendered hands and torsos, the artist’s deep respect for historical art is evidenced.
In the first gallery Fisher’s mythical paintings reveal her stick-to-it-tiveness to the field—trompe-l’oeil styled oils of morphed animals in mystical landscapes heavy with symbolism and portraits a la Rembrandt with deep chiaroscuro and royal patterns abound.
The images are surreal—“Double Cow in Lord Leighton Landscape” shows a carefully painted altered cow with various parts sticking out in an elegant landscape, with a pond reflection, cloudy skies and greenery. Yellow roses and white flowers adorn the odd animal and fall to the ground referencing passing of time, and shiny blue ribbons make the scene regal.
“Self-portrait with Blue Bird” shows the artist staring straight at the viewer, almost daring us to think twice about this age-old craft. With her long brown hair over her breasts, blue bird a flight, a pink flower on the table, the artist holds a tiny drawing of the flower, perhaps indicating her role—seeing, perceiving time and life and translating for the masses. The reference to the classic portraits of Rembrandt with a dark background and erect pose, this time with a strong female presence– how can one doubt her?
Fisher is a colleague to Farstad, both of them educators at the Kansas City Art Institute. They showed together in a large group exhibit and realized their kinship to easel painting and so decided to create a larger series for this UNO show.
Farstad’s work, like Fisher’s, are heavy in symbolism, but also in process. Farstad’s pieces recognizably reference girlhood from afar with the bright colors and realistic images of baby dolls.
“I seek to explore themes of childhood, specifically the psychological dramas of girlhood, femininity and feminism,” wrote the self-described feminist in her statement. “My paintings focus primarily on the doll as subject, and I use children’s toys and landscape references to create images that are about identity development, rites of passage, and my own experiences of childhood and adolescence.”
Indeed, Farstad doesn’t take her work lightly. She begins by sculpting subjects out of papier-mâché or play dough and photographs them to use as source images for the paintings. This labor-intensive process, said the artist, serves to emphasize childhood but also presents the idea of experience as an event created through perception.
“There’s a Big Hole in the Little Prairie,” a large oil on canvas shows three dolls in play-dough grass, another hiding behind a purple clay-tree, and another paper-doll farther away watching the others play near a church and white picket fence in the background. It invokes an odd bittersweet feeling—the playful memories of childhood friendship and pretend, but also the wrenching ones of anxiety and exclusion.
This confusion is perhaps one of Farstad’s goals with her eerie play dough, baby-doll worlds. “I strive to create images that combine a variety of influences, including psychoanalysis, religious painting, and popular culture, within a space that rejects the authority of the single viewpoint in order to undermine the authority that any one language—be it visual or theoretical—may assume over another.”
Ironically, as she presents these explorations of subjectivity and perception, she also debunks her own language—but, again, this is only part of her plan. “My paints of dolls wandering through broken landscapes strive to depict the struggle to find a sense of home in a constructed identity, which history and culture continually tells me is that of the ‘other.’”
Serious and challenging indeed from both Fisher and Farstad, but the carnival sounds from Michael Burton’s Channel installation heard throughout the galleries lightens the mood—until you read what his “paintamation” is all about.
Channel is an approximately 1-2 minute video crafted of thousands of painted images exploring “the unknown world that salmon enter when being diverted through the tubes and sloughs to avoid dams on the Snake River in the Pacific North West.” Alongside the audio of carnival tunes and children screaming on cue to the fish’s wild ride, it feels fun and real. Doves fly, water splashes, you’re brought through dark tunnels and swirls of waves, and pushed out again for a big freeing “yay!!”
According to Burton, who teaches at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the images are imagined and derived places that generate a narrative, aiming to transport viewers into such a fantasyland. “I hope they understand the work to be a portal to my imagination where they might see idiosyncratic scenarios or ideas about the human condition in the surreal context of moving paint…my work is all about seeing things in a different way.”
Likewise, artists Farstad and Fisher define contemporary painting in three words: illusion, appropriation, and transcendence. Each can be checked off in the three galleries at UNO.
Hardcore Painting: Confessions and Premonitions by Julie Farstad and Jessie Fisher and Channels by Michael Burton are on display through September 28. Farstad and Fisher will discuss their works Sept. 28, at noon, in the gallery, in conjunction with the exhibition, which will close at 1 p.m. after the presentation.