Mid-Summer 2017
Posted on August 2nd, 2017

​A Figurative Narrative
“Figurative art describes artwork—particularly paintings and sculptures—that is clearly derived from real object sources, and is…by definition representational. Figurative art is not synonymous with figure painting (art that represents the human figure), although human and animal figures are frequent subjects.” (“Figurative Art”; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Figurative_art; Retrieved on July 21, 2017)
Figurative art is also inclusive of combinations of geometric shapes which can create symbols or hieroglyphs suggestive of realistic sources…a language of figurative references available for emotional translation.
While a cursory glance at the twenty artworks (and dozens of prints set in the bin sleeves) in this exhibition by three singular artists clues us in to the figurative taking-off-point of the show, a closer look reveals variations on the figurative theme that reflect concerns both political and personal, humorous and serious, historical and contemporary.
In the entryway, Wichita, Kansas artist Kathleen Shanahan’s lithographs pay oft-overdue homage to four pioneering women aviators: 1. Thérèse Peltier (1873 – 1926; first woman to fly in a heavier-than-air plane, 1908);  2. Amy Johnson (1903 – 1941; first female to pilot alone from Britain to Australia, 1930); 3. Bessie Coleman (1892 – 1926; first woman of African-American and Native American descent to hold a pilot’s license, 1921; “the air is the only place free from prejudices”); Amelia Earhart (b. 1897 – disappeared, 1937; first female to fly solo across the Atlantic, 1932). The artist places images of birds—specifically a condor, a bird of paradise, a puffin and an eagle—alongside each female aviator. Compared to her six other pieces in this show (#’s 8 – 11, 19 – 20), mixed media works that are all quite complex and dense, these pieces are relatively straightforward—a revealing entrée to the artist’s many rich interests.
Currently, I am interested in contrasts of static/active, movement, flight, locomotion, and anatomical structure (plant, animal, human, mechanical/robotic). Though I like to put a fair amount of energy into “choreographing the composition,” I aim to provoke the viewer through posing some unlikely combinations of images.
Carbondale, Illinois artist William H. Thielen’s three acrylics on canvas and wood (#’s 5 – 7) are similar to totem-like, abstracted representations. With subtitles like “monkey time,” “bug eyes,” and “sour puss,” they confront us with their imposing size, brilliant colors, and geometric shapes. Bill’s creations suggest characters with unique personalities and emotions. Each piece has contrasting sections in black and white. This is purposeful, as the artist says, for
[t]he black and white tends to be the backbone of each piece. It is about the constant struggle of good and bad, life and death, control, rigidity, and—sometimes—sick humor.  The color is entirely about emotions. They are something we all have, yet many people avoid them. If one does not trust them, they can have a profoundly negative effect. To embrace [emotions] leads to a positive integration into one’s self, and a healthy way of expressing them.
Likewise, Sarah Riley’s work (#’s 12 – 18) incorporates many figurative images and addresses contrasting energies of motion/stillness, while also investigating historical art-world personages such as Camille Claudel (1864 – 1943) and Piero della Francesca (c. 1415 – 1492), in juxtaposition with imagery from the current natural world—water, pools, sunsets, tree trunks.
I like the surprise of what color and paint can physically do on a surface and in the mind. The juxtaposition of images, shapes and textures suggests memories as well as reimaginings.
One can practically feel the wind blowing across one’s face as it flies off the rotation of bodies in the two whirling dervish dance prints.  And on the surface of another piece, our eyes are drawn to the two back-stroking bathers in the far-right panel of the 6’ x 9’ acrylic and oil on canvas, “Morning Glory Pool.” Upon closer inspection, we may wonder what the sketched character in the far-left panel is doing holding his head between his hands. As with Shanahan’s “aim to provoke…through posing unlikely images together,” perhaps this “character” cannot let go enough to join in the swim, or is struggling with an issue that closes him off from the others via the central panel of a bottomless maelstrom.
Camille Claudel, most famous as Auguste Rodin’s mistress, has been unfairly neglected as an extraordinary artist in her own right. Some researchers even attribute certain Rodin sculptures as being created, or at least greatly contributed to, by Claudel herself. Look at the “feet” at the bottom of Riley’s “Camille Pulled by Forces Beyond her Control” print. The one on the left silhouettes a dog and cat fight; the right, lush, sensual flowers. Both are representative of the conflicts in Claudel’s life: lovers’ spats and artistic ambition vs. the social expectations of her day.

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