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Faculty-artists exhibit "what paint can do"

On the surface, about the only thing the two exhibitions at the Catherine G. Murphy would seem to share is that they’re both by faculty members. One is abstract, the other intensely representational; one is an overview of a 20-years arc of work passing through a range of stages, the other a focused three-year project with a specified outcome; one is curated, the other completely artist-chosen.

But each shows, as artist Patricia Olson puts it, “what paint can do.” And both radiate color and a certain kind of warmth and light, coming both from the surface of the canvas and from somewhere deeper.

A 20-year retrospective
For “The World Behind the World,” Carol Lee Chase chose independent curator David Wells, seeking a more distanced eye for her work as a whole. “Rather than showing everything I CAN do, he focused on a theme he sees in the work,” organizing the exhibition not along chronological lines, but on a certain luminescence that emanates from her work.

Coiled Gold. Oil on canvas by Carol Lee Chase.

It emanates across the widely divergent media she has worked in over the years: in the canvas encased in wax (complete with frozen drips hanging off the bottom of the canvas), a field that resembles a galactic snapshot suffused with a celestial, deep-space glow, to her more traditional oil and gouache paintings.

Her work also contains an animating (and captivating) tension: between the flat surface of the canvas and the eye’s desire to seek depth, between abstraction and the eye’s desire to find representation. A series she began based on traditional Islamic design motifs — pure abstraction — evolved into cellular forms that could have emerged under the microscope.

Likewise, with an apparent scene of tree branches framing a river, it’s easy to see the branching blue lines as a neural network. It’s not intentional, but Chase certainly doesn’t reject the associations. “We think it’s so abstract, but really, it’s so connected to the body, the natural world — there’s an underlying structure.”

A unique community reflection
Patricia Olson’s “Catherine Portrait” project, a series of 40 16- by 16-inch portraits doesn’t take up a lot of wall space, yet it fills the room — each face with a story of its own. The series is the culmination of her three year fellowship as the Sister Mona Riley Endowed Professor in the Humanities, in which she painted the students, faculty, alumnae staff and St. Joseph of Carondelet sisters who make up the St. Catherine community.

One of the "Catherine Portrait" paintings.

Yet each portrait also stands on its own, with a particular story to tell. It’s a visual meditation on how each individual fits into the larger group, the warp and woof of the social fabric, how we each make up part of a bigger picture.

After three years of single-minded focus on this one project, she is, she admits with a laugh, “a little relieved” that’s it’s finally done. Now that it’s finally complete and hung, though, she’s also pleased. “The word I would use is ‘intense,’ “ she says. “It shows a certain intensity — of purpose, of the research I put into it. That’s what unifying it about it for me.”

Olson cites Lucien Freud and Wayne Thiebaud as two of her artistic influences, and it’s clear what that she has the same rich, almost luscious, color sense as Thiebaud. The influence of Freud is evident too: Olson’s portraits — slightly larger than life-size, in fairly tight close-up — have the same clear-eyed honesty; her subjects are not bland, smooth-skinned images of perfection. But she has none of Freud’s often cold, almost clinical detachment; the individuals have been painted unflinchingly, yet the keen eye that observes them is also one that understands and appreciates both their individual story and our shared part in the collective enterprise called humanity.

To learn more

The two exhibitions are on view through April 3. An artist talk with Olson will be Tuesday, Feb. 22 at noon and Chase will discuss her work Tuesday, March 15 at noon. All events are free and open to the public.

The Catherine G. Murphy Gallery is located in the Visual Arts Building on the University's St. Paul campus, 2004 Randolph Ave., St. Paul.

These exhibitions are part of "The Year of the Liberal Arts" celebration. Visit the website for more arts, music and science events scheduled throughout the semester.

Feb. 9, 2011 by Judy Arginteanu

See also: Arts