A feeling of almost baronial formality falls over you as you approach paintings by Heather Barron, a feeling you should straighten your clothes as you approach framed mirrors. Petits fours, anyone?
In America, petits fours are received as a gift in a long, very shallow box: they’re a study in variations of pastels, and they’re much more delicious than you think they will be. Their colors: luminous almost clear yellows and mid-greens, ice pinks, recurring creamy whites. They’re a shy dessert, but intensely delicate, surprisingly pleasing — small, glazed squares of cake, decked with restrained florettes of icing. At first you are accosted by how small they are: then, you realize the intensity of effort which has gone into their making — glazed on all sides, within them many tiny layers of cake separated by bits of thin but intensely bright lemon or raspberry or other fruity jam — making you think of a many-floored, small, square house, or a chess board which has risen to five or six levels of play. Such intensity of work going into their careful making makes you respect them. How much work for one cake! How carefully made this tiny cake is, how self-contained!
Similar intensity and delicacy are in these paintings by Heather Barron; what seems like an oversweetness, when you come close, becomes, yes, still sweet, sweet in emotional tone and colors, but a labor of love and variations, like garments carefully tailored. Like petit fours, they seem at first to be too much for presentation, display. But what dispels too much sweetness in these paintings is also a distant look in the figures’ eyes: they look at you, but do not quite: these eyes have a floating effect, much like the fish or birds or hearts rising in the air beside the figures, dangling silken cords, like scantily-filled helium balloons.
In “There Are No Ordinary People,” both figures have aqua-pastel eyebrows, and skin of flat, almost putty color, imbued and shaded also with aqua. They wear, as many of her figures do, above-the-elbow gloves, distancing them keenly from normal life. Oddly, each of these two figures is wrist-tethered, each by blue cord. To what, we do not know. Their pasts? Baronial mystery.
In many of her paintings, such as “Cross My Heart,” “Heart of Gold,” “She Beats Her Drum to a Different Beat” (titles also as sweet as confections), you sense her subjects — all female — are almost pottery objects: rising to each side of the women’s heads in these paintings is their own twirled and twisted hair, forming on each side of head what on sugar bowls or urns or serving dishes would be artfully twisted handles of fired clay. On old china, these handles would be gilded, dishes for ceremony. Or, baronial everyday.
In the small painting “He Gave Me Wings,” wings on each side of the figure, sprouting like new growth, seem also like handles, forming to each side of a divinely, lovely, flower-embellished vase, the woman. There is feminine confoundment expressed in these paintings: that our delectability seems to be our destiny, our treat, and our cage.
In “Follow Your Heart” and “There Are No Ordinary People,” each woman’s hair is doubled, managed, bound by laces or cord, as horses’ tails are sometimes compactly doubled/bound for display, for shows of English riding.
Adding to this sense of display/history are her figures’ garments: in many paintings here there is a return of crinolines, stiff bouffant underskirts, dropped waistlines suddenly bursting into crinoline-fullness below natural waists. In “She Can Sing Like a Bird,” there is even a wire construct beginning at the waist, but outside of the skirt instead of under, with the caginess of a wire dress-form or Victorian domed bird’s cage. From its metal sides sprout single, stylized, peacock feathers, very much like a repeat petits fours frosting motif, simple, single, and repeated.
In Nancy Vorm’s work, we encounter almost pure geometric form in melted wax: Wrightian form, as in her “Usonia,” in encaustic stained-wax. Many of Vorm’s encaustics, such as “Falling Slowly,” suggest raked sand, a technique employed in Japanese gardens to suggest the peacefulness of freshly planted fields. In “Asia Minor,” some of its dull denimy blue suggests slubbed or pleated silk.
In “Oquirrh 1” and “Oquirrh 2” and “Oquirrh 3” there is reassurance: only basic, primary colors: a fawn yellow, a brownish red, a dull denim blue, the reassuring treat of the primary colors all colors are made of.
“Falling Slowly” and “Whisper” and “Inner Circle” and “Pacific Fusion 3” are calmatives: there could be no more reticent a blue. (Note: blue is one color which never appears in or on small square petits fours; as rare in pastries as in flowers. Red makes star appearance, though, inside petit fours: strawberry or raspberry jam, always between layers of much paler cake.) In many of Vorm’s encaustics there’s vividness of red, but hers is not the red of jams, but a muted ashen dull red, like embers — almost “Cherokee red,” which Frank Lloyd Wright was famously fond of. “Asia Minor” and “Passage” and “Las Pintadas” and “Mutability” have red reminding us of magma, fireplaces, ovens, and blood: heart and hearth, and heat.
Is it fair for a reviewer to review women’s artwork and compare it to the preparation of sweets? Barron’s work displays an almost caustic wisdom, in addition to sweet; and Vorm’s art, no matter how it reminds us of upended and displayed pans of pastry is also art at its most Wrightian and Mondrian-pure: the deciding of how to fill a rectangle or a square; the fatefulness of a paintbox, land plat or blueprint; destiny linked somehow to the particular shape or size of a house or a farm: fate which goes with the ownership of a property.
Together, all the angularities of these encaustics, paired with Barron’s paintings of women so ornamented, as if in dreams, do suggest dollhouse or architectural fantasy: how to fill our houses, our homes, our paintings or encaustics (our own petits fours boxes), and with what temperature — what assortment — what fate of arrangement, we could bring.
Heather Barron and Nancy Vorm, Phillips Gallery, Salt Lake City, Jan. 17 – Feb. 14. Opening reception, Jan. 17, 6 – 9 p.m.
Rebecca Pyle is a writer and an artist with work in dozens of art/literary journals, in the United States and also in journals (in the English language) in India and the United Kingdom and in France and Germany. She graduated from the university the Wizard of Oz adored, the University of Kansas, where she studied art and lit. See rebeccapyleartist.com.