by Andy Marvick
An intriguing group of new oil paintings and related pieces fill the main rooms of the Braithwaite Fine Art Gallery beginning November 6th. They are the recent work of Fiona Phillips, a member of SUU’s adjunct faculty in art who completed her Master of Fine Arts at the Vermont College of Fine Arts earlier this year.
The show is dominated by a large collection of figurative scenes grouped under the title Reconstructed Memory. These canvases explore the theme of loss and nostalgia, focusing mainly on Ms. Phillips’ memories of her mother, personal objects associated with her, and the family’s photographic archive.
Many of the paintings feature the handmade dolls which the artist’s mother had knit. Taking on the status of cypher in a few of the images, the dolls communicate a curiously modern expression of human emotion and consciousness in the context of traditional domestic genre art.
Essentially a contemporary extension of a long-established tradition in figurative domestic painting, these new canvases begin with specific referents of one family’s history, then steer them to the universal experiences that exist among all families and their individual members. One of the largest and most ambitious of these, “Family Outing,” is a quietly compelling group portrait of Phillips’ mother near a Southern California beach in the company of her children and her mother-in-law.|0| The figures stand or sit before the camera with the self-conscious and half-veiled expressions typical of family snapshots. Yet, through the source images’ translation into the language of paint and the artist’s reorganization of figures in space and of colors in harmony, an eloquent expression of family ties and tensions makes itself felt.
Another in this series is “The Guardian,” a study of the artist’s mother sleeping on a sofa, one of her dolls by her side. This painting recalls a long line of related images from the history of nineteenth-century art, both American — particularly the interior subject of such Boston-School painters as Edmund Tarbell and Frank Weston Benson — and European. Private celebrations of the home and its tenuous capacity to protect the family from harsher public spaces, paintings like Henri Fantin-Latour’s “Two Sisters” (1859) and Berthe Morisot’s “Mother and Sister of the Artist Reading” (1869) probed the placid atmosphere of the family’s home where, seemingly unaffected by the social limits in their lives, women and girls whiled away their days contentedly reading or sewing, embodying modern middle-class life. Phillips’ expands this tradition by introducing into the comfortable environment of home an implicit note of uncertainty, of unease: the doll, its face at once benign and alert, hints at the deceptive placidity of domestic peace and the silent threat of external forces, against which this inanimate guardian angel can offer little defense. In the end, like most of the paintings in this series, “The Guardian” conveys, as though in parentheses, a whisper of doubt about the permanence, reliability and easy familial bliss which its fragile domestic content presents.
Underscoring this complex of unspoken anxieties is the inclusion in the series of a group of photo-collages: enlargements of snapshots from Phillips’ family snapshot album. What had been small details from larger, unarranged photographic archives are now ambiguous, nearly abstract open-form compositions that reveal, on close examination, a skein of interrelationships — commonalities of palette, texture and sentiment — both with each other and with the tenor of the paintings around them. Completing the connection with the past, these excised artifacts from the photographic record reveal, by inference, the same fleeting echoes of real experience and felt memory which are at the paintings’ heart.
A second theme, defined as Ordinary Hope, deals obliquely with the artist’s faith, and more explicitly with her perception of another universal trait of individual experience: the quiet determination to withstand and to cope — to proceed through life oblivious to or in defiance of challenges and dangers. The largest of these, an ambitious multi-figure composition in oils entitled “Health Walk,” |2|depicts a diverse group of figures threading their way through a strange body of natural force — half water, half land. The painting, with its colorful procession of precisely rendered figures amid roiling gray-blue waves of undefined form, clearly evokes biblical iconography. Yet through the figures’ matter-of-fact color and formal definition, which convey a reassuring sense of the quotidian even in the midst of a vague and looming threat, the painting offers a glimpse into the world of unspoken expression which only a purely visual art can communicate.
A third group of works, quite different in their pictorial idiom, is included in the exhibition under the title Conversations.|3-4| This section is centered around two triptychs which unite, under a rationale explained by the smaller attendant works in the collection, the figurative style of Phillips’ other paintings with a new repertoire of abstracted forms suggestive of the titular theme. Each triptych consists of a central group of flowing, lyrical abstract shapes — essentially an invented alphabet forming the basis of an abstract, vibrating color composition — flanked by a pair of figurative paintings of individuals caught up in cellphone conversations. The triptychs point to the interconnection of language and meaning that surrounds and envelops the individual amid the isolating experience of life in contemporary society. Together with a beautifully realized display of the twenty-six letters that comprise the artist’s fantasy-alphabet, the triptychs constitute one artist’s resonant and richly imaginative integration of old and new ways of seeing.
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