(Matt Lively, “Orbit”)

By Betsy DiJulio

I go to art museums to be inspired, transported, challenged, and even provoked, but not perplexed.   Feeling baffled in an art exhibition is deeply unsatisfying and, frankly, irks me because it generally means someone hasn’t done their job.

But curator Gayle Paul does her job.  Yet, Color Outside the Lines, the title of the current exhibition at Portsmouth Art and Cultural Center, initially left me a bit baffled, as did her response of “big, colorful paintings” to my query regarding what she sought for the summer show.

Here’s why: the show is mouth-wateringly lush and truly stunning, but it is much more than that.  As I explained to her good naturedly, “You are one of the most thoughtful and conceptual curators in the field, so I am not going to accept that ‘big, colorful paintings’ are the glue that held this exhibition together.”  She laughed.  Similarly, while I understand what she means by “color outside the lines”—an unconventional stance that breaks the so-called artistic rules—as I argued, “All of the artists you show fit that definition.”  “True,” she replied.  

So, I was (nicely) insistent about wanting to know why she chose these artists at this moment in time for this particular show, asking if she would share a glimpse into her thought process.  As she explained, when “building” a show—a verb I find so apt—she sometimes begins with a title and she sometimes applies it after the fact, which was the case here.  In some ways, the title was a marketing decision to suggest to visitors that they would encounter color as well as innovative artists.  I would have chosen something else—though I’m not sure what—because, further into our dialogue—a deeper theme emerged, one that is, to me, Paul’s true POV.

While she was after juicy color, especially appropriate in summer, large paintings, and Virginia artists, she also sought those whose work she had not shown or not shown in many years, and a range of approaches from non-objective to abstraction to hyperrealism.  Check, check, check, check, and check.  But there are more significant layers to this show that are instantly recognizable.  As invited artists were—or weren’t—able to participate with—or with other—bodies of work which she pursued, emerging “dialogues”—another apt term—began to emerge.  And Paul is a master at shaping those dialogues while, especially in this case, granting each of the six artists a gallery-within-a-gallery.  Hello, skillful sight lines.

As we talked, my understanding of what I was grasping for began to coalesce, namely that all the work seemed to explore and pose questions about the intersection of the natural world and the built environment from the liminal space between.  I articulated this to Paul asking if that was too much of a stretch.  Her response was, “No, in fact I think that is what all of my shows are about.”  So, there.  Now it made sense beyond the thin veneer that the title suggests.

Working clockwise around the gallery:

Populated with plants and animals—based on keen observation, but wonderfully imaginative—Iona Drozdas paintings are, as always, a spiritually grounded, compassionate, and nonjudgmental query into our stewardship of Mother Earth.  With an iconography of images and symbols that joyfully dance across her large canvases, viewers sense the wonder and harmony with which Drozda lives a life immersed in the natural world, looking both backward and forward, at Wren House, her home in Virginia Beach, and Bluebird Gulch, her farm in the Piedmont.

In the figurative paintings of Jing Qin, ODU’s most recently hired assistant art professor, imagination and the commonplace intersect to create an implied, but obscure narrative.  For this show, Paul chose a series of colorful, intentionally flat paintings of people in patterned garments with disproportionately small heads against backgrounds of solid color.  Each figure embraces an animal such as a lizard or sloth with large arms and hands in an encircling gesture so bountiful and encompassing that it seems to imply the fullness of the earth.

Sheila Giolittis mesmerizing paintings may not shout “quantum physics,’’ but, in fact, her interest in this direction, which she has pursued in recent years, has emerged as a physical and meditative exploration of what she calls an “essential unity not only of all matter and energy, but of a universal consciousness that pervades everything.”  Working with a wide range of seductive materials, she creates a lively dance between the random and the deliberate, collaborating with her inks and marks to produce microcosms of binary opposites from simple to complex, bold to intricate, and much more, all metaphors for the unfathomable mysteries of life as we (barely) know it.

Christi Harriss hyper-realistic close-up paintings of piped frosting and decorations could be considered contemporary takes on the 17th century Dutch vanitas compositions that paradoxically warned pious protestants against excess while reveling in the decadence of, then, lobsters, lemons, and libations, and here, swirls of fattening buttercream and sugary sprinkles.  But what do decorated cakes, through which we show our love and mark special occasions, have to do with the convergence of the natural and manmade worlds?  To my way of thinking, the imitation colors and flavors of the frostings and the floral forms and flourishes of fancy cakes rely on the natural world for inspiration, an odd synthesis when you think about it.

Matt Lively, of whose work I mostly know from his mural painting, stopped me in my tracks.  The monumental size is riveting, but his subject matter, technique, and color palette is even more so.  Lively terms the underlying thread of these large paintings—with their dislocating perspectives and clash of house forms, animals like sheep and bees, and quasi-dysmorphic landscapes—“human assisted adaptation of nature.”   By that he is referring to large-scale, science-based interventions in the natural world for the purpose of improving the lives of people that create unintended side effects requiring new science-based interventions in a never-ending cycle.   

Eloise Shelton-Mayo, a beloved art professor/teacher and artist, could be credited with introducing artists in this area to oil and cold wax as a medium.  Her colorful, generally non-objective, and richly textured mixed-media paintings suggest both landscapes—some more than others—and what she calls “decaying surfaces,” a reference to the built environment that natural processes erode over time.  For a show of this nature, my only wish is that her paintings had been larger or perhaps installed in a grid for even greater impact on a par with the rest of the large-scale work in the show. 

Movement and Light: the Barrier Islands of Virginia

While at the museum, which is closed on both Mondays and Tuesdays, be sure to view this exhibition of photographs and cyanotypes by Pam Ponce in the galleries on the lower level.  According to the museum: “Ponce has spent several seasons photographing the Virginia Nature Conservancy’s Volgenau Virginia Coast Reserve, an environmental treasure of barrier islands and lagoon landscapes located off Virginia’s Eastern Shore. The 40,000-acre reserve provides vital habitat to numerous birds and marine species and protects coastal communities from storm surges and flooding.  The reserve has become a laboratory where scientists from universities and government agencies partner with The Nature Conservancy to study coastal processes. They work to save species, restore oysters and eelgrass beds, prevent habitat loss, and develop models for adapting to climate change.”



Color Outside the Lines

Through October 15

Portsmouth Art and Cultural Center