Mother Nature's Daughters
Cheryl Dietz and Shawn Turung at the Harwood Art Center
By Steven Robert Allen
Flying over the Midwest is like flying over some kind of exotic earth-toned board game. The roads all run north-south and east-west at precise right angles. In the spaces in between, every spare inch of soil seems to have been transformed into perfectly rectangular plots of farmland.
Cheryl Dietz grew up in this ordered landscape, and it played an inestimable role in shaping her adult personality. As a transplant to New Mexico—Dietz received her MFA in painting from UNM in 1999—she's had to adjust from the compartmentalized, restrained, controlled elements of the Midwestern environment and psyche to the wilder, more open aspects of the Southwest.
A new series of paintings on display this month at the Harwood Art Center explores that adjustment. As Dietz writes in a note accompanying the exhibit, for her the Midwest possesses a "Protestant air of restraint that seems to permeate the landscape, reflected in the neatly organized fields, forests and farmhouses." These carefully orchestrated paintings, all of which were composed this year, explore the ways in which landscape sculpts both individual personalities and the social interactions that serve as the link between them.
Most of these paintings contain three melded thematic elements. The first involves a depiction of fertile, lushly colored Midwestern nature. The second is a black-and-white representation of the loneliness and introversion associated with this flat, controlled landscape. The third element pulls these images together with a lacy, floral silhouette that might represent a mythical, even spiritual, yearning to feel at ease in the world.
"Delicate" is a particularly interesting example. At left, bright white cheerful flowers almost burst out of the canvas. These contrast with the tangled, brooding woods at the right edge. In between is a woman in black and white who seems to be wringing her hands with worry. She seems abused, damaged, at the very least upset. Superimposed over her is a red floral silhouette of a figure holding a rifle. The self-reliance and confidence of the silhouette contrasts with the sad woman in the same way the bright flowers contrast with the forest to form a complex montage-like image.
In the smaller downstairs gallery, Shawn Turung presents her own exhibit of new paintings. In a less personal manner, these paintings also explore the natural world. In Turung's case, she focuses on the fecund weirdness of natural selection, the way nature surprises us with its jaw-dropping inventions.
Her paintings have a surreal, mystical quality. The most impressive in the bunch is a big yellow piece called "Vox Humana." A hand/foot-like appendage terminates in a parrot gripping a vine with its beak. This vine grows out of a persimmon, torn open to reveal pomegranate seeds. A branch connected to this strange fruit grows out of the open mouth of a fish with a human thumb for fins. This dreamy bizarreness is just one small element of the entire organic work.
These two artists are quite different but they complement each other nicely. Both shows are well worth a visit.
Second Nature, an exhibit of new paintings by Cheryl Dietz, and Minions, an exhibit of new paintings by Shawn Turung, run through Nov. 30 at the Harwood Art Center (1114 Seventh Street NW). A reception for both shows will be held on Friday, Nov. 18, from 5 to 8:30 p.m. 242-6367.
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