Paintings, drawings by artist Bellan-Gillen blur line between truth, fantasy
In Patricia Bellan-Gillen's latest exhibition at James Gallery, historical events intertwine with the imagined, and the veil of nostalgia blurs the border between fact and fiction, by way of massive drawings and paintings that envelop the viewer in nostalgic narratives of the artist's devising.
Take, for example, the drawings “Mediated Nostalgia (Babble)” and “Bower — Tsunami.” A woodland setting of many fairytale illustrations and the greenery of Bellan-Gillen's backyard inspired the lush, oversized foliage that appears in larger-than-life drawings.
In each, the “cabbage patch” or “Never Never Land” setting provides the stage and shelter for Lilliputian characters to interact with vintage television sets.
Bellan-Gillen calls our televisions “our purveyor of stories.” And as for the vintage TV sets in these works, she says, “That's what we watched growing up in the 1960s.”
“I've always thought about the role television has played in our lives,” she says. “It's been a dramatizing thing, making people aware, for better or for worse, of the haves and have-nots. People didn't really know how poor they were, or that they were poor, until they started seeing images on TV of wealth and what that was.”
Today, she says, “Our stories are mixed up with the stories we see on TV, the mixing of truth and fiction.”
In truth, that's what this artist does best; mixing truth and fiction into alchemical stew of imagery that somehow seems to make sense.
Bellan-Gillen is at her best mining the history of images. In “Loudspeakers — Undertow,” two upside-down figures comprised of “dazzle patterns” hang under the word “LaLaLa” written in script.
“During World War II, artists were hired to design these dazzle patterns that would be painted on ships,” she says. “They were these very crisp geometric patterns, primarily in black and white, that when a boat would go out in the ocean, you couldn't see it. And when they were in big groups, they would fuse together and you didn't know really where one ended and another began. Sort of like zebra stripes and how zebras disappear into a group, even though it's made up of individuals. I really love that they are so black and white and sharp, and yet used as a camouflage.”
And as for the phrase “LaLaLa” above: “It's one of those terms that can change depending on wherever one places the accent on it,” she says. “It can be a dismissal, it can mean happy, or status quo, or something innocuous, like a nursery rhyme.”
At 96 inches high by 164 inches wide, “Saint Francis (Sea Change)” is by far the largest work in the exhibit.
Based on the story of St. Francis of Assisi taming the wolf of Gubbio, it features the Catholic saint dressed in 18th-century diving gear blessing tubeworms and returning a wolf to the sea.
“A lot of my work is a confluence of things that happen, that I overhear, see or think about,” Bellan-Gillen says. “And I always come back to the idea of evolution and the denial of evolution.”
For Bellan-Gillen — who says she watches “every science program I can watch on PBS” — learning about tubeworms on a PBS show “brought up a lot of new issues about life on this planet.”
She decided to add them to the painting, along with the image of a wolf under water and St. Francis dressed in diving gear.
“This is a late 1700s (diving) outfit that actually worked,” Bellan-Gillen says of St. Francis' crazy outfit. “It's made of leather. It's blown up. The guy actually isn't chubby, but the leather holds the air for a certain amount of time. I loved the absurdness of it, and the drawing of it is actually quite beautiful. And there's this kind of connection to R2-D2, which makes it futuristic. Also, it's funny, and it's not funny at the same time.”
Not all of the works in this exhibit are so big they barely fit through the gallery's doors. Several smaller works abound, but the ideas contained within are just as large and ambitious.
In a collaged print, “Pat Robertson Makes Room for the Monkey,” a monkey commemorates the moment when noted TV evangelist Pat Robertson acknowledged that the Bible doesn't say that the world is only 5,000 years old.
“He didn't say that we should accept evolution, but it was a step in accepting the science of evolution,” Bellan-Gillen says.
The monkey is half covered in hand-cut flowers that slowly reveal the monkey underneath. “Bouguet II” also shows an animal half covered in flowers, but in this case, a bear.
Looking back on all of the works in this exhibit, Bellan-Gillen says, “As a group, there was a little bit of a letting go for me, following those crazy images that sometimes appear in your mind without an explanation.
“I think before, I was very careful to always reason things out ahead of time. I could let things change, but this time, I'm not worried about an explanation,” she says. “Obviously, my love stories and symbols have never left, so those things do pop up in the work, but this is a real letting go: not fighting the crazy, unexplainable imagery as it enters the mind a little bit more than I was doing before. And it feels good.”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.