Doodles & dream worlds

Three women artists produce works that energize and soothe

click to enlarge TANGLED UP IN ART: Scribblings wave above a background of pink in "Untitled," by Claudia Ryan. - COURTESY CLAUDIA RYAN
Courtesy Claudia Ryan
TANGLED UP IN ART: Scribblings wave above a background of pink in "Untitled," by Claudia Ryan.

"A star is born."

At 54, Claudia Ryan seems like an unusual suspect — a woman so shy she can barely endure sustained eye contact much less contemplate artistic stardom. However, her work in the exhibit Introducing at Clayton Galleries, where she is presented as one of three new additions to the gallery's stable of artists, offers enough evidence to banish reasonable doubt.

A 2006 graduate of USF's MFA program, Ryan not only made the cut with gallery owner Cathy Clayton, she also fielded an invitation recently to fill Robert Rauschenberg's shoes as set designer and collaborating artist for a USF student production of choreographer Trisha Brown's Set and Reset/Reset. (Both the sets and the performance were deliriously wonderful, in case you missed out.)

Her intense scribble-style of abstraction, with layers of overlapping doodles and scratches creating a cloud of chalky charcoal and pastel dust on paper (or a tangle of black ink lines on mylar), is so dense that it takes a moment to register the shapes — townscape of peculiar homes, a parade of cut-out dolls — amid the tornado of marks. Cy Twombly meets the spirit of Henry Darger in a place that definitely isn't Kansas anymore, Toto.

Ryan began art school in the 1980s at CalArts, already making her scribble drawings when most of her peers were practicing some variety of conceptual art. After earning her certificate there, it took 20 years before she enrolled at Ringling School of Art and Design for a BFA. During those two decades, she moved back to Florida and worked in nursing to pay the bills while making art whenever possible.

To meet the artist gives you a sense of her inner world, engrossing and perhaps captivating, almost to a literal point; the woman, as articulate and intelligent an artist I've met, can barely meet your gaze through the thick, dark hair that has a tendency to fall over eyes. She tells a story of how, on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, studying in New York during a semester-long Ringling program, she hunkered down in her Tribeca studio, about a mile from the Twin Towers. When she emerged to scavenge for food (Oreos were all she could find in the ransacked stores), a bewildered police officer stopped her and told her the area had been evacuated for days.

The hermetic introversion of her work provides a welcome contrast to the current art-world notion that bigger, gaudier and more expensive-looking is better. (Some of us are still recovering from Miami Basel.) Ryan's work, in contrast, evinces a love of process and materials that harkens back to the idea of fine art as craft.

Her medium — drawing on paper — is a humble one. The heavier sheets, coated with pastel marks, have the gently waving three-dimensionality of tapestry. That aspect, though, is mitigated somewhat, because all the pieces save one have been encased in Plexiglas. (Massive abstract expressionist tapestries are the best way I can describe her Set and Reset sets.) The vibrantly colored pastels she uses are made locally by Karl Kelly, a transplant from upstate New York who has continued to run his highly regarded pastel business (mountvisionpastels.com) while his wife, Elizabeth Condon, teaches at USF.

None of this means to sell short the other two artists in the exhibit, who are formidable talents in their own right.

Kate Norris' colorful, geometric pattern paintings could be called decorative (not necessarily a bad thing, in my book) if she didn't jolt us so persistently with provocative color collisions. A hot, burning (nearly violent) orange that recurs in the canvases against reds and pinks, or layer upon layer of melancholy blues, gives a clue that she's up to more than being pretty.

Look closely and you'll see in the surface of each piece a history of process, outlines of previous patterns and traces of color. Norris takes each canvas through a multi-step process of painting, sanding and repainting until she builds up an effect akin to marbling in the paint itself and complexity in her interlocking geometric shapes. There's something inherently fascinating about a pattern — and these hold nearly hypnotic appeal — because it imposes order on existence: a comforting thought.

When the School of Visual Arts (NYC) grad and I talked last summer, she admitted that the practice had evolved in part from the economic necessity of recycling canvases (and in part from being the type of person who doesn't like piles of old work lying around). The comment struck me as a kind of truism about being an artist: You know you've arrived when you can combine circumstance or accident with skill to mine purposeful, creative gold. Alas, Norris moved from south Tampa to Baltimore last year.

Landscapes by Kathy Wright, a Sarasota resident, look fairly prosaic at first glance but soon quietly resonate with a sense of mystery. The palm tree imagery is stuck in, well, palm-tree-painting territory, but the houses in her North Carolina and Florida landscapes (the color palette is more dream world than sun-baked peninsula) begin to resemble heads with tiny windows as watching eyes.

Wright — a Harvard-trained architect, by the way — offers some lovely moments with paint. A warmly glowing golden lawn in one canvas looks as waxy and luminous as encaustic; reflections of cloud-filled skies in her rivers, an unexpected snippet of mirror-like realism within the stylized environment, are heavenly.

The great accomplishment of the show as a whole is that the three artists, who on the face of things couldn't be more different, are brilliant foils for one another. To Ryan's twisting, chaotic vision, Norris's neatly ordered shapes and Wright's calming scenes provide just the right soothing balm.

Not too shabby for a first encounter.

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