Tennessee artist Tanya Tewell exposes her dark side with small paintings, in oil; Tampa's Candace Knapp converts positive energy and spirit into finely crafted physical objects, mostly of wood. Welcome to Brad Cooper's Dream World, a two-person exhibition where "the stuff that dreams are made of" also revives the stuff of Jungian legacy and legend.
That's Carl Jung, the Freud challenger who theorized that dreams reveal archetypal or shared human imagery and that these images surface throughout global cultures.
Though their similarities are not necessarily evident at first viewing, Cooper deserves credit for pairing the established artists, whose work depends on dreams. Knapp's creative impulses, more abstract in form, arise from a meditative state; Tewell's from actual dreams she awakens from and then sketches or records.
What is patently obvious in their works is that both leave nothing to chance; they're perfectionists with nary an inch painted or carved without meticulous attention to detail.
Tewell's intimate figurative narratives, painted on wood, synthesize medieval art with historical and widely diverse religious referents. Currently teaching college, she studied for 15 years with a Navajo healing woman. While teaching in the Southwest, she was also profoundly influenced by healing elements in Catholicism. She was especially interested in the small Retalbo paintings reflecting devout faith and the possibility of divinely answered prayers.
Though Tewell is not traditionally religious, these influences show up in her work in unexpected ways.
Of 15 pieces in the gallery, her skillfully composed and wonderfully painted "Conundrum" is one of her most compelling images. Only 12 by 16 inches, the artist frames the central figure with Christmas lights. She also employs religious iconography that reveal religious, cultural, art-historical and psychological influences: the tilted floor and doorway; a girl/woman's spindly arms, fingers and mannish feet; a primitive mask; an Indian drum; and a framed picture of the Virgin of Guadaloupe, who's said to make the impossible possible. These elements show how painstaking and time-consuming this work must have been, from the translucent barrier that seals the subject off in an otherworldly place to the light streaming through a gauzy dress. All painters should care this much about their skill.
Tewell says that at first she had no clue that some of her retrieved images were considered Jungian archetypes. Yet her dreams reveal childhood truths and horrors through these universal figures and specific images: She speaks of growing up as one of 13 children in a foster home where abuse was common.
Precarious childhood moments are inspired by dreams she records on tape after awakening or sketches before returning to sleep. In one painting she appears as a child in an oversize white dress, a frequent dream image. To one side, a pregnant young woman wears a diabolical mask — archetypal and personal at the same time.
One of Tewell's biggest aesthetic challenges is to keep her storytelling from sliding into illustration as it does in "She Fox" with its Cyclops figure and comic-book-like landscape. Another challenge is the problematic nature of illustrating personal narratives that can easily become too specific for the viewer to comprehend.
Yet she succeeds beautifully in "Mary Christmas," a masterfully painted psychological tour de force. Here, Tewell's aesthetic skills and subject matter balance each other, sustaining our interest in a curious scenario not for the fainthearted. Bound to a chair with wired Christmas lights, the artist sheds menstrual blood on the chair, her head thrown back in a Christ-like pose. Puzzling, powerful and paradoxically painted with seductive color, Tewell's reality requires the viewer to absorb a paralyzing state of terror.
The piece finds her purging memories of a critical illness, a rare tropical infection that eluded male physicians, which heightened her female vulnerability. Not surprisingly, vulnerability permeates her entire body of work, though sometimes she counters it with more brash statements, like detached flying phalluses. It's as though her feminist side is saying, "Gotcha."
Two pieces provide a serendipitous link between the two artists: Knapp's "The Doorway" connects us to the open doorway in Tewell's "Conundrum." In Knapp's view (and mine), "The Doorway" is the signature piece of her show; in some respects, it's also her most compelling because everything about it seems so resolved.
A life-size open French door, minus the glass, is bent in the middle to indicate an energy force passing through. This notion of movement is reiterated through text carved on the inner enclosing frame, a passage from the recently popularized ancient Persian poet Jelaluddin Rumi: "People are going back and forth across the door sill where the two worlds touch."
Among many possible meanings, the doorway suggests the enigmatic place between consciousness and the dream state.
Knapp's ideas emerge from a "meditative reverie," or her "inner place." She says, "If it keeps popping up, I pay attention to it. It then becomes an essential image for me." In fact she's describing a process used by many if not most artists.
Known for her smoothly finished violins of carved wood or fast-drying, plaster-like Drystone, the artist intentionally bends and twists her media, visually documenting an invisible energy or unheard sound.
Of her 12 works in the gallery — mostly small and on pedestals — three are life-size and two are figurative. Along with the realistic violins are newly designed, anthropomorphized creatures and birds. A tall, floor-standing mythological figure represents an archer frozen in time between his potentially aggressive act or peacemaking.
Knapp's surfaces are usually polished but now she's experimenting with a more emotional dynamic through color and expressionist markings. These markings are not the willful scribbles of a Cy Twombly or the orchestrated meanderings of a Brice Marden. In Knapp fashion, they're still meticulous while generating a whole new level of interest.
During the last decade, Knapp has sculpted awards for The Florida Orchestra. She was recently was honored for creating an artwork for departing musical director Jahja Ling.
Cooper's recent informal gallery talk/ critique featured Knapp and an audience interested in the relationship between Jung, dreams and this strong exhibition.
This gathering, like Dream World as a whole, is definitely another promising intervention for Ybor's declining cultural presence.
Adrienne M. Golub can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].