by Suvan Geer

"The Secret Charts--Figure P",
acrylic on linen, 34 x 29 1/2", 1994.


"Chromatic Aberation Cyncere
Cympathy--Wihite", acrylic on
linen, 56 1/2" in diameter, 1991.


"The Question Mark Girl--Check A",
acrylic on linen, 69 x 45", 1993.

(Huntington Beach Art Center, Orange County) In an information age emotions are suspect. Other than intellectual responses like irony and cynicism emotions are considered the antithesis of rational information. Painter Thomas Woodruff, however, is able to translate his feelings of grief, hope and heartache over friends lost to AIDS and discovering his own gay sexuality into a cascade of dense visual imagery that looks for meaning in emotions. It's a beautiful journey.

These paintings, part of a 10 year survey of his work, are wonderfully rich with color, symbolism, metaphor, and mystery. Steeped in esoteric but very approachable 17th-Century still- life painting, historical tattoo ichnography and schmaltzy greeting card sentimentality, they radiate a curiously intriguing blend of profound chaos and joy-amid-the-ashes.

Frequently Woodruff's images spin out tricky little narratives, incorporating puns or word play. The "Cardiomegaly" series of meaty, very realistic hearts pierced by elaborate daggers skillfully rewinds tattoo art and religious painting representing machismo or purifying suffering through the text book reality of a medical condition which literally swells the heart. The twenty-six scroll images of the "Secret Charts" turn each letter of the alphabet into a weird and disturbing journal of Woodruff's feelings about caring for a dear friend who was dying. Sweet but horrendous, these hunks of painterly flayed skin, decorated with heraldic emblems which can sometimes be read like anagrams, are strung up with rich braid and tended by perky little birds. The mix is unsettling yet seductive.

The parade of 365 individual apples in the "Apple Canon" take the folk medicine wisdom of daily roughage into a wonderfully obsessive arena of image as novena and talisman against illness. Their literalness is both easy and deeply enigmatic.

For all the underlying themes of death, pain, loss and confusion in Woodruff's paintings their mood is remarkably upbeat. Even the "Satinav" painting's skull-within-a-face-within-a-mirror's frame, which push hard on the vanitas tradition of life/death allegory, manage to remain lighthearted. Partly that's due to the exuberant virtuosity of Woodruff's images and their willingness to be simultaneously maudlin, silly, beautiful and grotesque.