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March 3 - 27, 2004, at Absolute Art Gallery, Pasadena

by Mat Gleason

Jean Hearst, “Globe Flower
#2,” 2002, watercolor and
acrylic, 14 1/4 x 12 3/4”.

Jean Hearst, “Plantation," watercolor
and acrylic on canvas, 20 x 20”.

Jean Hearst, “Journey #1,"
watercolor and acrylic, 40 x 32”.

Natura Naturans is loose Latin for “nature naturing.” If Nature is to be depicted being itself and its own possibilities, the two artists in this show are excellent choices. Jean Hearst and Jill Sykes are both painters focused on foliage, but with radically differing formal approaches. Each delivers fresh contemplations on the visible nature of plant life in particular.

Jean Hearst’s paintings are immersions in the natural world. The evidence of human life appears in the occasional gardening post or well honed road through the groves, but it is the leaves, fruits, branches, vines and other lively botany that interests this artist and populate her paintings. Always seeking the warm glow of the sun, her plants take on the human characteristics of striving, tickling, caressing and intermingling.

Nature is certainly naturing in Hearst’s work, celebrating itself more exactly. There is a reveling in the vine and root as a sort of attractive flesh, tentacles of passion, all fueled by the hazy sunlight that radiates Hearst’s palette. While fans of edgier contemporary fare will be put off by the conservative draftsmanship and attention to detail in the classical sense, there is a sexy quality to these paintings that fails so much brash and intentionally shocking art coming out of our local art schools and screaming from the pages of the art glossies these days.

The paintings of Jill Sykes are an excellent balance of modernity to complement Hearst’s contemporary classicism. Sykes paints duochromatic pictures of silhouetted foliage. Oleanders and lilies are examples of Sykes’ subjects.

Her approach is to emphasize the spatial form of the plant, compose it on a field and balance two colors--space and subject. But this is no simple form and background. In the case of most modern masters, it is unwise to equate the simplicity of reductive art with the simplicity of composing it. Sykes flattens out an obviously three-dimensional space of plant life. Her branches, leaves and flowers are seen in shadowy interplay. We are never certain which of these plants is touching. Like a good mystery, Sykes renders the essentials of nature and lets our minds fill in the rest.

In addition to a complex compositional structure, Sykes takes pleasure in adding masses of paint in pools within these forms. The apparently wet surfaces never approach becoming a lugubrious impasto that would tempt so many artists into a quick rendering of emotion. Sykes’ sophistication lies in making continuous stretches of color sensuous with a moist, alluring chroma. And while there is a liquid life in her plants, the colors she posits together as form and background are nontraditional. While they may reference light and shadow, the colors invariably fill in a world of metaphoric nature, naturing the line between our conscious and our subconscious.

Jill Sykes, “Birdsong,”
2003, o/c, 54 x 58”.

Jill Sykes, “Abundance,”
2003, o/c, 16 panels, 12 x 12”.

Jill Sykes, “Dawnings,”
2003, o/c, 40 x 32”.

The relationship of these two dissimilar artists contemplating the same sort of subject is what makes Natura Naturans such an interesting pairing. In an era of juxtaposition within art, it is also refreshing that both are non-ironic artists. The range of possibility in art is apparent when these two diverse bodies of work hang in proximity to each other. Hearst, the classicist, gives us a rendering of nature’s dreamscape, while Sykes, the bold modernist, delivers a meditation on painting as a natural act on par with the interactions of flora and fauna, and just as beautiful and dramatic.