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June 7 - 28 at Sue Greenwood Gallery, Orange County

by Daniella Walsh

Deborah Davidson, "Life is What
You Make It," oil on panel, 22 x 13".

Deborah Davidson, "Egg &
Feather," oil on panel, 12 x 9".

Deborah Davidson, "In Case of
Emergency," oil on panel, 26 x 13".

Surrealist, narrator, symbolist--labeling Deborah Davidson’s paintings is a challenge, since they leave an exceptional amount of room for reflection and interpretation. Her latest series, collectively titled “Reliquiaries,” bears this out. The term means container or shrine and, in keeping with that definition, she has interred commonplace and yet personally symbolic objects into canning jars or similar vessels. She says that they are “portraits of people,” but one should take that to mean portraits of people’s inner, rather than outer configuration: their hopes, dreams and foibles, including (as “Artist Portrait” suggests) her own. Here, for example, she has placed a lidded jar onto a pristine white folded cloth that is in turn placed over a blue one. The composition suggests an altar that thus alludes to worship and/or spiritual manifestations of an afterlife. Placed against a dark-red background, the small jar appears empty until one notices the subtle interplay of amorphous shapes reflected in the glass.

Even though love and its ramifications provide an underlying theme, Davidson avoids sentimentality. While she promotes self-acceptance (as in “Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself”), she also cautions against self-aggrandizement and delusion, as suggested in “Life is What You Make It,” a painting featuring a paper crown held together by visible tape.

“Memories” is a surreal landscape that is thematically reminiscent of earlier work, but stands out due to an unusually (by Davidson’s usually more subdued standards) fiery palette. It is a lovely piece that points up contradictions in human nature by suggesting a need for independence and exploration on one hand, and an urge to belong that is grounded in tradition and family on the other.  Davidson’s work is consistent in quality, and gains depth from its multi-leveled dichotomies.

Yet, while none of Davidson’s works can be called “straightforward,” her series within a series titled “Healthy,” “Wealthy” and “Wise,” comes close. “Gossip,” featuring a small feather imprisoned in a jar, is harder to interpret, but a bit of reflection suggests that it has to do with the power of words, both malevolent and benign.

Phoebe Brunner’s surreal landscapes play well to Deborah Davidson’s more introspective narratives. Dominated by huge banks of clouds drifting over mountains or desertscapes, Brunner’s compositions appear otherworldly and playful without being trite.

 “Coast Road,” for example, looks a bit like something out of a sophisticated children’s book: Fluffy white clouds share the horizon with a turquoise ocean, and a winding road meanders through a section of improbably bright orange vegetation. The effect is startling at first but, upon longer reflection, one gets drawn into the joyful, arch-Californian scene. “Desert Breeze” draws one into a fantasy world filled with red and pink and turquoise flora topped by the signature pillow clouds. “El Camino” displays light-drenched rocks lining a desert road at sunset.

One might regard the tranquil “Slip Away” as emblematic. It offers a brilliantly hued feast for the senses while also inducing an odd sense of calm. Technically adroit, Brunner offers welcome relief from pseudo-urban grit and bad drawing. Given the current zeitgeist, anyone offering a bit of fun and visual escape deserves kudos.

Phoebe Brunner, "El Camino,"
oil on canvas, 22 x 30".

Phoebe Brunner, "Slip Away,"
oil on canvas, 60 x 38".

Phoebe Brunner, "High Desert,"
oil on canvas, 56 x 60".