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ART REVIEW : Private Scrutiny Brings Reality to Theobald’s Calm, Stark Art

A profound sense of calm currently prevails at the Boehm Gallery on the campus of Palomar College (1140 W. Mission Road, through Dec. 1). Gillian Theobald’s self-portraits, her paintings of waterfalls and rivers and her stark drawings of trees shroud the viewer in a meditative trance.

Although the images imply a concern with external appearances, Theobald looks inward more than out. She concentrates less on the physical reality of her subjects than on the way their forms can serve as metaphors for the processes of creation and the conditions of human life. This engagement of form toward deeply personal and even spiritual ends bestows upon the work a rapturous, hypnotic appeal.

The range of emotions and conditions suggested in Theobald’s landscape images is, in fact, far broader than that evoked in her “Diary Project,” a sequence of 240 self-portraits on paper. Lining three walls like a patterned mosaic, the sketches epitomize Theobald’s process of distillation and concentration. Each sheet features only the artist’s head, or head and shoulders, and the repetition of her frontal, direct stare carries almost obsessive weight.

Made over a six-year period, the portraits are surprisingly consistent. Only the slightest nuances of expression distinguish the artist’s cool, detached gaze from her sharper, more penetrating glare. In one row of images, a deep volcanic red singes her features, signaling a turmoil unprecedented in the earlier portraits. Those following are marked by their serenity, for Theobald depicts herself with eyes closed, her gaze focused inward, her face a closed and stoic mask. These, she explains in a written statement accompanying the show, were made after she began meditating.

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What is remarkable about these self-portraits, beyond their sheer quantity and constancy, is that most were made without the aid of a mirror. Rather than simply daily drills in visual perception, then, the sequence assumes the significance of a ritualistic exercise in self-knowledge and self-definition.

Theobald’s images of trees and water seem to emerge from the same process of persistent, private scrutiny. She pairs each drawing of a tree on white paper with another, similar view, in black on black paper. Seeing a tree in the dark is not unlike drawing a self-portrait without a mirror. Both rely on knowledge, intuition and memory rather than on direct sensory experience. Theobald juxtaposes the two methods of understanding in these night/day pairings, contrasting the mere whispers of form seen in the blackness with the more defined masses discernible in bright daylight.

Reduced to their skeletal core, the gestural twisting and striving of the trees’ branches evoke states of being: fragmentation, harmony, containment, solidity. The paintings of water also suggest such basic conditions as splitting apart or joining together, trauma even, and repose through their formal qualities. In pairs also, and far less slick than her related paintings in enamel of a few years ago, these large works in oil abbreviate the aqueous forms to pure white plumes, sinuous ribbons and gleaming aqua pools.

Although water cascades down through the scenes or flows forward from their depths, the images remain soundless and somewhat abstract. More than the suggestion of actual rivers passing through stark, hilly landscapes, they manifest Theobald’s personal search for equilibrium, her private passages through stages of growth and self-awareness. They are bound to enhance not only the viewer’s own inner journeys, but Theobald’s reputation as one of Southern California’s finest artists.

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Jean Lowe, who recently earned a master of fine arts degree at UC San Diego, aspires to disturb and distress the soul rather than assuage it. Her recent work at the Dietrich Jenny Gallery (660 9th Ave.) examines those daily sources of nourishment and power that we take for granted--electricity, wood, meat--and exposes the destructive aspects of their production.

In “Egg Story,” for instance, she shows the dank, prison-like overcrowding of the typical commercial egg farm. While the paintings and tableaux installations she exhibited here earlier this year sensationalized such atrocities, especially those associated with the brutal treatment of animals bred for slaughter, Lowe’s new work poses questions more than it forces answers. In each painting, she presents the useful end product--a basket of fresh eggs in “Egg Story,” a package of toilet paper in “Wood Story"--alongside images of its questionable means of production, encouraging an assessment of cost versus gain.

Scathing indictment is no longer at the heart of Lowe’s work. She now takes a more difficult but more refined and complex path through her subject, emphasizing the ambiguity and contradiction that mark our behavior toward the natural world. The wildlife and landscape worshiped when on holiday are the very same that are destroyed to enhance the convenience of our everyday lives. In “Wood Story,” this contradiction is embodied in the image of a deer and a raccoon frolicking in the forest, an image painted on a slab of once-living tree, hanging on a painted version of rustic wood paneling.

“Fancy Plates” reminds us of the same twisted behavior. Each of the painted china plates, displayed on an actual wood mantle, bears a painted image of an animal commonly seen in pieces, cooked, on dinner plates.

Lowe’s tone has shifted since her last show here, and her message has as well. Some of her new furniture ensembles are simply gaudy reminders of the perversity of the American life style, especially the glorification of anything falling under the rubric of progress. In our age, the technical and industrial prevail, and are rarely sympathetic to nature’s own rhythms. Marred as it is by compromise and sacrifice, civilization’s advance must be reassessed. Lowe’s work spurs the process on.


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