Frank Ashley Is From Mars, Virginia Conroy Is From Venus
Paintings by Frank Ashley and Virginia Conroy offer very different views of reality.
Thursday, November 21, 2002
Photo: Dangerous Games: Frank Ashley''s paintings show life filtered through the artist''s sardonic lens.
Narratives, an exhibition of paintings by Frank Ashley and Virginia Conroy opening tomorrow at the Carl Cherry Center for the Arts, is a curious pairing of artistic sensibilities, so much so that it is instructive to let the attributes of one painter''s work play off those of the other.
Think opposites. Think positive and negative, or, better, optimist and pessimist. Think Gaia, the great Goddess of the Earth, and Saturn, sardonic Roman God of agriculture.
In the one, there is bounty and replenishment; in the other, harsh seasons, unforgiving disasters, life coupled with so much decay.
Narratives brings together three recent large Ashley paintings and a selection of works by Conroy from the fifties, sixties and seventies. Conroy''s focus during that time was, for the most part, weeds and grasses, earthen imagery that she played with compositionally and thematically. In these paintings, a clump of grass or thistle is never just that, but a scenario of life being played out with the plant forms as surrogates for positive human qualities. Ashley''s paintings serve as observations of contemporary society and more, indictments of human behavior running amok without moral compass. The two bodies of work offer opposing views of the world. In one, the earth Goddess sees life and wonderment; in the other, Saturn sees decay on this earth, and is not pleased.
A 30-year survey of any artist''s work will produce shifts and stylistic variation. Such is the case with Conroy, who has explored mediums and subjects with passionate curiosity. The artist subscribes to a notion that, though not antiquated, has been superseded by glib cynicism. Her notion is that art (painting) is a balm, a restorer, an energizer, a catalyst for virtue. Her paintings are her interpretations of the human parade, its glory and potential for goodness, or the life-giving, life-affirming properties of nature. Her world is a melding of metaphysical wonder and spiritual facts as she experiences them. Thus, the show has paintings like "Nightflying Thistle," 1958, an allegory of life, death and resurrection, and "At Odds," 1978, a symbolic illustration of humankind''s various creeds clinging to the substance and certainty of earth.
Ashley''s painted world can be seen as allegory more than reality, filtered through a disparaging viewpoint. His volleyball players cavorting on the beach represent all of society with its penchant for hedonistic pleasures. His street people, stoned and goggle-eyed in their stupor, are all of society with its propensity to annihilate the senses with not just drugs and alcohol, but foolishness, amorality, greed, lust, and debasement.
Ashley sounds the alarm in his work, and it rings clearly because of his mastery of traditional drawing and painting techniques and compositions that draw upon Italian Renaissance models. His figures stand on his stage acting out their depravity in a deceptive, alluring fashion. He mixes caricature with the closely observed and drawn, anatomical exactitude with the attenuated limb.
Ashley''s attitudes were honed during the Great Depression, the fury of airborne combat in the skies over Germany and the post-WWII rupture between representative and abstract art forms. He has remained a sardonic witness to his society. The pilot who risked his last full measure to put the world aright sees obliviousness and irresponsibility all around him. As if to insist his audience listen, he raises his colors to strident, sometimes dissonant, levels. His taut compositions, webs of rhythm and force lines, trap his vacuous-gazed players in their pathetic worlds.
Narratives opens Friday at Carmel''s Carl Cherry Center with a reception from 5-7pm.