Howard House Gallery has emerged as one of Seattle’s most successful champions of new talent. Artists first shown by the gallery have gone on to local and even national recognition. Several years ago, Gallery Director Billy Howard discovered painter Donnabelle Casis in an MFA show at the University of Washington, and now her work has appeared not only at several one-person exhibits at the gallery, but at shows at COCA, and the Bellevue and Tacoma art museums. Her current exhibit again includes paintings that, while abstract, borrow freely from the natural world. Here with our review is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
There’s a scene early on in the David Lynch movie Blue Velvet where the camera pans downward to reveal the tumultous, violent underworld beneath a peaceful suburban lawn, where insects crawl and dark deeds are done. A similar theme animates the paintings of Donnabelle Casis, abstractions that clearly claim as their own the territory of human biology, with its underworld of mysterious inner organs, digestion, and desire.
Like the movie, Casis pauses at the surface before leading us deeper. A strange but amusing suite of small colored-ink studies acts as a sort of prelude. These crisp drawings depict little half-creatures with hairy, flesh colored limbs; modest, feminine scraps of clothing; and oversized, sphincter-like openings. It is a parade of medical school curiosities taken out of formaldehyde jars and dressed in their Sunday best, eager to please.
The much larger, looser, and more dramatic paintings are something else again. Gone is the suggestion of outer garments; gone as well are references to hair and skin. Instead we confront a world of continual and turbulent action strongly suggesting the inner life of the body – or the spirit.
As Casis is aware, non-representational paintings are rarely completely abstract. Though many pioneer modernists consciously purged their works from any reference to earthly things, abstract artists usually exploit our natural tendency to search for objects we recognize. Casis, however, is careful to never let any literal depictions emerge, leaving much to our imagination. Instead, dimensional but highly stylized details of living organisms – some adapted from the medical books of her oncologist husband – mix freely with elements inspired by cartoons, storms, explosions, and the work of other abstract painters.
In the numbered but untitled painting, "22-06," for example, a little white refuge from Dr. Seuss regurgitates a sinister-looking sausage of brownish black through a mouth-shaped opening. Above the creature hovers a doughnut shape, like a mechanical halo or an orifice to yet another world. The dark sausage, meanwhile, twists its way through a landscape jam-packed with other tortured-looking shapes: a bright red intestine, a dripping yellow blob, a blue-white puff of smoke. Outlines float just above the surface, defining organic forms that don’t quite come into focus. Like all her works, the space is dimensional, not flat, and glimpsed here and there beyond the cacophonous foreground is a calm blue-grey sky.
In another painting, yellow tentacles probe the surrounding crush of puffy, brightly colored organisms, their finger-like penetrations aided by strategically placed grommets. The probing is more playful than threatening, but elsewhere in the picture both burning and excretion seem to be cheerfully in progress.
I say cheerfully, because despite certain sinister undertones, these are upbeat paintings, showing off a Technicolor palette that at times flirts with the garish. Every painting is dominated a different set of intensely chromatic colors – favorites being cherry red, sky blue, forest green, and banana yellow – set off by sausages and fists of brown-black and grey.
There’s nothing methodical about the way Casis builds up these pictures. Close inspection – very important with a show like this one – reveals a rather tortured surface, with paint applied in many layers: thick, thin, in liquid drips and impasto strokes, in faint lines and in troweled-on slabs. Sections of paint are highly reflective, others are dry and matte.
And perhaps this is one weakness of the final product, strong and attractive as it is. There is a resolved, coherent quality to the drawings, while the unevenly surfaced paintings seem a bit unfinished. That is consistent with their subject, however: change, conflict, evolution, process. In truth, these dynamic pieces seem to be caught for a moment on their way to becoming something else.