by Lydia E. Denkler
Look once and Patricia Bellan-Gillen’s Tsunami 2 exudes the beauty and whimsy of a classically constructed fairytale illustration. Here is a boy protected in a hideaway of leaves and grasses. Lovely yes, but take a step closer and you enter the more dangerous world of childhood. What first looked like a place of sweet safety is, on closer inspection, a dark and threatening environment.
Almost life-size in scale, the artist’s work can’t help but draw you into this scene. You become the artist’s guest, invited to put your own story to the symbols: an innocent boy, an old TV, a saw, the safety of nature, and then, a tsunami. There’s no heavy-handed transference of meaning here. Instead she invites you to open your imagination to a range of associations and emotions.
This body of work provokes us with a clash of beauty and awkwardness. She unfolds worlds that reflect grace and humor and what she calls a “weird elegance.” Her symbolic language creates a space for conflict to reside by humor and humor by darkness.
Bellan-Gillen embraces the “uncontrolled” design features in her multi-layered mixed-media creations. Vibrant images and motifs reappear throughout this body of work, many gleaned from the artist’s years studying mythologies, Jungian dream symbols, and ancient manuscripts. Her technique of layering fragmented pieces of narrative creates a reverberation in the subconscious. No two viewers will have the same experience because each brings their own interpretation to the conflicting images. Her mixing of symbols is the provocative trigger. The artist says, “My work isn’t complete until someone tells me a story about it I don’t know.”
Bellan-Gillen is a classically trained artist who can balance scholarship with wild flights of imagination. She is both a highly skilled draftsman and a master of assemblage. A native Pennsylvanian, Bellan-Gillen lives and works in rural Burgettstown, Pennsylvania, surrounded by 600 acres of wooded terrain. Carnegie Mellon University, where she is the Dorothy Stubnitz Professor of Art, has honored her with the Ryan Award for excellence in teaching. Bellan-Gillen has served as one of the jurors for the 2012 Hamblet Awards at Vanderbilt. Her work has been shown in over forty solo exhibitions across the U.S.
The larger works in the exhibition including Tsunami (2012), Clearing (A Fairytale) (2013), and Tsunami 2 (2013) are developed on birch plywood panel covered with several layers of gesso. A ground is built from several layers of washes made from acrylic paint and diluted gouache. When dry, this effect reveals layers of varying transparency. According to Patricia Bellan-Gillen, this layered surface has a texture similar to that of stone lithography. The image is then flushed out with oil-based colored pencils highlighted by a silverpoint ground. Bellan-Gillen says, “I owe a grateful nod to the influence of Marilyn Murphy, Nashville’s master of the colored pencil.”
Bouquet is a print, with a collage of hand-cut paper flowers, of an enormous bear riding in a cart pulled by a boy. There is potential for menace, yet the bear’s coat is made up of hundreds of flowers with grinning faces, and the bear’s back is to the boy who strides forward with confidence. But what if he were to turn around? What if the flowers are masking a symbol of dangerous potential? This kind of conflict gives the work life and protects it from a formulaic interpretation. Through her vast range of techniques, Patricia Bellan-Gillen creates a landscape of nostalgia, melancholy, wit, and irony.
Patricia Bellan-Gillen’s solo show Disorderly Notions will be at Tinney Contemporary Gallery from July 6–August 17. For more information visit
www.tinneycontemporary.com and www.patriciabellangillen.com.