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AT THE GALLERIES

February 26, 1988|Leah Ollman

No one has officially declared this to be Patricia Patterson month in San Diego, but it may as well be. Together, her two concurrent solo shows--at the Mathes Cultural Center in Escondido and the Dietrich Jenny Gallery downtown--exert a powerful presence, by virtue of their quality as well as the substantial share of local exhibition space they occupy.

Patterson, who teaches at UC San Diego and has had exhibitions throughout the country, moved to Ireland's Aran Islands for two years in 1960. Since then, she has returned there regularly for extended sojourns, making her experiences and extended family there the subject of her art.

"Patricia Patterson: Selected Works 1962-1987/Interiors and Landscapes of Ireland," curated by Reesey Shaw for the Felicita Foundation for the Arts and on view at the Mathes Center, traces the evolution of Patterson's genre paintings from staid still-lifes to more personalized, interpretive images.

Though Patterson's paintings do not have a definite narrative, collectively they reveal the flavor of an environment, the personalities of its inhabitants and a modest plot that is none other than everyday life. As the people and places repeat themselves in varied combinations throughout the paintings, they grow increasingly familiar and convincing. Patterson's extended portrait of Aran Island life unfolds like a diary--one painting from 1986 even includes an oversized transcription of a letter that Patterson received, relaying news of the drowning death of two townspeople. Next to the letter, she has visualized the tragedy as an icon, showing the two victims as saints standing in the boat that failed them.

Though most of her imagery is more rooted to material reality than this painting would indicate, Patterson's work of the past 25 years has been shifting closer and closer toward such imaginative interpretation of given events. Her earliest works in the Escondido show, small casein sketches, depict single, ordinary elements. A haystack, a house, a stove. Though hardly self-sufficient as artworks, when viewed in the context of this show these serve as eloquent studies of the props used in the subdued drama of rural life.

Patterson's intimacy with her subjects infuses her portraits with a sense of ease and mutual trust. Whether showing moments of contemplation, affection or celebration, the images consistently betray Patterson's sympathetic perspective and ultimately her respect for her friends' pure, uncluttered lives.

Her formal approach to these subjects grows less tentative over time. "Pat with Cigarette and Yellow Jug" (1986) embodies Patterson's more direct, penetrating stance. The nearly life-sized subject stares out at us from this large (7-by-10-foot) canvas as if in sudden realization of another's presence. His environment is spare but bathed in color, the kitchen walls gold and mint green, the cupboard blue, the tablecloth a pink floral design and the stove yellow. The few details, of daisies on the table and bric-a-brac on the single shelf, can be read at a glance, and the entire scene possesses the immediacy of a snapshot.

Beyond a mere visual similarity to photographs, Patterson's candid approach and the serial nature of her images are closely related to a genre tradition in photography. The works of Irish photographer Alen MacWeeney, whose influence she acknowledges (and whose trio of photographs also hang in the show) are obvious comparisons, but Patterson also recalls such figures as Josef Koudelka or even Danny Lyon, photographers who immersed themselves in another society to create a diary of that culture and, implicitly, of their own perceptions.

Through her paintings, Patterson gradually reveals her friends' spare and basic life style, their fundamental connection to the earth and the simple pleasures of community, as they churn butter, skin rabbits and converse jovially around a kitchen table. The simple quality of their lives is matched by Patterson's sketchy brush strokes, her reduction of facial features and settings into colored masses and patterns of line. Her flat, slightly chalky casein paints seem to stain the canvas, while her loose network of brush strokes allows it to breathe and emit an ambient light, reinforced by the buzzing combination of oranges and blues that dominate Patterson's palette.

Patterson's attention to the physical, formal qualities of her work has continually intensified, and in her show at the Dietrich Jenny Gallery, titled "Daily Life," one can find works that escape from the descriptive into a highly decorative mode. In her beautiful, panoramic "Mangels and Fare/Double Wedge Landscape," her low perspective transforms a field of wheat into a looming triangle of glowing gold and green. "It's Time for Tea" recalls Matisse in its flat tapestry of color and pattern.

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