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Light Images, Dark Truth

Georganne Deen uses the skills of advertising to evoke the hollowness of its promise, probing women's discontent in a surprisingly graphic way.


ORANGE — Perfume bottles, sequins and pretty patterns are the seductive window dressing in Georganne Deen's mordant paintings. Adroitly juxtaposing the dreamy realm of fashion marketing with the debilitating realities of neglect, rage, depression and addiction, Deen has established an intensely personal style.

Her skill at mixing modes of illustration and lettering drawn from vintage advertising with elements of cartooning, Surrealist painting and mixed-media decoration is evident in a splendid show of 25 works from the last five years at Chapman University's Guggenheim Gallery, curated by Maggi Owens.

Sprightly looking images lure viewers in, but closer attention reveals the dark side of Deen's picture of womanhood.

She evokes a woman's dream of living an elegant fantasy world in "We All Fall Down" with a perky anthropomorphized elephant in a fur neckpiece and cuffs holding a powder puff (reminiscent of early '60s cosmetics ads), a bracelet-like strip of glitter, a mock Balanciaga label and the word "Darling" painted in extroverted, girlish script.

But the words "over and over and over and over," written on a little strip of paper attached to the canvas--the visual equivalent of barely audible muttering--reveal the bitterness of someone whose mother was little more than the mouthpiece for a mindless stream of fashion-conscious platitudes.

As the child of a self-absorbed, alcoholic mother who taught that beauty could be achieved only through pain, Deen--who lives in Los Angeles and has discussed her past in interviews--emerged from several bouts of clinical depression with the awareness that her own real pain was the obvious subject for her work.

Unlike many artists battling personal demons, her work combines signs of rage (splotches, distorted faces and figures) with a cool stylistic finesse. This is not "victim" art but a shrewd look back at a difficult time.

Her mother appears in some of the paintings as an angry, knife-wielding creature whose body is a dead tree or a chicken. And yet it is not as though Deen is claiming any higher wisdom about how to lead her life.

In a 1995 design for a Los Angeles billboard, she contrasted a chicken-legged female figure who brandishes a knife and holds a scale full of money bags ("You--that way") with two sleekly contemporary blond "chicks" casually counting a stack of coins ("We--this way, without having learned anything").

"Le Retour de Printemps" proposes a broad view of antidepressants and their effects, juxtaposing box flaps from Haldol and Prozac with images of Joy perfume, a Cadillac, an Elvis-like crooner and a doe-eyed cartoon character. The French title (the return of spring) recalls the flowery language of perfume and underlines the mythological underpinnings of this intriguingly allusive piece.

A plant growing in a barren landscape and the name, "Demeter," lettered in a pseudo-Greek style, evoke the goddess of fertility. She was obliged to spend part of the year underground in exchange for the return of her long-missing, deeply mourned daughter, Persephone, who had been abducted by Pluto. By effortlessly linking symbols of spring, depression, womanhood and a famous maternal figure, Deen subtly enlarges her theme.

But analysis shouldn't divert attention from Deen's extraordinary abilities as a stylist, plucking words and imagery from disparate worlds and arranging them so as to provoke the viewer's constant curiosity.

In "Super Mirror," for example, she contrasts the frilly calm of a teenage girl's bedroom with her angry little self, dreaming (in a thought balloon) of shooting drugs. A psychedelic madness has invaded the fashion and cosmetic imagery decoratively layered on top of the painting of the demure white room. The highlights on a string of pearls turn into tiny goblin-like faces, above a river of hyperbolic women's magazine prose reminiscent of the Diana Vreeland era at Vogue.

By using the skills of advertising to evoke the hollowness of its fantasy-filled promise, Deen probes women's discontent in a surprisingly graphic way.

Lewis' Airy Style, Themes Don't Mix Concurrently, the Guggenheim's upstairs gallery is showing paintings and drawings by Martha Lewis, a young artist who attempts to employ her colorful, airy, lightly brushed style to convey expansive, brooding themes involving technological dysfunction, communication breakdowns and land masses undergoing natural or man-made upheaval.

Seen last spring at the Irvine Fine Arts Center's Satellite Storefront Studio, Lewis' work seemed abstractly evocative of explosion or collapse. But despite her claim (in a written statement) to working in an improvisatory manner and allowing for a "range of possible interpretation," her comments on some of her pieces in this show reveal highly programmatic intentions.

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