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'Here and There' with Patricia Patterson

The artist gracefully moves between two worlds in her first retrospective at Escondido's California Center for the Arts.

April 17, 2011|By Leah Ollman, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Painter and installation artist Patricia Patterson with her retrospective exhibit at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido, Calif.
Painter and installation artist Patricia Patterson with her retrospective… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Escondido, Calif. — — Like a planet subject to the gravitational pull of two different suns, Patricia Patterson was long torn between mutually exclusive sources of nourishment and attachment: the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland, where she lived as a young student and returned a dozen times over the course of 30 years; and her life in the U.S., fully engaged as an artist, teacher, writer and partner to film critic and painter Manny Farber.

Ultimately, Patterson chose both, thus the title of her first retrospective exhibition, "Here and There, Back and Forth," at the California Center for the Arts museum in Escondido (through June 30).

"It was a conundrum, something to solve," she said, taking a break from the installation of the show last month. "It was always a kind of emotional turmoil, because I loved [Ireland] so much, and yet all my life I had so much here. I really did love the world there as much as anything I've ever experienced."

The show's more than 60 paintings give a good indication why the ancient, rocky island of Inishmore appealed to Patterson, as well as how she managed to keep that world present in New York and, later, Southern California by making it the primary subject of her art. Sea, sky and field stretch across broad canvases, stark panoramic vistas of raw, natural beauty. Men raise glasses around the kitchen table, embrace their wives, skin a rabbit, smoke a pipe, read the newspaper. Women enter and exit the domestic stage, prepare spreads of bread and tea, tidy up, emit looks of concern or alarm, share convivial smiles.

Patterson renders the simple, whitewashed exteriors of the island homes and the boldly colored walls and furnishings of the rooms inside. She infuses the sketchy immediacy of snapshots with chromatic energy: warm terra cotta and tangerine buzz against cool ultramarine and gray. Glossy enamel frames in radiant combinations of sunflower, olive, mint, teal and aqua enclose scenes painted in matte, fresco-like casein.

Nearly every painting is either taller or wider than the average person. "The Bed," a stirring portrait of emptiness at the heart of a home, is both, measuring more than 8 by 12 feet. By enveloping us, the images give physical presence to a distant reality. Installations incorporating painted doors and windows or pieces of furniture similar to those in Ireland (mantel, table, stove) further bridge the divide between here and there.

Patterson, born in Jersey City in 1941, was a student at Parsons School of Design in New York when she made her first trip to Inishmore in 1960. She became intrigued with the place after reading Yeats and Synge. Cars and televisions are now common on the island, but at that time, houses were lighted by candles and gas lamps. Women brought water home in buckets from the well. The startling landscape and radically different way of life had a profound impact on her.

"You were on this small island with no trees, you were seeing the sky," she recalled. "You were feeling the weather and the change of light. That was really an extraordinary thing, to be surrounded by water and sky and this vastness. I was living with people who had never had electricity or plumbing. It was really exciting."

Patterson, a woman of quiet elegance and keen intelligence, was deeply drawn to the culture, but resisted idealizing it or subjecting it to the sepia tones of nostalgia. Part of what made it so fascinating was the way beauty and harshness coexisted there, she said. "One thing I've always tried to do is convey how alive and contemporary that world was, even though it could be characterized as old-fashioned. It was very present-tense, and there was nothing quaint about it at all. It was very intense and real."

Returning to New York, she felt a jarring disconnection between the purity of life on the island and the cerebral ironies of the '60s art world. She took in early shows of Robert Serra and Barry Le Va and was attracted to minimalism but felt out of sync with the mode of the day. In her earliest works in the exhibition, a series of paintings on paper from 1962, she tenderly observes Inishmore through isolated studies of a cow, a cart, a haystack, a man kneeling to pray.

In 1966, when she was 25 and teaching art to grammar school students, she met Farber, 49, an accomplished film and art critic for the New Republic, Time and the Nation, and a fledgling painter. They started living together the following year, becoming intimate partners in life and work — "a team, from the beginning." They married in 1976.

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