Visual

Growth Patterns

Observing nature through oil and stone

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

On the bitter-cold day I visited Smith & Vallee Gallery in Edison to see Patty Haller’s oil paintings of flowers and forest scenes, it was like entering a verdant greenhouse. No wonder so many of her beautiful paintings have been chosen by hospitals—they offer healing, visual therapy.

And the stoneware sculptures by Brian O’Neill in the exhibit, “Growth Patterns,” are a perfect complement to Haller’s sinuous designs and exuberant color. His work has been seen at the Smithsonian and many Western galleries. While he claims to portray the “universal rhythms of nature…evoking stone and the natural landscape,” I saw archaic shapes the Mycenaeans might have left: sphere, ax head, wedge.

O’Neill’s “Lichen Sphere” is endlessly wrapped with ribbons of brown and white glaze, suggesting an ancient origin within the earth. “Iron Squared Sphere” has a massive, powerful quality beyond all proportion to its domestic size.

Haller has been a forester and a financial analyst. A keen observer of nature, she admires artists of historical significance, like Mondrian, Piero della Francesca, David Hockney, and Gustav Klimt. In her own work, she seeks to create a dialogue “between contemporary and full-on old school” techniques.

Many pieces have a filmy haze to the colors and outlines, as if seen through sleepy eyelids. She blends her oils with thinned paint and wipes them with tinted glaze, leaving subtle traces of the brush.

Her study of art history inspired her to incorporate memento mori in her paintings. Dead branches and dried ferns are little reminders to acknowledge “life’s seasons and natural cycles.”

This concept inspired her to paint a life-sized portrait of a fallen tree, which in decay is smothered beneath foliage and flowers. She labored on the 15-foot-long triptych six days a week for two months.

But here she focuses not on death, but life, calling it a memento vivere—a “reminder to live in the present, to laugh and love, make new friends, celebrate babies and enjoy nature.”

She continues to celebrate nurturing with “Madonna of the back 40” in the form of a live, mature tree, shown as an upright trunk shadowed in violet. Under its branches flourish delicate, pastel flowers, rendered in silhouette. A tangle of stems and twigs metamorphoses upward into a semblance of stained glass.

Haller has not forgotten the male principle. She names her small painting of a logging slash pile, “Schumpeter’s Logic,” in memory of the Austrian-American economist who justified “creative destruction” as an essential part of capitalism.

One large painting stands out from others, seemingly an outlier with its comparatively monochromatic scheme. In “Jaune Brillant,” a forest pool glows with magical, golden light in a blue/violet forest. It’s a nice break from the stuffy, curatorial logic that requires an artist to stick to one style. Is this a new direction for Haller?

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