Ursula O'Farrell at Toomey Tourell Fine Art
Publication Month: June
Publication Year: 2009
Featured Review in Artweek, June 2009
As if in the aftermath of a great struggle, the gallery nearly hums with energy during an exhibition of new paintings by Ursula O’Farrell. Nine large, clamorous canvases seem to defy formal order with their vigorous push-pull of thick, saturated color against thin transparent tint. Large, amorphous areas alternately loom towards the viewer or recede into intriguingly magnetic distances. With this series, O’Farrell uses bold, gestural lines that often disobey an impulse towards recognizable form but rather seem let loose to wander the canvas. In these works, painted primarily during the first months of 2009, O’Farrell takes her boldest step in a decades-long journey from classical figuration to figurative abstraction -– sometimes right to the edge of chaos.
In an essay prefacing the catalog for this body of work in its three West Coast exhibitions, Peter Selz attributes O’Farrell a prominent place in the third generation of Bay Area Figurative Painters, deeming her a sibling of Christopher Brown and Roger Hermann and successor to Elmer Bischoff, David Park and Richard Diebenkorn. O’Farrell arrived at this place honestly from an early grounding in classical studies in Florence and then of Abstract Expressionism in Germany, an MFA, then a fifteen-year hiatus to raise a family. Reclaiming her artistic life less than a decade ago, the artist has since pushed herself relentlessly in successive series of paintings to materialize ideas incubated over decades. At first painting directly from the figure to achieve luscious atmospheric works that feature mostly solitary women, O’Farrell now begins each painting without reference, allowing ideas and emotions to emerge from passages and transitions, finding the figure within the markings and brushstrokes.
In Mother Daughter (2008), two figures in perfect misalignment are connected by their oppositional stance and a painterly glare between them, resonant of steam or fog, that itself becomes the foreground. The two figures are contrasts in energy: one darker, tighter and drier, as if carved un-carefully from the atmosphere, the other splashed with raw pigment, slashed with line unrelated to volume, all about gesture and direction. Their stance toward one another is suggested with a few knowing highlights.
O’Farrell uses line much more descriptively, yet no less boldly, in Offering (2009), in which two figures emerge from agitated lines in contrasting colors. Their faces are cadmium red and yellow, the brightest shapes on the canvas; one appears demanding as the other angles away. Surrounding the figures is a gorgeous tumult of violet, ochre, cerulean and sienna in a vertical pattern alternating areas of shade and light. Muted color next to purer pigment suggests depth and shadow, and at center, a mysterious distance.
The solo female figure in Uncertain Morning (2009) clearly demonstrates O’Farrell’s path beyond the quiet, almost romantic figuration of her earlier works. With a palette reminiscent of Bischoff’s Girls in a Mirror (1960), O’Farrell indicates the slumped figure with an aura of defeat, the weight of her uncertainty emphasized by the multiple painted edges of her fleshy bulk -- even figure and ground seem unhinged or insecure. Behind the figure is an aura of uncharacteristically tepid color -- dirty and listless -- its gray pulled by a dry brush toward the head of the figure, as if a whisper against hope. In this, and all of these new works, O’Farrell’s figure seems the culminating expression rather than the raison d’ętre of an already psychologically charged space.
-- Maureen Davidson