Mary Warner is a bona-fide grande dame of the Las Vegas arts community. Low-profile but steadfast. A brief list of her contributions proves vibrant and varied. As a founding member of the Contemporary Art Center, she helped expand the scope of art seen and made in the Valley. For almost 20 years, her presence in the art department at UNLV has shaped countless artists’ careers. Her lengthy resume of exhibitions and residencies has helped to extend this art community far beyond the southwestern United States (most recently to Bemis Art Center); her zealous intellect, curiosity and uncompromising critique bring the international art dialogue back home. But a visit to Angels & Insects at UNLV’s Donna Beam Gallery is an ardent reminder that first and foremost, Warner is a painter.
For some time now, Warner has maintained an unwavering attention to floral studies, and Angels sees this focus continued. Some paintings are directly representational, others abstracted and decorative. Simple, right? Far from it.
The floral study has rich—and richly loaded—art-historical implications. For centuries, flowers have been a feature of the classic still life. Most famously immortalized by the Dutch masters, the bloom was embraced by everyone from Botticelli to Warhol. Flowers had a place within paintings’ vernacular symbolism. Different flowers conveyed different meanings, useful in narratives both secular and non-. And the botanic, without fail, evokes this mortal coil—from budding youth to wilting demise.
- From the Calendar
- Mary Warner’s Angels & Insects
- Through July 31
- Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
- Donna Beam Fine Art Gallery, 895-3893.
In the 20th century, the practice of making art about art swelled, and the symbolic usefulness of a flower expanded. A blossom can be just a blossom, but it can also be a tool for talking about art; it can deconstruct a genre or an entire medium while still evoking life and death and all of the verdant things it has always conveyed. (Case in point: Andy Warhol’s Flowers.) All of these complexities are present in Warner’s studies.
So are dahlias. Lots of them.
While obviously smart, the pieces in Warner’s Angels extend far beyond the nudge and wink of the clever and self-referential: They are also stunningly well-crafted and funny. These paintings are beautiful and smart.
Take “Slow Fade.” Several dahlias float in a stream of silver drips cascading from the top of the canvas. The dahlias dodge in and out of dimensionality, flattening as they wilt into the surface of the painting, blending into post-painterly streaks. From a distance, the dahlias loom and intertwine. Up close, deeply dimensional buds abstract into simple shapes of paint lightly resting adjacent to one another. Ribbons of visible graphite flutter behind shimmering layers of oil, a liberal glimpse into the artist’s process.
The decorative arts are slyly referenced. In “Wilt,” a single fading dahlia regally rests amid what looks to be wallpaper. Close inspection reveals a hand-painted pattern, subtly beautiful in its slight imperfection.
“Hunt” is the real thrill. A velvety red vine scrolls down some eight feet of paper. What again appears to be printed is, in fact, hand-drawn, as wisps of graphite are left hanging against flat, red shapes. Humming with activity, roses and leaves curl as mischievous insects scurry up and down the vines.
Warner is ridiculously generous in her descriptions, and each painting has a flurry of activity in both technique and subject matter. “In the Garden” and “Buzz” are action-packed pastorals. Buds and bugs dash in and out of view, layers of paint thicken and thin, surfaces shimmer and flatten. Dahlias spring dimensional and lush as cloud-like shapes of paint are accentuated by thin graphite outlines. Random floating flowers, abstracted and graphic, are only slightly less surprising than a couple of crickets making love.
Resting quietly between two drawings, “June Bride” holds court. Emerging from a bouquet of dahlias (of course!), a single stem is accentuated by a halo of flat silver paint. In her full glistening collar, she modestly steals the show. The painting contains all of the references Warner masterfully intertwines: Japanese “floating world,” post-painterly abstraction, decorative arts.
At the center of it all is paint.
For years, mid-20th century Italian painter Giorgio Morandi painted the same vases and bottles over and over again. His objects have an air of humble simplicity, immediately less important than the paint describing them. Similarly, Warner’s dahlias become a vehicle for deep observation. Through repeated study, the object itself recedes in importance next to the significance of the paint itself. Much like Morandi’s bottles, Warner’s dahlias are a place to indulge in the excessive and infectious pleasures of painting.