On view through April 7
City Gallery at the Dock Street Theatre
133 Church St.
I’ll come right to it: There’s considerable risk in filling a very small room with paintings of flowers heavy on the color pink and calling the exhibit Openings. Flowering plants have intrigued artists throughout time, from Van Gogh, with his über-famous “Sunflowers,” to New Mexico modernist Georgia O’Keeffe and current Gibbes fave Margaret Mee. There’s just something about the delicacy of flowers that calls out to certain artists, challenging them to depict the soft petals and all the complex aspects that make the tiniest flower look like nature in a nutshell. But these very same features give many flower paintings an unmistakable yonic quality. Fortunately, local artist McLean Stith’s new show at the City Gallery at the Dock Street Theatre is no gynecological peepshow; her 12 robust flower studies are more thorny than horny. In fact, the result is a more colorful, positive show than most that we see there.
Stith’s oil paintings are usually large-scale, with a tendency toward landscapes and landmarks, all with an edgy, contemporary touch. Last year, her work cropped up at Piccolo’s In the Spirit at the Circular Congregational Church, and at December’s The Chase Is On show on King Street. This is something different. For her solo exhibition, she’s narrowed her focus to 12 mixed-media pieces, all featuring flowers.
Stith has used the City Gallery show as an opportunity to try all kinds of different techniques — spray bottles, spills, delicate brushstrokes countered by sharp grooves — that bring new elements to the vintage subject matter, and prove that Stith is comfortable with various artistic methods. “Iris” includes tight, circular strokes that give the flowers great energy, as if they’re growing and nothing can stop them. The vase can’t contain them and the canvas barely manages to do the same. The simple forms of the petals are like fingers reaching up into a pale blue spring sky in a celebration of life — quite a feat when short-lived cut flowers are often considered a symbol of mortality.
By contrast, Stith gives her “Daisies” thin, spidery petals that aren’t fully rendered. In “Orchids and Eucalyptus I” she uses squiggly crimson lines to suggest the flowers, their bright color contrasting with the ethereal edges.
The most successful pieces make strong use of pink, purple, and aquamarine colors. The blue background of “Daffodils and Asparagus Fern” catches the light, giving a shimmering aura to the daffs that seem to be crooning and swaying along to their song. Livid “Peonies” also seem full of fun, painted with wine-red swirls that are looser than those of “Iris.”
“Pink seemed to keep turning up in this exhibit,” says Stith. “I couldn’t stop with the pink. The pieces cried out for more. Usually I try to limit pink to avoid being marginalized as a ‘female painter,’ but this recent bout with pink was intense and necessary.” Blasts of color continually brighten the series, with the exception of “Roses in Gold Vase,” which has a more subdued, Victorian feel.
To find her colors and canvasses, Stith looked in some unusual places, using materials as varied as the techniques, including house paints on door panels. “I like to get house paint from the Habitat for Humanity store,” says the artist, “because their refuse paint comes in such weird colors. I can spend an hour prying the lids off the old rusty cans to look for a color that strikes me. The colors I find there I may mix in with art store acrylics or use straight. They can have a drastic impact on my palette, depending on who has cleaned out their garage — I like the randomness of this.”
That random element is important to Stith, who marries her psychological and emotional side with her reasoned, academic one. The key link between her career as a dermatologist and her art must be her curiosity, a trait that’s led to an intriguing body of work.
Her two lives coincide in “Daffodils and Squames,” with soft-textured, bright yellow flowers on a muted aqua blue background made up of Mondrianesque squares. “Squames are a nickname that dermatopathologists use for squamous cells,” says Stith, “which are the cells of the epidermis which are square-ish in shape. I look at them under the microscope a lot, and this was likely the influence.”
The show’s overall effect is one of a room in bloom, although the subjects are painted in their various stages of growth — “Thorny Roses” includes closed, wide-open, and wilting flowers, with thorns that blend into the green-tinged background if viewed up close, but stand out at a distance. Conversely, “Gerbera Daisies and Spray Roses” has a daring gold background. As with “Roses in Gold Vase,” the color never seems garish or overused and it doesn’t eat up the daisies.
In her unique and curious way, Stith uses her didactic perspective to inform her process of, in her words, “loosening up and playing around with different techniques.” Her exuberant work provides a different view of life, capturing the free expression of nature.