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Whimsy, Boldness, and Sensitivity Meet in Stunning Exhibit PDF Print E-mail
Art - Reviews
Written by Johanna Welzenbach-Hilliard   
Tuesday, 15 February 2005 18:00
I was greeted by myriad colors and shapes as I entered the MidCoast Fine Arts Gallery in LeClaire to see its current exhibit. Lisa Mahar’s three-dimensional, functional art is unfettered and bold, while Leslie Bell’s more muted portraits and figure paintings are sensual and evocative.

Bell and Mahar are a match made in heaven, as their works complement each other exquisitely. Their choice of colors is similar, with a preponderance of blues and greens and splashes of red, pink, and orange. Also, they each explore the mystery of the female sex. But whereas Bell uses a traditional medium (portrait art) to express his appreciation for women, Mahar breaks out with wacky, acrylic-painted furniture that combines her interest in her own gender with her passion for spirituality.

Joyous and quirky, Lisa Mahar’s art is filled with color, texture, wit, and wisdom. She recycles ordinary household objects into extraordinary works of art. These objects include small tables and chairs, dressers, and wooden shutters. She also has on display some very funky angels with crazy hair and big lips.

Her end table Sacred Flight has a dreamy, tropical feeling. Painted in cool aquas and bright greens, it is decorated with images of jellyfish, pineapples, and palm trees. Cross Culture is a play on words. This opulently painted coffee table is adorned with crosses of all kinds, both painted on and suspended from the table’s edge. She uses a wide variety of colors (brown, beige, magenta, coral, red, and blue), and her primitive figurative designs, in conjunction with the crosses, evoke a feeling of “Christianity meets native culture.”

In fact, Mahar is inspired by symbolism and by indigenous art from around the world. She is a spiritual person, and in her work are all kinds of animal images - birds, frogs, lions - which are important in primitive art.

She also has religious pieces such as Altered States, which is another pun because the work is an altar. Inside, it is ornamented with small cupids in boxes (she says these represent the Trinity) that have colorful, beaded key chains, with diary keys, dangling down. I saw it as a shrine to secret loves. Atop the altar is a motley collection of brightly painted wooden bedposts and knobs.

The newest addition to her art repertoire is her collection of comically painted wooden shutters. Each one has an original theme, and a story by Mahar written on the back. Circus of the Century is a madcap chest of drawers featuring a rainbow of harlequins, clowns, and circus animals. “I use humor and the element of surprise,” said Mahar. “People take life too seriously.”

In her series of wildly busy miniature chairs, it looks as if she’s ransacked children’s games and her kitchen junk drawer to decorate them with Tiddly Winks, craft-kit beads, and plastic figurines. Each chair is adorned with a woman’s torso, and Mahar has incorporated words made of lettered beads into the composition. Despite its seeming chaos, her work is skilled and demonstrates her self-confidence and lust for life.

In his portraits, Bell manages to capture human emotions with a photographic quality. Indeed, when interviewed, he told me that he had been a professional photographer for years, taking art photographs of area performing artists. He studied their faces carefully and, today, he paints portraits - not from models, but from his own imagination.

Light emanates from Bell’s portraits. Each one is a study of musings and pensiveness, particularly his portrait Dana of a lovely young woman with full cheeks and pouting lips. Man Among Black & Red Stripes is an arresting picture of a young man’s face caught in the red glare of (what I see as) city lights. His expression is penetrating and surprised at the same time. Waifish Girl is appropriately named; she looks slightly sad and a bit pitiful.

Bell’s unusual choice of colors (blue/green, orange, yellow, bright red, and pink) for complexion and background unexpectedly lends a dimension of reality to his work. The faces appear more alive and believable than if he had used truer skin tones. This might be because one’s attention is drawn away from the accessories of a portrait (skin, hair, and eye color), allowing the viewer to focus instead on the subject’s expression.

In his large paintings with full figures (I mean the whole body, not voluptuous women), he skillfully paints young women and girls sitting, leaning, and standing. His lines are soft but sure: They reflect the enigma and allure of femininity.

Bell’s painting Inside/Outside is fantastic in the literal sense. The subject appears to exist in a barely discernible fantasy world. His use of rich purple for the drapes and for the trim on the girl’s dress gives the impression that she is a princess shut away in a tower. A breeze wafts through the window gently blowing a thin, white curtain, and outside we see the top half of a pine tree and what could be the sea in the distance. The girl glances down wistfully instead of gazing out the window.

I love Bell’s lushly colorful picture the The Nest Robber. My husband interpreted it literally as a painting of a pretty young girl who is caught stealing a bird’s eggs from its nest. I, on the other hand, saw a large, male hand to the side of the painting beckoning to this seductively attractive adolescent. She points to herself with a look of wonder, as if to say, “You mean me?” Convinced that Bell was suggesting the fine line between childhood and adulthood and the excitement (and peril) that lies therein, I asked him about the painting.

Well, my husband was right. But Bell liked my interpretation too, saying he’s glad when others see new things in his work. “If I know exactly what my work is about, then it’s not a very good painting,” he said.

A reception for the artists will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. on Friday, February 18. The MidCoast Fine Arts Gallery is located in the Iowa Welcome Center in LeClaire.
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