Philippa Blair at the Palos Verdes Art Center
By Tessa Laird-Shimada
Philippa Blair’s trademark throughout the 1970’s was the shaped canvas-skirts, teepees, windows and books. Treating the wall as the canvas, Blair experimented with paintings that were more like installations. ANGELUS PLACE from 1990 is an example of this earlier style, which is homage to Blair’s home in Los Angeles, and figuratively maps out her haven in the urban sprawl. A bundle of painted bamboo sticks reference both road markings (a ubiquitous part of living in Southern California), and recall porcupine quills, sacred to many Native Americans. Blair long before settling in the United States, was always attracted to Native American culture, and readily appropriated the teepee motif which, as a symbol for nomadic structure, fitted well with her ideas about paintings that could be moved and shaped.
Recently Blair has returned to the hard edges of the stretched canvas square, and interestingly, this has given the texture of her paintings a whole new toughness. Now all the drama that was once enacted outside the canvas has been condensed and magnified into a smaller arena.
Though Blair often uses musical words to name her paintings, even her most light-hearted creations have a dangerous energy lurking beneath their luscious surfaces. In TANGOS/SALSEROS Blair’s aggressive, physical push-pull of the paint has rendered a surface of dramatic splatters, that could be read as the swish of a Flamenco skirt or as a flood of epic proportions.
Indeed, disasters- natural or otherwise-seem to have found their way into Blair’s recent canvases. And it’s no wonder, given the events of September 2001. Just prior to that historic signpost, Blair painted MERENGUE which is a lush, tropical diptych full of Latin-flavored pulses and beats; its combination of color and line evoking everything from hummingbirds in a banana grove, to costumed musicians playing marimba and congas. The sickly sweetness of paint like pink frosting gives a twist to the title-change one letter and you ave “meringue”- a light and fluffy dessert. Yet there is something violent about the trajectory of these lines with fiery colors hinting at explosions “Kamikase” is a word Blair has used before to title one of her vertiginous painterly adventures, and here again in MERENGUE the artist challenges the viewer to let go terrestrial reality and plunge into the unknown.
The prophetic exuberance of MERENGUE segues into a more subdued palette post September 11, as if ideas of black/white, good/evil have wormed their way into Blair’s canvases (literally, a big, blind black worm does make its way across the surface of AN EYE FOR AN EYE. Jubilant colors give way to browns, greens, and speechless pain-O [slide link] is both a wordless exclamation and the Ground Zero of utter destruction.
Blair’s o-shape resembles the skull-like creatures of Jean-Michel Basquiat, or even the tortured face of Edward Munch’s iconic “the Scream”. Likewise, NOMAD has some of Basquiat’s scarification of the painting’s surface, and seems to speak, both with its restless, looping strokes, and its title, of a world in disarray.
Blair’s work, always energetic and gutsy, is a barometer channeling energy from various sources-cultural, political, geological, meteorological. In the end, however, Blair takes us back to the reality of the paint itself. All references to the outside world aside, Blair simply makes remarkable painterly statements.