Visual Arts

In "The Cutting Bridle" Exhibit, Allison Rathan Shows a Keen Literary Sense

The dominant picture in "The Cutting Bridle" exhibition, The Exchange, 60x48", is a self-portrait of the artist Allison Rathan, striding behind a very large wolf, the animal on a metal leash, in a dark-green forest under a crescent moon. It captures the confidence of this artist, who has blond movie star looks and the poise and litheness of a fashion model.

This painting has an air of ambiguity, and might be a book cover for an exciting combination of medieval myth and sci-fi ruminations. There is another figure in the lower left hand corner, which looks like a serpent whose head is the desert-bleached skull of a steer. Ponder away, if you wish, looking for significance, but I prefer just to savor the mystery.

The leash holder has a slit skirt that exposes a graceful leg, and her left hand is lightly cupping her left breast, a reminder that we are living in a world where sensuality, like it or not, rules. This theme runs throughout much of the other art as well.

Rathan has a keen literary sense, and some of her art is inspired by literary reference points. "I've Come Home Now" echoes the dark power of Wuthering Heights, as a man inside a castle embraces a woman through an open window. We never see their faces, but his hand on her back is sufficient to indicate the intense physical passion to come.

I liked even better That Night, a more complex picture which at first glance could be showing a pole dancer, judging by the stance, but closer inspection reveals that she is wearing cut-off jeans and a tawny shirt, and is in front of chain link fence, with the shadow of the chains reflected on her clothing, and even her skin. Sensuality may rule, but one pays a price.

The paintings have literary quotations posted under the tiles, and one can't help but admire an artist who for this painting quotes Aeschylus, from The Oresteia: 'We are the children of eternal night/And furies in the underworld are called." The face of the protagonist is not shown, but her back reveals intensity, power, danger - and perhaps fear of being encaged. Or, more likely, she is.

Elsewhere in the gallery is a rusty white bird cage, empty, with the door open, so escape is possible.

Reinless has another provocative beauty on a horse, her skirt flying back. In "Siren", we again see no face, but see a female runner pausing next to an exercise track, leaning all the way over for stretching on a support. Her back is toward us, with the pose making her butt loom large as the dominant image. This is very much a painting issuing a challenge; I mentally re-named it "In Your Face".

The absence of faces is not a flaw, as the physical stance provides all we need to know, and the absence may help the viewer to imagine herself in the painting's situation. Rathan also has a series of small portraits of heads - yes, we see the faces here - and I liked enormously one titled "Foundling" which has the look of a very young dark-haired beauty-to-come, whose haunting expression indicates resignation, anticipation, and hidden power.

Karenina is large, 40x40", and contrasts at the left a steam engine crossing a trestle, while at the right we see the left side of the huge head of a striking beauty. It is inspired by the novel by Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, considered by some the greatest novel ever written. I found it to be graphically interesting, and, were it not for the title, I would take it to be a depiction of a traditional source of energy vs. the celebrity-fueled fascination that drives us today.

I found some paintings to be missing subtlety, such as The Way to Kilimanjaro, inspired by Hemingway's famous short story The Snows of Kilimanjaro, It is a well-drawn and interesting visual, but one which fails to fuse into relevance, with too many explicit symbols. I found least effective Man Standing on a Broken Pier, as a man with a pipe seems to be musing. The figure is posed, the energy missing, and highlighting the man with a lighter background too obvious. Rathan here has thrown composition to the winds, with the man centered in the picture. The painting reminded me of a college sophomore who has discovered philosophy, Plato, and a pipe, all in one week.

Curiously, I liked best,and became most involved with, a very different kind of painting style for Rathan, one titled The Red Balloon inspired by the 1956 award-winning short French film. There are two balloons in the foreground, and two young boys, but the heart of the painting is a depiction of a charming village street that extends well into the distance, with the eye carried there by warm architecture and attractive balconies, and shops that might be interesting. It is a most welcome vista; I suggest viewing this up close and from afar, both will delight.

Allison Rathan: The Cutting Bridle continues through September 4, Archway Gallery, 2305 Dunlavy, open Mondays to Saturdays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sundays 1:00 p.m. to 5 p.m., 713-522-2409,

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Jim Tommaney