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‘Willful Wondering’ beautifully melds fairytales and fears


By Ana Paula Pinto-Diaz     1/18/17 5:19pm

Patricia Bellan-Gillen’s collection of whimsical prints, drawings, paintings, and installations titled “Willful Wondering and Disorderly Notions,” now on display at the Rice Media Center Gallery, embodies just what its name suggests: Art as an expression of wonderment and disorder emphasizing the powers of memory and experience.

Arranged so that two of her largest drawings are the first (and last) to reach the viewer, Bellan-Gillen’s installation makes a strong first impression. It is quickly consuming, guiding the viewer as if through the tendrils of a dream, each piece arranged around the kinds of delicate figures whose rococo energy and movement one might recognize from fairy tales found in the depths of childhood memories.

And yet, somewhere in each drawing, print, painting installation, there is a hint of otherness that pulls at something deeper in the viewer’s subconscious — an inexplicable sense of nostalgia touched by reminders of a very contemporary sense of reality. Televisions, loud spots of neon, warped figures, and disembodied smiles are just some of the elements that give Bellan-Gillen’s pieces the postmodernist ability to evoke concepts far beyond the figures existing within them. Indeed, each work employs the unison of language and archetypal imagery to address the irrationality of both the real and the imaginary human experience, something which Bellan-Gillen appears to be very vocal and intentional about.

Indeed, as described in her artist statement, Bellan-Gillen’s work is based on the process through which these two concepts come together. “Historical events intertwine with the imagined and a veil of nostalgia blurs the border between fact and fiction,” she writes. “This body of work combines ideas and imagery generated through study and research with ideas and imagery that are felt, intuitive and enigmatic.”

At first glance, Bellan-Gillen’s work often appears lively, and even delicate. However, each piece’s more sinister elements — whether hidden in an evocative title, or blatantly presented in the center of a canvas — help the artist and viewer enter an intellectual dialogue based on the interaction of childhood idealism and socio-political statements that become increasingly relevant through adulthood. For example, one of her largest drawings, on the back wall of the gallery’s first floor, displays an erratic arrangement of glowing white televisions surrounded by elongated rabbits ominously sketched in red. In the background, the large profile of a young girl stands partially obscured by the televisions, losing herself to them in a powerful statement on childhood media influence. In this piece, and, arguably, most of those in “Willful Wondering and Disorderly Notions” there is a sense of nostalgia and a fear of change, like an aching for lost innocence.

Other works explore topics ranging from vanity and childhood to change, development and exploration, often unfolding in pairs or sets that complement each other. These combinations beg the viewer to think deeply and uncover new conceptual connections. Sometimes, these messages are plainly discernible, while other times, they trigger involuntary memories and evoke a provocative sense of unease that is a powerful statement in and of itself. As Bellan-Gillen writes in her artist statement, “This current body of work continues to build on the use of imagery that suggests a narrative and attempts to engage the viewer’s associative responses: imagery that is at once forgotten but familiar.” And, indeed, “Willful Wondering and Disorderly Notions” plays with the viewer’s emotional perceptions just as effectively as the artist originally intended, guiding one through a provocative journey fueled by time, intuition, and the depths of unexpected memory.

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