Christine O'Neill captures the Caribbean in Holtzman Gallery show


When artist Christine O'Neill went off to the Caribbean, it wasn't just to soak in the sun. She did an estimated 60 acrylic paintings and watercolors in the course of a year. A generous selection of this work makes for a bright and breezy summer exhibit in the Holtzman Gallery at Towson State University.

Because she spent a year in the Caribbean and South America, traveling by sailboat from one paradise to the next, her impressions were not just those of a tourist on a hurried itinerary. She visited many of the same spots -- vegetable markets, crowded docks and quaint colonial era streets -- as a tourist would, but she obviously also had the time to settle in and consider how all the colorful activity translated into painterly terms. Of course small clusters of tourists themselves became part of the overall activity and sometimes served as subject matter.

A graduate of the Maryland Institute, College of Art and Towson State University, O'Neill's work is characterized by crisp, clean lines and intense colors. When she really lays on the azure, for instance, the clarity and intensity remind one a bit of how Winslow Homer operated down here at the turn-of-the-century. O'Neill's watercolor "Three Boats by the Water's Edge" is especially reminiscent of Homer because the compositional foregrounding of the boats give them a powerful presence that makes them seem like more than mere rowboats.

It seems appropriate that much of O'Neill's most arresting work features the sailboats that took the place of cars in her life. Her four watercolors in a series called "Views of Tobaggo Cays" depict the deep gradations of green and blue found in a Caribbean sea that is punctuated by sleek sailboats and tiny islands, more like decorations than land masses.

When she's ashore, she likewise emphasizes how extreme colors naturally come together. In her acrylic painting "The Andies," she paints the shack-lined village street a vibrant purple that somehow harmonizes with the brown and green bands used for the hills beyond. Similarly, in her painting of "Los Frailes Monastery" in Venezuela, the red tile roof of the colonial-style building complements the backing brown and purple mountains.

O'Neill's pictures of town life are epitomized by "A Morning Chat," in which a woman defined by the green-striped shopping bag she carries has gone up to chat with another woman leaning from a house window. The nearby pink and white door is a reminder that our own architectural paint jobs are bland by comparison.

Characteristic of her portraiture is the watercolor "The Rum Shack," in which a solidly built woman seems defined by her massive brown arms. Likewise, the cup resting on the table before her has real presence of its own.

In a painting such as "Ladies in Red and Blue Hats," which depicts its subjects in terms of their bold hats, the strong pictorial arrangement comes at the expense of any attempt at showing the psychology of her subjects. Although O'Neill has a keen sense of how her human subjects relate to their natural and architectural surroundings, it would be interesting to see her attempt some Caribbean subjects with more attention paid to facial details and the personalities behind those faces.

Christine O'Neill exhibits in the Holtzman Gallery of Towson State University through July 27. The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and also in conjunction with Maryland Arts Festival events. Call 830-2808.

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