Deborah Donelson once wrote in an artist's statement that in her works she was "scratching around for fragments of being." She probably thinks I'll never let her forget it because I keep bringing it up.
Actually I thought it was an astute, perceptive remark when she made it a few years ago, because that's exactly what her graffiti-scarred figures looked like: The result of some struggle for the meaning of self.
No more of that. Her current exhibit at Gomez shows that in the past two years Donelson's art has matured. It was good back then, but it spoke of a searching and an uncertainty that now are gone.
The self-confidence, control and mastery of means in these new paintings make them at once more accomplished and more distant from us than earlier work. Before, one could identify with their uncertainty; now one looks on their poise from the outside -- but appreciatively.
Donelson's figural paintings, almost exclusively populated with women, have a presence that comes partly from the strength of their images, partly from their extraordinary use of color, partly from their commitment to the independent status of women. You don't forget these images quickly. They are not aggressively assertive but are satisfied to state their sense of worth, confident vTC in the appreciation of the audience they care about.
In "The Wild Child," one of the strongest paintings here, the woman with the unruly child climbing on her looks as upright and substantial as the chair she's sitting on. And Donelson has backed her up with a lamp casting light on a blue wall that's practically a painting in itself.
In a number of these paintings Donelson gives us her update on figures in art and literature. "Ophelia" is the largest painting in the show and stunning in its radiant color. In it, the unhappy Ophelia escapes from the murderous and (literally) maddening world of men not so much to drown herself as to melt into and become one with the beauty of nature.
"Lady with Ermine" takes a lot from Leonardo's painting of the same name: The same pose of the ermine, the same positioning of the woman's hand, the same square neck on the dress, the same part in the middle of the woman's hair. But instead of turning her head to glance out of the picture, as Leonardo's figure does, this one confronts our gaze with confidence.
Manet's "Olympia" is defiant in her nakedness; Donelson's "Olympia" is slightly amused at our shock that she should thus present herself to us.
These paintings show an artist who has come a long way in two years. They are not so vulnerable as their predecessors, so they elicit less sympathy. But they don't need it. They can do very well with admiration, thank you.
Frank Yamrus' photographs of nudes (mainly men) in natural settings are commanding but somewhat puzzling images. In an artist's statement, Yamrus declares himself a member of the gay community who takes pride in the celebration of the male nude. Yet these nudes' poses, with gazes averted and often hiding their faces from us, communicate a sense of shame more than anything else. They represent, perhaps, a statement about how destructive society's opprobrium can be.
What: Paintings by Deborah Donelson and photographs by Frank Yamrus
Where: Gomez Gallery, 836 Leadenhall St.
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, through Nov. 25
Call: (410) 752-2080