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Almost Eden 

Painters use the beauty to face the ugly


the arts | visual arts |


click to enlarge beerntsen-and-spiers-0622.jpg

Impeachment Rag: Tony Spiers' cheery images belie a serious nature.

By Gretchen Giles


With roses heavy and languorous on the bough, vegetables just bolting from their prim starts and heirloom sweet peas amid their twining climb, last Wednesday was a beautiful day in painter Lisa Beerntsen's garden. Given the garden itself, a mini-Eden behind the modest Graton home she shares with her husband, the painter Tony Spiers, it's a likely bet that, regardless of the season, every day is a beautiful day in Beerntsen's garden.

The sense of color, shape and play that informs a well-tended plot imbues the couple's adjacent studio, a standalone structure that they share--one only slightly removed from the other by a work table and half-wall--and which they'll open to the public as part of the Art at the Source tour beginning this Saturday, June 3.

An instructor at the Santa Rosa Junior College for the past decade, Beerntsen has gradually moved from the abstract leaf paintings of her early career to collage-driven canvases that feature fruit, flowers, birds and, in at least one instance, an angry yet beautiful rebuttal to U.S. vilification of all things Islamic.

Across the room, Spiers' large cheerful-seeming work is informed by the Japanese pop of mange and animÈ, the fruit labels and iconography of the 1930s and '40s, old-fashioned American cartoons and advertising, exploding firecrackers, lurid circus posters, Chinese candy wrappers, Indian Sanskrit and, in instances almost too numerous to count, angry yet beautiful rebuttals to the U.S. vilification of all things Islamic.

In addition to a warm palette of oranges, pinks, roses and lemony yellows, the couple share an outraged sensibility that results in gorgeous paintings with an edge.

Beerntsen assents that "it will have to be" OK to call her work "pretty," and pretty it is, built up with pieces of old linen napkins, bits of wall paper, unfinished quilt squares culled from antique shops, scientific diagrams and oversized, stylized lino prints she's carved of symbols from the Arabic alphabet that hit the canvas with the assured signature of a Japanese chop mark. "I'm always looking for different ways to get pattern into my paintings," she says, adding, "After 9-11, I was talking about the vilification of Islam, and so I just went ahead and painted it."

Trained as a graphic designer with former stints as a sign painter, Spiers tends toward imaginary advertising posters in his acrylic paintings, though an image of Woody Woodpecker seated in a hand basket and assuredly headed for hell as he points a handgun at his head won't perhaps sell too many guns, baskets or cartoon reels. Spiers explains that he's "interested in narrative," adding that his search for story used to be more personal but has shifted gradually to the global because "we live in such a bizarre, surreal, time. I'm attracted to using popular, happy-seeming nostalgic iconography to address political material."

Having settled in Graton from the East Bay just over three years ago, the two successfully exhibit at Healdsburg's Arches Gallery. Spiers, 47, and Beerntsen, 45, knew each other in high school in Pleasanton, their paths occasionally crossing through friends or when working together at an art-supply store, but it wasn't until the retirement party of Mel Friedman, their favorite high school art teacher, that they fell in love. Spiers was doing pastels; Beerntsen, abstracts. As their love affair deepened, their work has come closer, too.

With the garden's vibrancy beating against the studio's glass doors and the cat headed authoritatively across the floor for its favorite chair, Spiers uses the radio they share when working as an analogy. "I'm more rock 'n' roll," he explains with a laugh. "Lisa's more NPR."


Lisa Beerntsen and Tony Spiers share their space with sculptor Patrick Scott as part of the 12th annual Art at the Source open studio tour. Some 126 artists participate. Saturday-Sunday, June 3-4 and 10-11. 10am to 5pm. Free. For details, call 707.829.4797.

From the Thousand Things That Should Be Seen Dept. (mostly Marin edition):

Santa Rosa's A Street Gallery (312 S. A St., Santa Rosa; 707.578.9124) throws an extended exhibition of the strange and wonderful beginning June 3 with "Blanco," curated by Dominic Egan and featuring British, German and American artists creating work sturdy enough for the walls and ephemeral enough for the psyche. . . .

We're increasingly excited about the Contemporary Quarterly Project Space and its spring show, "Blur." Featuring San Rafael artist Dianne Romaine as well as Constance Lowe, Bruce McAllister, Colin Stinson and Robert Tomlinson, CQPS finds solid ground with a show opening July 1 at Healdsburg's Roshambo Winery. Check this space for more details as the opening nears. . . .

Those traveling the Point Reyes/Petaluma Road are well advised to pull over at the Marin French Cheese Factory, not only because the cheese bought from the source is so much better tasting than its misused brethren at the typical grocery store, but to witness the astounding output and vision of the late painter Jesse Reichek. Organized in part by the sculptor Mark di Suvero, this multicycle exhibit of Reichek's extraordinary personal mythos--which began its first cycle with his exploration of the I Ching in August 2005 and has since shown his response to the Kabbalah, various creation theories and, lamentably, death (which cycle shows through June 18)--finishes with a last round centering on the Biblical passage "Song of Songs" June 29-Aug. 16.

A former UC Berkeley professor, Reichek lived near Petaluma's Red Hill, and used ancient and sacred texts to amass a prodigious output of deeply personal response now handsomely housed in the Cheese Factory's former dairy barn.

While on the backroads, go directly to the outer limits and--curiously enough, Marin's only fine art museum--the Bolinas Museum, where a real eye-socker of a free program exhibits through June 17. "Bay Area Figurative" pulls work by Richard Diebenkorn, Joan Brown, Elmer Bischoff, David Park and other great painters of that fabled era into one smart and intimate show, curator Barbara Janeff cogently commenting on each work and its placement in this exhibition. . . .

Furthermore, the Gallery Route One (www.galleryrouteone.org) in Point Reyes Station shows Guerneville artists Inya Laskowski and Andrei Wilenius, both European-born, reflecting on their experience as Americans, in "Schismatos." Laskowski, best known for her prints, particularly breaks new ground showing sculpture expressing the displacement of innocence post-WW II. . . .

Working from the rich tradition of cartography and making sound from a steel vessel strung with airplane wire that he bows like some strange cello, Cotati sculptor Nicolas van Krijdt creates the "Sound Portrait of Stinson Beach" for one night only at the Claudia Chapline Gallery on June 10. Striving to create a three-dimensional object for the ear, van Krijdt will literally "map" Stinson Beach through found audio and performance.

--G.G.







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