Undead Again

"Goth is fashion, I think," Rochelle Heagh Phister, a slight blonde, says uncomfortably when confronted with the G-word. "We're not really in touch with that lifestyle. We're more in touch with Goya or Bacon. Or Bosch!" she continues. "I've got nothing against Goth—don't get me wrong! But if you're gonna get labeled . . . We're more Jesus on the Cross than Interview With theVampire."

Phister was behind Dark's Art Parlour, long-gone from Santa Ana now, leaving nothing but a website (www.darksartparlour.com). Dark's was full of vampires and blood and black. The gallery moved from Santa Ana years ago and subsisted in North Hollywood for just a year before Phister gave it up. "We never really found an audience to support us," she says.

Now Phister is showing her "Ghosts" at the new Caged Chameleon Gallery in the venerable Victorian that used to house Koo's Art Caf. The creaky, elegantly refurbished house is a terrific ambiance for paintings of ghosts . . . and vampires.

Phister's work is sensational. She paints inky backgrounds of Vermeer black, with straight-ahead, realist figure studies floating out from the void. In addition to her near-photographic drafting skill, there's a neat subversion on her canvases—not for subversion's sake or for shock value, but rather for its own dark beauty. Sylvia Plath might be a Goth clich, but so what? Plath it is—or maybe Emily Dickinson at her lonely old-maidiest. Phister doesn't rail against pain or revel in it; she's simply at peace with it. In Purgatory, two nude, corpse-white figures crouch on gray. One, with black lips, sews up the slashed wrist of the other. The nurse is intent on her work—and sorrowful. The injured one gazes at her in serene contemplation and mute love. They are very, very still.

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Purgatory is one of the few Phister works in which her characters are unaware of us, caught up in their own world instead of envying the world of the living. Most of her figures stare directly out at the viewer, holding our gaze boldly—even when they've no eyes with which to do so. The Visitor is just a somber, shadow-socketed, hazy face gazing straight forward. Smoke is a muscular white-and-gray boy, with shadows under his nipples. It's a little too beefcake and too idealized, but attractive still. Both are apparitions as foggy as any purportedly caught on film. But Phister has crisp others, the kind we only know are ghosts because they're so old-fashioned and yet clearly breathing right in front of us; they are quite clearly still here. One is The Parisian Waiting for God—an oblivious businessman on the street doesn't even seem to know he has left his own time. The other, one of her most striking, is The Red Dress. In it, a woman who looks very like stripper/Manson girlfriend Dita Von Teese, stares daggers at anyone who would be bold enough to seek her gaze. Her mouth is a hard crimson slash, her beauty is grave, and she is as detached from her surroundings as Manet's Olympia.She is careless and cruel. Hers wouldn't be a benevolent haunt. The Children is hilarious. It's one of the few with an environment besides haze, and it features a small, vampiric boy in Little Lord Fauntleroy knickers and lace sitting on a fence in front of spooky trees. He's staring at us, and his little sister, in her Miss Muffett suit, does, too. Liver with fava beans, perhaps?

But if Phister is in fact Interview With the Vampire, she's also Jesus on the Cross. Immaculate (The Assumption of Mary)translates the Virgin to a modern young woman who looks Afro-Asian. Her eyes, under slim, plucked brows, are closed in meditation or ecstasy, as a pair of hands around her throat squeezes out her soul. And Sister Vigilance is a tiny portrait of an ancient, otherworldly nun whose sibyl-like vigilance is managed despite the terrifying cataract clouding her unseeing eye.

Skin, The Gardenand Fire are all tiny, elegant figure studies, adorned only with a subtle Chinese character stating their names. Again, they're beautifully drafted, but they lack the oomph of Phister's creepier works.

Phister's paintings are doorways to whatever dimension it is in which wraiths lurk. They're wonderful. They're gloomy. And they're pretty damn reasonably priced for the hard-to-shop-for Goth on your Christmas list.


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