Too Pretty

Photo by OCW staffA friend and I walked into McClain's coffeehouse in Fullerton on a Thursday night to see the works of a painter named Amber Dawn. There wasn't a chance of that happening; the place was overflowing with shiny-faced young people listening intently to an acoustic folksinger singing story songs about, I believe, a nice grandpa. Stepping over teens sitting Indian-style on the ground would have been somewhat distracting to the folksinger, so my friend and I listened to several stanzas, whispered among ourselves and then slid out the back door. After a couple of vodka tonics at the Olde Ship down the street, we came back. The band was breaking down, the teens were on the front patio smoking, and we could wander around and look at the half-dozen paintings unimpeded.

Dawn paints mountains and waterfalls and islands. They're pretty. She's self-taught, according to the statement on the wall at McClain's, and her ordinary oeuvre is fairies. She's branching out into scenery, according to her statement, because many men had asked her to paint something else. She loves transforming a room with murals and expects that by next year, her originals will no longer be for sale.

It's really very nice. Her brushstrokes are elegant; her perspective is aligned properly. Her composition is artful. She could do beautifully in a Wyland gallery, and that's no small thing. A lot of insufferable art-school grads couldn't.

Of course, most art-school grads also wouldn't want to. Dawn's realistic fantasy lands belong to the Thomas Kinkade school of what-could-be, though Dawn thankfully refrains from painting cottages alight with a warm hearthlit (and heart-lit) glow. At their most trenchant, Dawn's beautiful landscapes could, by juxtaposition, stand as an indictment of what we're doing to our landscape. As someone who usually paints fairies, she could very well be a lovely hippie granola girl churning out her oils from the top of an endangered redwood. I will choose to believe that's the case.

Hidden Shrooms (and I think that proves she's holding down the fort at a Ben N Jerry's commune, don't you?) shows a Chinese-inspired tree in the foreground. Its lumpy branches are scumbled thickly on the canvas. Behind it, mountains rise blue and smoky, and the sky is pink and yellow. Another canvas shows an inky blue sky-and-sea combo, the moon shining mystically over a rock island that could be out of Narnia. Beyond the Falls is a wide canvas showing a tropical lagoon beneath a yellow-orange sunrise or sunset. Frothy trees jut out from the cliffs. Dawn doesn't forget to include rocks in the churning waters. And the prettiest shows a waterfall in the middle of a vertical painting. Huge trees tower overhead in the foreground, and the waterfall is undeniably vulvic and wet. It's even, you know, drippy.

Dawn's paintings probably sound pretty icky to any person who bothers to read an art column, but I assure you they're not. Peter Alexander's sunsets sounded pretty icky to the literati in the '70s, when painting sunsets had about as much cache as decoupage.

Add to that: anything that smacks of femininity is relentlessly shot down today (or else just sniffed at and ignored); art is supposed to be hard and macho. Even those who paint vaginas today make sure they're hard, macho vaginas.

So Dawn's waterfalls aren't Pat Stier's waterfalls. She doesn't shoot her silver onto a black canvas with a squirt gun, allowing a thick curtain of rain to slide down; she doesn't permit herself to play with media and form. She's not ready for that yet. If she continues to hope that, Wyland-like, her work will grace posters by the thousands instead of one discriminating person's wall, she never will be. But Dawn has a startling grace in her work. De-prettying it just a bit (toning down the Miami Vice palette, for instance, and the Doodle Art fantasy lands) would be a terrific start for making her a touch less accessible to the unwashed and a tad more palatable to the choosy. If she could do that while maintaining her clarity of composition, she'd grow into an enviable painter. Meanwhile, she shouldn't give a damn about what I and others like me think.


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