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'Transitions and Reflections'

Barbara Lee Smith's "Textile Paintings" at TCC

“Salt Edge/Fog,” mixed media by Barbara Lee Smith. Photo courtesy Tacoma Community College

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The term "Textile Paintings" is my term, not the artists and not the gallery's. It's what I see as the best possible descriptor of Barbara Lee Smith's art at The Gallery at Tacoma Community College. It's neither fabric art nor painting, and yet it combines some of the best elements of each.  

TCC President Emeritus Pamela Transue states it beautifully: "One of the great pleasures for the viewer is the evolving perspective of contemplating Barbara's work from different distances. ... At a distance, we may see what we first assume to be a watercolor painting.  Closer up we see elements of a tapestry; a quilt; a collage. At the closest proximity, we become aware of the structuring of the elements that combine to make her work so complex and unique."

As a critic, I choose to see her work as painting because her works are arrangements of shapes, colors and textures on a flat surface with the subject matter (landscape in most but not all) secondary to the visual elements - in other words, classical modernist painting as it should be done.

But we must take note of Smith's use of materials, which may not be as important as the formal elements mentioned above but which, nevertheless, give her works a unique appearance that I find quite stunning. Smith paints non-woven synthetic fabric, rips and cuts it into strips and chunks, mounts them collage-like on a flat surface and stitches them. The end result is what Transue described: work that looks like painting at a distance but like a combination of collage and quilting up close.

Most are impressionistic landscapes that veer toward expressionistic abstractions, while some are purely abstract with many degrees along the realistic-abstract scale among the many works. In some, the colors are shockingly bright, as if infused with blinding sunlight, while others are as soft as Northwest mist and fog. All are knockouts.

"Salt Edge/Fog" is one of the most realistic landscapes in the show. It is a picture of the edge of a body of water seen through fog, with the sharp images of reeds in the foreground and shrouded mountains at the horizon. It is a restful and contemplative image in soft tones of blue, brown and gray.

"Nica Walls/Light and Shadow" is almost its exact opposite. It is a set of six small horizontal "paintings" stacked vertically, each a collage of rock-like shapes in earthy orange and brown with accents in blue and purple. It is purely abstract, but with the feel of craggy rock walls or stacks of old planks.

"Warm Welcome" and "Here and There" are both abstractions that evoke cave openings or doors with burning light coming from within with brilliant yellow ("Warm Welcome") and hot chartreuse ("Here and There"). There is a feeling of great depth, but instead of going into the dark of a cave there is a coming-out of light.

Along the back wall is a mural-sized seascape called "Oyster Light." It covers almost the entire wall at more than 15 feet wide (187½ inches by 84½ inches). Similar to "Salt Edge/Fog," it is a scene at water's edge in fog, but much more amorphous. It brings to mind Monet's late wall-size paintings of lily pads.

Smith will soon be leaving the Pacific Northwest for the East Coast, and this may be our last opportunity to see her work. I highly recommend that you do.

"TRANSITIONS AND REFLECTIONS," noon to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday, through Feb. 5, Tacoma Community College, Building 5A, entrance off South 12th Street between Pearl and Mildred, Tacoma, visitor parking in Lot G.

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