Patricia Patterson’s first retrospective, filling all 9,000 square feet of this museum, encapsulates a career nearly singular in its focus but expansive – exhilaratingly so – in its emotional range and sense of formal adventure. In 1960, as a young art student, Patterson traveled to Inishmore, one of the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. The visceral shock of the place, rocky and treeless, without electricity or plumbing, registered deeply, as did the relationships she developed there during a dozen stays over the course of 30 years. The Aran of her memory, along with sketches and photographs, became an inexhaustible well that she has drawn from as a painter, first in New York and since 1970 in Southern California.
Her earliest works here, modest-size oils on paper from 1962, present a tenderly observed taxonomy of the island’s chief elements: piebald horse, whitewashed house, cart, haystack, man kneeling in prayer. In one of the most recent pieces, a broad landscape in casein and pastel on canvas (2011), Patterson marries poetry, the evocation of sea and sky as gray atmospheres varying in density and viscosity, and prose, the faithful description of a pair of cows, their noses to the stone-strewn ground. Because of the continuity of Patterson’s subject matter, it doesn’t matter that the 60-plus paintings are not hung chronologically (though several large installations from the ’80s are re-created more or less intact). The work forms a cohesive whole much like a photo-essay, examining multiple aspects of a theme across time through the accretion of specific stilled moments.
The paintings are snapshotlike in their casual immediacy. Patterson catches a man entering a kitchen with a cigarette in one hand and a luminous gold jug in the other; a couple pressed together in a brief embrace; a woman, facing away from us, at the stove. The scenes are ordinary and intimate, the scale exclamatory. Most of the paintings are either taller than their viewers, or much wider. The panoramic landscapes, filmic in their broad, considered sweep, can measure more than 12 feet in width.
Patterson matches the raw vitality of Inishmore life with a visual approach equally fresh and vigorous. She layers sketchy, loose drawing atop vibrant underpainting, creates brilliant frictions between hot and cold colors (tangerine, sunflower, terra-cotta, mint, ultramarine) and surrounds many of the matte, fresolike casein surfaces with boldly hued, glossy enamel frames. Patterson has had a relatively quiet career, writing collaboratively (from the late ’60s to the late ’70s) with her late husband, the film critic and painter Manny Farber, teaching at UC San Diego, and exhibiting her work, most frequently during the ’80s. This show, titled “Here and There, Back and Forth,” testifies to the eduring power of a well-told story and to Patterson’s perserverance against contrary artistic currents. It ought to bring her wider recognition; it has all the verve and authenticity of a true revelation.