Like a planet subject to the gravitational pull of two different suns, Patricia Patterson was long torn between mutually exclusive sources of nourishment and attachment: the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland, where she lived as a young student and returned a dozen times over the course of 30 years; and her life in the U.S., fully engaged as an artist, teacher, writer and partner to film critic and painter Manny Farber.
Ultimately, Patterson chose both, thus the title of her first retrospective exhibition, “Here and There, Back and Forth,” at the California Center for the Arts museum in Escondido (through June 30).
“It was a conundrum, something to solve,” she said, taking a break from the installation of the show last month. “It was always a kind of emotional turmoil, because I loved [Ireland] so much, and yet all my life I had so much here. I really did love the world there as much as anything I’ve ever experienced.”
The show’s more than 60 paintings give a good indication why the ancient, rocky island of Inishmore appealed to Patterson, as well as how she managed to keep that world present in New York and, later, Southern California by making it the primary subject of her art. Sea, sky and field stretch across broad canvases, stark panoramic vistas of raw, natural beauty. Men raise glasses around the kitchen table, embrace their wives, skin a rabbit, smoke a pipe, read the newspaper. Women enter and exit the domestic stage, prepare spreads of bread and tea, tidy up, emit looks of concern or alarm, share convivial smiles.
Patterson renders the simple, whitewashed exteriors of the island homes and the boldly colored walls and furnishings of the rooms inside. She infuses the sketchy immediacy of snapshots with chromatic energy: warm terra cotta and tangerine buzz against cool ultramarine and gray. Glossy enamel frames in radiant combinations of sunflower, olive, mint, teal and aqua enclose scenes painted in matte, fresco-like casein.
Nearly every painting is either taller or wider than the average person. “The Bed,” a stirring portrait of emptiness at the heart of a home, is both, measuring more than 8 by 12 feet. By enveloping us, the images give physical presence to a distant reality. Installations incorporating painted doors and windows or pieces of furniture similar to those in Ireland (mantel, table, stove) further bridge the divide between here and there.
Patterson, born in Jersey City in 1941, was a student at Parsons School of Design in New York when she made her first trip to Inishmore in 1960. She became intrigued with the place after reading Yeats and Synge. Cars and televisions are now common on the island, but at that time, houses were lighted by candles and gas lamps. Women brought water home in buckets from the well. The startling landscape and radically different way of life had a profound impact on her.
“You were on this small island with no trees, you were seeing the sky,” she recalled. “You were feeling the weather and the change of light. That was really an extraordinary thing, to be surrounded by water and sky and this vastness. I was living with people who had never had electricity or plumbing. It was really exciting.”
Patterson, a woman of quiet elegance and keen intelligence, was deeply drawn to the culture, but resisted idealizing it or subjecting it to the sepia tones of nostalgia. Part of what made it so fascinating was the way beauty and harshness coexisted there, she said. “One thing I’ve always tried to do is convey how alive and contemporary that world was, even though it could be characterized as old-fashioned. It was very present-tense, and there was nothing quaint about it at all. It was very intense and real.”
Returning to New York, she felt a jarring disconnection between the purity of life on the island and the cerebral ironies of the ’60s art world. She took in early shows of Robert Serra and Barry Le Va and was attracted to minimalism but felt out of sync with the mode of the day. In her earliest works in the exhibition, a series of paintings on paper from 1962, she tenderly observes Inishmore through isolated studies of a cow, a cart, a haystack, a man kneeling to pray.
In 1966, when she was 25 and teaching art to grammar school students, she met Farber, 49, an accomplished film and art critic for the New Republic, Time and the Nation, and a fledgling painter. They started living together the following year, becoming intimate partners in life and work — “a team, from the beginning.” They married in 1976.
Patterson started collaborating with Farber on film reviews. She wasn’t always credited in print, but Farber marveled publicly over what she brought to the process in terms of insight and language. She made essential contributions to his development as a painter as well, from his early abstractions to the tabletop still lifes of the ’70s onward. The color in his work came strictly from her, Farber said later in life. “From the very beginning, she’s been regulating that in my work,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anyone equal to her in terms of that.”
It took their move to California in 1970, when Farber was hired to teach at UC San Diego, for Patterson’s own work to flourish and be recognized by colleagues, dealers and curators. The rise of feminist art helped validate the autobiographical and domestic, which her images hinged upon, and narrative elements, too, were more readily accepted here. At the time, she perceived “a very strong, anti-literary tone in New York.”
Steeping herself in film helped solidify her aesthetic, as did teaching, initially in UCSD’s Extension program and after 1975 as full-time faculty. She devised a course on utopian societies that evolved out of her interest in the Shakers and their notion of work as prayer, and expanded into William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, De Stijl and the Bauhaus. Her study of the Russian avant-garde was particularly influential: “The way they did photography, fashion design, posters, typography. The idea of wanting to change the world by changing the kind of clothes you wore, the dishes you used. The sense that everything counted.”
The integrity she perceived in these communities resonated with her experience of life in Aran, which she wrote about in a 1978 essay, describing the island women’s houses as “their medium and arena for a lifetime.” Patterson and Farber’s house in Leucadia, with its brilliantly colored walls and twin studios flanking an exquisitely tended garden is, likewise, a manifestation of her social and visual sensibility. More of her time has been spent there since she stopped teaching in 1999 and slowed her participation in exhibitions and public projects (several are documented in the exhibition), to attend more to supporting Farber and his work. He died in 2008, at age 91.
The idea for the Escondido show, co-curated by museum registrar Mary Johnson and Director Olivia Luther, arose soon thereafter. Patterson had re-immersed herself in her work but was feeling stuck, at a vulnerable place, emotionally and professionally. “A kind of complete overhaul had to take place, in every aspect of my life,” she said.
When she was offered either one room or the entire 9,000-square-foot museum, she knew instantly that she wanted to fill the whole space.
“I wanted something that would be really hard and would force me to expand in a lot of ways. I knew that I had to finally be able to talk about my work and what it meant, to bring many things together and see how they all fit — how what I taught, the writing that Manny and I did together and the film viewing, how all of those things connected, and why I still had that strong attachment to Inishmore as my subject matter. I owed it to my work to do this.”