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Setting sail on canvas

Arline Erdrich lightens the subject matter for her new paintings, leaving behind musings on mortality for travel in the Caribbean.

By LENNIE BENNETT, Times art critic
Published June 30, 2005

TAMPA - Sometimes it's the journey, sometimes the destination. Arline Erdrich's retrospective about a year ago at the Gulf Coast Museum of Art was, like all retrospectives, a trip through her life and career. Now, at the Hillsborough Community College Ybor Campus Art Gallery, her exhibition of recent works represents an arrival.

Destination: islands.

Erdrich is traveling lighter in these new paintings, taking a vacation from the darker, earlier works about mortality. They are joyous postcards of time spent in the Grenadines, an archipelago in the Caribbean.

We have seen the three largest paintings, titled Carnivale, before; they were at the end of the 2004 retrospective. Here they open the show in a neat, possibly unintended, gesture of continuity. In them, bands of color torque like frenzied dancers at a street party. They look collaged, and in a sense they are, because of a technique Erdrich calls Acryllage in which she paints on plastic sheeting, coats it with varnish, then transfers it to canvas. When the plastic is peeled away, she has a dense build-up of paint. It lends itself well to Erdrich's abstract take on snapshot moments that are the equivalent of a highly personal vacation photo album.

Most of the other paintings share the same restlessness of a traveler on the move, wanting to cram in as much sensory experience as possible in a limited time.

Eight paintings along one gallery wall chart a sailing adventure, and they are wonderful. Sailing to the Tobago Keys begins with sails hoisted up the mast under a flat blue sky. Successive works present different perspectives on the boat, in the way sailors range around deck dealing with shifting winds and tides. In one, the boat pitches and the horizon tilts; in another, paint flecks the canvas like saltwater spray. Erdrich gives you the actual without being representational. Pollocky drips represent flailing lines; ropes coil like vortexes, sails converge as acute angles. By the time you reach the eighth and last painting, in which a froth of white beach balances below a flat-line horizon, you find yourself mentally lurching on sea legs reciting "Home is the Sailor."

Paintings on thick, handmade paper act as studies for several of the Tobago works, sharing the same composition - sails viewed from below and cropped into tightly angled planes - with different color combinations.

Another group is land-based, very small paintings with the texture of stone and the look of cave drawings on which native symbols are superimposed. They're nice but not as compelling.

Bequai Lobster on the Halfshell and Lobster Flower glow with lush tropical pigment and are witty examinations of similar forms, the flower's red claw of a blossom reiterated suggestively by the plated crustacean surrounded by a gardenlike riot of purple, green and blue.

Because she painted what she saw and experienced, this exhibition represents a working vacation of Erdrich. Artists, like many others who set their own hours, rarely take time off. Still, we recognize respite and renewal here and a longing to repack the luggage.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or


"Erdrich in the Grenadines: Elemental, My Dear" is at the Hillsborough Community College Ybor Campus Art Gallery, Palm Avenue and 14th Street, Ybor City, through Aug. 12. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday and noon to 7 p.m. Tuesday or by appointment. Free. (813) 253-7674. Erdrich presents a free painting demonstration from 1 to 3 p.m. July 12 in the painting studio adjacent to the gallery.

[Last modified June 29, 2005, 09:43:07]

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