The vivid, Technicolor hands of Cara Thayer and Louie Van Patten's paintings pull you into the Ruud Gallery as soon as you step into the hushed, cool space. Not super realism, yet not afraid of fooling the eye from twenty paces, the couple's new works have an underlying tension to them, illustrated by wringing, skeletal hands, by grimacing flesh, or, in the case of one dramatic scene, "The Persistence of Repressed Thoughts III," an ambiguous figure jails the other in a contorted headlock.
In this painting, the dominant figure is Thayer, the trapped figure Van Patten. But this is an arbitrary acknowledgement. Yes, they are a couple. Yes, they share canvases and brushes, working on large, luscious oil paintings together. No, they can't really point out who painted what. And yes, they get along just fine, if you were wondering.
"We paint together like we would perform any other task, after a while it just becomes natural," Thayer explains. The couple holds fast to the formal philosophy that builds on the idea that painting is a visual dialog between artist and canvas, and canvas and viewer.
"In our case," Van Patten says, "the conversation is just a little more complex. It's a dialog between artist and artist and canvas, but the relationship between canvas and viewer is still the same."
The couple's work is currently on display at the Ruud Gallery in Bend and they also created this year's label art for Deschutes' Brewery's winter seasonal beer, Jubelale. And like in many of their works, the focus of the label's art is on a pair of hands - one holding a snowball and the other a pint of Deschutes beer.
The drama the couple may brush aside in their process is an important part of their product. There is often the implication, anthropomorphically, of opposing forces or ideas, but also perhaps cycles of repulsion and seduction. In the case of the "Chromatic Maladies" series are the paint-covered hands of the figure caught in the act of delightfully rubbing blue pigment into skin, or maybe in the process of trying to come clean. The work is smart enough, through contemplative titling and classical references (the aforementioned headlock painting refers to the biblical horror of Judith slaying Holofernes) that the viewer may project a deep narrative; but the work remains approachable because they are so beautifully rendered.
Figurative painting has a monumental history, for which the couple has great respect. Both spent time in the museums in the Midwest (Des Moines and Chicago, among others) and they become giddy when talking about viewing a Rembrandt or a Frances Bacon from a three-quarter view, taking in how the paint has been applied, thickly, tactilely, viscerally. This is a point of interest in their process. Thayer describes the role of the figure as an armature, the human landscapes as "a playground for us to apply paint."
"Canvas and paint were always meant to represent flesh," Van Patten says, quick to describe their process in an art historical context.
The attempt to master the materials, the obvious love of oil and pigment, is what drives the work and deepens the dialogue. While they self-depreciatingly shrug off comparison to figure painter Jenny Seville, Thayer and Van Patten hold a common intent to the British artist, in pushing the modern palette's ability to render flesh in a way that is both beautiful and slightly grotesque.
"We approach it from a contemporary place because we acknowledge the effect of florescent light. It creates this sickly kind of palette, so that while the subject matter is classical, rendering the effects of the lighting on human skin is very new," says Van Patten.