Berkeley’s Ariel Parkinson, or Ariel, through her long and illustrious career as artist, environmental activist, political cartoonist, filmmaker, designer, award-winning stage designer (San Francisco Opera, San Francisco Ballet, Oakland Ballet, Berkeley Stage Company, California Shakespeare Festival) and even art/dance/theater critic, is something of a Bay Area institution. A retrospective featuring her paintings, drawings, posters, poetry, and theatrical props, masks, and puppets demonstrates that art can serve politics, theater, literature (Greek mythology, the Bible, Shakespeare), opera (Mozart, Wagner) or the unfettered imagination with equal skill, passion, and creativity.
The art historian Alfred Neumeyer wrote about her artwork, which fuses Surrealist imagination with Abstract Expressionist painterly freedom: “Design and color move toward each other but are never identical. Figures appear in profile like the dream-echoes of a classical world. Colors are evocations and essences, not descriptions and decorations. Her pictures, though entirely original, recall occasionally [the French visionary artist] Odilon Redon and the early work of [the Austrian Expressionist, Oskar] Kokoschka. They are a distillation of enchantment and fear, reaching from the blue of dreams to the red of fire.” All the works explore that spectrum between enchantment and fear, suggesting the magical transformations of fairy tales and folklore and myth; sometimes, they dissolve into potent, intoxicating mixtures, allegories of innocence threatened but unvanquished by dark forces — like the candle-bearing schoolgirl in Picasso’s “Minotauromachy.”
In “Susanna and the Elders,” a young woman (given a Picassean double face) holds up a warning hand to her grotesque oglers while a rearing horse, partly transparent and clearly magical, echoes her gesture with its forelegs; all inhabit an ambiguous medium, neither air nor water, speckled with ornate patterning. That patterning predominates in “Fafner Swallowing Valhalla,” swelling into a patchwork of heavy impasto patches or metallic scales set in a blue matrix; we decipher Wagner’s greedy dragon-god only via its fangs, snout, pointed ears, and malignant eye. The palette of “Leda and the Swan,” a richly patterned white and golden-yellow, alludes slyly to the tragic rivals Helen and Clytemnestra, hatchlings sired by Zeus in his avian disguise in one version of the myth. Whoever the progeny were, in this picture, the human and god-animal combine into a tumult of related parts: the rhyming forms of the swan’s neck and Leda’s upraised arm, or the swan’s gown-like tail plumage contrasted with Leda’s birdlike stance. Mozarteans should not miss the watercolor designs for “The Magic Flute.” Ariel: A Retrospective runs through October 9 at Mythos Fine Art and Artifacts (1747 Solano Ave., Berkeley). 510-528-4291 or MythosFineArt.com