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Altered States, Dreamscapes, and Underworlds

Not the Odalisques of Old

The first solo show at the newly opened Fabric8 Gallery, Altered States, Dreamscapes, and Underworlds exhibits the alluring yet playful works of Ursula Xanthe Young, a native of England and long-time Bay Area resident. A curious combination of street and fantasy, Young’s works feature wide-eyed (though not necessarily innocent), pursed-lipped beauties among backdrops of city skylines and climbing vines.

Young’s signature women reveal a mixture of innocent feminine beauty with a certain worldliness in their steady, warm gazes and coy poses. Nude or clothed, in a variety of poses both demure and provocative, the figures are more enchanting than mysterious, engaging the viewer in a contemplation of sensuous form and vibrant color.

In "Coco Loco", a large-eyed blonde dominates the foreground while a dusky cityscape climbs the hill behind her, windows glowing warmly. Her hair blows gently, floating through space as though suspended underwater, as she holds out a hand from which two graceful and elegant green birds seem to have just leapt. Pearls cluster like delicate bubbles at her throat, and she gazes unwaveringly at the viewer. The woman’s seemingly untamed beauty and the fluidity of the two birds contrast wonderfully with the dark, angular buildings, conveying a sense of the fantastic having been superimposed over the everyday.

What is perhaps most noticeable about this painting, and about all of Young’s paintings, is the skin of the figure -- it is filled in with soft blocks of color, reminiscent of the pointillism of Georges Braque except on a more conspicuous level. Reds, greens, blues, purples, yellows and oranges; these colors overlap and merge to form the delicate surface of her flesh. While this technique is prevalent in Young’s pieces and thus ultimately feels a little bit overworked, it is also one used to wonderful effect in other ways.

The buildings in the backdrop of "Coco Loco" are outlined starkly against a gorgeous and vibrant mottled sky -- this same technique of soft-edged blocks of color conveying a sense of deep blue storm clouds rolling down over the hills as a fiery sun falls over the horizon, still tingeing the sky with orange and gold. "Opiated Innocence", too, manipulates patches of color, in this case cool blues and purples and greens, to form the wafting smoke of an opium pipe. This use of color creates a depth and movement in the settings that somehow does not seem to translate as well to the women’s skin.

In addition to the pieces representative of Young’s work up to this point are several that unveil potential new directions -- experimental works that play with media and techniques outside of Young’s usual repertoire. In many, she has transferred photos taken by her and her husband on their many trips around the world onto canvas, then painted figures and scenes over them.

The creativity employed by Young in incorporating the photos into her work shows great promise; for example, "Under A Fish-Eye Moon" uses the large, protuberant eye of an intricately striped fish as a full moon suspended over the brightly colored Victorians typical of San Francisco neighborhoods. She uses other photos in similar ways, providing interesting textures to underlie her now-familiar figures. However, the painted elements do not yet seem to be fully integrated into the photos; a gap still seems to exist, preventing paint and photo from forming a united whole. But the idea is fresh and may provide a wonderful new avenue of evolution and expansion for Young’s works.

Altered States, Dreamscapes, and Underworlds presents an intriguing juxtaposition of city and nature, innocence and worldliness, bright splashes of color and dark fields of deepest blue, and discloses to viewers a new look at old subject matter: sassy, direct, and unapologetic, these are not Titian’s nudes.

Fabric8 Gallery
Now through November 3, 2009