Place Settings

When British artist Erica Daborn moved to Los Angeles in 1987, she came empty-handed. Leaving her work back in England, she arrived in the United States with little more than her art degrees from the Winchester School of Art and the Royal College of Art and a reputation for her figural style.

That style soon changed drastically, however. Being in an intense and alien environment without any of her work, which was so closely linked to her identity as an artist, threw Daborn into a kind of culture shock that soon manifested itself in new work. The result fills Out of Place, an in-depth look at a decade's worth of Daborn's meticulous paintings and drawings that closes this weekend at the University of Denver's Art and Art History Gallery.

In England, Daborn had used a labor-intensive technique. But in Los Angeles, she began to quickly sketch images in charcoal, freely translating them into paint. Out of Place includes one of these preparatory drawings--"Reconstructive Surgery," a charcoal on paper from 1987 that leaves no ambiguity as to how Daborn was adjusting to her new home. In a creepy tableau, the artist depicts herself on an operating table. Her arms and legs have been cut off; her heart, with severed veins, lies in the foreground. In the background, the doctor applies a power sander to one of her three breasts, and a nurse waxes her bikini line while another, off the picture plane, plucks her eyebrows. Daborn has erased details in places, providing a smeary ground for the fully fleshed-out figures.

Daborn's maladjustment to the California environment and her biting view of its superficiality continue to be wells of artistic inspiration from which she draws to this day. But she's also interested in social commentary from a leftist perspective. Her linking of cosmetic surgery to more benign forms of beauty treatments--she's wearing curlers in "Reconstructive Surgery"--suggests political (in this case, feminist) content. The stunning, strange "Networking," a 1989 oil on Masonite, takes a broader swipe at life in Los Angeles. Across this large, horizontal picture, four figures hide behind masks, looking part-human, part-sculpture. Each is perched on a stand, and all are interconnected by wires attached to their heads. The four--two men and two women--are fiercely engaged in conversation while passing business cards to one another.

In "Networking," Daborn displays the abstraction of the human figure that today is her signature, an approach that is simultaneously charming and disturbing. The figures suggest illustrations from some nightmarish children's book--a not-incidental reference, since Daborn has increasingly looked to childhood imagery since the birth of her daughter, Nico, in 1989.

Out of Place includes many paintings that take up the topic of motherhood, both in relation to Nico and to Daborn's own mother. "The Blue Cat," an exquisitely painted oil on canvas from 1993, tells the story. In the foreground, a little girl clutches a doll, perhaps Daborn clutching her daughter, as a winged horse carries off an older woman, surely meant to signify her mother. This painting, which reveals a debt to modern master Marc Chagall, has a lyrical quality seen in few other pieces here.

Another way Daborn expressed her role as a mother was by replacing the wires of "Networking" with the umbilical cords in "Life Support," a small oil on Masonite from 1992, and many other paintings. In "Life Support," a standing, worm-like mother with a baby bottle strapped to her back is attached to a supine stuffed animal by a cord coming out of her mouth. In another oil on Masonite, the fastidiously painted "Pacifier"--one of eight pieces from the 1997 "Mothercraft" series included in Out of Place--a green teddy bear is linked by a cord to a women's head shown in profile.

Although her mysterious iconography and idiosyncratic representational style are the most obvious features of Daborn's work, these paintings also display an expert color-blending technique in which each shade is the product of many disparate hues. And Daborn's scrupulously smooth surfaces are sublime; they actually gleam.

Daborn may have left her artistic past behind, but she quickly found her way to even greater work.

Two very different artists share a show at Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery, and although Denatured gives each artist her own space, their work functions surprisingly well together. Painter Holly Sumner's closely associated monochrome paintings provide just the right atmosphere for Linda Herritt's virtuoso installation.

A New York artist, Sumner has substantial ties to Colorado and still spends summer vacations at her family's cabin in Grand Lake. In the 1980s she lived in Boulder, where she received her MFA from the University of Colorado in 1984; she subsequently exhibited quite a bit in Denver, Boulder and Aspen. Gallery director Robin Rule thinks that Sumner's longtime connection to this state may be the reason her paintings look the way they do. "The visuals are Western, but they have a sophisticated, big-city sensibility," Rule says. "They're Holly's interpretation of the Western experience."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia

Latest Stories