Faculty artist dips into the abstract

Celene Vargas
Editorial Director

Landscape paintings that dip away from realism and into the abstract by artist and faculty emerita Joella Jean Mahoney have taken over the Harris Gallery for the University of La Verne’s 125th anniversary.

The exhibit, “Passionate Vision, Landscape Painting of the Colorado Plateau 1965-2016” is a 50-year retrospective that features oil paintings of nature done by memory. The paintings vary from realistic, like “Mystery Ridge,” to abstract, like “Emerald Pool.”

“Although she did not start the art department, she was fundamental in shaping the way in which it became a developed curriculum and as a part of the art experience for students taking classes in and outside of the art department,” Dion Johnson, director of art galleries, said.

Mahoney’s interpretation of nature gives her paintings an almost surrealistic quality that makes them seem like they were all plucked out of a dream.

“A lot of the pieces are very thought-provoking,” said Kirsten Contreras, junior kinesiology major and student assistant at the Harris Gallery.

“I really enjoy the one that is a depiction of Lake Powell. It’s very realistic but somewhat peaceful. The other ones are still very nature-looking, but they look kind of abstract. It makes you think, ‘what was she looking at when she painted that?’”

Mahoney lives in Sedona and became familiar with the different areas she painted after spending a lot of time hiking, Johnson said. She opted to create the canvas paintings in her studio instead of on-site and without the use of photographs for reference.

“They really have a lot of her personality and a lot of mystery within,” Johnson said. “We think we know what we’re seeing, but then there’s really something else; there’s a little something more to explore than straight realism.”

One painting he feels is especially important to the exhibit is the 1965 piece, “Dry Lakes,” because it shows how she allowed the landscape to become both representational and abstract, which added an extra layer of depth.

Many of the paintings feature elements of texture, like thick layers of paint and strong brushstrokes. One nameless piece in particular was three-dimensional and looked like it had stuffing. It was mostly white with different bumps tinted in soft brown undertones. At the top-left, there was a thick, black section.

Between some of the ridges it looked like it had lines from a sewing machine.

“My favorite is the white one,” said junior business major Ely Rojas. She is also a student assistant at the Harris Gallery. “I think it’s interesting to see because most paintings are 2-D, and this one is 3-D, and it’s like a different feel.”

The exhibit opened on Sept. 1 and will run until Oct. 31 and will have an official reception.

Johnson used the analogy of a passport photograph to describe how Mahoney’s exhibit stands out with how used her memory of the landscapes instead of just sticking to pure realism.

“If you were to look at someone’s passport photo, you wouldn’t know anything about them even though they are perfectly representational of the person. However, Mahoney’s paintings are full of her personality.”

Celene Vargas can be reached at celene.vargas@laverne.edu.

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