As an artist, Dona Blakely has run out of patience. The environment is running away from us, wars of all kinds crowd around and technology distracts us to no end. Blakely is tired of it all and feels like we need to make a change. Who can spare a moment for sappy little bunny videos or cute little kitten paintings when the global fan is splattering shit everywhere?
When you add the loss of a child onto all of this, it becomes overwhelming. For Blakely, that staggering, shocked sense of daze is all too real. Since the death of her son Russell last year, her anger has just begun to wane, and she's eager to let you know how important it is to get things right. Now.
At the same time, her art builds in intentional pauses to let us know that "there's always room for beauty." This duality is one key to understanding her new show at Piante Gallery, on display during Arts Alive! "Everything is Fine" delivers startling truths, sweet secrets and indelible images that will leave you wanting more.
The title of the show is a palpable attempt at moving on, yet the intensity of Blakely's experience remains evident. "Everything is Fine!" Blakely bursts with a wry cackle. "You say it when your kid dies and people ask how are things." Life can seem unbearable, but at the same time "you go out in the garden and there are bees flying around and it's beautiful." In that moment, "the river is running, and everything really is fine." Her new show powerfully reveals both of these conflicting moments all at once.
Viewers familiar with Blakely's work will notice a strong graphic element to her new pieces. "I feel an urgency," she says, "I need to say plainly what I think." One piece, Blakely's favorite, features the Greek goddess Gaia. Emerging from a dreamlike purple-gray background flooded with flames and smoke, "Princess Gaia" offers a "Pouch of Possibilities; a Pocket Full of Choices." The goddess appears on a bed of crimson. Human chromosomes drift above and remind us that we are the ones who must choose what to do next. The earth is a self-regulating organism, eliminating things that seek to destroy it, and we puny humans don't have much time to make the right choice.
Simultaneously, the earth also provides an abundance of life-giving bounty. "Earth and Sky," a triptych accompanying "Gaia," allows viewers to fill in the blanks that Gaia generously offers. Enveloped in Blakely's characteristic, sanded-through layers and glimmering with silver leaf, the apple tree image also represents a potent symbol of life-giving fruit. Invariably, that fruit doesn't last long. Beauty is short-lived, and Blakely has experienced this ephemerality firsthand.
To honor Russell and give his friends and family a peek at his artistic development, Blakely is sharing her most recent show with her son. Among her paintings, viewers will find a sensitive work in honor of Russell, as well as a handful of photographs he took before his untimely death. It's a way for those who knew Russell to find one last glimpse of his personality, his eye, his life.
His photos depict a skilled style, and it's obvious that Russell had experienced his fair share of art. "I just love the color in that one," Blakely says of a formalistic shot of an abandoned interior space. Blakely doesn't know where all of the photos were taken, but viewers will recognize scenes from downtown Eureka and rural Humboldt County.
"He was a member of many different groups," she says, "most of whom didn't interact with each other." With this view, perhaps it is fitting that many of the prints demonstrate a nuanced understanding of layers. A particularly striking one focuses on the interior of an abandoned building. Peeling posts adorn the cracked frame of a door, and inside a lonely loveseat sits, illuminated from behind by the shattered light of a broken window.
There are dates on some of these photos, lending a domestic feel to many of them. The canary yellow numbers remind us of our impermanence — that our time on earth is finite. The presence of the dates almost demands that we pay attention to time passing and that we make the most of it while we can.
In her show, some of Blakely's paintings express a desire to link her environmental sensitivity to Russell's younger generation. With the deliberate inclusion of QR codes in a few pieces, she is "trying to make a bridge for the people who have their heads stuck in technology." It's quite the juxtaposition to find such digital elements in decidedly organic work, but the idea is noble. With the right device, viewers will be able to use their smart phones to witness a video of Blakely explaining the meaning of some works, as well as another video that captures the location of one painting's inspiration.
Nature and technology, paintings and photographs, young and old, life and death. A continuum of dualities are part of our existence on this earth. While they may challenge us with their elusive links, there's no reason to run from them. Life has given us a chance, and we must respect what little time we have. Most of all, we must do something with it.