Walnut Creek, CA

Irene Pijoan

Bedford Gallery

In an era when the tyranny of “signature style” has meant that an artist’s production should be both consistent and readily attributable, Irene Pijoan has courageously embraced a wide range of media and modes of production. The objects and images presented in this midcareer survey of work from the past twenty years were so various that a first impression suggested a group exhibition rather than a solo show. Sculpture and painting—on canvas, wood, linen, plaster, and stone—explored both dark, expressive figuration and vivid, delicate abstraction; figures, landscapes, words, and shapes were formed in wax, painted in oil, sketched in charcoal, and cut from paper. Yet on closer examination, important threads of continuity appear, connecting the different periods of Pijoan’s artistic evolution. A sensuous, psychologically charged love of materials has evolved over time into a humanist exploration of the connection between mind and body, thought and experience. For Pijoan, the process of discovery is as interesting as the eventual product.

The first group of pieces dates from the early ’80s, soon after Pijoan’s completion of a master’s degree at the University of California, Davis. Born in Switzerland, she ended up in Davis during the halcyon period when the school was arguably at its most interesting: The art department faculty included such figures as Wayne Thiebaud, Robert Arneson, Roy De Forest, and Manuel Neri. Pijoan’s earliest post-graduate works are subtly colored high-relief plaques featuring wax figures playing out a dark, mysterious narrative against painted backgrounds. Throughout the ’80s Pijoan experimented with formats and materials in a succession of series, often still including modeled figures in enigmatic settings. In one group of pieces, the rectangular plaque has evolved into an irregular oval shape like a shield, a format that would recur later in paintings on found chunks of concrete.

By 1990, Pijoan had left figuration behind, though recognizable shapes and elements of text persisted in the paintings. A growing interest in meditation led her toward “the intelligence of the senses”—a responsiveness to all sensory information, including that which is usually ignored or edited. A deliberate attempt to incorporate free association into her practice resulted in a series of large paintings in oil on canvas, in which unfamiliar shapes and marks collide and intertwine in an uninhibited, mysterious ballet that is as eccentric as it is beautiful. The forms trace the effort to express thoughts and feelings as they occur during the act of painting; Pijoan completed parts of one work with her eyes closed.

In 1993, a momentary impulse to slash the surface of a painting on paper led to a series of elaborately excised works that continues to the present. Delicate nets of pattern and text invoke the folk tradition of papercuts common to cultures as different as Switzerland and Mexico. These surprisingly large works become the vehicle for a free flow of ideas and images that seem to belie the laborious, time-consuming task of cutting. Many of these pieces refer to events in Pijoan’s life: the birth of her daughter, her mother’s death. In Diaper, 1995 stylized lamps signify the beginning of sight and consciousness; portraits of babies Pijoan has known cascade down the image’s spiral structure. The almost illegible text in Cutting From a Gradual, 1997, is a succession of names and dates representing significant events of her mother’s life. Still, as in her earlier figurative works in wax, the focus is not on particularities but on the big picture: the commemoration of work, and of life itself.

Maria Porges