by CARRIE SCOZZARO & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & J & lt;/span & ane Orleman tells beautiful stories. Her most recent exhibition of mural-sized paintings narrate the gift of the "dragon's egg" in six panels covering the walls of Spokane City Hall's Chase Gallery. It's related to a recent exhibition at Central Washington University entitled "Beneath the Canopy of Heaven," and it spans roughly four years of painting for this Washington-area artist.
We begin with "Infinite Journey," an oil on canvas that covers an entire wall, looking like an illustration for a children's book combining New Age symbolism and Tolkien-like fantasy. A serpentine dragon encircles a surprised-looking couple lying in their brass bed, which happens to be in a boat drifting downriver. The couple is nude (unusual for the Chase), but not in any titillating way. Other figures include a woman riding a white horse, and a man and woman picnicking beside the river. The man is turned, pointing toward the scene in the boat, while the woman continues painting. A tree with a Hindu-like face and headdress waves from the shore, which is populated with several meditating figures, one of whom is holding a yin-yang symbol.
Half the fun in viewing an Orleman painting is the symbolism, which embraces a wide range of cultures and belief systems. In "Woman of Times and Tides," a mermaid-like figure is poised on a turtle's back, suggesting Native American mythology. "Mind, Body, Soul: The Three Graces," depicts Eastern divine goddess figures lounging on clouds, balanced upon the earth or floating in the ocean.
In "Janus: Guardian of the Portals," our heroine (Jane/Janus?) is presented with choices -- four varied-size spheres of possibility which rim a path described by a red, black and white snake coyly smiling as it swallows its own tail. This is one of Orleman's most intriguing images because it breaks the general symmetry employed in other works. Despite her use of reassuringly bright colors and childlike perspective, something is disquieting about this painting. Figures hover along the edges of the canvas. An arrow-shaped key is painted on each thigh of the Janus-figure who straddles a house, its angles subtly cutting against the dominant curvilinear forms of Orleman's iconography.
And so the story has a dark side, as Joseph Campbell detailed in his landmark studies of hero mythologies like Hero with a Thousand Faces. After being summoned to the call of "the journey," the hero must face challenges -- monsters, the underworld, his own limitations. Sometimes he's assisted by the supernatural, such as amulets and angels. The hero re-emerges the better from his trials, sharing the boon of his journey with others, including wisdom or actual loot (like the golden fleece). The classic tales have long been told with variations, just as the story of Orleman's heroine is being related in the Chase Gallery.
What's missing here, though, is the prologue. What were Orleman's challenges? Who has aided her in her journey? And who is the male figure in "Our Lady of the Lily" and in the final painting, "Dragon's Egg: Gift of the Flaming Pearl"? (It's probably Orleman's husband, artist Dick Elliot, with whom she has collaborated on a funky installation, ongoing since 1982 and known as "Dick and Jane's Spot" at their home in Ellensburg, Wash.)
Knowing that Orleman's childhood was scarred by horrific emotional and sexual abuse, however, adds another dimension. For a 2000 retrospective, CWU professor Janet Marstine described how Orleman "reconfigures her idea of home from one which heaps abuse to that which offers spiritual and artistic regeneration." That's a powerful message for our heroine to have brought back from the underworld.
It's part of the story that remains unspoken unless viewers of this exhibition do a little exploration of their own. Start with the exhibition, then visit www.reflectorart.com and prepare to be inspired.
The Jane Orleman exhibit is at the Chase Gallery in City Hall, 808 W. Spokane Falls Blvd., through Dec. 28. Open Mondays-Fridays from 8 am-5 pm; until 9 pm, Mondays only. Visit www.spokanearts.org/chasegallery.asp or call 625-6050.