Linhares Essay

Since 1980, Judith Linhares has lived and worked in New York: landing first on the western hem of lower Manhattan, north of the World Trade Center and above the endless swirl of traffic approaching the Holland Tunnel; spending summers in antique houses surrounded by farms and woodlands, the sylvan landscape of James Fenimore Cooper's 19th century Leatherstocking Tales; and most recently, moving across the East River, relocating her home and painting studio to an industrial building in Brooklyn. The paintings that have been realized within these studios are always curious and free-spirited, outside the frame of any window view and uninhibited by nature.

Linhares's vibrant paintings portray scenes and figures that are both recognizable and inexplicable, hovering between the known world and the logic of dreams. Building each of her paintings up from a surface glow, she initially lays down an overall field streaked with high-pitched colors -- piercing chartreuse, seawater blue, a mass of lurid crimson -- and steeped in light; the luminous effect is striking and as "strobe-hearted" as the riverside neon lights memorialized by the poet Anne Sexton. Against these prismatic painted backdrops, Linhares casts unlikely characters, familiar objects, and hallucinatory incidents into an abstract landscape. In Wild Nights (2006), a single spoon has been tossed into the corner and a silver saucepan balances atop a pair of crisscrossed logs, succinct emblems of domesticity on the run. The flames of the campfire, however, are uncontained, perilously leaping up the canvas in a stylish bargello pattern, while three lissome young naturists, Gumby-limbed women with tandoori tans, idly toast marshmallows on sticks. The wild nighttime sky is not visible, no moon or stars above; there is only the menacing edge of a stunted forest, a dark cluster of tree trunks and stumps. The drawing of a little girl toting two buckets that appears in The Beekeeper's Daughter (1990) is as lean as a police officer's chalk outline at an accident scene and as particular as the nursery rhyme Jill heading up a hill. Her child-like body is bisected by shifting light and color: on one side, her drooping arms and legs and weighted buckets have all been washed in aquamarine, on the other in lemon yellow. Her balloon-shaped head floats untethered, an orb suspended in an illusory space inhabited by sturdy honeybees, blasts of primary color, and disturbingly robust daisies. In Orange Poppies (2006), the shadow of a flower-filled vase seems to spill onto the table and collide head-on with the color wheel: the brilliant reddish-yellow of the blooms faces off with its complementary hue, pale violet tinged with gray. Linhares's paintings convey the deceptive simplicity found in myths and fairy tales, those rigorous structures that deftly encompass hard truths, willful gestures, beguiling absurdities, and the astonishing beauty of dreams. Creating art, observed Philip Guston, is "dreaming with your eyes open."

There's a story that Linhares tells about her childhood: one day, when she was very young, she was walking down the street and a monkey jumped out of a bush and landed in front of her. She had never been to a zoo and had absolutely no idea what this other creature might be. "I take great care to remember those numinous moments," she says. "Those moments of sudden knowledge." During the 1970s, when Linhares pursued an on-going engagement with Jungian psychology, outsider art, and the practice of lucid dreaming, her assurance about the critical value of intuition and imagination was considerably strengthened. As a young painter, she revered Abstract Expressionism and its highly formatted sense of necessity and tension; but as an artist, she wanted to allow her work to become less rational, more spontaneous and direct.

Born in Pasadena, raised in Los Angeles County, and educated in San Francisco, Linhares considers herself a "real inheritor of California's mythologies:" its promise of endless sunshine and Technicolor blue skies, the optimism of frontier spirit and back to nature fantasies, and a constant threat of earthquakes, mudslides, and wild fires. At the turn of the 20th century, her great-grandfather, a Scottish immigrant, established T.M. Frew & Son Practical Horseshoers & General Blacksmithing in Newhall, an Anglo settlement in the Santa Clarita Valley north of Los Angeles. In a 1916 family album, Linhares's ancestors can be seen posing with their trout-fishing gear and saddled-up pack mules; the hand-written captions beneath the photographs note their destinations -- "Lonesome Pine" and "Elizabeth Canyon," site of Laguna del Diablo, a deep-water lake alleged to have been dug by the devil himself and stocked with his monstrous aquatic pet, a giant six-legged creature with bat wings and a bulldog head.

The Frew family remained in Newhall and their blacksmithing business continued for three generations. In 1925, William S. Hart, a silent screen cowboy with his pinto pony co-star Fritz, retired to a Spanish Colonial Revival mansion on a Newhall hillside and Horseshoe Ranch, his 260 acre spread; the blacksmith Thomas Frew owned an adjacent 23 acre parcel. When Linhares was growing up in Newhall, it was a small town, a chaparral shrub land and oak savanna below the Santa Susana Mountains and still beyond the reach of suburban sprawl. At 13, she moved to Hermosa Beach and was plunged into yet another Southern California myth, the laidback seaside version populated by surfers, bikers, and body builders. "I don't have a family picture where the people are not in their bathing suits or on horseback or with a fishing rod," Linhares told an interviewer in 2007. "I had a chaotic childhood. There was a high tolerance for irrationality and creativity. I grew up in a very permissive environment. I like to say I was raised in the forest by baboons. I was left to my own devices, if the truth be known."

Steadily relying on her own devices, Linhares concocts images that are unexpected and indelible: an angular hen and her flustered chicks warily traverse a pile of spare change, a dainty porcelain spaniel is treated to a splash of exuberant gold highlights, and a grim-faced upright bunny seems to twist his ears and paws in disapproval. Swaths of intense colors vibrate, emanating brightness. The dazzling light recalls the sharp high desert sunlight of her childhood, an exhilarating radiance that stuns the senses. When Linhares paints the plants and flowers that "she knows by heart," she devises voluptuous arrangements of bold, indomitable blossoms. Working with her own captivating and fluent vocabulary of familiars, Linhares regularly introduces a group of sassy, feral young women into her paintings. Brazen and naked, they bask in the moonlight, cavort in the forest, and squat like medieval Sheela Na Gigs taunting the public and warding off evil spirits and imminent death. Their bodies are impossibly supple, bending like ribbon candy and bouncing back starlight and sunbeams. Linhares looks attentively at the world and dives into ancient stories and scholarly interpretations, ephemeral memories and waking dreams. "The question," wrote Henry David Thoreau, "is not what you look at, but what you see." Linhares resists the opportunity to illustrate stories, choosing instead to translate the ideas that she envisions into the absolute visual form of painting, understanding that eventually the hand will need to take over from the mind. Working in her studio, she finesses glorious colors while slowly developing imagery, exploring an oddly sublime territory where exuberant bliss remains inseparable from ominous danger. In the paintings, she discovers something that she has never seen before and that cannot be forgotten: a numinous moment.

©2015 Susan Morgan