I Want Candy: Dana Oldfather’s Sugar

Image: Dana Oldfather, Bootie, 2015, 24 x 20 inches, oil on linen

Red Arrow in Nashville is a sophisticated treat.


By Joe Nolan

Image: Dana Oldfather, Bootie, 2015, 24 x 20 inches, oil on linen

I made my first visit to Dana Oldfather’s exhibition of new paintings and prints, Sugar, when I stopped by Red Arrow during the September edition of East Nashville’s Second Saturday East Side Art Stumble.

Like most things that capture my attention these days, Oldfather’s work sparked my interest, but – more importantly – it stuck with me, interrupting my thoughts for days to come before I revisited the work with an eye toward writing this review. These chromatic confusions on canvas and panel and paper may resemble fleeting sugary confections, but these tastes linger and this work sticks to your ribs.

As with any show of abstract art, the titles of these works stand out the way a cipher’s code stands out to a spy. “White Elephant Diptych” seems like an apt title for the biggest painting in the gallery. At roughly 6 feet by 10 feet this frosty fjord of icy whites, chilly blues and glowing lime green combines gentle gestures with jutting geometric lines in a flowing field of cool colors that’s painted across two frames stretched with raw canvas – the unpainted portions are left as is, and they create a kind of vignette effect around this elephant.

This is one of the most striking pieces in a striking display, and it’s definitely the best work on canvas in the show. The highlights of this exhibition are the paintings on panel. I love oils and acrylics on canvas, but Oldfather’s pools, stripes and swirls are as full of texture as they are bursting with color, and the sculptural feel of her surfaces sets even more solidly against the hard, flat faces of her panels.

The irreverent titling of “Muffin Top 1” and “Muffin Top 2” belies their landscape evoking compositions and pungent palettes of orange, blue, yellow and green. The painted sections on each panel pop against their plain white backgrounds, and the mirror image, complimentary compositions of these two pieces makes them read like bookends hanging next to one another on a small wall below the gallery’s staircase. Most of Oldfather’s compositions are purely abstract, organic, sometimes almost impulsive-seeming affairs, but they’re never anything I’d label expressionistic. The muffin top panels read like abstracted countrysides captured at first light or last light – they’re soft and solar, and it makes the bones in my arms feel warm and radiating just to think about them.

When I first read Oldfather’s “White Elephant Diptych” title I immediately thought of the classic Ernest Hemingway short story “Hills Like White Elephants.” Just in case I’m on to something I’ll also mention that my literature detector was also set flashing by “Run Rabbit Run.” Another painting on panel, “Run Rabbit Run” also reads like an abstracted landscape, and I could imagine viewers who might argue that the show’s best paintings are these variations on verdant spaces – and they might be right.

When I sat down to write this piece I knew that I preferred the paintings on panel to those on canvas. I also knew that I’d make that point in this review, as I have. I didn’t know that the abstract landscapes were going to push for a space at the forefront of my understanding of the show. This is an illustration of how good art continues to surprise you and re-engage you. It’s also a demonstration of the dynamic, evolving flow of ideas that can play out across an instant of critical analysis. This is one of those instances.

Run Rabbit Run is another colorful collection of lines and curves, spaces and shapes. Again, Oldfather only paints part of her panel here, this time dark greens, dusty rusts, ochres and yellows. Up close Oldfather’s textures, designs, rays and squiggles stand out, but it wasn’t until I was looking at my picture of the painting on my phone’s big screen that I realized that the painted field in this one resembles the head of a rabbit. It’s subtle enough that if you didn’t read the label you might not notice. I read the label and had to look at it a handful of times before I saw those ears and that nose. I can’t tell if Oldfather painted the hare’s head on purpose or if the shape evolved organically, and I couldn’t care less. The overall effect could be corny, but this doesn’t read that way. The rabbit’s revelation lends an air of mystery to the work that no gimmick ever could. Of course there’s no mystery to rabbits appearing and disappearing. That’s magic. And this show might be too.