Kristine McCallister’s still lifes and portraits of Las Vegas

Kristine McCallister’s “Stranger in Paradise”
Dawn-Michelle Baude

Three and a half stars

ParadiseThrough December 28; Wednesday-Friday, 1-7 p.m.; Saturday, 1-4 p.m. Brett Wesley Gallery, 433-4433.

Portraiture raises a masked head in former Las Vegan Kristine McCallister’s Paradise exhibit at Brett Wesley Gallery. Claiming to celebrate Las Vegas as a place where dreams come true, the 14 smallish paintings don’t always communicate heaven, or even bliss. A couple of the masked portraits, for example, are a bit puzzling, their darkish palettes edging toward a kind of surrealistic content without explicit playfulness or wit.

“Stranger in Paradise,” with its bright, contrasting colors, is a standout. A barefoot suited figure (complete with bowler hat and bow tie) floats next to a flamingo-pink raft in a swimming pool. “Stranger” recalls David Hockney’s famous pool series, but without the hard edges and strict geometry. McCallister’s treatment of the pool is soft and whimsical, almost as if the figure were floating in some dreamy, imaginative dimension. In keeping with the mask theme, the eyes are blocked by black sunglasses, but the painting maintains a jaunty feel, as if the happiness promised by “paradise” had indeed been attained.

Another strong work is “The Mask We Wear,” a vibrant portrait of a masked woman sitting in front of a crimson wall hung with masks from around the world. The flat perspective and geometrical abstraction are reminiscent of early Modernist works, when painters in the last century swapped out picture-perfect portraits for ones inspired by African sculpture. The impish expression on the sitter’s mask—and the coy expressions on the masks around her—raise contemporary questions about the stable nature of self.

As part of her Paradise project, McCallister also painted still lifes using found compositions in her subjects’ homes, a kind of “portraiture” via collectibles. Some, like “Red Flamingo,” present Las Vegas clichés without pizzazz, but “Pig and Whistle” is full of verve. Depicting a cluttered tabletop with a confident pig just off-center, the visually complex work, with its plunging point of view and retro colors, moves toward an almost Cubist abstraction. The result is a fantastic pattern, rich with “High Spirits,” as the title of the videocassette depicted in the work proclaims.

Other paintings, like “Underworld Civil Servant” and “Ariadne’s Thread,” render masked figures whose strange theatricality is difficult to reconcile with the dream-come-true theme. Not all the familiar still lifes and landscapes are heavenly. The reliance on a fulfilled “Las Vegas” to bring it all together seems strained. That said, Paradise exhibits strong, intriguing work by a painter of notable stylistic range.

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