Magical Makings ~ an article

What do you do when you meet Otherness?

In an era when the dominant American culture makes outlaws and outsiders of many of us who're hard at work playing with the edges, foraging along the back roads Mainstream, maybe it's not so shocking to walk into your local art-hanging café and find a host of iffy, semi- and frankly non-human beings and their highly suspect imaginal environs politely matted and modestly framed.

Dara Tuell has never formally been to art school. And this isn't sofa peinture. Tuell laid the groundwork for this haunting and bizarre series HIDDEN PORTALS in 1987 when she was setting up a drawing table in an unfinished basement in San Francisco's foggy Sunset District. The single window opened that dark below-ground space to a small, weedy rose garden. And something else entirely.

Tuell then began a radical and at first involuntary practice that most artists wouldn't dare: allowing herself to be "taken away". She started falling into a light trance with her water colors and paper laid out… and began painting what would become the core of this series.

What was your first close-encounter with not-necessarily-human beings? The Hobbits and Elves of the Rings books? Anne Rice's Vampires and Mayfair Witches? Harry Potter & Co? What else inevitably emerges from Tuell's work for serious fans of alternative reality is early 80s blockbuster, John Crowley's Little, Big, in which family members across generations chase, by way of photography and a curious card deck, the Races and Realms of Faerie and Nature Spirits. In this classic that seems the literary cousin to Tuell's series, multiple images of seemingly normal portrait groups and off-hand nature photographs reveal… bizarre, compound and fascinating elfin images said to be not unlike what Tuell brought back from her excursions Otherwhere.

Where ever your encounter with Deep Otherness and Phantasm starts… look a little closer and meet the denizens of Dara Tuell's perhaps imagined worlds: sprites, elves, fairies, floating skulls and shaman masks whose fierce and dear, sometimes sweetly taunting otherness will not be denied. The artist in trance painted the enchantments or apparitions that she saw, or which perhaps, chose to show themselves to her.

Most of the images are compound and many, trompe l'oeil ~ but, again, it must be said, an involuntary "fool the eye". Because most of them were painted in a quiet, meditative trance, the artist was not aware during, and often for months after, that these paintings had more: new faces, new figures, new elves, fairies, skulls, ghosts-whatever-inside eyes, bellies, mouths, backgrounds. Tuell, preparing to hang this collection, was even surprised when her cataloguer pointed out certain additional "stealth" figures that had escaped the artist's notice before.

The multiplicity of non-human faces and forms populating and surprising us again and again in Tuell's work was not an intentional technique of composition or narrative, painterly device. The element of palimpsest and invitation to frank projection in Tuell's series, which the artist calls "Narrative Art", offers viewers plenty of strange opportunities to see… ducks, buffalos, ceremonial figures, ghosts, gods and other fey habitants of Tuell's art offer plenty of alternative narration. So look again.

Recently the artist decided to recombine the trance painted watercolors, and discovered the embarrassment of riches that is the universe of textured art papers. Combining traditional torn collage-melange forms with appliqué and treated, crayoned, and painted techniques, Tuell built up surfaces and surrounds into a variety of approaches, delivering a range of relief effects: silken, liquid, and lapidary.

Suddenly, the artist understood what was happening: the applications and manipulations of the lush, beautiful papers were turning into those very borders and gates. Tuell's recombinant method was erecting portality within the paintings to recreate her sometimes sweet, sometimes dark trance journeys into the realms and habitations of these elfin and shape-shifting animal-like or elemental others. And these added features, the array of more than 30 richly textured jewel-toned to subtle impressionist pastel palette colored papers, increase their charm and add live-ability to their high strangeness. One can see them, creating plenty of opportunity for everyone who passes by to be charmed by the lush colors…and then intrigued by those amazing elfin presences.

Some say the Fairies left through a hole in the ground in England, or Ireland, or Scotland. The French suggest the legendary Forest of Broceliande saw the exit of the Fey. Have they shown up again, the fey ones, inviting themselves into this outsider artist's intriguing and haunted half-goth/half-pastel scapes?