Dana Oldfather's show We Are Mountains is about forces, rhythms, and self-perception. It implies that human experience has no boundaries but stretches out around us, bound only by our lives — that we're bigger than we can realize, stranded without a GPS in the vast landscape of ourselves. Characterized by internal contradictions, we eventually embrace many opposite states and convictions.
Oldfather, a painter, is thinking in particular about the changeable currents of emotional experience as she follows her materials ever further into abstraction. Beginning her career as a realist, Oldfather has gradually reconfigured her approach. A few years ago, human figures were central to her imagery, often accompanied by animals and emblematic objects. Over time these dissolved, first becoming simple outlines and then disappearing almost entirely.
Now, currents of paint and color embossed or fractured by long, sharp lines, simple shapes, and a remnant of recognizable emotional content are her subjects, enlivened by an increasingly sure command of painterly dynamics. Certain abstract forms preoccupy her, including the numerous, carefully rendered small circles that bubble across the surfaces of recent oil-on-panel works.
In the 2010 painting "Ticker Tape Morning," these circles move in front of a swirling, brushy background; gentle blue-gray tones wash across loose, ring-shaped strokes. The painting's interior moves from back to front and side to side, flowing outward toward the viewer, rather than away, into the depths — or into the bright light that seems to linger behind the imagery. Near the middle, sharply focused dark lines and small organic shapes cluster together, making their presence felt.
Oldfather chooses celebratory, tasty titles ("Parade," "Frosting") to describe the hopeful tone of these paintings which, as she writes, "reflect the joy and anxiety that lives in my heart." Neutral, pastel shades and decorative motifs reminiscent of 1960s-era commercial design perhaps serve a larger project, evoking the effervescence of American culture. Not that a painting like "Frosting" isn't genuinely carefree as well as deliberately superficial (we're talking about frosting, after all) — but there's also cake in these works, so to speak — a heaping forkful of substance both hidden and implied by Oldfather's nearly obsessive attention to surfaces.
This more serious content is hard to pin down. It has something to do with the anxiety she mentions, yet these aren't worried paintings. She also remarks that the contrasting elements she weaves together mirror the struggle to reconcile each day's contradictions. Her overall mode is a kind of reenactment of the unevenness of a normal emotional range, unspooling moods and daily events, creased with the folds of sudden decision and pocked with desire.
Oldfather is a self-taught painter, though raised in a family of artists and immersed in the arts from childhood. For ten years she's worked as a graphic designer and publicist at Cleveland's Bonfoey Gallery, while holding down a second job for almost as long at a busy bar-restaurant in Willoughby. She doesn't have much free time, but when she does, one of the things she enjoys is kite-flying — an obvious source for her recent imagery, as well as an activity that parallels an artist's work. It's hard to tell whether the medium is water or air that dampens Oldfather's kite-string lines as they cut across her panels, but Cleveland's thick atmosphere is probably the best candidate, especially near the Flats where she lives. Tossing a line into such a sky — turbulent or blank by turns — is a lot like pulling the flat side of a small brush across a field of dull color and finding the mind grown suddenly taut, more alive as an idea gusts behind it.
Painting always begins with correspondences, an alchemy proposing one substance as the equivalent of another, mixing and matching realities. It can also be one of the ways we pinpoint our location, making a map of our mountains. Oldfather's paintings are studies of the self's topography.