Artist Patricia Bellan-Gillen recently retired from Carnegie Mellon University, after 29 years, as a professor in the School of Art. The Western Pennsylvania native’s work, displayed in more than 45 solo exhibitions across the country and abroad, has returned to CMU’s Miller Gallery. The exhibit, Willful Wondering, creates an environment that successfully complements Bellan-Gillen’s eerie and beautiful artwork, utilizing the natural dynamics of the space to lure visitors right into her fantasy world. It’s both a comforting and troubling experience, rich in delicate detail but with powerful insinuations.
Each piece is a large-scale drawing of mixed media (including acrylic, pencil, colored pencil, prints and collage) on surprising surfaces like birch wood and the gallery wall itself. Her primary color palette is warped; it cycles between radiating a nightmarish effect or casting a lurid, hazy spell. Motifs of reflection and crisscrossing perspectives, including the viewer’s own gaze, send the art-lover on a dizzying descent, down all three of the gallery’s levels.
Bellan-Gillen’s voice is not predictable. Instead, it thrives on the juxtaposition of one archetype and the next, in a trance-like natural world full of what in her artist statement she calls “weird elegance,” and the subsequent play of ideas arising from the oddities. She draws the participant into her fantasies using the familiar, like dancing White Rabbits and the smiles of the Cheshire Cat, but then willfully throws us off the Wonderland train by introducing suggestive sea monsters in the next panel. It’s a wild ride the dreamer will feel like she’s taken before, but here slowed down to leave time for noticing every humorous tidbit and every fearful glance, while wandering through the disquieting layers of the subconscious.
In the large birch canvas “Diver/Till Human Voices Wake Us and We Drown,” for example — whether it’s the huge diver, poised right before his extension, or the pile of daisies with drawn-on faces awaiting him in the bowl-sized pool — only the admirer seated on the gallery bench can determine the outcome. Bellan-Gillen sets an enticing stage full of half-finished dreams. The viewer constantly decides between shaking those dreams off, nostalgically remembering or knowingly self-inducing, dying to catch a glimpse of the vision again.