Artist Trisha Orr paints herself out of a corner

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Trisha Orr’s “Celestial Navigation” is one of the paintings she made to explore the relationship of body and soul during an illness. Photo: courtesy of the artist Trisha Orr’s “Celestial Navigation” is one of the paintings she made to explore the relationship of body and soul during an illness. Photo: courtesy of the artist

Trisha Orr’s complex, tour de forces of fabric, objects, and flowers have earned high critical praise for many years. They are beautifully rendered, dispassionate works, and they reveal very little about the artist except that she is technically gifted and admires beauty.

Growing up in a demanding family and going to art school in the ’70s, a challenging time for women, Orr was both striving for artistic excellence and mindful of keeping emotion in check. “I didn’t know if I could make the leap from talented art student to really good painter,” she said. “One way to do it, I thought, was to master technique. This concept of ‘mastery’ was central to my art making. It made me feel safe from attack, and I held back the emotion because women were widely considered too emotional to make good artists when I was starting out.”

After several decades painting in this manner, Orr grew restless. “I was boring myself to tears with the mastering stuff,” she said wryly. “I’d been looking around for a while, for other ways of working, and had done some paintings incorporating my husband’s [poet Gregory Orr] poems into them.”

In these early poem paintings, the words were somewhat obscured. You could sort of read them and sometimes not—you had to tease them out from the paint. “Then in 2009, I had an illness, and through the illness the experience of working with the poem paintings became much less about mastering and more about what the poems meant to me and how they opened me up,” said Orr. “I became a better painter.”

Collaborating (which they have done four times) has been inspiring for both husband and wife. At first, Greg worked off Trisha’s paintings. But for the love letter invitational at Second Street Gallery in 2006, Trisha decided she wanted to switch things around. At the time, she was having so much trouble believing in her paintings that the idea of them being creative fodder for her husband seemed somehow dishonest. A friend mentioned de Kooning’s tip about how, when stuck, one should go back to the grid, so Orr began making grid-based paintings finding an emotional equivalent to the meaning of her husband’s words in color, light, space, and paint.

Included in the show at Les Yeux du Monde through May 11 are the “body/soul” paintings made during Orr’s recovery. These depict various vessels: pitchers, teapots, and vases (representing the body) in fine porcelain, earthenware, and glass that contain flowers (representing the soul). She said that in these works she is exploring “the relationship between this thing that is of the earth and this other thing that comes out of it.” Her earlier still lifes are chockablock full, with every edge jammed against every other edge, but here, it’s a single object “gathering its atmosphere around it. It’s all about the relationship between this thing and its atmosphere, rather than things pressed so tightly together that they can’t breathe,” said Orr.

The “body/soul pieces,” the poem paintings, and her garden works all have dramatically different surfaces from her pristine still lifes. “Working with Greg’s work, I began to build up layers, trying to make the paint itself part of the story, which, somehow for me, it hadn’t been.” Orr uses a palette knife to lay down the paint, sanding the surface to create a scumbled effect that is pleasingly gritty. She likened these works to an urban wall where the graffiti and the posters and the crumbling seem to make something intentional “that absolutely seems to be talking to you—like, you.”

Re-energized and inspired by this breakthrough, the past few years have been a productive and joyful period for Orr, as she feels her way through her artistic journey, no longer so concerned with being unassailable. She’s learned to let go of the tightly controlled in favor of a more relaxed, open approach. “Sometimes, I have no idea what I’m doing,” Orr said. “At certain points I’ll just scrape the painting down, turn it around and work on it that way, keeping at it until it clicks.”

What really spoke to me was Orr’s artist’s book. It’s the ultimate breakthrough for someone once afraid of exposing herself. The incredibly personal work contains a series of sketches in ink and pastel of family photographs she found while clearing out her mother’s house. These rough, somewhat messy drawings pulse with vitality. Paired with Orr’s astringent commentary, they’re simply wonderful. Funny, sad, shocking even, they ooze humanity with an immediacy and rawness that reminded me of William Kentridge.

In this show, you get the sense that after years of trying to please others, Orr is finally pleasing herself. It’s exciting to see her pushing in new directions even as she retains vestiges of the old. “It’s not that I don’t want to work on complicated still lifes anymore,” she said (and there are several in the show). “I just think I’ll work on them in a different way.” One looks forward to what she’ll come up with.

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