"Pools of the Summer Villa," a 1995 painting inspired by the Islamic gardens in the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, is one of the "most formally constructed and most representational" works she's ever painted, Tokar Miller recently told a crowd of admirers at the UA Museum of Art.
She was leading them through Nancy Tokar Miller ... in Retrospect, a splendid career survey of large paintings that takes up the museum's main galleries downstairs. (A companion show at the Temple Gallery showcases her paintings on paper.)
The museum's "Villa," a diptych 60 inches high by 65 inches wide, pictures a rectangular pool receding into the distance, its blue and green waters alternately shimmering and shadowed. Deep green trees tower over a bench at the far end.
The two pieces of canvas meet in a horizontal seam along the middle, which, according to Tokar Miller, "brings the eye forward," exaggerating the picture's depth and strengthening the illusion of three-dimensional space. You could almost jump right into the pool and disappear into the far end.
But look closely at the painting, especially the bottom half, and the suggestion of a pool, of a garden, of Moorish Spain, evaporates. The phantom place is gone, supplanted by geometric bands of color, a symmetry of stripes and triangles and trapezoids. Angling diagonally across the surface, strokes of white on yellow on the right side are mirrored by bands of tan topped by pale pink at the left. In the middle, a triangle of earth green lies below a cerulean trapezoid.
Every stroke of the brush is swift and sure, and every swathe of the bristle is visible. The acrylic paint is not exactly thick, but it's lush, and every color is pure and clean.
Tokar Miller, who's lived in Tucson since 1968, has a reputation for making beautiful, spiritually serene paintings that effortlessly reconcile apparent opposites. Her works are spare yet brilliantly colored; they convey a sense of place through abstraction, and they draw equally on the lessons of American modernism and Asian art. Quick gestures and lines dart here and there over the big shapes, interrupting the fields of color.
A frequent exhibitor at Etherton Gallery, in this museum show, Tokar exhibits 23 major paintings and a dozen or so small studies.
"I like to work really big," she joked, "or really small. I can't paint a size everyone can afford," like, say, a nice 34-inch.
Display tables include the sketchbooks and photos that she makes on her travels. Book pages from "Witness," a poetry collaboration with Kathleen Fraser, are also included.
The retrospective travels from 1970, when Tokar Miller was not yet 30, on up to 2008. Like the artist herself, it circles the globe, exhibiting paintings inspired by Hawaii, Bali, Java, Japan, Thailand, Spain and Morocco. The one Tucson painting, "Riparian Oasis," 2004, has its origins in Agua Caliente Park, an eastside wetlands rich with birds and water plants. The pond's reeds are conjured up in a dark-brown shape at center, with its waters in glimmering strokes of white and ocher at the sides.
"I have lots of sketches of the desert," Tokar Miller said, "but I'm drawn to water."
The artist got her MFA at the UA in 1971, but she grew up in Los Angeles, close to the Pacific, and water is a recurring motif, simplified into light, reflections and color.
As stripped-down of detail as they are, the paintings come out of a complicated process: "I sketch; I take hundreds of photos. When I think I want to make a painting of something, I really try to hold on to it. I sketch it again and again, and then I come back to it."
"Temple Garden," an acrylic painting from 1985, is a triptych, made of three pieces of canvas joined together vertically. ("I like to work on a divided canvas. You force the viewer to see the division just as they're getting into the illusion.") Like all her mature works, "Temple Garden" manipulates the remembered landscape and reduces it to its most essential components. The final version is a segmented view of a pool of water, a pie-shaped expanse of lavender-gray water, below a curve of vivid phthalo green vegetation.
But three small painted studies on paper demonstrate how Tokar Miller arrived at that solution. The basic composition was set from the start, but the painter experimented with multiple moods and colors. In one study, the water surface is dark gray, rippling and disturbed, and in another, instead of the green bushes, a band of blue opens up into an infinite sky.
The earliest works are not so keyed in to landscape--or waterscape. They're more purely abstract, and the canvases are stained and spattered, with thin, diluted paint sinking into the cloth. But with their simple shapes and vivid colors prompting contemplation, they augur the themes that have preoccupied this gifted artist her whole career.
"Temple Bell," from 1973, does take its inspiration from a prayer bell, but it really is an homage to radiant orange-yellow and red, and what happens when they mix. The gold bursts all over the canvas, while the unexpected red eases in from one corner, bleeding into the brighter hue. Both are "transformed utterly," as Yeats wrote in a different context. "A terrible beauty is born."