Alla Goniodsky - artist and her world

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Beauty and menace through the rabbit hole

By Gayle Clemans

Special to The Seattle Times

With our short gray days that blend into long nights here in the Northwest, winter can take on a dreamy, surreal quality, a sense of life suspended. For Russian-born artist Alla Goniodsky, who now lives in Kirkland, this blurred separation between dream and reality has become a source of endless creative possibilities, first generated by her hometown of St. Petersburg, with its foggy weather and fantastic architecture.

"Three Beauties" — a trio of nearly life-size "puppets" — delicately dominate the main space of Patricia Cameron Gallery and immediately draw us into their fanciful, unnerving world. These doll-like women are dressed in elaborate 18th-century-style gowns made of cascading brown craft paper, lightly sprayed with gold. Their white papier-mâch faces and hands are hauntingly beautiful, and their bodices are collaged with Goniodsky's lyrical drawings. While the "puppets" do not actually function as puppets and do not move, they seem to greet and then ignore us, turning gracefully to glide off to unknown places.

It's fine to be ignored by these haughty creatures; it allows us to turn our attention to Goniodsky's small-scale works on paper, encased in elaborate, carved, faux-gilded frames. Although created as separate works of art, the pieces perform well together as installation art. The gallery becomes an elegant salon where the Beauties can silently enact their mysterious social rituals. Knowing that Goniodsky has a background in theater arts, I couldn't help but wonder what kind of world she might have created through other props and sets.

Goniodsky became "captivated by theater" at the age of 5, and she captures this sense of childlike wonder with her firm command of the expressive potential of the interaction between characters.

She seems more interested in ambiguous settings and mood than in concrete narrative. In her mixed-media works on paper, she creates whimsical creatures who inhabit moody spaces defined only by dashes of ink and smears of pastel, leaving the sense of place undefined and unlimited in possibility.

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Goniodsky's use of walnut ink and an overall warm sepia tone is particularly effective in minimizing the specifics of time and place, and maximizing dreamy open-endedness. She says the color "reminds me of a dry leaf suddenly found in an old book, like a forgotten event or feeling. The tone of my works is a reflection of a childhood which comes in dim light." This reduced color palette also has its roots in her experiences of Seattle and St. Petersburg, cities that she sees "more as graphic works, lacking bright colors. Sometimes you can recognize objects in fog just by their outlines."

Even when a pre-existing story is the basis for a work, as with her "Kidnapping of Europa," Goniodsky chooses less dramatic moments or suggests her own narrative additions, emphasizing the quirky personalities of the characters and generating a palpable but elusive mood.

Her puppets and drawn creatures, even in their most peculiar embodiments or elegant historical guises, are very real and engaging. Goniodsky's attention to facial detail and her delicate layering of line and texture allow us to empathize with these figures. But her engaging, playful images are also laced with hints of danger and threat, recalling the weirdly lovely scenes of illustrator Maurice Sendak. Goniodsky's use of 18th-century motifs and her lyrical style also conjure up the French Rococo painter Jean-Antoine Watteau, while her floaty, linear style and surrealistic juxtaposition of characters (not to mention the occasional appearance of peasants and onion-domed spires) bring to mind Marc Chagall.

Unlike these artists, however, Goniodsky creates characters that have few props or identifiable settings to interact with. Instead, they emerge from their unreal surroundings to play with each other and with us. The title of this exhibition, "Journey Through a Dream," captures some of the ambiguity of her work: There's no obvious destination or clear sequence of events, but enchanting figures, nebulous moods and weird little parts of stories keep us floating in and out.

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