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Don't Fear the Reaper

Dee Conway

The Darkness and the Light: Carrie Nardello's 'Azore' demonstrates how far she's come from her death-oriented early imagery.

Carrie Nardello's grim art has gone gentle

By Giancarlo Davis

One of San Francisco artist Carrie Nardello's favorite stories concerns an uncommissioned mural she painted one night of her well-known "shark-dogs"--creatures resembling Scottish terriers sporting fantastically large canines against a field of acrylic yellows--on a wall near an old abandoned cement factory on 17th and Alabama streets.

"Someone I knew had written 'Fuck You, Mr. Death!' on the wall," she recalls. "A friend of mine urged me one evening to paint a mural over the comment. So I went out at about 4 in the morning and painted a series of my 'shark-dogs' over it.

Although the mural was eventually painted over in an ugly beige by city authorities (which evoked an outcry of astonishment from locals), it survived the tagging of local gang members. Since this incident, her stylized and colorful murals have toured with (and survived) the Lollapalooza tour as well as gracing the background of several popular and independent films. More recently, another one of her street murals appeared (this time sanctioned by political authority) on a wall on Florida Street near Theater Artaud.

Not merely a target selected at random by a disgruntled social deviant, the "Mr. Death" in question was a stylized Grim Reaper who was a frequent image in Nardello's earlier paintings, "one that I quickly got over," she says.

The shark-dog mural was a symbolic incident that relates to her own creative process. Mr. Death's disappearance from her paintings initiated a transformation of images, a movement into what Nardello considers "emotional sophistication and tranquillity."

The crownlike head of Mr. Death became fire erupting from buildings in later paintings, and even later, beautiful crimson tulips bursting from a field. In a more recent incarnation, it adorns chickens in a piece titled White Birds With Red Heads ("They're hens with rooster's crests," Nardello points out). The piece was later purchased by the Children's Hospital, an institution that likely would have shied away from Nardello's grimmer early works.

Nardello paints spontaneously; her colors and images are rarely premeditated. "The relationship with a finished piece of work is much like a relationship with another human being," she explains. "Throughout its creation, it's emotion and euphoria. Although I love the piece, there are times when we just inevitably grow apart from one another. When this occurs, my paintings began to chatter, grow louder. Believe me, it can become quite noisy in the studio."

In situations like these, Nardello repairs to her garden, a plot of land exploding with color (and a stark contrast to the feeling of desolation and abandonment in the area around her studio in China Basin), in order to derive the colorful inspiration for her scenic murals and richly textured paintings.

One of Nardello's favorite paintings (a work by a fellow artist) depicts an elaborate Tibetan mandala fluttering over her garden in the wind off the bay. She recounts how monks painstakingly create the original mandala in sand: "The most incredible part of that process is that it's erased in seconds; those monks understand what it is to create art, to let yourself go during its creation. It's the process that's important."

Carrie Nardello shows in collaboration with the annual Introductions program at the Jernigan-Wicker Gallery, 161 Natoma, through July 26, Tue.­Fri., 10am to 5pm, and Sat. noon to 5pm. 415/512-0335.

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From the July 1997 issue of the Metropolitan.

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