at Gilman-Gruen Galleries

A perfunctory look at Mary Hatch’s paintings might give the impression that they’re simplistic narrative depictions of idyllic Americana–except that her palette is as lurid as a half-page headline in the New York Post. Bilious green and intestinal pink are juxtaposed: it should, by rights, make you want to vomit. Instead Hatch makes the lurid lyrical, turning our conceptions of what’s ugly and what’s beautiful topsy-turvy. That unlikely palette combines with her surreal subject matter to draw you in as surely as a murder mystery. The morbid details both fascinate and repel, but you can’t put the work down. And once you look twice at Hatch’s paintings, you can’t stop looking. Things are not only not what they seem, they’re as inevitable and inexplicable as the images in our collective unconscious. The sickly greens and reds, the glaring yellows and oranges are all saying something more than what the people in her silent tableaux can express.

At first glance the people populating Hatch’s paintings look ordinary. They could be your next-door neighbors or your office mates. But many of the objects that surround them are quite extraordinary–or extraordinarily out of place. The uncharacteristic colors give everything the unreal quality of a dream, making anything seem possible. Foreign objects are likely to become familiar, and common objects take on uncommon import. Because the people in her paintings are so mundane, so true to life, their silent messages seem even truer. The figures in her paintings usually face the viewer, their gazes often confrontational. It seems they’re about to deliver some kind of message, some kind of oracular truth. At first you might asssume that the message will be something as placid as their poses or as mundane as the things surrounding them. But suddenly you realize that in their arrested postures these figures are like mediums, transferring subconscious messages as boldly as Hatch’s colors do.

Take War Games. Five chubby, smiling babies on a blanket, and two more cut off by the frame. How Norman Rockwell. But then you notice their vacuous faces–and that the blanket they’re sitting on is the American flag. Suddenly their toys and clothes seem symbolic: the uniform gray they wear, the relish with which one chomps on a helicopter. These cherubic but somehow threatening babies are going to grow up, girls and boys alike, to be soldiers and generals. Among the blood-red toy jeeps and tanks are Red Cross trucks–and suddenly those two babies cut off at the top seem corpselike, casualties of war. These young innocents staring out–fresh fodder “for God and country”–remind us of our own powerlessness to stop the machinery of war. A bright red ribbon runs horizontally in front of the babies, separating them from the viewer as if they were a museum exhibit. Or is it a trail of blood, the thread of history?

The Garden also presents us with an exotic rendition of an apparently commonplace subject. Hatch makes those ugly pink plastic lawn flamingos gorgeous: real birds once again, their long necks elegantly extended toward the ground or held regally upright as they walk on the carefully kept grass–or in the wild swamp water in the distance. The branches suspended over the sandy bank have an unkempt, overgrown look. This is not your average tended garden, where the “flamingos” are as artificial and out of place as the materials they’re made of. The two birds in the foreground here look as natural in their environment as the two women that frame them look foreign.

The women in The Garden are like eccentric bookends, one too static to be anything but a statue, the other a cartoonlike blur. Perhaps the entire scene has been conjured up by the staid woman–a fantasy of her wild self, what she could be or would like to be. The running woman’s blond hair seems swept back by the wind, and a respectable bowler hat has half blown off her head; she wears an absurd necklace of leaflike shapes. Her clothes are comfortable but stylish and expose her legs. The other woman wears a long green dress as stiff and straight as a corset, but with none of that garment’s sexual connotations. Is the statuelike woman about to rebel at the confinement of her garden and turn into her more active counterpart? Or are they two separate and rivalrous creatures? Again, the many questions the work raises are what make it so rich.

In Guarding the Guardian, a rusty red life-size angel hovers behind a couple wearing clothes like uniforms. Is it “real”–about to appear to them–or only visible to the viewer? Is it the guardian angel they would like to have, which would solve all their problems? Is it apocalyptic? Invisibly protecting them? The man wears a sort of necklace with a totemlike animal on it. The woman holds a dancerlike figure in her hand; its foot, raised to waist level, is attached to its hand. Is it crippled, mutant, or simply an agile acrobat? What do these charms mean?

In Return of the Angel, the seraphic image is in blue and hovers once again behind a couple who face one another but are separated by a cat as mysterious as a sphinx on a red armchair between them. In a number of paintings Hatch imposes totemic animals–lizards, dinosaurs, lions–in unexpected places: as decorative pins, unwieldy ties, chokingly large necklaces. These unlikely monsters seem to lead the puppetlike people into war in such paintings as The Reluctant Gunfighter, The Warriors, Toy Soldiers, America Remembers. The animals are like keys to Hatch’s psyche, and once you have them her paintings begin to open up–but they yield an embarrassment of riches, of questions and answers and more questions likely to turn you into a gilded, lonely Croesus.

In Madonna, a contemporary-looking icon stands before the door of her house (painted a bright blue, like the color of David Hockney’s swimming pools). A flag peeps from the barely opened door, and in the background the idyllic landscape includes a large shade tree and a car parked beneath it; there’s another tidy house in the distance. Suddenly the woman’s patriotic innocence becomes suspect–you notice that the house has an odd wire frame before the door and a blood red shape inside it, above the hint of a flag. This pale schoolgirl with her blood red clothes and bangs, dripping like trails of blood down her forehead, an odd red splotch next to her eye, could be a modern-day Lizzie Borden. The blue house could hide morbid secrets. The electric blue X crossing the girl’s jacket, though it suggests the straps to a bookbag, is also reminiscent of a straitjacket. The shadows on the building’s walls begin to look menacing, skeletal–two of them on the door could be macabre figures dancing. Or maybe this is just a girl with a red rubber band in her palm, the proverbial “string” tied around her finger to remind her to close the door.

Too many questions, too many possibilities for interpretation. Yet Hatch’s paintings have the same lure as psychoanalysis–discovering what makes us tick. And unlike the mystery thriller that leaves you feeling intellectually cheated though you’ve read it from cover to cover till dawn, Hatch’s paintings don’t make you feel shortchanged. Her arrested figures speak the unspoken and the unspeakable, her images contain your innermost thoughts even when you can’t identify in words what she’s expressing for you. You feel only that these are not just the artist’s ideas but somehow–inevitably, irrevocably–yours too.