Boston-based artist PAMELA SIENNA's oil painting at MILLER GALLERY, "Secrets of Civilization #2," is a tightly rendered still life of packages wrapped in fabric and string. The three packages — one royal blue, one peacock blue, one white — lie on a pale blue cloth before a vivid violet background. A lilac drapery hangs above, lending a baroque sense of theatricality to the composition.
Sienna handles her paint much like the Northern Renaissance masters, building up between 15 and 20 layers of oil glazes for illusionistic effect. Light penetrates through these transparent layers of paint and bounces back to our eyes, creating glowing, jewel-like colors. It's as if you could stroke the draped, satin cloth or untie the string with your fingers.
As the viewer gets caught up in the beauty of lush surfaces, however, clues reveal a darker message. Photograph fragments are strewn across the foreground, showing an airplane, flames, smoke and a fiery explosion — probable references to Sept. 11, 2001.
"There is a great sense of mystery to her work," says Miller Gallery Director Rosemary Seidner. "One of the really intriguing things is that there are actual objects inside the packages, but she never reveals what they are. The artist says it could be something as innocent as a suitcase of pastel baby clothes, or it could be a detonator."
This mystery accounts for the painting's irony. The packages are presented as almost sacred objects, exquisitely wrapped and symmetrically placed in the composition. Yet, because we've been conditioned to be wary of suspicious packages, we can't help feeling a bit uneasy about what's beneath the lovely wrappings.
Both beautiful and foreboding, Sienna's painting hints at our culture's underlying current of paranoia and fear. Sienna's work appears in Rosemary's Babies, a selection of Seidner's favorite new works, at Miller Gallery (2715 Erie Ave., Hyde Park) through Feb. 3.
FOCAL POINT turns a critical lens on a singular work of art. Through Focal Point we slow down, reflect on one work and provide a longer look.