Denton artist Pam Burnley-Schol’s most recent work is a search for that tiny, nearly atomically fine point where life is suspended between the fragile and the strong.
The best of it is in a show called “Equinox: New Paintings” at Norwood Flynn Gallery in Dallas.
You can’t help but see the artist’s meditation on balance in the way she’s surrounded common things — a halved head of cabbage grouped with a grater and paring knife, the pregnant arch of an eggplant or bulbs of garlic — with a luminous halo of 28-karat gold leaf.
“Well, the work has always been — in my mind, even before this body of work — about a balance between the ethereal and the corporeal,” Burnley-Schol said.
The paintings — some small, 5-inch squares, others on panels of 22-inch squares — confront the dualities in life in brilliant gold leaf and oil.
The painter said the art is inspired by events in her own life. Burnley-Schol and her husband, artist Don Schol, are caring for elderly parents. And then the artist said she’s observed the toll has taken on her own body.
Burnley-Schol spent exactly half of 2013 carefully nursing a severely torn rotator cuff — an injury that demanded inactivity to heal — a torn bicep and thinning bones. When she awoke from shoulder surgery, she was told that even passive physical therapy would have to wait nearly two months. Her doctor cautioned her that lifting more than a few pounds could loosen the pins used to restore her shoulder.
And while she was babying that shoulder, Burnley-Schol was also tending her muse — with a sort of intellectual and artistic vigor — with one arm in a sling.
“The work became poignantly about finding a balance between, I guess, what I think of as the fragility of life and the beauty of life,” she said. “At one point, one of the titles [for the exhibition] I thought of was ‘Grace and Gratitude,’ and ‘Equinox’ was sort of on the list also because it’s about balance.”
She settled on “Equinox” when an Internet search told her the vernal equinox was two days before the opening of the solo show. If you were to communicate the idea of equinox in an image, it would be of the Earth, half in darkest shadow and half in brightest light.
“Equinox” couldn’t be rushed. It began more than two years ago, when Burnley-Schol had begun painting beautiful, transitory things, like the sky, and framed them in the carefully gilded planes of gold leaf. She had also started buying fresh produce from Central Market, then bringing it to her studio to paint it.
Then came an invitation from across the Atlantic. Burnley-Schol was invited to an international exhibition at the Imperial Belvedere Palace Museum in Vienna in 2012. The Belvedere was the home and estate of Prince Eugene of Savoy, and some of its rooms are gilded in gold.
The show, “Gold,” celebrated the historical use of gold in art and showcased the way artists are using it now. (A cheeky example was artist Sherrie Levine’s gold gilded urinal, Fountain (After Marcel Duchamp A.P.) A more traditional inclusion is found in Emil Orlik’s Japanese Garden, 1901-1902, which captures a garden flecked with gold leaf). Burnley-Schol had a single piece included in the sprawling show, Transfiguration. That piece is the work depicting a halved head of red cabbage and a lush head of green cabbage set around a grater.
Weeks before the Belvedere exhibit opened, Burnley-Schol told the Denton Record-Chronicle that she was “reminded of early Christian iconography in these images.”
“The flat paint contrasts with the light reflected from the gold and suggests the relationship between the corporeal through opaque paint and the ethereal through the gold and light,” she said in 2012.
“I consider these paintings to be secular icons, of earth and ether. Conversely, and at the same time, I can’t deny a certain sense of deconstruction of the gold’s worth, when I place paint on top of it.”
Burnley-Schol said her six days in Vienna introduced her to new techniques — such as double gilding — and a fresh appreciation for gold.
“Now that I’ve been to Vienna and seen so much work with gold in it, and learned so much, I think that when it comes to my work, the gold is here to stay,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ll always use it in this way, but I think it’s definitely here to stay.”
Burnley-Schol produced the smallest paintings in “Equinox” when doctor’s orders meant she wore a sling and couldn’t lift anything heavier than a bodacious russet potato. The larger paintings are from before and after the surgery. They celebrate melons, bundles of asparagus, the garlic bulbs, a bunch of red grapes and moths, dragonflies and other insects. The creatures are the centerpiece of some of the smaller paintings, and others are introduced into the produce scenes.
“Pretty much everything is life-size,” she said. “These were all things that were emerging. This is the stuff that was growing last spring. I wanted to convey that intimacy of little, baby green things of new growth and of new possibilities.”
She chose her subjects for one reason.
“Just beauty,” she said. “I choose them not for any symbolic meaning, because frankly, if you Google the meaning for garlic or any of these things, you’ll get, like, nine jillion different things. And some of them are authentic and some of them are just somebody’s opinion. So they really are selected just for their beauty.”
Central Market isn’t short on pretty vegetables, fruits and cheeses. Burnley-Schol also used her own garden for inspiration.
“Pretty much everything I pick has a balance between being quite exquisite in its natural, organic form, and also potentially frail or vulnerable. The garlic is probably my favorite,” she said.
The insects had a similar allure.
“I like them because they’re destructive and fragile,” she said.
She relied on the preserved insects archived at the University of North Texas Environmental Education, Science and Technology Building, sketching them for detail and then documenting them as close to their actual size as possible.
Since her trip to Austria, Burnley-Schol said she’s seen that gold leaf — which is applied with hammers and tools that can press it into crevices and over textured surfaces — isn’t just a precious metal signifying holiness in a secular icon. It’s an element, and it’s fragile and soft. Even when pressed into bricks of bullion, gold is easily scratched and notched.
“I come to this honestly,” she said. “I was brought up by farmers and teachers who were deeply religious. It wasn’t hammered into me in the sense of a catechism, but I grew up going to St. James by the Sea Episcopal Church. My family answered a lot of my questions about colors and shapes in church.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877.
EQUINOX: NEW PAINTINGS
What: Exhibition of work by Denton artist Pam Burnley-Schol
Where: Norwood Flynn Gallery, 3318 Shorecrest Dr. in Dallas
When: The exhibit runs through Saturday. Gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, or by appointment.
On the Web: www.norwoodflynngallery.com