Between Reality and Dream: The Nostalgic and Surreal Drawings of Patricia Bellan-Gillen

Patricia Bellan-Gillen, Your Cruel Tears 3, 2016, colored pencil and collage

“We often dream without the least suspicion of unreality: ‘sleep hath its own world,” and it is often as lifelike as the other.” – Lewis Carroll, The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000), 67.

The recent drawings of Patricia Bellan-Gillen channel Lewis Carroll’s diary entry from February 9, 1856. Similar to dreams, her drawings are sourced from a cornucopia of stories, fairytales, and time periods. Symbols overlap and intermingle to evoke fragmented new realities that merge past and present. Bellan-Gillen relies on negative space and obscured references—the absence of contextual signifiers—to evoke both nostalgia and surreality.

Installation View, Heike Pickett Gallery, Versailles, Kentucky

Bellan-Gillen’s exhibition, Willful Wondering, originated at Carnegie Mellon’s Miller Gallery and includes drawings completed between 2011-2016. Currently, a smaller version of the exhibition resides at Heike Pickett Gallery and Sculpture Garden in Versailles, Kentucky. While it lacks Bellan-Gillen’s large-scale installations and grandiose mixed-media assemblages, Heike Pickett’s reinstallation focuses on the artist’s application of color, commitment to detail, and use of allegory. The gallery’s bare wood floors, high ceilings, and copious windows subdue any white-cube effects. The building, according to its Pickett, was constructed in 1792—its weathered brick façade and residential appearance indicate Versailles’s architectural roots.

Patricia Bellan-Gillen, Phantom Limbs/Cheshire Grin, 2016

Symbols from Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland make frequent appearances in Bellan-Gillen’s drawings, accompanied by other anthropomorphized figures. These readymade images are warped, multiplied, and accentuated by vibrant pinks and blues. As if pulled and stretched by the compressive gravity of a black hole, leopards, birds, and the iconic Cheshire cat smile become vaguely recognizable.

Two works rely on “phantom” tree limbs—their intricate and condensed lines mimic the verdant etchings of Carl Wilhelm Kolbe. The subjects of Phantom Limbs/Cheshire Grin (2015) and Phantom Limbs/Guardian 1 (2015) emerge from amputated tree trunks—some ooze from the trunks’ concentric growth lines and vacant hollows. In Cheshire Grin, floating leopards smile in unison alongside the iconic cat’s glib expression, tethered to the limb through wispy branches. As they spiral down toward the empty space below, the cats melt into amorphous black clouds—spots, paws, and tails are reduced to formless amoebas.

Many of Bellan-Gillan’s works are monochromatic explorations of literary remnants—they capture ubiquitous symbols from popular fables and stories and recode their meanings, simultaneously questioning the prevalence of specific symbols and their permeation of our collective consciousness. The Lure of the Rabbit and the Pull of the Wale (2016) alludes to both Alice in Wonderland and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick; the animal-child hybrid, marked by its rabbit head and petite Mary Janes, dons a dress pockmarked by cutout pools of swirling sea life and sailing ships. Bellan-Gillan’s drawings often belie their material complexity; an adjacent work is similarly drawn from blue pencil, layered with individual grimacing water droplets.

Through the process of collage, Bellan-Gillan materializes her unconscious layering of fantasy and reality; her cutouts resemble the endless streams of dreams and memories that coagulate during sleep.

Patricia Bellan-Gillen, Regrowth/A Wonder and a Woe, 2016

Conceptually, Bellan-Gillan’s works rely on meditative backgrounds—white paper provides space for her figures to emerge and evaporate. In larger drawings, she incorporates a limited color palette: lush landscapes are enlarged and flattened into atmospheric milieux. Regrowth/A Wonder and a Woe (2016) is centered around a lone tree stump—from its flat surface emerge white thought bubbles that extend outward in multiple directions. Just as symbols and characters reappear in dreams, specific images linger in Bellan-Gillan’s drawings. She frequently collages or draws the same eyeball, ship fleet, or animals. Her works reject a linear or narrative but connect through shared images, implying that dream symbolism is more universal than individual.

Similar to Alice’s rejection of temporal normativity—the endless “tick-tock” that dictates past, present, and future—Patricia Bellan-Gillan abandons her subjects’ sources and time-constructs. Dreams provide similar relief from this monotony, as objects and figures from day-to-day rituals, movies, literature, and news sources are intertwined with one another. Willful Wondering is a reevaluation of fairytales and fantasy and probes the complexities of visual consumption.

Topmost image: Patricia Bellan-Gillen,Your Cruel Tears 3, 2016, colored pencil and collage

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