There’s something about the female figures in the paintings, the way they stare so deeply that you feel uncomfortable staring back. They are depicted in ways that make them feel flat, even sterile, in the harsh environment that often surrounds them, and yet they manage to project girlish innocence.
The artist behind the stare is painter Dana Costello, whose painting career has flourished since coming here from San Francisco, where all her energy was focused on just staying afloat. She didn’t necessarily need the beauty of the Utah landscapes, the harsh weather or a struggle against a hegemonic culture. Utah simply gave her the time and space she needed to work. Her subject matter and inspiration came from her own studies of human culture, while her paintings are her vehicle of exploration.
Compositionally speaking, the paintings are quite simple. Each features a female figurine clothed in Victorian-style dress, buckle shoes and white tights, placed in a lunar landscape and surrounded by imaginary plants.
Some of the images are modern variations on archetypes, such as “Janus Faced Girl with Plant That Hears,” where Costello references the two-faced Roman God of beginnings and doorways. In “Struggle,” two female figures—one masked and the other unmasked—fight while perched perilously on an edge. In “Offering,” the figure holds a flame in her outstretched hand, apparently trying to give it to the Easter Island-like giant stone heads dotting the scene. Then there are the totems in one painting, or the two-story house in another where plant life rules the first floor and the girl, on hands and knees, peers down through a hole in the second.
Whatever Costello’s point, it was lost on many viewers of the work, as documented in a comments book at the exhibit. More than one noted that all the paintings look the same. One suggested to Costello that while she was apparently off to a good start, she really should branch out a little more. Other viewers took stabs at brief explanations. Words like “weird,” “disturbing,” “haunting,” “troubling” and “strange” seemed to permeate their thoughts. And as a friend of Costello’s noted, the paintings make the observer feel a kind of emptiness that is then projected onto the canvas in the form of a bleak, disfigured landscape and an original female figure that inhabits it with her stare.