Jennifer Cawley paints alternate realities

Cawley leaves a memorable mental note at Emily Amy Gallery

Jennifer Cawley’s encaustic and mixed-media paintings play with the natural tension that arises when child-like innocence collides with the dark and daunting realities of the adult word. She counts among her influences authors Roald Dahl and Lewis Carroll, who similarly conveyed senses of wonder and imagination in their works.

Internal struggles manifest as off-kilter mental maps in You Can’t Get There From Here, her current exhibit on view at Emily Amy Gallery. In her artist statement, Cawley explains how mental processes follow disjointed, nonlinear paths: “When the brain does not follow expected sequences to problem solve or synthesize information, the result is an alternate perception.” This phenomenon can occur in situations as mundane as a visit to a crowded mall or as devastating as dealing with death.

After earning her BFA at the Atlanta College of Art, Cawley studied bookbinding in England. Her works feature youthful storybook elements such as hot-pink silhouettes of pigs, words like “fortune” and “gift” scrawled into the wax with a finger, and peppy primary colors. Paper cutouts, scribbles, amoeba-like splotches of paint, and dictionary pages patch together a subconscious landscape with little spatial logic. Opaque wax encases the collages and distorts the paintings, as if viewing them through a sheer white curtain. In some works, strokes of slick-looking paint sit thickly on top of the wax.

Several paintings have the fresh-looking paint formed into rows of serpentine dashes. In “Amble,” the lines loop around parasitic imagery that looks like worms writhing in the holes of a tree. A simple illustration of a man and woman eating at a nearly bare table heightens the painting’s melancholy undertone. Red dashes curl atop an inky blue bloom of dyed wax and transform into a loose bouquet of flower petals in “Gift.” The sinuous lines escort the eye through the works, effectively conjuring the show’s title, You Can’t Get There From Here.

Cawley’s ideas about sensory processing often manifest literally. In “Comfort Level,” a stairwell fills the silhouette of a head, out of which comes a speech bubble made from a dictionary page. But Cawley’s work is more successful when it has a sketchier, more ambiguous feel. “Hotdog” and “Perhaps,” for instance, have more in common with the bold abstractions of a Cy Twombly painting than a page from a children’s book. In both cases, the bright hues that dominate most of her paintings are used sparingly to enliven the muted, earth-toned backgrounds. “Perhaps” is particularly whimsical, with a derby hat, a row of disembodied teeth, an encyclopedia cutout of dancing feet, and her signature dots and dashes of paint.

Maybe Cawley intended to have the viewer contemplate the brain’s complexities by creating an atmosphere of sensory overload. Her eye-catching symbols and the colorful webs that connect them capture imagination, but might not hold one’s attention. Allowing her paintings room to breathe lets her ideas move through the work like a fishing line. Not every one will catch, but there’s a soothing rhythm in their capture and release.