The irresistible thing about Lee Deffebach's new work at the Phillips Gallery is the ebullient and repetitive patterns that trellis her canvases like stuttering Rorschach cards.
The images are produced with a paint roller; and while the use of paint rollers by artists is nothing new, Deffebach manages to employ the technique with such finesse that the result elicits awe."I got busy and tried a roller on one painting and liked it," she says. "So I pushed it. I don't know that I'll continue it, but it was fun."
The new paintings also reveal Deffebach's crush on Howard Hodgkin, the English painter known for his color-saturated semi-abstracts. The crush agrees with her, however, for the paintings are not copies of Hodgkin's oeuvre but extensions of influence.
Genesis #6 and Genesis #4 are particularly intriguing, not only for their use of the paint roller in creating unusual motifs, but also for their provocative and singular colors. The three paintings "Notes From Laos #1, #2 and #3 are likewise good examples of Deffebach's unique approach with the roller.
But one shouldn't be fooled into thinking that just because Deffebach has used something as "gimicky" as a paint roller that the paintings are simplistic or easy to produce. Simplicity of technique should never be - nor has it historically ever been - a reliable barometer of great art.
Unfortunately, however, painting in the abstract expressionist mode can be a cop out; it can be an easy way out for some untalented and lazy artists.
Not so with Deffebach.
"Lee is an original," says Vern Swanson, director of the Springville Museum of Art. "She was in that first wave - as close to the first wave that anybody in Utah is going to get. She was there in the 1950s in New York, so what she came by honestly has now become conventional painting in the hands of others."
Along with the new paintings, Phillips is exhibiting many of Deffebach's found-metal sculptures. These inventive heaps of collected trash are Deffebach's way of recycling the garbage around her summer home in Tuscarora, Nev., located about 50 miles north of Elko. The crumpled debris, when assembled and spray-painted, looks like post-apocalyptic party favors, with titles like "The R & R on the DDT," "Blue Nunn," "Little Bo Peep," "Choo Choo" and "Tea Party." They are lightweight but they are fun.
While Utah has many excellent abstract expressionist painters, it's good to know that Deffebach is still at it. Swanson calls her the matriarch of Utah art because she's "been contributing to Utah art for the second half of this century. The reason we have a strong abstract expressionist school in Utah today is because Lee's work is so energetically represented."
It's obvious that Deffebach enjoys painting, especially abstract. She likes the fact that it evolves, that it remains a mystery for so much of the painting process. "Besides," Deffebach says, "if I knew what I was going to do, I wouldn't bother."
(Lee Deffebach's exhibit runs through Feb. 7. Phillips Gallery is located at 444 E. 200 South. The gallery is open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.)