Culture- ART FEATURE- Artist gone girly: Jamison flowers at SSG

"So many artists I know have a dead animal collection in their freezer"— not a sentence I expected to hear from painter Susan Jamison, whose ultra-feminine exhibition, "Full Bloom," is currently on view at Second Street Gallery. She was discussing her four "bouquet" drawings, depicting tiny bird carcasses and twigs bound together with red thread, but the statement captured a deeper truth underlying the surface of her work.

And while Jamison's art is all about the surface, in terms of both technique and content, it's anything but superficial. Visually citing sources as wide-ranging as Renaissance wedding portraits, Audubon bird illustrations, and antique anatomy texts, the Roanoke-based artist examines myths and clichés regarding femininity ("Pretty is as pretty does." "Sugar and spice and everything nice." "Beauty is only skin deep.").

Jamison uses a tiny brush and the unusual medium of egg tempera— made from yolk, water, and powdered pigment— to create intensely hued, symbol-rich compositions involving either isolated female body parts or portraits of an every-woman seen in profile against an eggshell background. Each small stroke, whether defining a feather's fringe or the barely discernible twist in Jamison's ever-present red thread, is precise and refined, yielding images that play with realism yet remain stylized and nearly flat.

Her women are naked and bald, with closed eyes, ornamented only by deep pink tattoos vining across their skin like floral embroidery. This metaphor of sewing and crafted appearance is constant in Jamison's work. For instance, stickpins and thread hold together a rose in "Avian Couture," providing a miniature representation of the main figure who stands encaged in a trellis-like hoop skirt of thorny vines.

Always women are allied with nature, calling to mind such far-flung associations as Botticelli's Primavera and Walt Disney's Snow White and Cinderella. Goldfinches and humming birds flit here and there, carrying bits of thread or holding sugar packets in their beaks, while flowers wreath the women's necks.

But below this rosy surface, Jamison reveals a darker, less accessible and more tangled side of femininity. In addition to including the occasional black widow spider or snake in her images, she contrasts the orderly pink patterns on her women's skin with the inscrutable grey branches and roots inside their skulls. The effect is jarring and compelling.

Like saccharine, Jamison's sweet paintings have a bitter edge, as they open the door on all the pretty beasts preserved in our mental freezers.

"Susan Jamison: Full Bloom" is on display through January 27 in the Dové Gallery of Second Street Gallery. 115 Second St. SE (in the Charlottesville City Center for the Arts). 977-7284.