Denver Art Gallery



Voelz Chandler: Dream world lives on canvas


Rocky Mountain News March 17, 2007


Some people try to make wishes come true. Irene Delka McCray puts flesh on dreams.

The paintings record things the mind wants to forget: abuse, tragedy, and unfathomable inhumanity.

Take the example of Martin Mendelsberg, an artist who years ago told her of his dream. He was in a cattle car, surrounded by life-sized photographs, the legacy of a family that lost members during the Holocaust. It's a subject he explores in his own work, but through text and images.

"I asked him to pose for me," McCray said recently. "The photographs had to be hanging from his arms, as if he's flying. He's trying so hard. He's really trying to transform his energy. What I get from his work is that it comes from deep, deep inside."

But she thought about his story for a long time before beginning the project. "It was almost three years before I started it," she said of her fellow instructor at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, whom she termed "an amazing wonderful person."

Mendelsberg is the model for several paintings by McCray on view at Sandra Phillips Gallery this month in "Looking Back to Now." These include other works that pull from that encounter during sleep, plus paintings of McCray's friends who are battling some sort of painful experience.

It is a new direction for McCray, whose previous work has been informed by the the spirit world. At a recent show at the college, several canvases depicted people in impossible positions traveling through a void.

"My imagery comes more from the soul realm," McCray said. "I'm not dealing with waking-life reality. A lot of my work comes from dreams, a world speaking to us from the other side." In those works: "I'm putting living people in a place dead people went to."

Many of the subjects in "Looking Back to Now" are friends who have unburdened their problems on McCray, from memories of child abuse to the loss of a child. The pain flows through them, although McCray cloaks them in bodies that are impeccably painted, beautifully proportioned, with skin that almost looks alive.

"The correctness of the figure comes from doing it over and over and over, and teaching it over and over and over," said McCray, who teaches figure painting and life drawing at the college.

"I've been painting the figure since I was 16 years old. I went to a summer class in Colorado Springs, and fell in love with painting the figure. I had paint and a naked person in front of me, and I thought, 'Wow, I'm going to do this the rest of my life.' "

And she has. After graduating from Coloradeo State University, the Boulder native earned a master of fine arts degree from Vermont College. She taught for several years at Santa Fe Community College, in New Mexico, then returned to Colorado and the RMCAD position. Now 58, she has exhibited widely, both the paintings that move the living into the other side of consciousness, and now the various series on view at Phillips.

Studying dream therapy helped her in terms of creating the images. "I always kind of looked at underworld kind of images. I'm looking at the soul world and the soul world becoming more important than the real world."

But that also is a world where nude figures seem to grapple to survive, a clash of love and pain, sex and death. And she knows the nudity - especially the male nude - is difficult for some viewers. She recalls taking first place in a show for a painting that included a male nude, and the organizers moved the piece to the basement. "That's where we had the opening of the show," she said.

The strength of the work is what appealed to gallery owner Phillips. "I had looked at her as the observer of the human experience. She's very good at communicating the human experience, even the dark side. It's not for casual viewing."

For McCray, becoming the sponge for friends' sorrow, and then translating that into paintings is, in a word, "hard. The hardest one (in the show) includes the images of the Holocaust," she said, referring to one of Mendelsberg that goes beyond the historic photographs to imagery of the starving, beaten inmates of death camps. "I could paint about an hour at a time, and then I had to stop."

They are not easy works, nor does McCray want them to be.

"Part of it is really, really difficult, to listen to these stories. But they are my friends. I don't want to stay on the happily lit stage, where everything is masked over. It's not pleasant to know this, but it's part of who we are."

Looking Back to Now

• What: Paintings by Irene Delka McCray

• When and where: Sandra Phillips Gallery, 744 Santa Fe Drive; through March 31

• Information: 303-573-5969; thesandraphillips


Copyright © Sandra Phillips Gallery