A few days ago I was in Santa Fe, N.M., a city practically worshipped for its light. Ansel Adams and Georgia O'Keeffe reveled in the region's vast skies. When the sun splashes the sky in Santa Fe, it's as bracing as a dive in a cool pool on a hot summer day. Along with the adobe-mandated building code, expensive restaurants and legions of upscale galleries, the light is one of the city's best-known calling cards.
I thought of Santa Fe while taking in "Views of Fresno," Mimi Mott-Smith's new exhibition of 22 oil paintings at Fresno City Hall. Granted, the light in Fresno is not as singular as in Santa Fe. It doesn't draw caravans of devoted tourists. It's not as profound or dramatic.
I won't try to argue any of those things.
But the sun here bathes us in a special way, too. Even when the sky is hazy — which is too often — the plentiful light here is so brilliant and intense that it "washes everything into soft colors," as Mott-Smith notes.
"I have lived in places where it is cold, foggy, cloudy, etc., and found that it had a negative effect on me," she says. "The light here lends me a strong feeling of well-being. To me, it is one of the great things about this place."
The exhibition is dominated by depictions of Fresno buildings. Some are well-known — Fresno High School, the Absolute Bail Bonds building downtown, the old University Medical Center — while others are cloaked in suburban anonymity. (She paints people, too, and includes a still-life of fruit, but to me, the strength and core of the show is the architectural interpretations.) Mott-Smith's style is fiercely minimalist. She uses simple, blocky shapes and leaves most details to the imagination. Skies are cloudless. The visual jangle of the streetscape is smoothed into a pleasant, uniform emptiness.
"I intentionally used a minimalist approach because I wanted to reveal the beauty of shapes and colors in a clean, uncluttered way," she says. "I intentionally sought out and chose places where this light and these clean shapes showed to best advantage. My principal interest in art is in fact color."
The colors certainly grab me in this show. Take "Pink House, Big Sky," depicting a ranch house that seems as large as a battleship. (The massive double garage takes up nearly half the street frontage.) The pink walls are set off by the vivid green lawn and landscaping. Above, the cloudless and lucid blue sky takes up a full two-thirds of the painting.
In "Bleak House," Mott-Smith depicts a moment of suburban abandonment: a house that looks shut off from the world, complete with dead lawn. (Which, alas, will likely be a more familiar sight in these water-deficient times.) But the color combination — a sickly tan for the lawn, a pale purple for the house's exterior walls, all under that same brisk blue sky — is what creates the mood of disengagement. Can a painting be sullen yet striking? This one is.
Mott-Smith, who moved to Fresno in 1977 from the Bay Area, worked for 40 years as a nurse practitioner, clinician and member of the faculty at UCSF- Fresno. But later in her career she felt the tug of her creative side, which extended back to childhood when she loved to draw, and then for a while when she painted while living in Europe.
"In the mid-'90s I had a sort of crisis, realizing that I had left art behind and felt like a rather dry, one-sided person," she says.
She set up a home studio and in 1996 joined Fig Tree Gallery. In 2005 she moved to Broadway Studios, where she's shown her work since.
Though she's lived in Fresno for decades, her newest exhibition doesn't have the tone of a hometown crush. (Things about the city please, amuse, puzzle and sometimes appall her, she says.) There's a wry, outsider sensibility to Mott-Smith's works, such as when she's depicting a house with a very large flag that covers a third of it — which in the literal sense salutes the strength of the patriotism sometimes expressed here, but which she also sees as an ironic "doth protest too much" insecurity.
And while she purposely omits many of the visual details from her works, she includes some that many people would rather overlook. Power lines and on-roof air-conditioning units are recurring motifs. ("I had never seen AC units until I came here," she says.)
Yet there's also a celebratory sense here — perhaps subtle at times, but pervasive.
For me, it all gets back to the idea of the light. It's what can give a region a distinctive zest, whether Santa Fe or Fresno. I like the way Mott-Smith is able to capture the intangibility of the light here and express it in a non-literal, highly subjective and effective way.
Perhaps what she does best is trigger something within so you think about the light. The show offers up Fresno in pale, creamy, sun-washed terms. Those soft colors seem somehow dreamy and inviting. That's what happens when you bake in the sun.
IF YOU GO
For an extended interview with Mimi Mott-Smith, go to www.fresnobeehive.com.