A squirrel's piercing eye confronts the viewer entering the gallery.

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One of Emily ten Raa's works. Picture: Supplied

VISUAL ARTS
Souvenirs: Emily ten Raa
Emerge Art Space
REVIEW LAETITIA WILSON

A squirrel's piercing eye confronts the viewer entering the gallery. Fiercely protective over a precious emerald ball, the eye peers into the newcomer suspiciously. This squirrel, found in a curio shop and then immortalised in paint, represents the mascot for a road trip taken by artist Emily ten Raa across North America in 2012-13.

She sees the works in her second solo exhibition at Emerge Art Space as a consolidation of the road trip and as embedded in narrative. They are drawn from scenes glimpsed through the window, fleeting obsessions, curio objects collected and moments experienced on the road, or pieced together from photographs and memories.

The experiences had on the road become abstracted from their point of origin through paint. Many of the works appear to be looking for something authentic. For example, ten Raa tells of finding old-timer cowboys and she paints them as lonely figures in the washed out and abstracted void of supermarket aisles - far removed from their usual bravado. By another token the painting Toy Cowboy depicts such a toy full of dynamism in a wash of cloudy green dust - this is the fictional ideal as against the all too soft and nostalgic everyday real.

Many of the works take such cultural icons as subject matter - New York's skyline, old Mississippi crooners, the striking Arizona desert and the curio shop. The mundane is also pictured - from still suburban streets to the neglected foliage of Alabama.

Icons experienced face-to- face can be both breathtaking and mundane. In, and of, themselves, they can come across as all too familiar through endless repetition on merchandise such as postcards and tea towels.

New Orleans beads have this dual identity as so much an integral visual part of the Mardi Gras celebrations and at the same time cheap trinkets made in China. Ten Raa tells of finding beads in the roadside dirt; she collected an entire bathtub full and used them to decorate the travel van. The resulting painting portrays them gleaming in her studio interrupting the framed vision through the window of the striking landscape of Arizona's Monument Valley.

Ten Raa packs a lot of different styles and genres into these paintings including landscape, portraiture, the naive, drip painting and the interior. If anything, she bites off too much. Perhaps she could focus more deeply on individual parts rather than presenting such a broad sweep.

By far the strongest paintings, on both formal and conceptual grounds, are the cowboys. Disenfranchised, as they are, in the supermarket and confronted by their own existential voids. The muted pastel colouring and diffusion of light effectively highlights their all-too-human condition.

Being familiar with the personality behind the art is not always useful for its interpretation, but in this case gleaning insight into the stories that underpin the works is invaluable. The works are made whole by ten Raa's anecdotes; they are given a expanded life beyond their painterly presence.

Souvenirs is at Emerge Art Space, 827 Beaufort Street, Inglewood, until February 5.