Artist expresses themes both feminine and universal

In a tiny "studio" overlooking her backyard in suburban Maryland, Argentine artist Isabel Mackinlay stakes out an island of uncluttered floor, surrounded by art books, magazines, and tubes of oil paint.

Ms. Mackinlay, who is also a mother and the wife of a French diplomat, admits she has had to struggle to find both space and time to paint. Yet she rises above daily frustrations to create works that are rooted in both domestic and women's themes and appealingly universal.

"If the paintings are not universally understood, they have no meaning," she says, paraphrasing Spanish artist J. Torres Garcia. "That's why I don't like art that's so abstract and fashionable that no one understands anything. I want people to feel something."

Mackinlay, a petite woman in a simple brown cotton suit, pauses with brush and palette in hand. As she tilts her head, her earrings dangle among locks of short brown hair as she examines her tableau.

Like many of her works, the one in progress expresses Mackinlay's concerns about the state of women, their relations with men, and their social roles. It depicts a woman with a slumped posture, nude but for her shoes, partially implanted in a brick wall.

"She is tired, and annoyed because she doesn't know where to start," she says of the painting, composed in deep hues of blue and rust. "Her head and sexuality are in the wall," she says of the work, inspired by images of black-shrouded women in Islamic societies.

Yet the painting is more than a sad statement on the repression of women. The female figure, for instance, is holding a spatula, suggesting that she has a hand in her own confinement.

"Responsibility is a very big thing we have to understand," Mackinlay explains. "It's so easy to say, 'I can't do anything, I am unable.' " The woman's shoes, she says, are meant to suggest that she can take action.

Hope is also symbolized, as in other Mackinlay works, by the leafy branches of a tree behind the woman. "The positive element would be the tree," she says. "It's life. It is alive."

Many of Mackinlay's paintings have a dreamlike quality, with hints of fantasy reminiscent of the Russian-born artist Marc Chagall. They also contain elements of cubism.

Although in the past she experimented with lacquering and papier mache, Mackinlay now works primarily with oil on canvas. Her deep reds, browns, and blues are outlined in black and set off by homemade wooden frames embellished with gold leaf.

Above all, Mackinlay's art stands out for its subdued yet powerful symbolism, which evokes the pressures both men and women face in modern life, especially in urban, middle-class settings.

In her paintings, for instance, many of the men wear colanders as a kind of absurd, helmetlike hat; others wear long ties that seem to drag beneath their feet.

"The men are tied to their work," says Mackinlay. "Their suits and long ties make them look like clowns. They come home and they are so tired, and the first thing they do is take the tie off."

In a 1998 painting entitled "Nightmare," a woman is searching for answers to social ills such as genocide, crime, and arranged marriages. In one section, a man with a long red tie is passing his bride a bag of money, suggesting that marriage is "a kind of an exchange," Mackinlay says.

While often melancholy in tone, her paintings also invite faith and can even reveal a touch of whimsy.

This is the case in the 2000 work "Escalopes Panees," named for a dish Mackinlay cooked so often that her 10-year-old son complained about it. A woman is standing in a kitchen with her back turned, pounding chicken meat. But floating nearby are aproned angels who help her. Above the scene, God sits at a breakfast table having a cup of coffee and "waiting," Mackinlay says. A ladder hanging from the table suggests that "we always have access to Him, if we only want it."

Mackinlay was born in Mexico to an Argentine father and Mexican mother. She grew up in Mexico, Argentina, and Europe, often moving as a result of her father's World Bank career. After college, she studied art in Europe and South America. She moved to Washington with her son and husband three years ago.

Despite the strong women's themes in her paintings, Mackinlay resists the feminist label. "In Spanish, we say the more '-isms' you have in your life, the worse off it goes. You have dogmas, and then you don't learn to discern," she says. "I am not a feminist, I am feminine."

An exhibit of Isabel Mackinlay's paintings is at the Watergate Gallery, 2552 Virginia Ave. NW, Washington, D.C., through May 5.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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