Arts & Theater

A head injury took her ability to paint, but Patricia Altschul fought back

“Cheese” by Patricia Altschul
“Cheese” by Patricia Altschul Courtesy Archival Gallery

References to past art and a sense of mystery, characterize many of Patricia Altschul’s quiet yet compelling paintings of women at Archival Gallery.

In “Woman with Flowers in Her Lap,” she offers a back view of a woman with upswept hair revealing the lovely nape of her neck. At once, we wonder who she is, what she is looking at, what she is thinking in her state of quiet repose.

It is, Altschul says, an image that is essentially private, essentially still, yet evocative and descriptive of an internal life.

That stillness is at the heart of her work, which in some cases echoes the quietness of artists she admires. “Cheese” and “The Baker” simultaneously make you think of Jan Vermeer’s humble yet ethereal woman at work and the austere-yet-playful still-life paintings of Giorgio Morandi.

Altschul’s quiet figures are frozen in a moment as they work in their black dresses, white aprons and brilliant blue caps. The color range of the workers’ attire is subdued save for their vibrant headwear, the cheese an arrangement of simple shapes, the baker’s goods lush and painterly abstractions.

The Morandi reference is more obvious in “Dinner Table,” where a woman lost in thought sits at a table set with a row of closely crowded wine and water bottles as she stirs her coffee.

In “Woman in a Kimono,” she gives us an image of a woman sitting on steps reading a red book, perhaps Lady Murasaki’s “Tale of Genji.” It reminds me of one of the American Impressionist works in the Crocker’s “JapanAmerica” show, yet has a modern directness and simplicity.

The long, narrow format and cropped composition of “Woman with Umbrella” calls up associations with late 19th century French art influenced by Japanese prints. “Waitress, Gardner Museum,” a looser, rawer image of a distracted server at a cafe table pocketing her tip is more contemporary in feeling as is “Long Day, Red Shoes,” in which a woman massages a sore foot freed of its red high heel.

I’ve been a fan of Altschul’s work since I saw her lyrical images of small birds at Archival Gallery in 1997. Then in 2000, at the age of 42, she had an accident that left her with brain damage.

“I couldn’t see, couldn’t remember how to do things or the names of colors,” she recalls.

Starting over, she could only work on two-inch-square paintings, but she persisted. Working every day for 10 years, starting over each day, she taught herself to paint again.

“The work was there to do,” she says. “I made new connections in my brain. The work helped me recover.”

Now, at 59, she paints her evocative images of women with a tenuous, searching touch, giving us memorable images of women turned inward, thinking their private thoughts.

You won’t want to miss the show in the spacious, newly renovated Archival Gallery.

Patricia Altschul: Recent Paintings

When: Through April 29. 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday

Where: Archival Gallery, 3223 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento

Cost: Free entry

Information: 916-923-6204.