Nora Othic’s current show of new work confirms what many already knew: she is one of the top regionalist painters here.
Othic refers to herself whimsically as a “neo-realist.” Over the past two decades she has become increasingly well-known for her true-to-life depictions of animals, cornfields, houses and people of the heartland. All her familiar topics — along with a foray into the mythological — are present in her exhibit at the Late Show Gallery.
Othic grew up in San Francisco and moved to Marceline, Mo., when she was 7. She was working in a factory when, at the age of 33, she decided to go to the University of Missouri for an art degree. She also spent time in New York studying art. She still lives on a farm but now works full-time as an artist and has had numerous museum and gallery exhibitions in the Midwest.
Othic’s acknowledged artistic forbears are mid-century giants such as Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and WPA artists from the Depression era, all known for championing rural America. She has also looked at the brooding artworks of Edward Hopper.
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Othic’s subject matter is not that different from her predecessors, but her pastels, watercolors, oils and pencil works are ravishingly crafted, and her straightforward depictions of the vernacular exist on a level approaching the heroic.
She forgoes the melodrama, caricatures and eccentricities of the earlier regionalists in favor of forthright portraits of her immediate environment and those in it. If Benton favored politics and historical struggles, and if Hopper imbued his images with a cinematic sense of noir, Othic’s figures are stoical and real, and go about their business with few complaints.
Othic clearly admires and relates to her subjects, but she eschews the grandiosity present in many of the early regionalists’ figural narratives.
That’s not to say her art lacks humor. In her 2011 “Rock and Roller” and “Country Western” series, Othic married the vernacular with the religious as she illustrated contemporary music lyrics by merging images of singers with postures of well-known saints. Hank Williams was depicted receiving the stigmata. Johnny Cash, as a modern St. Sebastian, was painted shot full of arrows. One of Othic’s strengths as an artist is that her work is never patronizing, and these pieces would be right at home either in Nashville or Notre Dame Cathedral.
Her latest body of work, recently shown at the Daum Museum in Sedalia, Mo., and now at the Late Show, depicts mythological figures such as Medusa, the Chimaera and a satyr as carnival icons and exhibits.
Several years ago, Othic went to a carnival with her pockets stuffed with $5 bills, which she gave to carny workers who let her paint their pictures. She then fused the trademark symbols of her fabled subjects from mythology to the likenesses of the carny workers, posing them against a striped circus tent to stirring effect.
Othic’s rendition of the Chimaera, that notorious three-headed guardian of the underground that she illustrates as part dragon, lion and ram, could be considered for the next Marvel Comics saga. It shows an inventiveness that extends outside her typical oeuvre.
Best known for her oil pastels, Othic has also expanded her use of media in this exhibit, using oils for her splendid, small portraits of houses near her hometown of Marceline, and watercolor for her landscapes of the country. She also combines various media for her portraits.
For Othic fans, no exhibit would be complete without her animal studies. Her paintings and drawings of horses, bulls, roosters, pigs and rabbits are surely in a class by themselves. Othic is as meticulous in her renderings of animal likenesses as she is of humans. This show has remarkable likenesses of three pigs in profile, and another of draft horses.
Othic clearly sees each creature as a unique entity, and nowhere is this more apparent than in her portraits of rabbits. Over the years, Othic has created dozens of images of rabbits, each one distinctive. Not since Albrecht Durer has any artist seemed to care as much about these gentle creatures.
As with the rest of her art, sentimentality, cuteness and nostalgia have no place. Some rabbits are more attractive than others. A few are overweight, and others are old. There are variations in the texture and patterning of the rabbits’ fur, and Othic’s choice of media — oil, pastel, drawing — also dictates esthetic diversity.
Some of her prints of rabbits are included, and they look just as winsome in black and white.
For those not familiar with Othic’s art, this exhibit is something of a mini-retrospective. It offers the chance to get an overview of the work of one of the area’s most engaging artists whose art just keeps getting better.
Freelance writer Elisabeth Kirsch is an independent art curator and writer. Contact her through firstname.lastname@example.org.