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Welcome to Jackie Felix's world; A retrospective of her work at Burchfield Penney Art Center invites visitors to a place where the imagination soars

For Jackie Felix, circumstances were everything.

Felix was born on the south side of Pittsburgh in 1929 to strict parents who pushed her away from the uncertainty of a life in the arts and toward the relative security of a family and teaching career.

Then, 1964, her husband died in a car crash, leaving Felix to care for their two young children alone.

In the early 1970s, she remarried to Al Felix, an art lover and poet whose entry into Jackie's life was the circumstance that allowed her to pick up a brush and follow her creative spirit.

It didn't take Felix long to settle on what would become her career-long subject: people trapped in their own circumstances -- of gender, location and social experience -- and longing to connect to one another and to break free. Felix's tortured characters now inhabit the walls of the Burchfield Penney Art Center's east gallery, part of a sprawling retrospective of her work that comes more than two years after Felix's death, in November 2009.

Al Felix, 85, who hosts a poetry open mic night every Monday at Caffe Aroma on Bidwell Parkway in the Elmwood Village, remembers his wife as someone who only began to come into her own once she got hold of a paintbrush.

"We live in two worlds," Al Felix said, "the world of facts, which is you, me, this cup, our jobs, brushing our teeth in the morning and all the other things that we do that enable us to live from day to day on the surface level. But what defines us as more than featherless bipeds, as Plato described it, is the second world, which is really the key world. And that is the world of the imagination.

"She had this world of fact and she stepped aside and she looked at it from a different angle, from the world of imagination, and she wanted you to join her in the world of imagination and see what you made of this thing."

That sounds like a nice invitation, until you try it. Felix's imagination can be a forbidding place to visit, filled with dark imaginings of human figures forever stuck in inhospitable surroundings who often seem to be preparing for, recovering from or trying to avoid some ineffable act of evil looming somewhere outside the frame. Here you don't just stop over for tea. You kind of have to stay the night.

But this exhibition, smartly curated by the Burchfield Penney's Nancy Weekly, lights the pathway into Felix's imagination as well as could be hoped. It shows us the full breadth of Felix's career, which, after its late start, might best be described as a determined journey from one section of purgatory to another.

The show begins in 1982, as Felix finds her footing with the expressionistic figures she would use throughout her life. Her first mature series, "Wild Women," presents female figures rendered in insane colors and contorted shapes. She quickly moves on to more narratively loaded work, like a pastel on paper that shows a nude woman on a stage framed by curtains and set against a strange blue background. A similar scene pops up in an oil from the same period, but now the curtains are painted with more detail and the background has become black. With theatrical motif, which pops up throughout her work, Felix is inviting us to dream up our own plot.

But her later scenes are where the imagination is really challenged. In "End of the World Series / Big Bangs & Black Holes," Felix lays out a terrifying vision. She provides just enough information to set the mind going in some uncomfortable directions: three feet on a bed, a naked woman in curlers either dancing or caressing herself in the foreground; a strangely shaped TV featuring a screaming or singing figure; a crimson floor; and a window revealing a pitch-black moon setting or rising against a blood-red sky.

What exactly is going on Felix does not wish to tell us, but it seems pretty clear that the inhabitants of her paintings are often there against their own will. The same goes for her later and less apocalyptic series, especially the spare, moving "We're Really Happy" group, in which forlorn couples find themselves eternally paused in monochrome surroundings.

Felix had a great deal to say about the place of women in the story of art (see her devastating piece "Art History," which shows a female bust dangling by a string high above a stage), a subject as ripe for critique as any in American art.

But it would be a big mistake to confine Felix's work entirely within feminist parentheses. It is of course deeply feminist in many of the vastly different ways that the term suggests, but it goes somewhere broader, deeper, darker. Her work speaks to universal notions of human solitude, of the prison of one's own mind and circumstances, of the urge to connect that is ultimately impossible to satisfy -- whether through sex, intellectual engagement or even violence. All three of those things play out across Felix's canvases, and the result is never a happy one.

There are comparisons to be made between Felix and other painters of the cages humans build for themselves and each other, particularly Francis Bacon, who himself strove in vain for human connection and made a living turning his frustrations into terrifying visions on canvas. Given Felix's use of curtains and other theatrical motifs across her career, her philosophical kinship with Samuel Beckett also seems tough to deny.

This is potentially exhausting subject matter, but as Richard Huntington points out in his illuminating catalog essay, Felix manages to cut her devastating existentialism with well-placed doses of whimsy and humor.

There are table legs wearing high heels, as in one enchantingly strange, muted and figureless painting from her "Tabletops" series. Cinematic and comic book conventions often blunt the potential discomfort of some of the scenes she paints, as in her sprawling piece "The Fortunate Fall," the biblical story of Adam and Eve filtered through Felix's pop-cultural prism. The tongue-in-cheek title of her series "We're Really Happy" describes what Huntington calls "among the unhappiest pictures on the planet."

The comic relief is welcome -- it helps you gather up the nerve to move from one crushing canvas to the next -- but only temporarily.

If you really try to engage with the paintings, to dare yourself to imagine what sort of narrative they spell out for you (as Felix genuinely hoped her audience would), you will leave this show emotionally spent. But you'll also leave with enough questions to keep your mind occupied for days.

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"Storyboard: The Sexual Politics of Jackie Felix" runs through April 29 in the Burchfield Penney Art Center, 1300 Elmwood Ave. Admission is $5 to $10. For more information, visit www.burchfieldpenney.org or call 878-6011.

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"So Much Uncertainty," an exhibition of Felix's work timed to coincide with the Burchfield Penney exhibition, runs in the Indigo Art gallery (74 Allen St.) through Feb. 26.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com