History looks out steadily from the surface of old photographs, holding a pose, jaws clenched, arranged against representative scenery in tones of black and white. History also seeps through dreams in vivid color, and charged moments loom near, or fade back into the pattern and texture of the emotional environment. Ron Milhoan, in “No Place to Hide,” at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, draws deep from his childhood memories of a Nebraska family homestead to tap directly into the racial unconscious for this body of expressive narrative paintings, heavy with meaning.
A giant fallen tree holds a gathering of figures posing on its immense trunk above the glinting surface of a watering hole in “Family Tree.” Though faces are obscure, the figures are distinctive, each looking at the viewer across the deep foreground of placid water. Behind them the river continues far beyond, banked by a receding procession of trees toward the dark ultramarine horizon. The painting carries summer in its warm palette and emotion in its expressive brushstrokes, creating with most specificity a memory—that watering hole, that family, that summer.
“Goddess of the Plains” carves dimension out of abstraction: a gauzy veil obscures areas of the canvas; at one side, a statue overlooks the space while objects emerge from and recede into the golden glow of the many-layered image. Hanging at the exhibition entrance, “Goddess: introduces symbols and techniques that recur throughout: areas of saturated color, dominant pattern and strong line contrasting with areas of modeling and transparency; nature creeping into, and as a context for, the human environment.
In “No Place to Hide” the artist remembers his Nebraska upbringing, referring to old photos of his pioneering family’s history in that unforgiving land of harsh winters and baking summers. In Homestead the sky burns with fauvist intensity; swirls of sunset clouds conjure Van Gogh’s Night Sky while the tilled fields become a brilliant pattern that meets the horizon in an expression of nature’s power. At the center of the composition, the sturdy house stands empty; light spills from its open door while a small family poses between spindly trees in front. As was common in portraits of such homesteads, the family’s belongings are displayed proudly outside the house against the backdrop of their land. The stolid figures stand within the luminous vastness: a testimony to hope and hard work.
Sun-darkened features of all humans are vague and stern with daguerreotype stillness. “Oconto” chronicles the artist’s memory of a claustrophobic gathering in his family home, while he, a shadow at the edge of the interior space, almost fades into the landscape beyond, where he wanted to be.
“Ron Milhoan: No Place to Hide” continues at the Museum of Art & History through July 17.