Tom Eblen: Lexington artist branches out while maintaining her roots

Lexington artist Lina Tharsing has a new exhibit at the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center.
Lexington artist Lina Tharsing has a new exhibit at the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center. Herald-Leader

Lina Tharsing's paintings place the viewer between the real and the unreal. This month, as the artist celebrates her 30th birthday and opens her last Lexington show for a while, she finds herself in a similar position.

"I've been fortunate to have such strong support in Lexington," Tharsing said. "But I would like to branch out more."

Tharsing's six-painting show, Making a New Forest, recently went up at the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center's East Gallery, which is free and open 24/7. An opening reception is planned for 6 to 8 p.m. April 27.

When the show comes down at the end of August, the title painting will remain at the hospital, thanks to several donors. Any unsold pieces will be part of show of Tharsing's newest work this fall at Poem 88 gallery in Atlanta.

The Atlanta show will be the second solo exhibition outside of Kentucky for Tharsing, who last year was chosen as No. 5 on Oxford American magazine's list of 100 "new superstars of Southern art." Conduit Gallery in Dallas showed her work in 2011.

Tharsing's recent shows have featured paintings based on the famous dioramas built in the 1930s at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

The paintings displayed in Dallas were small, colorful pictures that looked like natural scenes of animals in the wild — until the viewer notices the edge of a display case or the telltale glint of light on a plate-glass window.

Making a New Forest offers a different perspective on the dioramas. These striking pictures are 4 feet tall and 6 feet wide, and painted completely in black and white. In addition to animals and landscapes, they show men in lab coats and ties, positioning the stuffed animals or fabricating scenery. The paintings are based on 1930s black-and-white photographs of the museum's staff at work.

"I liked the idea of these people creating new environments, and what these environments stand for," Tharsing said. "I also thought it would be interesting to see what happens when you take a black-and-white photograph and make a black-and-white painting."

Painting the old photos of the dioramas being built allowed Tharsing to incorporate human figures into natural landscapes, and to play with size and scale.

"I was interested in that tension between real and unreal," she said, "showing multiple truths existing in the same space."

Tharsing is excited about exhibiting in the hospital's hallway gallery, which thousands of people walk by each day.

"It's a good opportunity to show your work and see what the general public thinks of it, and not just the art public," she said.

Although it sometimes seems a little unreal, Tharsing is pleased with the attention her work is getting beyond Lexington, where she graduated from Lafayette High School and earned a bachelor of fine arts at UK.

Many people here know her as the daughter of Robert Tharsing, a painter and retired UK art professor, and Ann Tower, a painter and gallery owner. The exhibition was organized by Lexington native Phillip March Jones, an artist who started the Institute 193 gallery and works as a curator for UK hospital and in Atlanta.

Her next project will continue her fascination with mixing real and unreal imagery. These even-larger paintings, in color, will be based on cellphone photographs she has taken, including a startling image of the ceiling collapsing in an abandoned Atlanta paint factory.

Tharsing expects to spend more time in New York during the next few years, making connections and, she hopes, showing and selling her paintings. But she has no plans to move there.

"Lexington is such a great place to be able to live inexpensively and have a good support network," she said. "There's just a great community here. There are a lot of young people here doing entrepreneurial, exciting things, and I want to see that happen."