Philadelphia-based artist Jane Irish uses her painting and ceramics to mix beauty with political engagement.

Irish has traveled often to Vietnam; her paintings explore the 18th century European colonial fascination with Asian exoticism, and draw parallels with the long history of French and American conflicts there.

She will seduce you with her paintings of lush Rococo interiors and mysterious gardens and unsettle you with her images of war and turmoil.

"I'm glad people see that in the work, that there is the beauty first, because maybe they'll get consumed by it at first instead of hitting them on the head [as if it's] some kind of frightening battle scene," said Irish. "I'm telling the story of that idea about standing up for what is right."

The messaging

The political messages in her pottery work are often revealed in subtle images that speak of chaos, only if you look it closely.

In her paintings, sometimes they come through veteran's poems embedded in the weavings of luxurious rugs, curtains and wallpaper.

Irish developed her interest in exploring social justice and protest when she went to study traditional ceramic in French factories. She noticed that often a room was dedicated to honoring the French underground movement against the Nazis in World War II.

"It's just sort of the serendipity of that 'A-ha!' situation where I combine decorative art and policy or politics in the same creative track, and then I came home and try to develop that," she said.

War influence

The idea of resistance struck a chord, so she decided to focus on Vietnam, the defining conflict of her generation, including the antiwar movement.

"The thing that drives me is to tell the story of another kind of heroicism," she said.

In her work, she's been following that narrative of uneasy alliances between messages. The outcome is always shocking, says Ingrid Schaffner, senior curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

"There are ceramic sculptures that are as much painting as sculpture, and when you first see them, they are delightful like Rococo and these beautiful decorative objects," said Schaffner. "But when you come upon them and you look more closely, you see soldiers ablaze in a battlefield and helicopters overhead."

Yet somehow, in Irish's work, the message doesn't overpower her highly recognizable visual language, expressed in rich pastel-like colors, turquoise, salmon, yellows, and a deep understanding of space and volume.

"It is a light palette and just an airiness filled with light," said Irish. "It's just a key and I guess it's like music it's like the key I'm in."

Reactions

Schaffner said she likes Irish's playfulness with form and meaning both in her ceramic pieces and her paintings of overstuffed European ostentatious interiors. (She paints them on location.)

"There's something so honest in Jane's sort of love of these robber-baron trophies of wealth and splendor sitting uncomfortably with this grassroots activism and belief in political social change," said Schaffner.

In her exhibition "Perfumed River" at the Locks Gallery on Washington Square, Irish uses drawings from her recent trip to Vietnam. 

In some of the pieces, there's a hint of a new direction in her work that remains true to her role of visual activist.  She says a quote from Phil Ochs sums up her approach.

"He said 'to write a song you just needed to combine Mozart and the New York Times;' just what was going on and some beauty," Irish said.