Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Measure of Magic

A Measure of Magic
By Tom Wachunas

In the realms of cinema, television, and fashion photography, one sure way to heap praise on the performers is to tell them, “The camera loves you!” If the idea of an inanimate object willfully entering into a relationship with a person seems too absurd to warrant any deeper consideration, I still would ask you to consider another possibility along the same line. It is this: the best painters have the ability – however inexplicable it may be to the reasoning mind – to elicit from the tools of their trade the capacity to communicate palpable, soulful energy. “Talent” is not what I’m talking about here, though that is certainly a prerequisite. No, here I’m talking about a specific and peculiar, yet more ephemeral ability to manufacture pure enchantment.

As evidenced by the current exhibit, called “Realism Revisited,” at The Little Art Gallery in North Canton, the canvas loves Lynn Digby’s touch.

In her statement that accompanies the show, Lynn Digby calls herself a “contemporary realist.” The pesky term “realism” in painting was originally assigned to the work of mid-19th century French artists who addressed subjects and scenes that were then considered to be beneath the purview of classically fine art. Realists were summarily dismissed by the French Academy for their attentions to the ugly and ordinary. These days the term seems to have acquired a more generic connotation, referring to anything that conveys – with varying degrees of exactitude - the illusion of physical reality. “Wow, that looks just like a photograph,” some of us often say when viewing certain landscapes or portraits. Oddly, from that perspective, painters of the Renaissance and Baroque eras (hundreds of years earlier) were clearly more “realistic” than the Realists.

The classical practice of rendering pleasing, glassy-smooth illusions of reality was precisely what the original Realists set out to usurp. In the process, many of them began in earnest to explore the physical reality of paint itself. And like the Impressionists and Expressionists who would follow their lead, their pictures rarely attempted to disguise what in fact they were - paint (generous gobs of it, in many cases) applied to canvas. This growing embrace of the physicality of oil pigment, while certainly not new in the history of painting, was arguably the single most important formal development in finally liberating painters from the academic constraints of illusionism (though much can be said for the arrival of photography), effectively opening the door to modern painting.

So, what academics once considered woefully coarse and unrefined handling of paint became standard practice, and subsequently a respected tradition in its own right. Lynn Digby’s style of loose, expressive brush work and tactile surfaces (though not in the heavy impasto style of, say, Millet or Van Gogh) springs from that tradition while imbuing it with an engaging character distinctly her own. To use an analogy to classical music, examining her elegant brush work is like listening to an invigorating orchestral suite. Adagios (slow, graceful passages) seamlessly flow into allegros (brisk, fast), all skillfully accented with breezy solo flourishes. In short, music for the eyes.

There’s ample proof in this show of 28 works (all but one are oil on canvas) of Digby’s stated interest in intricate pattern and rich color. Her statement elaborates further, “I look for serenity and stillness within chaos; order and unity in seemingly disordered and disparate elements.” One needs to go no farther than a car graveyard to encounter visual chaos and disorder. Yet Digby’s “Bus Stop,” depicting the rusted shell of a car perched atop a gutted bus, nonetheless gleefully elevates ordinary junk to the status of heroic archaeological ruins. Edgy, to be sure.

Edgy, too, are the portraits. Commissioned portraits are a specialty of Digby’s, and the examples here all show an uncanny knack for capturing her subjects’ unguarded moments with a disarming naturalism, as well as an eye for the quirky. The young woman in “A Measured Glance” peers at us perhaps reluctantly, as if we’ve disturbed her melancholic reverie. The startling, exotic tattoo in “Bill’s Back” looks like a demon ready to jump off Bill’s back and the canvas as well.

Each of the many landscapes here is a gem of atmospheric subtlety, exuding a light so stunning it seems touchable. And in the area of pure compositional prowess, there’s the wonderfully dense watercolor, “Still Life with Dried Hydrangeas.” It’s a tour-de-force of complex patterns and shapes dancing amid enthralling rhythms of color.

Digby clearly demonstrates a marvelous technical ability to convey with notable sureness the look of a person, place, or thing. Beyond that, though, there is that mysterious synergy of brush-in-hand, paint laid down and pushed and pulled, coaxing the canvas to breathe as if it had a life of its own. But that’s simply not reasonable, right? Paintings can’t do that, can they?

That would be too much like…magic.

Photo: “Sunset, Monument Park,” oil, by Lynn Digby, one of 28 paintings in the exhibit “Realism Revisited” at The Little Art Gallery, located in the North Canton Public Library, (330) 499-4712, ext. 312.

For information on portrait commissions, visit www.LynnDigby.artspan.com or contact her at lynndigby@sbcglobal.net

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