Friday, October 9, 2009

Waterborne Wonders

Waterborne Wonders

By Tom Wachunas

Maybe it was seeing one too many craft shows and art fairs in my youth. Maybe it was one too many sappy amateur renderings of decrepit red barns (with the prerequisite CHEW MAIL POUCH TOBACCO emblazoned on their knotty sides) heroically rising from windswept plains. Or all those ridiculous liquid flowers fading away into empty white paper. Just because the watercolor medium is waterborne, why do so many watercolors end up looking so…waterlogged? Thus for years I was predisposed to disdain, regarding the medium as the flimsy domain of beginners and hobbyists or, at best, a kind of gateway drug, opening the door to more muscular artistic habits. In my arrogance I thought that if one aspired to be a really serious painter, one would surely graduate from watercolor. Like being weaned from white wine spritzers along the journey to straight Vodka.

Fortunately I have recovered (in more ways than I can tell you here) from such besotted ignorance. The fact of the matter is that when truly mastered – a challenging discipline, to be sure - watercolor is indeed a versatile medium capable of delivering substantial detail, depth, luminescence, and texture. All of that versatility is gloriously abundant in the current exhibition at the Canton Museum of Art, “A Century of American Watercolor,” on view through November 1.

The exhibit, guest-curated by James Keny, of the Keny Gallery in Columbus, Ohio, is comprised of 49 works made from about 1892 through 1992, and gleaned from the Canton Museum of Art permanent collection along with some from selected private collections. Beyond its wide range of techniques, styles, and subject matter, the show is a marvelous record of American art history, offering exhilarating works by “old” as well as contemporary masters of the medium. Here is stunning proof that the Canton Museum of Art has amassed one of the most remarkable collections of watercolors in the Midwest.

Not surprisingly, then, there are several works here that embrace Midwestern life with endearing charm, effectively transporting mind and heart to bygone days, as in the works by Clyde Singer, and Thomas Hart Benton. Similarly, though rendered in tighter detail, “Girl at the Side of a Lake,” by Daniel Ridgeway Knight, exudes contemplative and elegant grace. Nearby is “An Interesting Book,” a trompe l’oeil gem from 1890 by Claude Raguet Hirst. Who knew that watercolor could deliver such startling realism? Elsewhere there are much looser visions that border on pure abstraction, like the gestured fluidity in works by John Marin and Charles Demuth.

While the show offers plenty of thrilling examples of watercolor’s capacity to render saturated and electrifying color (as in George Luks’ delightfully van Gogh-esque “My House, Berkshire”), there are several works that are equally resonant in their stunning celebrations of earthier tonalities. “Wash Bucket,” by Andrew Wyeth, is a disarmingly simple composition rendered in gritty grays, browns, and tans, all orchestrated into a fascinating homage to texture and ethereal light. A similar mastery of neutral palette and subtle light is at work in Jamie Wyeth’s haunting “Partridge House.”

And for those who might over-associate watercolor painting with necessarily smaller-scale, or “intimate” works (as I once did), the three contemporary paintings on the back wall of the main gallery- by Carolyn Brady, Patricia Tobacco Forrester, and Joseph Raffael- are ample evidence to the contrary. These are, relative to all the other works in this show, colossal in size, and each a masterpiece in its own right.

But it is Raffael’s 1992 “Red Lily” that lives up to its scale (45”x 67”) in a way that so completely embodies all that watercolor can be. Here, intricate passages of shimmering reflections amid iridescent forms seem to dance and pulse before our eyes. It’s a deep and sumptuous panorama that reads successfully as both literal figuration and engaging abstraction. The painting is an unforgettably powerful union of medium and subject, a testament to physical and ephemeral harmony. Born of water- that most essential of natural substances- this is art that mesmerizes while immersing us in its life-affirming spirit. Call it, then, a baptism.

Photo: “Wash Bucket” by Andrew Wyeth, 1963, watercolor on paper, 22’’x29”, courtesy Canton Museum of Art, one of 49 works in the exhibition, “A Century of Watercolor,” on view through November 1, 2009, at the Canton Museum of Art.

1001 Market Avenue North in the Cultural Center for the Arts, Canton, Ohio.
Phone: 330-453-7666

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