Thursday, December 15, 2011

Liquid Urban Light

Liquid Urban Light
By Tom Wachunas

“Watercolour could have been used more by the modernists. It is so direct, and when the white paper convention is accepted, so powerful, even brutal, that it would seem an ideal medium.” – David Milne –

What would David Milne (who died in 1953), among Canada’s most prominent artists of the 20th century, make of the popularity and high visibility of watercolorists in our northeastern Ohio midst? Would he consider their work ‘modernist’ in the sense that I take the above quote to mean? Would he see a powerful, “even brutal” employment of the medium?

I’m sure that he would indeed encounter some truly original and engaging practitioners of the medium in our artistic population. To get there, though, he would have to wade through a preponderance of entrenched traditionalists. Not there’s anything necessarily insipid or invalid about the niceties of a tightly painted still life, floral arrangement, quaint seascape, or sentimental landscape. But quaint and sentimental is one thing. Saccharine and generic, no matter how well rendered, is quite another. Looking at exhibitions in these parts over the past 20 years, it seems to me that we’re remarkably heavy with lightweight and otherwise unremarkable watercolor painters.

Ted Lawson’s work decidedly does NOT fall into that demographic. Ample evidence is currently on view in his exhibit, called “A Moment in Time,” at the Canton Museum of Art. With the exception of two aquatic-themed images, all of the watercolor paintings here are cityscapes – some of Canton, but most of Manhattan.

All of these urban visions share a photographic sensibility in their soft detailing and in how the scenes have a viewfinder- in-the-moment sort of framing. This isn’t surprising, since Lawson does work from photographs. But what’s most uncanny is how his bold, luminous colors and fluid technique manifest light, imbuing his images with the plein air vibrancy and spontaneity so characteristic of the Impressionists. “Washington Square Park” is a stunning panorama of contrasted light. Wispy foreground trees hover over cars parked in the shade and pedestrians in silhouette, while the famous landmark arch and the city structures in the distance seem to shimmer in soft sunlight.

There’s also the matter of Lawson’s impeccable sense of design and composition, both in form and color distribution. While these pictures are certainly representational, they’re built upon seeing abstractly. Many of the scenes have an almost architectural dynamic in how visual textures are constructed, with concentrated areas of small details and shapes balanced against larger, more airy passages. In “Union Square Saturday,” the light is diffuse, befitting the rainy day depicted. A cluster of umbrella shapes moves rhythmically, as if dancing across the middle of the picture plane, floating in sharp counterpoint to the amorphous reflections glimmering on the wet pavement at the bottom.

For all of their liquid charm, the paintings nonetheless project a compelling, visceral immediacy. And occasionally even real drama, as in the aptly titled “Night Fever.” It’s a practically hallucinatory, furiously red vision of head light glare colliding with the sparkling metal of passing traffic.

These are exquisitely exciting impressions of transient episodes in city life. Lawson has managed to turn the clamor, clutter, and largeness of the urban milieu into a sublimely poetic visual experience. Interestingly enough, though his brushwork generally has little in common with that of Claude Monet, I’m still reminded of Monet’s abiding passion for translating light into form. The French master once observed, “Everyone discusses my art and pretends to understand, as if it were necessary to understand, when it is simply necessary to love.”

Simply necessary to love. For my part, with Lawson’s work, that’s a necessity – indeed an invitation - joyously met.

Photo: “Riding the Bike Lane” watercolor by Ted Lawson. On view through March 4, 2012, at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton (330) – 453- 7666

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