Thursday, January 19, 2012

Pencil Precious

Pencil Precious
By Tom Wachunas

I can’t tell you how many times over the past 20 years of looking at art from this region that I’ve been numbed silly by traditional still life renderings. ‘Still’ indeed - safe, quiet, ordinary, uninspired. But I was reminded recently that there are notable exceptions and that, in the right hands, the genre can still entertain and tantalize.

The majority of the 28 colored pencil works by Sharon Frank Mazgaj currently on view (THROUGH JANUARY 31) at Malone University’s McFadden Gallery are of the still life variety. Compared to those, the five portraits included in the show, while sumptuous in their manipulation of light, perhaps betray too much dependence on photography, particularly in the specificity of the faces. The expressive smiles seem almost too frozen and perfect, too filtered through a mechanical lens.

This is not to say that Mazgaj doesn’t work from photographs to execute her still life subjects (or that there’s anything intrinsically wrong about working from photographs). But it would be inaccurate to label her simply a photorealist, or that her still life drawings look exactly like photos.

Even if she does use a camera, she’s managed to make her imagery both personal and often even transcendent. More than just ‘photographic’ likenesses, these pictures are alive with wondrously enhanced light while achieving a softly subtle but engaging surface interest, generated via meticulous layering and blending of hues in a wide variety of saturations. Not only a superbly generous colorist, Mazgaj is also a thoughtful composer of pictorial structure, often employing strong, contrasting diagonal configurations amid refreshing perspectives. Additionally, she’s a master at rendering diverse textures and surfaces, particularly with reflective glass and metal forms. “Vintage Ornaments” is a veritable symphony of sparkling orbs that takes you deep into an intricate microcosm of amorphous reflected shapes and detail. Call it a sort of performance art with pencil as the central character.

And speaking of characters, several of her pieces make a big point of including vintage dolls. While sometimes their appearances are elegantly integrated with surrounding objects, as in the stunning “Amberg & Sons Composition Doll, circa 1915,” and “Tea With Strawberry Jam Toast,” there are others where the figurines seem a little out of place and over-animated, as in “There’s Something Going On Here.” The three naked, eerily glowing baby dolls have an oddly conspiratorial look about them. Then again, who says that the time-honored practice of the still life HAS to be all solemnly familiar and silent? Sometimes it’s simply pleasurable to see gleeful visual mischief-making, where whimsy trumps gravitas.

Beyond the artist’s remarkable technical bravura, what resonates most here is a sense of bright intimacy and a memento sensibility that thrills the eye while warming the heart.

Photos: Top – “Lion; Florence, Italy” / Bottom – “Tammy’s Tea Time” by Sharon Frank Mazgaj, colored pencil, on view THROUGH JANUARY 31, at Malone University’s McFadden Gallery, located in the lower level of the Johnson Center, 2600 Cleveland Avenue NW, Canton

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