Monday, July 6, 2015

Alluring Waterborne Decisions

Alluring Waterborne Decisions

By Tom Wachunas

    EXHIBIT: Bits and Pieces, paintings by Nancy Michel, Nancy Stewart-Matin, Lynn Weinstein, Pam LaRocco, Judi Longacre, Gail Wetherell-Sack (mixed media assemblages), Peter Castillo, and Suni / in The Loft, upstairs at 2ND APRIL GALERIE, 324 Cleveland Ave. NW, downtown Canton, THROUGH AUGUST 1 

    I was tempted to title this entry “My Partial Summer’s Reading and Listening List.” Hopefully you’ll see what I mean as you read (and listen?) on.
   Recently a printmaking friend (Bill) reminded me (via a lengthy email) of the significance of scale in the work of the Danish-American sculptor Gutzon Borglum, whose legacy includes the colossal presidents’ heads on Mt. Rushmore. Without getting into the whole context of the email (note to Bill: you might consider authoring a blog), one of the take-aways has been a deeper consideration of any artwork’s scale in relation to its content and meaning.
    Tangential as it might seem, this consideration brings me to the notable popularity of watercolor painting as I’ve seen it manifest for many years in these parts. Canton a Watercolor Mecca? Possibly. In any case, what usually occurs to me when looking at even the best locally exhibited watercolors is their consistently small-to-modest scale: pristinely framed, consumer-friendly, and suitable for displaying in designer-savvy domestic interiors. But please don’t take this as a categorical disparagement of either the practice or the form.
   Monumental physical dimensions in a painted canvas, for example, can be useful in elevating the presumed importance of its underlying idea. The largeness of many Modernist and Postmodernist abstract paintings comes to mind here, and how they can still impress us with, and immerse us in a unique visual language that speaks of things we deem somehow “larger than life.”  
    That said, small-scale paintings (those we measure in inches, not feet) can be equally potent despite their size. I think those that are the most finely executed (and there are several remarkable watercolor examples in this exhibit) are intimate, experiential objects in same way that some books are. Books. Remember those? Hundreds of small sheets of printed paper bound together so you can hold them all at once in your hand? Both require the author/painter to arrange chosen compositional elements into an organized structure or theme of one kind or another. While many literary works are essentially evidence (symbolic journals?) of an author’s decisions on how best to evoke an immersive sensory experience in the reader, by extension you might think of some small paintings as writing with line, color, and shape with the same intentions and results.
    Judi Longacre’s sharply drawn and spectacular Lavalanche depicts an exotic forest invaded by a river of rainbow-colored lava. You can almost feel the heat, and sense the motion of the flow, signaled by its diagonal placement across the center of the picture plane amid the rhythmic swaying of vibrant green bamboo shafts. Hung next to this piece, both Lynn Weinstein’s liquid and playful Pigs and Pears, and Lemons and a Lime, display a similarly elegant, unifying balance of hot and cool hues.
    The richly toned background of Nancy Stewart-Matin’s Midnight in the Garden is dark yet neither brooding nor too eerie. Looming (and blooming) before us is a loosely rendered flowering tree. A mystical light gently illuminates its diaphanous form, as if glowing from within. Fluid passages of color seem to shimmer, aided by the wispy white lines that trace the contours of blossoms.
       The wrinkled-looking organic shapes that hover over the background in Nancy Michel’s Over the Edge are actually very low-relief painted cutouts, and are a bit more challenging to name. While the artist told me what the shapes were modelled after, I’m opting not to share it here, if only because I think there’s some magic in appreciating the ambiguity of the work. Suffice to say that the shapes (are they coming together or flying apart?) break the periphery of the picture plane and creep into the surrounding black matte. That blackness is in turn picked up by the serpentine line - a cut-out appliqué - placed atop the picture plane while simultaneously seeming to be behind it. It’s all an utterly intriguing playtime with figure-ground dynamics. 
   In “reading” these paintings we necessarily engage the terminology of applied principles in effective visual composition: unity, symmetry/asymmetry, balance, variety, texture, pattern, rhythm. To behold these principles (these decisions) in action, whether wholly or in part (and beyond any specificity of pictorial content), is to embrace the sheer pleasure of discovery – the essence of “an aesthetic experience.” And interestingly, this vocabulary that we apply to assessing the efficacy or beauty of a visual work is largely the same as when we assess a musical composition.   
   These painters are, then, accomplished orchestrators. As such, their paintings are beautiful music to my eyes.

    PHOTOS (from top): Lavalanche, by Judi Longacre; Pigs and Pears, and Lemons and a Lime, by Lynn Weinstein; Midnight in the Garden, by Nancy Stewart-Matin; Snacking After Swimming by Nancy Michel; Over the Edge by Nancy Michel  

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