Saturday, May 21, 2011

Radiance Redux

Radiance Redux

By Tom Wachunas

Those of you who missed Diane Belfiglio’s show of oil pastels, “Transitions,” at the Butler Institute of American Art (February 13 through April 3), will hopefully be pleased to know that the exhibit, less five or six pieces, is currently on view in Studio M at the Massillon Museum. And if what follows here seems familiar, it’s because it’s an edited (considerably so) version of a post (my catalogue essay from the Butler show) from February. This spectacular exhibit rates a recap, if for no other reason than that it’s about time we jump into long awaited Spring.

It was not just an illusionistic light that I observed when I first encountered the work of Diane Belfiglio in 1998, but real sunlight that seemed to magically emanate from the picture plane itself. It was a pleasantly haunting light, faintly suggestive of Edward Hopper’s work without the loneliness, or the great Impressionists, such as Monet, sans impasto. How was this possible with such flatly applied acrylic paint? The artist had clearly mastered illuminated color and its subtle interactions with precisely rendered, hard-edge architectural forms and their shadows.

In the years following, Belfiglio continued to explore the aesthetic marriage of sunlight and architecture- the joining of the ephemeral to the physical – with consistently enthralling results. While maintaining a disciplined eye for tight structuring of well-defined shapes with intriguing perspectives, she would become ever more adept at imbuing her images with real warmth and optimism. For all of their crisp faithfulness to the recognizable world, her images never succumbed to the often cold and numbing flamboyance of Photorealism, even though the camera remains an invaluable tool in framing her imagery.

Since venturing into the medium of oil pastels in 2008 with her Jamestown Geometry series, Belfiglio has honed her vision still further. The point-counterpoint play between solid, detailed volumes and shadows (equally solid in appearance) that characterized her architectural paintings was still very much present. While the imagery remained representational, a more refined sort of ‘abstraction’ was emerging in the sense that her compositions were becoming more distilled. These were intriguing articulations of light-drenched patterns, as in Jamestown Geometry IV, exuding a soft, lyrical quality. That softness and lyricism is in large part intrinsic to the pastel medium, which lends itself well to laying in subtle color areas by overlapping short, mincing strokes. Additionally, her exacting technique brought a refreshing, visually textured surface interest to her images.

The artist continued to combine and streamline these elements through her Potomac Pattern series, as in her elegant Potomac Patterns I. Physical architecture was still a focus in the following Mount Vernon Memories series, as we see in the sure-handed simplicity of Mount Vernon Memories III. But a shift in focus – a reversal, really – was taking shape. By 2010, eschewing hard-edged architectural motifs, the predominant formal content of her images had fully evolved into up-front floral themes, with a gently reminiscent nod to Georgia O’Keefe’s stylized abstractions of lush blooms. So the more recent works we see here are a graceful maturing of Belfiglio’s overall aesthetic concerns.

Indeed, the pure, mesmerizing synthesis of form and light has been the heart of this artist’s creative pursuits all along. In a statement from her exhibit at Canton’s McKinley Museum in 2001, she had written, “I was educated in a professional art world that has been characterized by its shock value, biting social commentary, and ‘in-your-face’ commercial images. In contrast to that world in which I was raised, I am simply endeavoring to create in my art a respite for weary souls.” Ten years later, that statement still speaks of her consistent vision and aesthetic standards, and resonates deeply in this splintered culture so often drawn to ugly sensationalism and collective angst.

Belfiglio’s floral drawings – with their astonishingly luminous colors and wondrous detail – are elegant constructions of serene jubilance. And to this body of work the artist has brought an increased compositional elegance. In several of the drawings, such as Sunlight on Scarlet and Daffodil Diagonals III, she employs a diagonal thrust to great effect, investing them with a sense of quiet drama. You could regard them as you would concerto orchestrations. Think of the luscious blooms as joyous solos, soaring above, but in exquisite harmony with, the richly supportive shadows.

The underlying spirit of bon homie in these drawings is a compelling and unabashedly beautiful witnessing of light, at once fleeting and imperishable, amid our postmodernist milieu of noisy, dark pluralism. As such, they are persistent, radiant acts of courage.

Photo, courtesy Diane Belfiglio: “Transfixed by Tulips III,” oil pastel. On view through June 26 in Studio M at the Massillon Museum, 121 Lincoln Way East, downtown Massillon. Museum hours are Tuesday – Saturday 9:30a.m to 5p.m., Sunday 2 – 5p.m. It’s a good idea to call ahead, (330) 833 – 4061, and confirm your visiting time, as sometimes administrative meetings are scheduled for the gallery space.

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