Watercolor at the New York Studio School
Drawings at Marist College
In 1998 Roger Kimball, writing in The New Criterion, called
The Studio School "the
most subversive art institution in New York City." Its
most shocking attribute, to the contemporary look-ma-no-hands
crowd, is its passionate commitment to drawing. At the center
of its teaching and practice is faith in the initial graphic
act from which all else flows.
The Studio Schools assault on reigning clichés
continues in its belief that students should seek their models
in the great works of art history, not on the walls of trendy
galleries or in the production of art celebs. As witness to
its program, it mounts shows in its own exhibition space, a
low-profile but significant and satisfying gallery. It has the
look and feel of a laboratory for working artists: part atelier,
part place of aesthetic delight. The smell of resin and paint
is not far away and students own work lines the halls
This years opening exhibition, called simply Watercolor,
placed on show works by 40 contemporary artists, many of them
commissioned to produce a piece for the event.
The intention was to "take the temperature of a medium"
and "redefine our experience of watercolor." An ambitious
concept only partially borne out in the undertaking.
The most rewarding paintings here are by artists whose native
bent and habits of working are compatible with the singular
promise of watercolor. However, an exhibition attempting to
survey a mediumrather than its most able practitionersis
open to works chosen for reasons other than sensitivity to the
touch or traditions of the craft.
Bernard Chaets shimmering White Sun stands as
a complete course in the poetry of watercolor in the right hands.
Forms are achieved in the classic way: by layering one thin
or semi-transparent stroke beside another or letting them overlap.
Water pooling from the brush perfectly conveys the shifting
configurations of sunlight reflected across an expanse of eartha
moving body of water? a sea of rocks?stretching toward
the horizon. In the simplicity and directness of Chaets
touch, the life of his subject unfurls in the flux of the medium.
|White Sun, Bernard Chaet
It is a high pleasure to find work by Fulvio Testa, a painter
we do not see often enough. Sylvia Plimack Mangold offers a
graceful description of a branching pin oak. Graham Nicksons
Winterdark, Serenas Tree is a compelling performance.
Susan Shatters Wave carries a fitting rhythmic
force. Janet Fish, Philip Pearlstein, Avigdor Arihka, Andrew
Forge are among those worthily and appealingly represented.
Wayne Thiebauds Three Flavors is a delicate, luminous
confection. Think of ice cream cones by Fra Angelico.
|Winterdark, Serena's Tree, Graham
Malcolm Morley is an admirable painter whose virtuosity is
sometimes disguised by attitude. You can hear it in the title:
George Washington and the Eagle Over South Beach. Here,
the gestural ease of his medium lends an Expressionist force
to a scene that, in its whimsy and emphasis on pattern, recallsyes,
its trueRaoul Dufy.
Al Helds Particular Paradox provides an instance
where the medium seems more a matter of convenience than
of art. The illusion of forms moving through space, Helds
hallmark, is oddly missing here. Helds characteristic geometry
is simply washed over in yellow, coloring book style. The result
is a design in the flat, missing the dynamic quality that distinguishes
Helds work. It functions best as a preliminary study than
a finished art work.
The number of fashionable brand names in the show seems at
variance with the Studio Schools stated motto: "Ambition
for the work; not ambition for the career." Several entries
seem to have been chosen more as a courtesy to corporate sponsorship
than for aesthetic reasons.
Francesco Clementes Tale suggests one of these.
Picture a kneeling female in profile, firm breast standing bail
for weak anatomy overall. The figure, reminiscent of a kneeling
Buddha or a Hindu statuette, stretches out one arm that holds
a smaller image of itself. This, in turn, holds an even smaller
image of itself, which holds . . . . It keeps going in diminuendo
across the picture plane. It is the sort of thing that goes
well with a beer.
Sean Scullys modest entry is instructive for revealing
the extent to which the impact of his signature geometry relies
on the sheer weight of oil on large canvases. Similar lessons
are scattered throughout.
A more expansive overview of watercolor and its capacities
would require explorations outside the tight world of gallery
culture. Students should be exposed to the full sweep of beauty
and talent breathing life outside of it. Enchanted moments in
childrens book illustration, dominated by gifted watercolorists,
might have been included. So, too, the disciplined expression
of contemporary botanical painters. Perhaps these will find
their way into some future show.
The Studio Schools gallery is one of the few remaining
exhibition spaces not determined by flackery. May its support
enable it to stay that way.
The gallery is open 10 to 6 PM, Monday through Saturday.
Marist College Art Gallery is a spare, voluminous kunsthalle,
a generous exhibition space hospitable to large contemporary
works. Located in Poughkeepsie, a 90-minute drive north of New
York City, the gallerys teaching missionto offer
students easy access to actual models of superior workhas
a greater urgency than that of analogous spaces closer to metropolitan
galleries and museums.
The current exhibition, Six Approaches, features a series
of drawings by six different artists who live and/or work in
the general vicinity. Disparate methods and visions are held
together by the central fact that line has many lives and can
serve a multitude of aims.
Another cohering factor is a shared beliefwhether recognized
or not that the artists internal state, his intuition,
takes precedence over the physical object created. When inward
vision is held to be the single true expression, external media
become secondary. In practice, what appears on canvas or a sheet
of Arches matters less than what the artist says about it.
Robin Arnolds near-life-sized drawings of iron workers
and welders are based on photographs taken at twelve Albany-area
factories. Focus is on distinct individuals amid the impersonal
architecture of heavy machinery. Rendered in labor-intensive
pencil hatchings, these large-format drawings are intended to
provide the testimony of a living hand to the repetitive precision
of skilled workers. These are the most accessible works on show
and the ones that best lend themselves to judgment in technical,
rather than rhetorical, terms.
Alan Cotes low-keyed, patterned surfaces punctuated with
pastel markings fix attention on the graphic process. What you
see and what you dont is very much a matter of the viewers
engagement with the complementary blank or erased areas of a
reserved, calligraphic oeuvre.
Norman Turners personal script lends weight and interest
to what, in other hands, could slip into a mannerist codification
of disembodied theories of space. Titles provide clues to those
things in the real world that occasioned these acts of drawing:
Pond, Snug Harbor; Rock Slab; High Falls.
Merleau Pontys emphasis on the primacy of perception,
with its instabilities and ambiguities, sets the stage here.
Turner, who has written thoughtfully on Cezannes concept
of space, makes no concessions to those in search of definitive
imagery. Rather, he makes effective use of pentimenti and white
highlighting to reinforce drawings intrinsic powers of
inference and suggestion.
Not even in his most abstract worksthe late watercolorsdid
Cezanne abandon all reference to the visible world. By discarding
all but titular acknowledgment of things seen, Turner banks
everything on the eloquence of his own touch. Once again, whether
or not that is enough depends on the viewer.
Ed Smith, Pamela Dreyfus-Smith and D. Dominick Lombardi share
an apocalyptic streak that each expresses in contrasting ways.
The two Smiths bear the greatest similarity in medium and iconography.
Drawing in ink, each employs imagery with an inherent melancholy.
Ed makes repeated use of variations on the memento mori.
Skulls abound. A sense of impending threat is palpable throughout.
Pamelas imagery summons up actual history. Loosely rendered,
gestural figures are suggestive of exile and the forced migrations
of European Jewry.
Dominick Lombardi is the more audacious of the three. He is
willing to risk dismissal of serious intent on the grounds that
cartoons are not a proper medium for grave content. Here he
follows the lead of Art Spiegelmans Maus: a Survivors
Tale, whose comic book version of the Shoah sparked debate
on whether or not certain subjects required elevated forms.
An installation of 85 drawings, dexterous and eccentric, are
part of what he calls The Post Apocalyptic Tattoo Series.
It is an effort to use, in his words, "a comic book/tattoo
aesthetic" to represent the heads of whoever might be left
on the beach when the radioactive winds have passed.
The heads themselves, outlined in black on plexiglas, are limned
with wit and flair. Lombardi has a sure hand that fulfills William
Morris Hunts injunction to "Draw firm and be jolly."
And therein lies his dilemma. The drawings themselves contain
no clue to the seriousness of his intent. Without dialogue balloons
or any internal narrative to guide viewer response, the cleverness
of them points toward humor rather than sobriety. Audiences
are likely to play the game of seeing how many heads can be
distinguished in each frametheres a nose; turn it
this way and heres another one.
There is no unalterable cultural hierarchy of forms. Catastrophe
is expressible in an infinity of ways. But it has to emerge
from the work itself, without prompting from exterior statements.
It will be interesting to watch how Lombardi unties this creative
The gallery is open 12 to 5 PM, Monday - Friday; 12 to
4 PM, Saturday.
Maureen Mullarkey © 2002