A Pastel Colorist at Hollis Taggart
I enjoyed this exhibition even more than I had anticipated,
though not wholly for the reasons that brought me in.
I was taken by the announcement when it came in my mail.
The card featured Color Field II, a large,
voluptuous pastel, a still life of kitchenware, cartons and
fabrics that played intense primaries off against each other
in flamboyant counterpoint. The color relationships were deftly
handled and the color itself was splendid, richer and more
"masculine" than we associate with the medium.
Pastel is not my favorite stuffexcept in the hands
of a Chardin, a Degas, perhaps a Redon. But here was a pastelist,
I thought, who seemed to bring a rare vivacity and power to
the medium. She extracts carnival out ordinary things. Here
was a pastelist I could love.
Well, yes and no. The larger value of the exhibition, apart
from the great pleasure of many of the pieces, was the fact
that it illustrated the way accomplished artistsand
Monafo is certainly accomplishedare sometimes blind
to the particular shape of their own gifts.
In a relatively large exhibition of 27 works of varied sizes,
Monafos craftsmanship never flags. What matters is that
her particular genius is evident in fewer pieces. Too many
works have been included that serve primarily to indicate
the truth of Robert Henris advice to his students at
the beginning of this century: "It is useless to study
technique in advance of having a motive." A bit more
editing would have made the difference between presenting
Monafo as a compelling artist or as a decorator who can reliably
stock a showroom with safe, pretty performances.
On the evidence of the exhibition itself, Monafos proficiency
brokers her weaknesses equally with her strengths. The exhibition
tends to divide between dense, saturated works that embrace
the spectrum with something close to joy and pale, stagey
compositions with nothing at stake. It is the difference between
theater and window dressing.
But first the strengths. Monafo is endowed with a pitch-perfect
instinct for the drama of abstract interactions of color.
Combine this with a genius for choreographing set-ups of brightly-colored
household objects that, viewed from a controlled vantage point,
play together in a Hans Hoffmanesque dance.
Look closely at Jazz. Its a wonderful, moody
piece, aggressively sized (6 x 4 feet), somber and deeply
satisfying. It takes its title from the red lettered logo
on a black box at the outer base of a pyramidal composition
built around the face of a hollowed out cabinet. On top and
within are the cloths and and objects that advance the color
scheme. An accented beat is on a faceted yellow sugar bowl
that draws the eye toward the top center, creating a crescendo
of intensity in an otherwise subdued work. Pure cadmium yellow
is supported by notes in a lower key: mustards, ochres, yellow
earth tones that fill the cavity of the cabinet and the floor
space immediately adjacent. The horizontal thrust of the pyramid
base is emphasized by strategically dispersed reds that, together
with the various yellows, create a kind of syncopation amid
the unaccented blues and dark greens that make up the major
On the shadowed floor, placed just so with its stem bent
at precisely the necessary angle, is a somber yellow flower.
Its function is not anecdotal but wholly formal. It offsets
the monotony of the floor, a large expanse of unbroken darks.
At the same time, it echoes the spire (two dried seed pods
on stalks) of the compositional pyramid. This keeps the composition,
which sits a bit high on the page, in relationship with the
In still life, the set-up is everything. Jazz, together
with Colorfield II, Passage, Cornered and the glorious
Primary Colors, are tributes to Monafos gift
for orchestrating color chords within the restraints of strict
When an abstract painter wants a little vermilion, down it
goes. A little cobalt over there? Why not. Painters who choose
the less forgiving discipline of realism make themselves subject
to our sense of recognition in the real world. They have to
observe the laws of vision and spatial logic. They require
more cunning to justify color placements and tonal shifts.
That cobalt and its half-tones have to be contained by the
size and contours of a specific object. The object itself
has promises to keep to its surroundings. Harmonies and contrasts
make their own demands. In short, each vehicle for a particular
color has to be plausible.
Monafos individuating wit, her talent for plausibility,
is on spectacular display in the above-mentioned pieces. Unfortunately,
she has acquired the habit of feminine pot boilers that serve
up their share of cotton candy. She carries her contrivances
to the point of vaudeville. Color harmonies and contrasts
are subordinated to a compositional cuteness that is sentimental
or just plain hokey.
Three Boscs is one these. A bowl of pears
crowns the head of a elongated cascade of garish patterned
cloth. Its a visual pun suggesting a dime store magus,
a pictorial one-liner. Charybdis is a similar self-conscious
exercise, with yellow squash navigating the shoals of boxes
and teapots that rise up from swirling shallows of white cloth.
Her self-portrait, Painter with a Pink (After van Eyck/Rembrandt)
is an arid study in pretension. It serves only as unintended
comment on the magnitude of van Eycks and Rembrandts
Self-acquaintance is a rare condition. Monafo simply needs
to step back a bit from from her own facility to concentrate
on the difference between mastering technique and merely