Summer Visits
Watercolor at Kouros Gallery; An accidental archive; A canvasser at home

Flamboya by Carolyn Harris

Kouros Gallery
August 6 to 22, 2003

END OF SEASON GROUP SHOWS are a little like summer movies. They have the advantage of setting out simply to please. In a category-loving art climate, the last exhibition usually relaxes the categories. Works tend to be smaller, allowing us to look at art scaled for actual rooms, not museum spaces. Galleries are more willing to chance work they are not committed to. The publicity machine gears down. After months of generating operatic press releases, galleries put their feet up and let items on the wall summon their own audience.

Fine and surprising things surface in these closing medleys. While this exhibition spares us the artificial labors of a "theme show," its focus on a single medium—watercolor— provides continuity among the disparate sensibilities and ranges of ambition that are part of its appeal.

Most of the work on show is by members of Zeuxis, a loose affiliation of artists devoted to still life painting. Many of them exhibit regularly in artist-owned and/or university galleries. The better known names—Garth Evans, Andrew Forge, Lois Dodd, Robert DeNiro, Sr.—are on loan from other galleries. Three come from Kouros' own stable of artists.

Things begin with two paintings by George Constant, an early modernist best known in his lifetime as an etcher and engraver. Here is a rare look at his gifts as an abstract painter and a return to one fecund moment in the history of modern art. Petunias, a 1952 watercolor, offers a bouquet of forms that recall his contemporary, Baziotes. There is something of Sheila Delauney in these shapes as well. Field of Flowers, c. 1960, is a fluid, calligraphic dance of all-over color, dispersed with an energetic and graceful hand. Constant's approach has its antecedent in Pollock's Lavender Mist, which itself points back to Monet's waterlilies. Contrast between figure and ground disappear. We look straight into the surface of a multi-colored field, its elements woven together with delicate strands of black ink.

Immediately opposite, counterposed to Constant, is the vertical Study for Venice with Bridge by watercolorist Jorge Eduardo. The rigor of the study gives a useful clue to the hyper-realism for which Eduardo is celebrated in his native Brazil. He brings the intensity of an archivist's scrutiny to even the smallest detail. Eduardo has built a career recording Brazil's loveliest locales and the architecture of its colonial past. Here, he turns his concentration on a typical view of Venice. For all his command of the medium, his affinity for local color and light, and his ease with architectural detail, the painting seems more a scene prepared for tourists than a personal response. Technique can sometimes become a bludgeon that intimidates the audience into confusing a sense of place with mere items in sight.

By contrast, Joseph Byrne's four diminutive tree studies are lively and personal. They make no claim to be other than what they are: liquid caresses of a tree trunk. One especially delicious rendering recalls John Marin's warning against reading things into paintings: "There's the daisy—you don't rave over or read messages into it. You just look at that bully little flower. That's enough." One bully little tree trunk is plenty.

John Goodrich's high spirited contributions are a surprise. Gone is the broody quality I've come to associate with his oil painting. Both still lifes here, attentive to the effects of light and air, have summer written all over them. Other unexpected pleasures are the lush, ebullient landscapes by Carolyn Harris; the startling subtlety of Louise Matthiasdottir's subdued consideration of the Hudson River, less showy than her usual chromatism but with greater depth; and David Dewey's darkling portrayal of a Belfast street on the shadow side of sunlight. Ruth Miller is always a happy find.

Phyllis Floyd, founder of Zeuxis, offers lean, reduced figure compositions done on site in Madison and Bryant parks. Victor Pesce's works, each focusing on a singe object afloat on a field of color, emphasize how much the appeal of his painting resides in his eye for placement, independent of the characteristic weight and texture of his oils. Robert DeNiro, Sr., who died in 1993, is represented by a pleasant, neo-Matissean trifle Teapot and Vase/Flowers. But name recognition lends heft to what is almost a studio throw-away, slight in structure and technique. (Its $16,000 thumb-in-your-eye sticker is an instructive moment in art world pricing.) Nell Blaine's Darkening Sky, Gloucester, just as pricey, provides more to look at.

I have always enjoyed Andrew Forge's writing more than his painting. Elegant and spare, his work has struck me as having an air of the podium about it—a distillation of style-conscious theories with little blood in them. Even so, I was drawn to the untitled watercolor submitted here. Discreet, luminous marks, arranged in repetitive, seemingly stenciled rows, drift across the paper. Shifting gossamer planes overlay and penetrate each other, massed in the upper left and sliding, in delicate glissando, toward invisibility at the lower right. It sends me away to rethink my responses to this most refined technician.

One of the true satisfactions here is the opportunity to see Garth Evans. Known most widely as a sculptor, his watercolors are small astonishments. Two of them hang near a window in the upstairs gallery, a turn of the head away from Forge. It is an inspired placement. The works of both men share a similar sense of sequence, of structure arising from spaced intervals—like notes of a musical scale (Forge) or interstices between overlapping geological structures (Evans). Both make the most of transparency while letting color drive their compositions.

Similarities end there but how does one describe the difference? Or the quiet pleasure of Evans' inventiveness, his lyricism, contained in a geometry of his own devising? This is painting that has to be viewed up close. At a distance, color and outline assert themselves easily. But the magical subtleties of surface and errantry of lines dissolving into worked paper reveal themselves only on close embrace. It is hard not to lean just a little closer to one particularly enigmatic, darksome piece just to kiss it.

Kouros Gallery, 23 East 73rd Street, New York NY 10021 Tel. 212.288.5888


A UNIQUE ARCHIVE OF PREVIOUSLY UNPUBLISHED DOCUMENTS concerning Eric Gill has just been discovered by accident, according to Maev Kennedy in The Guardian. It seems that Roger Smith, an expert on Gill, found himself on an unscheduled visit to two women friends. He just happened to sleep over and they just happened to have on their shelves stuff of interest to our expert. Should you care? To drum up interest, Kennedy begins with just the right degree of cheek: "Eric Gill is famous for exquisite calligraphy, elegant stone carvings and woodcuts—and incest."

That is the approach that has attached itself like a weevil to books and articles about Gill, who died in 1940. The audience in mind is rarely the serious student of Gill, of the English Catholic Revival, of the Arts and Crafts Movement nor of nineteenth century social philosophy. (Gill was well known in his lifetime as a polemicist, though his friend G.K. Chesterton dismissed his ideas as burlesques of the real thing.) The targeted audience tends to be those culture-conscious peeping Toms who insist their field glasses are for aesthetic inquiries only.

Gill himself was enough of a voyeur and just enough of a parody of The Natural Man to be parodied himself on the centenary of his birth by a book that is part chronicle, part encomium, part locker-room talk for the carriage trade: Malcom Yorke's Eric Gill: Man of Flesh and Spirit. That book has remained a staple of Gill studies for a full 20 years. It will be interesting to see if this new find—a lifetime's collection of every scrap of information about Gill that his brother Evan could compile—will add significantly to what is known about Gill.

Gill's reputation did not survive his death. Of the pre-war British avant-garde, Jacob Epstein is the one still known and exhibited. The others, Gill among them, were eclipsed at home by the younger Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth and on the continent by Lehmbruck, Barlach, Maillol and carvers such as Brancusi, Arp and Modigliani. Yorke set out to "redress such neglect." It would have been better if he had tried to understand it.

In his time, Gill was a typical Englishman and latter-day Victorian—coxcomb, actually. It is precisely as a man of a particular time, place and social milieu—with its specific postures, prejudices and sense of trespass—that Gill is interesting. Recent attempts to present him as Good St. Gill, enlightened pater familias and warrior against Victorian prudery ends in what is, in effect, an apology for Gill being less interesting as an artist than a naughty fellow. Perhaps this accidental find will provide ground for a more substantial exploration of why an artist so revered in his time should have been eclipsed—except as a typesetter—so quickly.

The Guardian, August 9, 2003. "Gill Archive Rediscovered by a Stroke of Luck" by Maev Kennedy.


MY FRONT DOOR IS TUCKED AWAY UPHILL and off the road. Nobody just wanders past without intent. When the doorbell rings it is usually my neighbor stopping by with ribbon-wrapped brioche or a jar of home-made apple curry. Damiana runs a catering business out of her own kitchen and knocks, from time to time, with offerings left-over from a chic fund-raiser, bar mitzvah or dinner soirée for somebody's boss.

But not this time. I opened the door to young canvasser from Citizens Campaign for the Environment. Dark-eyed, dark haired and multi-earringed, Hi-My-Name-Is-Peter handed me a mission statement and asked for a donation. All in one breath. On another day I might have fluttered at the sight of such earnest, evangelical male beauty. Lawn pesticides? An unacceptable risk, you say? Oh, my God! I hadn't realized! Please do come in. I must hear all about it.

But this time, somehow, the charm fell flat. "Homeowners, in pursuit of the perfect lawn, and encouraged by advertising, use three times more pesticides per acre than the average farmer." Sweet Peter, have you seen my lawn? Did you trouble to look?

It is a bed of straw. Not even my crabgrass can hang on to chlorophyll.

Truth to tell, I dislike lawns. I have never fully recovered from hostility to them caught during my years in Brooklyn. You had to bike to Prospect Park to even see grass. With ex-Weathermen and assorted Marxist profs as neighbors, it was politic to squint at lawns as conspicuous bourgeois property statements. This is mine, goddammit, stay off! By contrast, a dead lawn resonates with a kind of purity, like a bus load of nuns singing "Kumbaya."

For the sake of good neighbors who wish me swaths of Kentucky blue grass, I've wondered about installing an LED board along the driveway. It would be hooked up to the IRS and would display the family assets in liquid, moving lights. That way the lawn could go to hell, where it tends to be anyway, and neighborly protocols would be observed.

But I digress. Back to the lovely Peter.

His eyes flickered over me in quick appraisal. "Several types of cancer, neurological diseases and birth defects have all been associated with exposure to common lawn pesticides."

Bless you, dearheart, for pretending not to notice that birth defects are lower on my list of worries than they used to be. (I could have offered a Sam Adams or a good pinot grigio. But, somehow, he looked more like crystal meth. Was it the pony tail?)

Peter was relentless. "Birds dying on lawns from pesticides are a strong warning of the potential risks chemicals pose to people and pests." He was eloquent. "Wildlife pathologists see firsthand the carnage caused by the unnecessary use of lawn and garden pesticides."

Carnage! That's the stuff. I'd love a little carnage if I knew how to get it. I've been trying to rid us of a yellow-crowned woodpecker for three years running. When you live in a shake shingle house, woodpeckers are termites with wings. Carpenter ants with feathers. But there are too many windows to risk a BB gun. I haven't used bow and arrow since Girl Scout camp. My husband sold his army rifle to a gun shop in Cold Spring and our local critter catcher won't touch protected species. I am reduced to hanging gaudy mylar balloons out the upstairs windows and foil pie plates on every downspout.

I closed the door on Peter's zeal and good looks, silently pledging to have all the conifers sprayed with Malathion next season. And Orthonex on the maples, please. Just then, the territorial drumming of a chisel-beak began on the south wall of the house. My mind's eye flashed a hand gun.

It made me a little sad.

Maureen Mullarkey �2003

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