Janet Monafo
A Pastel Colorist at Hollis Taggart Galleries

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 stuff—except 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 artists—and Monafo is certainly accomplished—are sometimes blind to the particular shape of their own gifts.

In a relatively large exhibition of 27 works of varied sizes, Monafo’s 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 Henri’s 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, Monafo’s 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. It’s 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 chord.

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 bottom edge.

In still life, the set-up is everything. Jazz, together with Colorfield II, Passage, Cornered and the glorious Primary Colors, are tributes to Monafo’s gift for orchestrating color chords within the restraints of strict representation.

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.

Monafo’s 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. It’s 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 Eyck’s and Rembrandt’s achievement.

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 dispensing it.


February 1999

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