Thursday, December 8, 2011

Pastels by invitation

Seventy-seven artists from United States and Canada show in Tacoma

“Suspended Flora”: A pastel piece by Marcel Schwarb. Courtesy American Art Company

American Art Company is now hosting the Northwest Pastel Society's 25th Annual International Open Exhibition.

Pastels have a bad rep, often deserved, but not always. The name is associated with soft and pretty colors, and pastel as a media has long been thought of as a media of sweet grandmothers who take it up as a hobby - despite the example of Edgar Degas, who revolutionized pastel art with layered and heavily textured works as far back as 1880. That influence is still very evident in the current pastel exhibit at American Art Company. There are some marvelous landscapes and urban scenes with rich colors that are worth long and serious contemplation.

I like many of the Degas-influenced pastels, but what this show proves is that there have been no advancements in the art of pastel since about 1886. This exhibit, while beautiful in rich textures and luminous colors, is filled with trite imagery. There is not a single abstract painting in the show, although Diana Sanford's "Portals #4" is an almost-abstract street scene with a strong composition and some wonderfully muted colors. There is one painting of a skull and a hammer called "Signs of Life" by Trish Harding that verges on abstraction and Surrealism. There is also a handful of figures including one nice one of a girl playing the piano, "Playing Her Piece" by Jane Mayer, which is very lovely and has some wonderful green and yellow tones in her cast shadow. And there is a single nude, Paul Barton's "Resting Dancer," that is nicely done but rather clichéd. Everything else is landscape or cityscape. Or animals. And the show would have been much better if every single animal picture had been rejected.
And now for comments on a few of the best works.

Marcel Schwarb's "Suspended Flora" has the strong heavy forms and diagonals and slanted light of an Edward Hopper cityscape, but without Hopper's sense of pathos and alienation. The colors are terrific, especially the blue of the sky that shows through an opening in the top of the building in such a way as to turn negative space into a positive. And I like the way Schwarb cropped the scene and made it look like a slightly tilted camera shot.

Kari Tirrell's "Venice" is a marvel of technique. It's a scene of two gondolas in Venice seen from a bridge. The clarity and realism is amazing. The water looks like a photograph printed on slick photo paper. I've never been one to admire art for technique alone, but I do admire this painting.
Lawrence Barone's "Black River" (which is green) captured the award for "Best in Show." It is a very simple scene of a single tree on a river bank with a skrim of trees in the background. Everything is nicely harmonized and unified.

Also impressive are "Rocklyn Summer" by Ladonna Kruger and Barbara Benedetti Newton's "Spellbound" and Deborah Matlock's "Thirteen," a painting of a girl in a fencing outfit resting with sword in hand.

Northwest Pastel Society’s 25th Annual International Open Exhibition
Through Dec. 31, Tuesday-Friday 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Third Thursday until 8 p.m., American Art Company, 1126 Broadway Plaza, Tacoma, 253.272.4327

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