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Pigment expressing purpose

New work in pastel underscores the medium's reliance on assured placement of color, informed by uncompromising vision.

Published March 25, 2004

[Images from Dunedin Fine Art Center]
Mary J. McInnis, Runoff.

Brooke Allison, Gift from Kyoto.
Terri Ford, Kory.

DUNEDIN - We can now say that, on the basis of lots of big exhibitions at prestigious museums and galleries over the past two years, painting and drawing are enjoying a new ascendancy.

Well, duh, you might say, further adding that they never went away. No, they did not, but they weren't the hip mediums favored by young turks grabbing attention with their concept-based art. Which is not to say that some of the subject matter in the "new" paintings and drawings is less obtuse and head-scratching than many an installation that made some of us art-watchers feel very old.

Still, it's good to see a return to that confrontation between an artist's mind and hand afforded by tactile materials such as paint and brush or chalk and paper.

The exhibition at Dunedin Fine Art Center offers an opportunity to study one of the more popular of these mediums, pastel, which straddles painting and drawing.

Even though it can be linked to some of the oldest art - the chalk and charcoal cave drawings in France - pastel was invented in the 1500s. Unlike chalk, which is a natural material limited to red, white and black, pastel can be made in a range of colors by mixing pigment with a binding agent to form dry sticks. Like chalk, it was considered for years a drawing material. Leonardo da Vinci used pastels for some of his studies. But into the 18th century, chalk and charcoal continued to be the materials of choice for most sketching, with measured additions of pastel for color.

At that point, several artists began working exclusively in pastel, treating it as one would oils, among them Rosalba Carriera, whose portraits were prized by the nobility. Quentin de La Tour was one of the most celebrated portraitists of that era and favored pastel as well. The Impressionists, too, loved pastel's rich colors and luminous qualities, and Odilon Redon used pastel to create some of the mystical works that prefigured surrealism.

But pastel for much of the 20th century has been considered second-tier, the province of artistically inclined women with time on their hands. That prejudice is aided by the medium's typical subject matter: portraits, still lifes and landscapes rendered realistically. The results are considered to be pretty, decorative art.

The Dunedin show will not change this perception. The work is traditional, nothing breakthrough or astonishing; it is best appreciated for the range of effects the artists have coaxed from the medium. Pastel, even though it's popular in beginning art classes, is not easy, and mistakes or changes of heart are difficult, sometimes impossible, to correct. It lends itself to plein air, or outdoor, painting because an artist can work quickly and directly, needing only paper, pastels and a sure hand.

The 40 works in this show come from throughout the United States, with a few international artists, and were selected by judges and members of the Pastel Society of America. In addition, a corridor and small gallery display works by noted local teacher Brooke Allison and her students.

Most of the art shows a good eye for color and a mastery of technique - plus interesting choices in surface materials. More than with any other two-dimensional medium, the selection of paper and its degree of roughness affect the look of the finished work. The paper is often treated with an spray that contains marble dust to roughen it up even more, or underpainted with an oil-based glaze that gives some of the works a more layered look. In Kory, an accomplished portrait, artist Terri Ford uses a highly textured red paper and lightly pulls the pastel over it so that specks of it show through the pink of the girl's scarf and the blue of her coat. Frederick D. Somers uses a taupe paper, less textured, scumbling and blending the pastel for a beautiful, simply worked billow of clouds in Breakthrough. Mary J. McInnis' Runoff is interesting both in its composition - with an angular, vanishing-point perspective - and its Fauvist colorations. Joyce Nagel is a more conventional colorist, but I loved the clear blocks of it she used in the buildings of Burano Walk.

The show has examples that remind us why pastel is beloved by the general public but not serious art observers. Catherine Cadieux's portrait of a young ballerina, titled Am I Perfect?, would undoubtedly please the commissioning parents but is the aesthetic equivalent of a studio photograph.

The still life Three Old Irons by Deb Covington uses cross-hatching to good effect in creating the lace tablecloth, along with beguiling areas of color in its folds and shadows. But the three irons that sit atop it are clunky and clumsily drawn. It's the kind of work that seems to be a staple of small outdoor art shows.

And so many landscapes. Some shine, such as Jennifer Gardner's First Light, Chateau Vitry la Ville, a moody study of light crossing a stretch of perfectly manicured, slightly sinister, shrubbery, and Michael Chesley Johnson's Bluff Springs Fall, with its abstract sensibility and use of short, strong strokes that make a cubist jumble of a rock outcropping.

A suggestion to the Pastel Society: More information for the wall texts would be interesting and educational - what specific paper and pastels the artist used, for example. At the very least, they should have the dates of creation.

Down the hall from the PSA show is a group of pastels by Brooke Allison, who has a wonderful way of conveying material richness. Fabrics, glass, silk kimonos and a pine hammock in Florida's Panhandle all get star treatment. Interestingly, she tends to blow up her still lifes larger than life and downsize landscapes to near-postcard proportions.

The student show is very good for what it is, not always the case with such classroom efforts. Among the best are Joan Walker's scene of a curving bridge and its mirror image in the water below, merging to frame an eye-shaped keyhole through which we see a flowering branch.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or


Pastel Society of America Juried Invitational Exhibition and "In Praise of Pastel," work by Brooke Allison and students, Dunedin Fine Art Center, 1143 Michigan Blvd., Dunedin, through April 25. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday. (727) 298-3322.

[Last modified March 24, 2004, 10:12:53]

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