On a field of gravel stretching, by all appearances, to the horizon, torn and crumpled $100 bills lie scattered around rusting, broken-bladed iron scissors. It’s not the fun and games we normally associate with the phrase “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” but it is watercolorist Mariko Kowalski’s comment on the epidemic levels of cheap money and violence abroad in the land today, and of course the connection between them. It’s also a first rate watercolor painting, each of hundreds of stones individually modeled and colored, the foreground in sharp focus while atmospheric haze softens the distance. Hanging next to it in the main gallery at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center is Maura Naughton’s “This Old Windmill Still Pumps,” a bucolic view of several ancient, wooden windmills, the nearest of which is reflected, along with the cloudy blue sky, in the mirror-like surface of the pond next to which it stands. A merest breath of wind has just rippled the water’s surface, gently fragmenting the old machine’s elaborate wooded paddles. Between them, these two paintings encompass the breadth of watercolor art, much of which surrounds them here, in the Utah Watercolor Society’s 2023 Spring Open Exhibition.
It should come as no surprise, this being Utah, that there are so many competent artists here, many of them locally unfamiliar, or that certain themes are more in evidence. Children, animals, and landscapes abound. That said, there are fewer sentimental images than might be anticipated, and more keen observation. Take for example JoAn Ekenstam Coons’ “Summer Day Dreams,” wherein a sun-drenched palette and strong shadows convince the viewer that this is, indeed, summer. Lying on her back with eyes closed, her hands cradling her head, a girl at that age when they are learning to be sophisticated lies on a blanket decorated with Baby Blue Eyes blossoms the same lilac color as her two-piece sunsuit. The pigtail buns in her black hair echo her round, white-rimmed glasses. Details like the way the blanket responds to her limbs or the texture of the exposed grass complete the realism.
Equally real, but playing out as a moment of spiritual revery, Alisa Laporte’s “Breath of Heaven” uses the tools of realism to craft convincing metaphors. Her infant is real, as convincing as the hands that pass her between them — in this context not so much from nurse to mother, though just like it, but from one stage of life to another. “It’s hard,” she says, speaking of childbirth from experience, but her choice to place the transition in an otherworldly realm, and to depict life’s longing for itself as wisps like smoke, as insubstantial, yet persistent, as clouds, makes the claim that renewal is larger than suffering.
These are not corporate or institutional images. Current understanding and new points of view come alive in art, as happens in Chaiya Ernst’s “Lucy’s Close Encounter,” wherein the title toddler crouches, unselfconsciously dangling unkempt hair over the object of her fascination, one hand reflexively grasping her near foot, completely absorbed in a goldfish bowl of bright water come alive with the intensity of what may well be Lucy’s first meeting with an alien species. Children have been characterized many ways over the eons, but we may be the first to begin to see them all as born scientists.
Watercolors have found many uses over the centuries since their invention, probably in what are paradoxically called the Dark Ages. Medieval manuscripts were written in oak gall ink on sheepskin and illuminated with watercolors that retain their colors to this day. Most artistic watercolors are transparent, though not all, but it’s the ability for light to pass through the pigment and reflect back from the page that gives them the luminous quality so valued by artists and audiences. In order to preserve this transparency, however, paints once dry cannot be disturbed, which leads to their characteristic spontaneity, which often leaves the hand of the artist visible in the final product.
Most of the Watercolor Society’s members have chosen realism as an approach, which agrees after all with the long history of the art, but degrees of abstraction can also take advantage of brilliant colors, washes, and other traits that enable bold gestures. Joyce Baron’s “Dawn” combines the hues of early morning and a recognizable horizon with pure gestures of new day’s energy, while her “Journey” uses some of the same physiological gestures to suggest a promising ascent to an anticipated destination. In “Fall Meadow” and “Torrey Pine Marsh,” Sandy Sleeper combines aqueous effects — the result of allowing the wet paint to puddle and colors to mix — with collage and later drawing to reinforce her imagery. The result is still representational, but approaching the point where illusion and awareness of the materials vie with each other for the awareness of the viewer.
There are sixty works here, so experimental effects might be expected in at least a few of them. In Melody Greenlief’s “Hope,” she quietly reverses the customary use of light and dark areas, so that the foreground, where the viewer’s interest naturally lies, is in early evening shadow, while the mountains in the distance are still lit by the steeply angled, setting sun. The resulting tension finds the eye sweeping back and forth up and down the central road, which becomes the subject of interest. In “Bullfrog Splendor,” on the other hand, Diane Asay sticks with the more common distribution of light, so the sun shining from the horizon and lighting up the sky doesn’t prevent the foreground from being lit as well. But she needs the light there to call attention to her having taken a medium normally as smooth as the paper that supports it and made it perform impastos like so much oil paint. In this way, the foreground is made to climb towards the viewer, creating a high viewpoint before which the view becomes a panorama. Purists might argue with its unconventional approach, but there’s no denying it works.
In addition to the genres included here, there are paintings of the red rock country, of course, but also such watercolor staples as food, still life, aging industrial buildings, animals both wild and domestic, people at work, and characters with more to offer than their colorful looks. The show tours, but doesn’t make it everywhere every year, so this is the first chance since before the pandemic to survey what’s happening in this oldest, and yet somehow newest, of Utah arts.
2023 Spring Open Exhibition, Utah Cultural Celebration Center, West Valley City, through June 28