By Don Decker
In terms of exciting imagery or innovative uses of material, Alaska watercolor shows consistently lag behind other juried exhibitions in the state. The exclusive use of aqueous media on paper, matted and framed, creates some inherent restrictions. Yet Rarefied Light and Alaska Positive, with equally restrictive qualifications, consistently attain higher artistic goals for photography. Other forms of painting seen in All-Alaska Juried Exhibitions are regularly more challenging, both in concept and execution.
The 33rd Alaska Watercolor Society Juried Exhibition is like its predecessors. Most of the paintings are landscapes, portraits or still life. About a third are forms of abstraction, but the approaches are familiar, with the application of paint in a traditional manner. There are no political protests, social commentary or personal revelations. There is little indication that sex, war, global warming, love, loneliness, injustice or fear exist in the world.
Juror Carrie Burns Brown selected Kim Marcucci’s “Writing the Whirlwind” as best of show from the 46 paintings that made the final cut. The large abstract expressionist work is painted in broad brush with full palette. Patches of blue help temper the scattered red and orange composition. A singular area of calligraphic brushwork is incongruent to the composition though, and the one small touch of brush handle scratching suggests a need for more.
Clues to the juror’s thinking are evident in other award winners. Like Marcucci’s piece, “Rejoice II” by Sheary Clough Suiter is bold and extemporaneous in style. Both painters employ multilayered applications with slight impasto. Cindy Brabec-King won a first place award for “Honey Bea, Pike Street Market.” The central figure in red is posed photographically amid the market clutter.
“Landing” by Elizabeth Peterson was the second choice. She employs some mono-printing methodology with muted colors and shades. The disparate design elements are unified compositionally by broad-brush overlaps.
“Hard Work #2” by Dashuai Sun contributed some welcome diversity to the show and earned a third place award. Realistic, detailed and formal, the concentration here is on patterns and meticulously rendered textures, more in the realm of illustration.
Some pieces worthy of recognition were not selected by the juror for awards. For example, Rosie Huart’s “Interconnection” shows an attractively loose calligraphic style, done in subdued tones and shades. “Moody Blue” by Natalie Smythe is a nice play of monochromatic tones, with a sensitive rendering of facial features. Jean Watson’s “The Mix” is a unique composition with interesting textural effects painted in a primary color scheme.
The aura of the show is romantic. For some of the artists represented, manipulation of the aqueous medium has become an end in itself. Any desire for content is overshadowed by a quest for decoration. The titles are afterthoughts, contrived to suit the end result of the painting process, as if the idea came after the work was completed. Some of the titles are trite, as if matched to paintings done from vacation photos.
The intensity of watercolor lured some artists to an oversaturation of primary colors. The resultant surfaces are subsequently elementary and glaring. Likewise, the transparency of the medium leads to gradations of translucence, which in some paintings, makes them strictly pastel.
It would be interesting to see some evidence of recent resurgences of “pop” and “op” art, or more variance in technique, including hard-edge, stippling, sprays, stencils, collage, photo realism, drawing or stamping. Modern developments in acrylics, acrylic binders, watercolor pencils and commercial surfaces have expanded the possibilities for using water-based pigments. Egg tempera, gouache, enamels and other traditional materials are still being used, but with a much wider variety of applications.
Watercolor painting need not be a subculture of the arts, existing exclusively for those who like its convenience or commonality. Shown in a museum setting especially, watercolor, like its counterparts in oils or three-dimensional design, can be a medium for visual poetry. Artists in any technique or style, can challenge our perceptions, inspire us and elevate our thoughts. Artists can focus attention on the many glaring faults of contemporary society.
In looking at the watercolors of the 33rd show, one wonders who these artists are. Though there are many familiar names, we are left to guess about their character. What do they think? What could they dare to reveal about themselves? What do they feel? What do they want?
Watercolorists, like all artists, have the opportunity to visualize something intensely personal and to communicate it in their art, something that will strike a chord in other people. Those reverberating notes can stop people in their tracks in a museum and make them laugh or cry, sharing with the artist a deeply human experience.
Alone in a studio with only pigment and water, the painter has the means at hand to create ripples of long lasting consequence. In the history of art, such tiny forces have literally changed the world. It is, in practicality, unrealistic for any one artist to expect similarly great consequences. But meaningful personal rewards are to be found in the journey itself.
Don Decker is an Anchorage artist, teacher and writer.