Illuminating the Ordinary:
Light and Enlightenment in Contemporary Watercolor
March 3 – April 11, 2003
Statement by guest curator Barbara Cervenka, O.P.
Among the countless effects of the events of the past year, we’ve experienced a deepened sense of the fragility of life. The disintegration of the seeming sturdiness of our reality, visited from a clear and seamless sky, shook our expectations and sense of what was possible. The twin towers stand in our minds as a national memento mori, a reminder at once of evil and destruction, and of relationship, heroism, and hope. As gray dust silenced the colors of the landscape, survivors (which include us all) touched with numb appreciation family and friends, the fragile surroundings of everyday life. We celebrate what once we accepted unquestioningly as our own.
Sobered, stunned, we have walked into a new millennium, remembering what we lost, and holding tightly to what was rediscovered.
This exhibition, “Illuminating the Ordinary: Light and Enlightenment in Contemporary Watercolor,” is the eighth in a series of biennial exhibitions sponsored by Parkland College exploring the content and direction of contemporary watercolor. Previous exhibitions have reviewed the wide range of concerns and questions that characterize the diversity and energy of today’s watercolor scene, both in the United States and abroad. Essays and statements in this series of exhibitions have contributed to a thoughtful dialogue on contemporary practice and painting.
This exhibition focuses more narrowly as its title suggests, offering instead in the words of Kirk Varnedoe, “a vision of what might be nearest to you, the poetry the world possesses, a pleasure in daily small things, which transmutes into a form of spirituality,” the steady illumination that arises from the effort to see and take nothing for granted. Watercolor, an unpretentious medium, has at times been underestimated because of its simplicity and accessibility. Since the 18th century its ease of use made it attractive to enthusiastic amateurs, a ready traveling companion for artists from the time of Dürer to the present-day ecological journeys of Tony Foster. Yet it has been a quiet counterpoint to every art movement of the 19th and 20th centuries, restating themes and elaborating ideas, and at times revealing the artist more authentically and directly than in more complex and better-known work.
It is this transparency and directness, this surprising propensity to state with clarity and distill from complexity, that catches by surprise in the best work. The artists in this show have arrived at a sort of wisdom, all of them painters for many years, most working in a way that has not always been considered fashionable or on the cutting edge. Their resulting work has the power of sustained observation, of focused attention to the world around them, now understood as more fragile and more concrete than we had ever imagined. They show us that world in a more ample and generous light.
Fairfield Porter, painter and art critic, wrote in 1964, that “there is an artistic theory of knowledge different from a scientific or philosophical one. The artist can direct his attention to what he is sure of. This is not an idea, not an eternal object, it is actual, and it has immediacy. The artist can profitably forego the scientific or philosophical attempt at grandeur and keep to what he knows, which is what everyone knows and does not dare accept.” This is the world of our daily experience, so obvious it scarcely seems to bear repeating, and thus often falls beneath the screen of our consciousness.
This exhibition celebrates a visual world of value, color and tone, light and shadow, the quiet revelation of light on water, the turn of a cabbage leaf, the mandala of a manhole cover. Their work is characterized by honesty and immediacy, a simplicity that forgoes technical bravura for its own sake and subordinates it in the service of what is to be stated. In reflecting on the process of painting Fairfield Porter says, “Painters are concerned with things. The most prominent things in the painter’s experience are right in front of him, like the paint on the canvas. It is better if he does not achieve a plan, and that the painting eludes him, with a life of its own. The painting unfolds, gradually and with difficulty, and he doesn’t know what it is even for quite a while after he stops painting it.”
These artists depict with economy and grace a world fleetingly illuminated and carefully observed, astutely transcribed and transformed. They show us the richness and complexity that surrounds us at every turn, a powerful reminder of all that art can give us in a broken and fragmented world.