The 35th Annual Exhibition of Pastel Society of America at Butler Museum of American Art

Even though Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin has used pastel extensively back in 18th century, the Pastel Society of America was only founded a little more than 30 years ago. (After the death of Mary Cassatt and William Merritt Chase, the pastel as a painting medium almost died.)

The opinion that only oil paintings are worth displaying still prevails. Even though pastel works does not need as much attentive preservation as other formats of works on paper such as watercolor or charcoal, there are far less popular in the market or in the museums. Carnegie Museum of Art does not have any pastel works on display while the permanent collection on display at the Butler Museum of American Art contains only one pastel work (by Mary Cassatt). The only exception would be Met probably because they have too many works and much more space.

The show which takes up one big room in the museum is a manifestation of how flexible pastel can be. Among them there are a photo-realism depiction of an alley in sunset by Brian Cobble, Daniel Greene’s full size incisive study of Robert Beverly Hale and Rae Smith’s impressionistic fogging scene.

The study of Robert Beverly Hale by Daniel Greene is magnificent. Simply it is the homage made by one of the most influential portrait artists to the one of the most foremost figure drawing teachers, also the best demonstration of the principles of chiaroscuro and observation from life. The contrast between warm and cool, light and shadow recedes behind an overall impression of an aged man of dignity and wisdom. But a close look of the techniques shows that every stroke is a tour de force of Mr. Greene’s confidence and mastery skills. The final version of the pastel painting has a more meditative feeling because Greene lowed down Mr. Hale’s eyes as if he is brooding and muted the yellowish background with more peaceful green .

If Greene’s work shows that pastel portrait can be as much effective as oil one, Sam Goodsell’s “Threshold” makes sure that everyone realize pastel can make a different portrait from oil medium. The surface of the paper shows through the lightly-covered layers of pastel its own neutral color in both human figure and the background, thus harmonizing the whole picture. Strokes are visibly light and relaxed, yet the natural spontaneity was built on solid form and great composition. Unlike a lot of pastel works I have seen, the palette has only a few limited colors; but they are just as efficient as the huge variety of colors that were used by Greene.

Rae Smith’s Morning Mist #7 is Eric’s favorite of all paintings in the exhibition. The pink purple color that dominates the fog scene is so unconventional yet totally convincing. The suggestive rising sunlight and the mystic depth of wood drew one into the scene.

Brian Cobble’s photo-realistic “Lexington Alley” portrays a sense of uneasiness under the wholesome, somewhat nostalgia sunset light. But a very close examination (which set the alarm on several times) showed that it is not a painting of hygiene touches. Mr. Cobble has put numerous tiny lines of different colors on top of each big color patch, almost like pointillism except the fact they are so light that optically they are submerged into the original color. In some way, he reminds me works by Edward Hopper with the same kind of loneness looming out of balanced geometric suburban setting. It is not the void of human figures in a picture full of evidence of human traces that stirred my feelings, it is the incongruity between austere harsh lines of geometric architecture and the rampant natural grasses which reclaim their territory in the suburban land that made me wonder: As people move out of the center cities, have they got closer to the nature?

The show will continue until Feb 29, 2008.

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