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Subverting the Saccharine : Contemporary Watercolor

Cindy Craig, Chris Doyle, Michelle Provenzano and Cherry Hood

Curated by Cindy Moore

Watercolor has a stigma. Mention of the medium conjures images of washed out landscapes, sentimental portraits, and above all, flowers… dozens and dozens of flowers. The paintings that come to mind are innocuous, simply meant to soothe and relax, timeless in their subject matter and tepid in their temperament. In short, they are white noise of fine art. And yet, there are artists working against this preconception, challenging innate bias, and taking on the tradition of watercolor in a truly contemporary way. The painters in this exhibition, Cindy Craig, Chris Doyle, Michelle Provenzano, and Cherry Hood create large, bold works that blend tradition and technology and, in the process, reinvent the medium.

From its inception, watercolor was touted as a portable medium, ideal for sketches and studies. In 18th century England, arguably the highpoint of the watercolor history, paintings were painted en plein air, on-site and from life, and the finished works were small in size. In contrast, this group of artists introduces photography and video as source materials and chooses large-scale depictions in lieu of their more modest fore-bearers.

In Chris Doyle's epic studio scenes, the video camera is ever-present. Positioned noticeably in the room, it faithfully records staged events as they unfold. With Doyle the self-portrait has mutated into a kind of self-surveillance. Aggressive moments of wrestling are frozen in time, in tableaus that are simultaneously dramatic and commonplace. Outdated notions of the inherent "femininity" of the watercolor are challenged by these depictions of "masculine" competition — calling to question the validity of gendering either activity.

Taking full advantage of the luminosity of the medium, Doyle floods these scenes with natural light. Painting with fresh and saturated color, he depicts all the tools of his practice with faithful accuracy: the camera, the ladder, the paints. Even when items are missing, their presence is felt. In Making Endless Love, the viewer hovers over the artist, no doubt perched on the now familiar ladder. Locked in a perpetual loop of viewing, the painting records the artist recording himself — drawing into question the idea of mediated viewing and creating an alternate sense of timelessness.

Ideas of performance and observation are also present in Michelle Provenzano's Lounges Series. Created from accumulated video stills gathered in Japanese private karaoke rooms, the paintings pan across the scene combining multiple viewpoints. This dissected view allows for more visual information and expands the confined spaces. As with Doyle's paintings, Provenzano's work references technology as a mediating device. In a similar vein, the paintings reflect their subject, karaoke, in which an electronic system stands between the singer and performance, interceding between action and experience.

The scenes revel in their artificiality, while the painterly treatment of densely patterned surfaces references traditional landscapes. The brightly built up textures camouflage the painting, suggesting space while simultaneously flattening it. Devoid of natural light, the uninhabited rooms are independent of day or night. They exist as private entertainment capsules, separated from the rest of the world and rented by the hour.

Cindy Craig's watercolors introduce ideas of pleasure as a commodity, as well. Her oversized paintings depict scenes of mass consumption: shelves of candy, racks of meat, and aisles and aisles of products. The crisply painted, sterile environments are odes to the American Dream in which materialistic pleasures are bought in bulk. Equally nationalistic is the overzealous work ethic apparent in the series, as evidenced by the painstaking detail in every square inch. The contrast between handmade and machine-produced blurs; the artist's skill creates believable facsimiles while the medium allows for charming inconsistencies.

Faced with such visual abundance, the viewer begins to detect difference among the racks of sameness. In comparing these ultimately identical items, a shopping mentality takes over. Viewing becomes scanning and raises larger questions about the nature of free choice in a consumer culture. As in Provenzano's Lounge Series, these realities are steeped in artificiality: the flavors, the coloring, the packaging, and the experience. In Candy, Craig plays up the inherent sweetness of watercolor. The brightly hued, cartoon-like display is a treat for the eyes, but the stomach-turning array promises that the short-lived pleasure comes at a price.

A different kind of sweetness is at play in the monumental portraits of Australian painter, Cherry Hood. Her young subjects are lovingly painted in a manner that is sentimental but not without its edge. Created in conjunction with the JT LeRoy novella Harolds End, the characters in this series are street children, well versed in the cruelties of humanity. Far from society portraits, the children are depicted tousled, dirty, and defiant in their steadfast gaze. Their vulnerability is tempered with steel. There is a sense of knowing and power behind their stares that borders on eroticism, making these images challenging on a deeper sociological level.

Compared to the other artists in the exhibition, Hood chooses a more ephemeral approach to the medium, blurring colors and allowing the paint to drip and blossom as it streams down the page. The fluid effect is one of fading impermanence, an apt allusion to the ultimately unseen nature of these forgotten children. Taken from obsessively gathered photographs, the paintings are specific in a way that demands attention. Cherry Hood manages to capture innocence and tenderness that exists despite the realities of the outside world. These fleeting moments of connection seem to barely exist on the page, threatening to wash away at any moment.

Brazen yet nuanced, this group of artists push beyond the expected, using the inherent qualities of the medium to move past the merely scenic or vaguely topical. The large-scale works do not scream for attention, but they demand it. Investigating cultural issues with current technology, the artists deny the timeless serenity of earlier work and create images that are thoroughly modern. They successfully dispel existing stigma with a forceful grace that asks the viewer to look past the flowers and see watercolor as it is, a fresh, vibrant, and contemporary medium.

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