Existential tensions of contemporary life are addressed head-on by many of the watercolor painters in the New England Watercolor Society’s Biennial exhibition.
Following in the watercolor traditions of the great masters, Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent, many of the paintings deal with the stresses of life. No one has painted a despairing fisherman’s wife looking out to sea for her lost husband or Italian marble quarry workers cutting stone. But the artists do address addiction, loneliness, homelessness and anxiety.
In an exhibition dominated by conventional watercolor motifs of fruits and flowers, seaside shacks, birds, boats and beaches, several artists grapple with the problems of modern life. Courageously, they turn their eyes away from the romantic symbols of beaches and boats, often with exceptional technical skill.
Carolyn Latanision’s “Ladles and Cranes Ready; Bethlehem Steel,” is the masterpiece of the exhibition. The symbolism of one of America’s most productive steel mills, idle and abandoned, is heart wrenching. Workers’ lost jobs and a region struggling with stagnation come to mind. The painting is dominated by a gigantic steel hook hovering over two circular vats, held together by a system of girders, rivets and wires. The composition of the painting is arresting and the symbolism menacing. However, Latanision’s painterly washes, fine brush details and harmonious colors make the “ugly” steel mill a work of human-art. In her vision, the abandoned mill constructed for utilitarian purposes, is a human-made sculpture of heroic proportions. The painting should have been awarded a major prize.
Another innovative masterpiece of symbolic complexity is Ann Hart’s “Night at the Opera.” Meticulously painted, the scene is the plaza at Lincoln Center’s Metropolitan Opera, identifiable by the Marc Chagall paintings visible through the arched windows.
The painting is divided into three sections. The center is a striking image of people painted as dark silhouettes against the pure–white of the lighted fountain. They are animated tourists reveling in the glory of the night. To the right, an enormous poster of an androgynous man cuddling a lamb advertises the 2016 opera, “The Exterminating Angel.” This opera deals with love and death, animal sacrifice, religion and the collapse of civility.
The menacing images tower over the animated tourists. On the left, two couples, clearly lovers, are obscured by the dark evening light. Behind the lovers, apartment buildings twinkle with night-lights and faint evening stars. On the extreme right, in the opera’s entrance, are two dark figures who appear to be guards holding guns. We leave the interpretation of these symbols to the viewers’ imaginations. Again, no prize was given, suggesting that in the traditional watercolor world, paintings of anxiety, sex, and death are rarely rewarded.