Artists included in this juried exhibit prove that watercolor is more than a "ladies art". 

Watercolor Wakes Up

Chances are if you've ever thought about watercolor painting it was in rather benign terms.

Traditionally regarded as a "ladies' art," especially during the Victorian era, watercolors bring to mind gentle landscapes, jars of flowers, and innocuous sentimental scenes. While these types of painting still exist, clearly the genre is changing to embrace new ideas and approaches to a centuries-old tradition.

Part of the goal of the Virginia Watercolor Society, founded in 1979, is to promote and educate the public on all aspects of watercolor painting. It also serves as a venue for its members, creating opportunities for watercolorists to exhibit their art and advance their skills.

The society's 22nd annual juried exhibition is being held this year at VCU's Anderson Gallery. With the students away for the summer, the Anderson saw an opportunity to invite a different type of art and audience to its museum.

Consisting of 117 paintings selected from over 700 submissions by 344 members of the society, the show features juror Katherine Chang Lui, a painter and teacher from California, who selected the works to be shown. She also awarded prizes such as "Best in Show," as well as 27 other awards, all including cash awards.

The works range in subject — figurative studies, landscapes, still lifes, Symbolist-type studies and abstraction. And the technique and style of these varied paintings run the gamut from tightly defined photorealistic compositions to loose, broad, painterly strokes with barely recognizable imagery. The sheer volume of the works makes the point that watercolor is a vibrant medium in Virginia, one that offers the artist numerous means of artistic departure.

At a juried show, one cannot help but be affected by the choices the juror made in doling out prizes. (A blue ribbon and the patron's name and amount of the award are printed below the artist's label next to the individual work.) Granted, judging art is a highly subjective process, and I'm sure Ms. Liu had a devil of a time narrowing down prizes to a few dozen. Indeed, she has said her only criterion was "quality"; she added that "two different jurors can select two different shows from the same entries." Nevertheless, I was interested to discover how opposite my opinions on the works were, in general, to those of the juror.

The "Best in Show" work, Sally Mook's "Granting Royal Wishes," is a surreal but strangely obtuse study of a bird sporting a cloak and ring, monkey, jester, fish, alligator, soup tureen and ladle, puppet, egg and apple. The colors were more opaque and dark, atypical of the crowning characteristic of watercolor, which is transparency. Other works awarded prizes included more expressionistic compositions of abstract emotions and states of mind that bordered on the maudlin.

In contrast, there were many luscious landscapes — such as the ones by Faye Henderson and Pauline Lorfano — that received no award. One of my favorites is a small view of a tree and water byway rendered in brown and ochre tones with a texture of a woven mat. Jeannine Barton Regan's "Inlet to the Sea" is a subtle, brooding work that truly demonstrates the Romantic possibilities of watercolor.

Other exemplary works included a wonderful Chinese brush painting of a poinsettia and sparrow by Marie Kaneko Shaughnessy; a Matisse-like patterned interior by Betty Lockhart Anglin; the primordial abstractions of Martha Rhodes; and the urban, industrial views of Nancy Stark and Erin Foster.

Regardless of one's opinion of watercolor, this exhibition affords the opportunity to give the medium a second look and to judge for oneself the possibilities of water, pigment, and paper.


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