TTHE English painter Janet Boulton (b. 1936) works mostly in watercolor. This medium has a long English tradition, and she practices it with an exquisite control and delicate sensitivity to light that's perfectly in line of descent from that tradition.
The subject matter in her studio consists of objects that hardly draw attention to themselves. They are used as vehicles for light: jam jars, glasses, bottles, glass bowls, mirrors, and windows.
The paintings translate into the thinnest of all painting mediums - watercolor, which is stained into the paper surface - a complex interplay of transparencies, translucencies, and reflections. As subtle modulations of tone, warmed with the insinuations of color, the marks Boulton places on paper are analogies for her intricate concentration - the percipience of her looking, investigating, discriminating. Language and subject matter are scrupulously integrated, and Boulton's work cannot be labeled as ``abstract'' or ``representational'' - it is both. Nor is it concerned only with the formal aspects of painting, such as line, space, or edge, without also being a response to that most elusive aspect of appearances: light. These paintings depict observation of light.
Not all her images, however, result directly from observation. ``A Glass Bowl With Square Table'' is a drawing, tinted with watercolor, a tonal study of a favorite motif: glass bowl through which is seen a checkered table cloth. This is more or less straight observation - though its magic lies in the way it draws the viewer into a realm where three-dimensionality and two-dimensionality act in counterpoint. Boulton sees no reason why a painter should be confined, even within one picture, to a single convention. ''Why,'' she asks, ''do we have to be stuck with pure cubist ideas, or with Renaissance perspective alone?'' Consequently, she explores the potential of both together.
The other image, ``Variations III,'' investigates a different approach to similar concerns. It is not a flat piece of paper, but in relief. Boulton has made the paper from scratch, and formed its relief on a matrix. She feels that paper pulp is for her what clay is to a potter.
``Each piece of paper is custom-built for each work. It's rather like being a sculptor.'' This time the glass bowl on the check cloth does not come from observation but memory; it is an interplay - perhaps almost a struggle - between the solidly formed relief and the painted image, and it is an object in itself rather than merely a depiction of an object.
Working in relief in this way only increases the ambiguity in Boulton's imagery. It emphasizes her persistent effort to grasp what she knows very well is ungraspable. This is what keeps her art at an intense pitch of challenge.