Seen in a new light

Some people just don't like labels. When I've asked artists why they don't title their works, the reply often is "I don't want to be boxed in." But there's another kind of label-phobia -- the fear that without labels, without signposts, a person would lose his or her way. But when one looks at a painting such as "Cool Light," by Gerald Garston, these fears melt away. The eight objects in the picture invite labels -- "this is a jug, that is a lemon." The very act of affixing these labels piques the curiosity, gives the objects a multidimensionality that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

"Cool Light" should be a picture that radiates timeless tranquility. The vases, teapot, jug, and drinking mugs are set in two straight rows. Every shape is sharp and clean. There is nothing flimsy in this picture, no passing flicker of light that can change as the day wears on, no reflection on the rim of a cup. In fact, the lemons appear to have the same texture as the teapot; there is no way to tell whether the vases are made of china or glass.

The pottery is squat and sturdy. They are items that look as if they could be found in any home. But when you try to think of them in a homey setting, something happens. Oh, a vase might look exactly like the one Aunt Jane had, but somehow you can't picture any flowers in it. The vases aren't arranged decoratively on a table. The teapot and mugs aren't part of a place setting. They could be stored away on a pantry shelf, but this shelf is cut off a both ends by the edges of the canvas so that is seems to be suspended in front of the sky-blue-gray background. The fact that they aren't doing what they are supposed to be doing gives them a mustery which solid little objects like these aren't supposed to have.

There are certain characterizations that imply "if you're this, you can't be that." For instance, anyone or anything that is short and squat can't be elegant. But in this picture opposites not only reside comfortably in the same simple objects but strengthen the impression the objects make. Here elegance actually results from the stubbiness of the pottery. The sweeping curves that make up the houseware are so perfectly rounded that at times they seem to be made with a compass. It's the apparent flawlessness of these curves that lends a very real elegance to such full shapes.

The picture is obviously carefully planned. But the most strategically placed objects of all -- the lemons -- bring the shelf that they look as if their existence there lasted only as long as it took to paint the still life. They are, in fact, disruptive elements. The color of the lemons is so intense it gives an acidic bite to the painting. Its presence makes the greens, blues, and purple of the vases and jug discordant, giving the whole picture a primitive flavor. One of the lemons is the only thing in the picture not arranged directly under something else. Its placement to one side shifts everything to the right, throwing off a composition that could have been rigid in its exactness.

The northern light in this painting, the crystal clear atmosphere, allows every detail to be seen. Yet, instead of being harsh and uncompromising, it evokes a dreamlike sense of unreality. The way the grays of the mugs blend into the background makes them seem capable of slipping in and out of memory in spite of their sharp edges and lack of distortion. The teapot and the jug are shaded. Yet they almost appear to be a negative shape cut out of the dark blue or purple vases behind them. The colors look as if they were intensified by an effort to fix the vases, and lemons, and bottom of the jug firmly in memory.

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