The colorist's art: taking the viewer by surprise

The secret of a good colorist is that he takes us by surprise. He may do so by placing a bright red next to three muddy browns, or by banging purple and green against black. But however it's done, we are startled to see something spring to life that in other hands would most likely have remained mere paint.

Several such surprises await the visitor to the Ericson Gallery's current exhibition here of recent pastels by David Cummings. These bright and lively works are colordrenched, but unlike many other paintings in which color also plays the major role, their pictorial significance doesn't just evaporate into thin air once their initial effect has worn off.

By that I mean that Cummings has found a way to use color at full strength without sacrificing pictorial structure. That his color sing asm color -- and makes compositional sense at the same time.

Now that's not as easy as it sounds. As a matter of fact, a great deal of the art of this century has resulted from attempts to give autonomy to color without, at the same time, depriving it of its capacity to also express or articulate other things. If red is permitted to be red and nothing else, how can it also be art?

The answer, of course, is that it probably can't, that something else must be done to that red before it can become art. If nothing else, the red must be spread over a large canvass, or diluted and modulated. Red as red is red, an not art. Or at least no one as yet has managed to make it art.

Cummings has confronted this dilemma by creating images in which various colors are embedded within flatly stated, cloud-like forms arranged on the picture's surface much as words are arranged on a page

We are struck first by the arbitrariness of this compositional device, by its obviousness. But, once we assimilate that, our attention is caught by the delightfully musical way the colors dance across the surface of the picture, by the way each cloud-like form becomes a note or a musical phrase in a highly lyrical and imaginative coloristic melody.

It's simple device, but an effective one. All that is required of the viewer is that he be as willing to see these cloud-like forms as color-notes as he is to see these words of mine as clues to ideas and not merely as little black marks on paper.

These highly charged pastels are full of life and movement. Although the most intense colors are generally reserved for the "clouds," there are many other rich -- although more subdued -- color patches scattered strategically about. Many of these result form crosshatching and color overlays, and, while not obvious from a distance, serve to give coloristic substance and structure to the lyrical grace notes emanating from the "clouds."

These notes either play off against one another in counterpoint, or soar into the air like the song of a bird. When it's the latter, it is often a matter of a particular color moving, with variations, from "cloud" to "cloud," and then shaking itself free to burst forth as a hot pink or a very cool green.

The risks Cummings takes with color are considerable, and include the juxtaposition of colors no sensible painter would leave in the same room together, let alone place side by side on paper.

But in his case, it works.

While Cummings has mastered the more melodic aspects of his art, he still hasn't quite managed the full coloristic orchestration that his larger horizontal compositions demand. Where his vertical pieces sing, his horizontal pictures are occasionally in danger of ending up as mere overall pattern.

I suspect that some of this results from the fact that the "clouds" are themselves horizontal shapes, and that a few dozen of them crowded into a horizontal format help create a static image rather than a dynamic one.

But that is a small matter within the overall context of this show.

What is important is that Cummings is grappling with color in a highly personal and successful way. And that, visually exciting and stimulating as these pictures may be at first glance, they also hold their own as formal statements about something other than mere color sensation or effervescence. That they are, in fact, works which convey genuine human emotion and mood.

During the hour or so I spent at the exhibition, I found that several of the pictures had grown in depth and expression whenever I returned to them -- something that doesn't happen to works which are purely surface oriented or trivial.

This was particularly true of "Purely Byzantine" and, to a slight lesser extent, "Boogie II," both of which struck me as especially venturesome and successful as color statements -- and as conveyors of highly lyrical emotions.

The works in this exhibition, while thoroughly "modern," owe no obvious formal debts to anyone. It is obvious that Cummings has carved out a special niche for himself within which he should be able to grow as much as he wants. And within which he can continue to use color at maximum strength without loss for formal integrity.

This exhibition at the Ericson Gallery will remain on view through Sept. 27.

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