MASTERING THE MONOPRINT. Persistence pays off for printmaker Cynthia Nartonis, whose first New York show is underway

IT'S always a pleasure to review an exhibition that's a personal, as well as professional, triumph - one that scores as many points for creative integrity and commitment as for purely formal and technical achievements. As one-person exhibitions go these days, Cynthia Nartonis's display of recent screen monoprints at the Mary Ryan Gallery here is neither large nor particularly flamboyant. Visitors to this small but highly regarded upper West Side gallery discover that its entire focus is on the artist's work. There is no hype, no intimidating salesmanship - only the direct, unpressured experience of the art itself.

Even the show's advance publicity promised no great surprises, no rare opportunities to discover an ``important'' or ``exciting'' new artist. It said only that this would be Ms. Nartonis's first New York show - and then went on to describe her prints in a few clear sentences.

Specifically, it stated that ``Nartonis's explorations of landscape and still life incorporate a dramatic and mysterious quality reminiscent of theater stages. ... Rowboats, tiny refuges perched on faraway islands, volcanic cones, and a quiet sea: [They] act as specific symbols and as individual players in a drama, transporting the viewer to a remote, dreamlike world.''

True enough. What is not pointed out, however, is the clarity and impact of her simple, dramatically distilled images, and the startling effectiveness of her color. Where two colors will do, she doesn't use three - or if she does, the third is so subtly applied as to be barely noticeable, or so cleverly placed as to make the entire composition appear to hinge on that particular placement.

All this would be difficult in a painting. In a monoprint, it is even more so, since the process of making such a print leaves no room for correction. The image is painted directly (and quickly) on a surface. Then a sheet of paper is positioned to absorb the still moist pigment when pressure is applied. The result: one (and only one) printed picture.

Relatively few artists work in this medium, and even fewer use it in as sophisticated a fashion as Nartonis. In fact, it's unlikely that anyone else has done as many innovative and purely expressive things with it as she.

THAT wasn't always the case, however. My first contact with her work, almost eight years ago, left me interested but far from overwhelmed. Not that her prints weren't accomplished, even outstanding in a muted, tightly controlled sort of way. They were. One could see right away that she was a dedicated artist and a professional. But one could also tell that, for all her skills and talents, she was still playing it safe - that she hadn't as yet found the means to give expression and form to the deepest levels of her creativity.

The next several years saw her moving ahead both creatively and professionally. Her images and her use of color became increasingly personal and expressive, to the point where, by the mid '80s, she had begun to establish herself as one of the Midwest's most promising printmakers.

But still her work lacked that special ingredient - that spark - which sets an excellent print apart from a merely good one. Not that she hadn't tried to find and activate that quality. But for one reason or another, she had always somehow fallen short.

The ``miracle'' finally occurred in 1987, and in a manner that took everyone (even Nartonis, I suspect) by surprise. In April of that year she was producing thoroughly competent and attractive prints; by October she had a portfolio filled with some of the most vital and exciting graphic images produced that year.

Best of all, they had been made without creative compromise, without capitulation to art-world fashion or expediency. Never mind that it had taken over two decades for her to reach that point. What mattered was that it had been done ``organically'' - by striving constantly (and exclusively) to find and give expression to that which was most central and significant to her identity.

She was very fortunate, for the majority of artists never attain that level of creative realization. Altogether too many flounder about, searching endlessly for the ``perfect'' style, or, worse still, for the formal device or gimmick that will be an instant shortcut to fame and fortune.

THAT she didn't do. Neither did she succumb to the sense of hopelessness that affects almost every artist at some point during mid-career and causes many of them - including some of the best - to call it quits before realizing their potential.

Nartonis stuck to her guns and is now beginning to receive recognition and is helping to convince art students that creative integrity and commitment can pay off - no matter what the cynics and opportunists might say.

The exhibition continues at the Mary Ryan Gallery, 452 Columbus Avenue, through Feb. 4.

Also on view is an exhibition of color etchings from ``Midnight Carnival,'' a limited-edition artist's book representing an ongoing dialogue between artist DeLoss McGraw and poet W.D. Snodgrass.

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