Flower gardens come to life in full-size watercolors Art: BMA mounts first hometown exhibit for nationally known Carolyn Brady.

December 04, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Think watercolors and you probably have an image of something modest looking, intimate in scale and delicate in feeling.

Not Carolyn Brady's watercolors!

Enter the gallery where "Maryland by Invitation: Carolyn Brady" is on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and you will be surrounded by famous gardens that are as big as life and so realistic looking that you feel like you can walk in and bury your face in the flowers.

"The Flowery Path/Hidcote Manor Garden," five feet tall and almost eight feet wide, even has a path in the center to draw you in. On either side, pink and red and white blossoms cluster

around you in grand profusion; in front, a lush green hedge centers on a topiary obelisk.

Look elsewhere and you're at Sissinghurst, another of England's greatest gardens, out of which a cascade of flowers and foliage threatens to spill onto the gallery floor. You're in Monet's kitchen at Giverny, looking out at the garden beyond the open door. You're at Versailles, where a statue of the goddess of flowers greets you from her bower of trees.

These and other life-size garden scenes fill the walls of this modest-sized gallery, creating what BMA curator Jay M. Fisher calls "an environment" for the viewer. They represent the latest stage in the art of Carolyn Brady, whose watercolors have been shown all over the country, from New York to San Francisco -- and now for the first time in Baltimore, where the Oklahoma native has lived for two decades.

For Fisher, who has followed her work, this was the right moment for a Brady exhibit. "I have liked what has happened to her work in the last few years," he says, "since she has been doing large-scale garden pieces, which I thought would work beautifully for an exhibition."

For Brady, it's a major challenge to work on this scale with watercolor, a more merciless medium than oil. "You have to figure out where you're going to make the mark, because you can't move it," she says. "You're on edge all the time." Painting "The Garden Path" alone took 2 1/2 months. "You can't make a mistake, and it's a lot to sustain the tension for that long without making a mess."

But watercolor has its compensations. "There's an incredible tonal range from light to dark, and watercolor suits me in that way," she says. "Also, it is akin to drawing -- it has the pulse that drawing has, married to a painting style."

Brady, 59, has developed her art over decades in a career that has brought her widespread respect and recognition. "People responded to her work from the beginning," says Nancy Hoffman, her New York dealer for more than 20 years. "The

scale, the degree of observation, the texture of every object is so extraordinary. No one handles watercolor like she does. No one."

Steven Scott, the Baltimore dealer who carries her prints, agrees. "She's considered one of the leading watercolorists in the country," he says, "and I truly believe she's the most accomplished watercolorist working today."

Brady came to gardens by way of indoor flower and still life works. It wasn't until the late 1980s that she ventured out of the house for subject matter, first in her own garden and then traveling to gardens in France and England.

Appeal of gardens

The English gardens, in particular, offer a combination that speaks to Brady. "They are eccentric, luxurious and wild," she says, "but also architectural, with 'rooms' in proliferation. There's an abundance of flowers, with a classical structure holding it together."

Although her subject matter is nature, Brady isn't an open-air artist. She takes photographs on her travels, then at home projects the images up to the actual size of the finished work on the watercolor paper itself, and draws the details of the image in pencil. Then, with the sheet spread out on a drafting table in her studio, and working on it from all sides, she slowly and painstakingly adds the watercolor, beginning with the background and working toward the foreground.

The method is photorealism, and Brady says, "I'm very literal-minded; I'm interested in mimetic realism." But in her process of creation, a certain amount of transformation happens. For if you look at the 10"-by-14" photograph and the finished watercolor together, there are differences.

The perspective isn't quite the same, for instance. Brady may tilt the horizontals a little toward the vertical, telescoping and pushing space out of the picture to a slight degree, thereby creating a subtly heightened tension and drama.

Scott notes another quality. "When you look at her work in reproduction, it looks like a photograph, but when you look at it in person, you actually see her very expressive brushwork," he says. "The backgrounds are often wildly expressionistic."

Fisher sees an abstract element to the works. "They are held together by the fabric of the photograph, the illusionism of the photograph, but otherwise they seem to break apart in abstract passages of brushwork."

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