at the Center for Contemporary Art

Artists have often made paintings of their studios. What they offer the viewer, however, is rarely a snapshot of everything visible. They give only limited access, carefully controlling what we see. Vermeer’s The Studio, for instance, presents us with an orderly light-filled room where the artist sits at an easel with his back to us, just beginning a painting of the model before him. She, costumed in a voluminous blue robe and a crown of leaves, holds a large yellow book and a trumpet and looks down at a table that bears a scrap of paper, a sculpted head, and another book. There are other objects in the painting, but a partial description conveys the main idea: Vermeer isn’t really showing us his studio, he’s describing the nature of painting, its artificiality, and its place among the arts, which is why the painting is sometimes titled Allegory of Painting. For this reason, objects you might expect to see–a palette, rags, turpentine, not to mention sketches or other paintings by the artist–are omitted. What wouldn’t an art historian–or anyone interested in Vermeer–give to visit his studio as it really was, to survey firsthand the gulf between image and reality or discover sources of inspiration?

The current group show at the Center for Contemporary Art takes up this theme in an unexpected way. The 14 artists were invited by CCA director Kathy Cottong to display their artworks along with other materials from their studios. What’s presented, dispersed throughout the gallery’s four rooms, with one or two installations per wall, are actual studio materials–snapshots, postcards, sketches, souvenirs–juxtaposed with a few pieces of each artist’s work. Like the Vermeer painting, these installations offer a controlled view of the artist’s studio. In general, however, the artists in this exhibit aren’t so much making statements about the importance or function of art as they are revealing the connections between an artist’s everyday life, interests, and surroundings and his or her work. There’s a caginess to the Vermeer–he doesn’t really let us see how his mind works, he doesn’t even face us. These artists, on the other hand, while differing in the degree to which their installations are autobiographical, invite us to view their creative processes.

Pinned to the wall in David Lefkowitz’s installation is an assortment of postcards, baseball cards, photographs, sketches, tiny abstract paintings on wood (of the same size and format as baseball cards), and felt pennants that have been painted over by the artist. On a shelf in the midst of all these images is a postcard rack, the brackets of which contain landscape paintings on wood approximately three by five inches. Many of the landscapes, like real postcards, present attractive scenes: rolling hills and lovely blue skies. But the few that include evidence of a human presence have a disturbing, even ominous feeling. One of them features two workmen in the foreground, a gray path or road behind them, and a lush cluster of trees and shrubs beyond the road. The crowded green background throws our attention back to the two oddly dressed men: both wear protective suits, helmets, long orange gloves, and heavy boots. One is entering a manhole (which is in the grass, not in the road) and the other stands and watches him. The protective clothing indicates either the presence of something toxic or an extreme fear of nature. Another postcard painting, of a sunset over a lake, also shows man’s negative effect on an otherwise unspoiled landscape. Far in the distance, tiny smokestacks spew gray clouds into the glowing sky; the gray paint literally muddies the pink and yellow.

Some of the photographs pinned on the wall show the sources for Lefkowitz’s painted postcard scenes. In one photograph, we see an old swing set bereft of swings in a school yard. In the corresponding painted postcard, Lefkowitz has placed this structure in a flat rural landscape against an agitated, cloudy sky. The low horizon line and absence of other structures or people make the swing set look enormous. This ambiguity of scale along with the preponderance of dark brown in both sky and land give the painting a nightmarish feel. While Lefkowitz brings us into his studio and presents his sources, at the same time he throws us back out into the world, forcing us to ask why we value picturesque views and what troubling realities our souvenir images omit.

L.J. Douglas’s installation is one of the most elaborate and the only one to utilize a corner of the room to imitate a corner of an actual studio. She includes a table, chair, and rug, and places a number of objects on the table, such as vases, a sketchbook that viewers may look through, and the July 1991 issue of Dressage & CT, a magazine devoted to horsemanship. Several horse-show ribbons hung in a row high on the wall pick up on the same theme–one supposes that, next to painting, riding occupies a major place in her life, but its impact on her work is unclear. Two of her paintings are hung on the left wall and two on the right; between them she’s hung postcards, photographs, and reproductions that reveal her influences. I especially liked her inclusion of color charts (done for an introductory art class, no doubt, judging from their somewhat tattered condition). Their presence pointedly illustrates the amount of work that goes into being a painter–it’s a long road between color exercises and confidently executed paintings.

Douglas’s installation comes the closest to replicating an artist’s workplace, though like the studio in the Vermeer painting, it’s cleaner and more orderly than a studio could possibly be. Her still life paintings are orderly as well. In each, one or two vases placed on a table fill most of the picture plane; visible behind them are austere, anonymous interiors. The vases have a quietly solid presence, thanks to Douglas’s careful attention to light and shadow, recalling not only the work of Piero della Francesca (whose Baptism of Christ and Annunciation are among the sources she displays) but also the work of the early-20th-century British painter Gwen John, whose almost magical modulations of tone gave her interiors and portraits of women a subtle grace.

In the still life titled Crossed, the light plays across the surfaces of two vases, one orange, the other yellow, in a complex and mysterious way. The lighter tones and more intense colors appear on the left side of each vase, though the cast shadows and lighter tones on the table indicate yet another light source. A purple ribbon is draped in and over the vases, and Douglas attentively describes its color changes: from a light bluish violet to lavender, and then to a deep, intense purple.

These are thoughtful paintings, clearly not hurriedly done. They bring to mind John Berger’s statement that “A drawing of a tree shows, not a tree, but a tree-being-looked-at.” Douglas’s images are accumulations of countless moments of looking. Through the patient process of becoming acquainted with her vases, she gives them an indescribable significance. It’s jarring, then, to look at the actual vases on the table: they seem so ordinary compared to their painted counterparts.

Royce Howes’s installation contains fewer source materials than do Lefkowitz’s and Douglas’s. This glimpse into his studio focuses on artistic influences and the process of conceiving and producing paintings–Howes firmly insists that we look only at his work, not at him. The small selection of postcard reproductions indicates his interest in art from diverse periods–included are a Pompeian wall painting, a Goya portrait, Picasso’s Ma jolie, a Morandi vase of flowers, and a Rothko. Only three photographs are supplied: a Polaroid of a vase of flowers and two small black-and-white snapshots, one of trees in a landscape, the other of clouds. Also included are newspaper clippings, one of which reproduces a photo of a David Smith sculpture.

Howes’s chosen materials make it clear that he is more interested in art and artists’ representations of nature than in nature itself. In his paintings on wood, two of which are shown, the materiality of the paint threatens to destroy the fragile images. Neither painting seems to have been done directly from nature: Offering has as its central image a vase not unlike the one in the Morandi postcard, and an untitled work contains shapes that echo the cubic forms of the Smith sculpture. Both pieces, painted on rough-grained wood, are nearly abstract. Using a limited palette of whites, umbers, and grays, Howes layers strokes of paint and, in the modernist tradition, calls attention to the flat surface and object status of his paintings. He extends the paintings even onto the rudimentary frames (constructed of one-by-threes), thereby negating the frame’s usual role. Yet at the center of each painting a loosely painted image emerges. The shaky brush strokes with which the gray vase in Offering is rendered suggest its existence is not guaranteed–one wouldn’t be surprised, after turning away, to look back and see that the vase had vanished.

Each installation, whether elaborate or minimal, takes a certain amount of time to digest. Michael Peter Cain’s painted plywood backdrop with shelves contains everything from diagrams of the relationship between knowledge, art, and nature to milkweed pods, flower petals, books on Taoism, and a small bronze dancing Siva. Steve Currie’s installation, by contrast, includes just one of his sculptures–a sphere constructed of laminated wood stained yellow, hollow at its core and cut open on one side, revealing interior surfaces lined with metal plates.

This curious form, titled Sinker, is accompanied only by a small charcoal sketch, a flat, circular piece of plastic with a hole at its center, and two newspaper clippings about the discovery of a 135-million-year-old bird fossil. The plastic circle and sketch of a split black oval relate on a formal level to the sculpture; the clippings are more puzzling. The wall-mounted sculpture is something like a model made for use in a science classroom. We are given numerous views of the sphere; its interior, exterior, and overall structure are quite clear. But its essence is not. One of the clippings states, “The origin of flight by animals is one of the great mysteries of evolution.” Perhaps Currie’s sculpture is meant to suggest that scientific inquiry doesn’t answer all of the important questions. He and the other artists in this show generously chart their routes from initial ideas and enthusiasms to finished paintings and sculptures. Their installations present the evidence of creativity, but the heart of it remains, as always, a mystery.