To hear Lee J. Wexler tell it, the art of watercolor painting has a slight image problem.
Wexler, the president of the National Watercolor Society, believes the medium is often misunderstood or taken too lightly by the art community at large. Watercolors are invariably credited for their "evanescent, delicate beauty and demanding technique," but it can be a hollow compliment.
For all the praise, Wexler said he realizes that most watercolors are not considered as adventurous or experimental as other contemporary media in the forward-looking art world.
"There's a perception (that most watercolors) are of flowers or landscapes or those types of simple, natural scenes," Wexler said.
"Or they are seen as (preliminary) washes for oil paintings, like with the Old Masters. But they are so much more than that. You can show and say all sorts of things. . . . You can show emotions and take chances--they can be anything, and they usually are."
Wexler said the proof can be found in the society's "Signature Members' Exhibit," which opens today and continues through Aug. 2 at Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.
More than 100 paintings by the society's more noted watercolorists--which Wexler believes makes them some of the country's more accomplished painters--are displayed. The subject matter and styles vary widely from translucent washes of fragile pink roses to detailed, sharply edged surrealistic visions to heavily layered, brushy portraits resembling oil paintings.
The exhibit's breadth amply illustrates that the medium can be more than just delicate landscapes and still lifes. The Bowers, it turns out, did not need convincing. The museum has long appreciated the reach and beauty of watercolors and was eager to mount the show, museum spokesman Steve Hansen said.
"We think this will open the public's eyes and show the wonderful diversity" in the field, he said.
Paintings were chosen from the work of the society's 600 "signature" artists, those professionals considered the best among the group's 1,100 members scattered across the country. In organizing the show, Wexler said, the society sought to include paintings that are visually stimulating as well as technically sound.
It was an important priority, Wexler noted, because the technical demands of watercolor painting--considered one of the more difficult mediums to master--often have generated the most interest in the art community. Unlike working in oils or acrylics, two mediums that allow mistakes to be corrected, watercolors are not very forgiving.
But that emphasis on technique has resulted routinely in an undervaluation of the ideas presented in contemporary work, Wexler said.
"We are really against that traditional view, we want to get away from the discussion of technique as being the most important factor," he said.
"There's more interest in what the artist is doing than about how it is done. We are artists first and painters second, but those two get turned around some (in the minds of most people)."
Alexander Guthrie, one of the participating artists, also bridles at the thought that the public might think watercolors are appropriate only for capturing seascapes or other idyllic but hardly provocative or unusual scenes. Guthrie's own work often focuses on man-made objects, particularly complex machinery.
"I do Volkswagen engines a lot," he said.
The show includes his "Ozymandias," a painting using a more traditional technique (a flowing, blended wash of soft colors) to create a "neo-realism" image. Imposed against a desert-like background is one of his beloved man-made objects--this time a large gray water valve--that looks more like an abandoned alien spacecraft than anything made on this planet.
Many of the paintings are even more suggestive. Ernest J. Velardi Jr.'s "Ladies Wear Gloves (in San Francisco)," for example, owes something of its stark surrealism to Salvador Dali. The work is dominated by a suspended white glove sandwiched by a silver fork and what appears to be a sea sponge. If the symbolism seems arcane, the craftsmanship is precise, with carefully delineated images painted with opaque watercolors.
The exhibit veers toward the erotic with the work of Watson Cross. His "Not Lady Madonna" features a garter-belted, hip-stockinged, bare-breasted sybarite standing in a parlor while a young man watches her from a back room. The technique--more heavy, opaque strokes--is also not what might be considered typical.
Of course, the more avant-garde is only a part of the show. More customary examples of the medium are also displayed. "Apple Slices" by Peggy Flora Zalucha, for instance, is just as its title suggests--a very realistic, translucent nature study of this familiar fruit.
"From the usual to the not so usual, I think we really have something for just about every taste," Wexler said.
In conjunction with the exhibit, Bowers Museum will offer two lectures and a workshop on watercolor painting.
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