Monday, March 2, 2009

Extraordinary Renderings

It took me two or three decades of sentient existence before my rationalist ego would allow that the arts and humanities have a legitimate place in the world, equal to that of science, math, and business, my home fields. Again recently, I was reminded of the gratifying qualities of art -- some of it -- and by extension, the capability that lies in trained and untrained minds alike to perceive; and through perception, to grasp a meaning, an intent, an emotion or deep sensibility from essentially lifeless, skillfully created objects.

The Colorado Springs Fine Art Center has on display two oils by John Singer Sargent, whose works I've always found astonishing for the brilliant illumination in his portraiture. Having now seen a number of Sargents in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and elsewhere, my amateur's unschooled eye is invariably drawn to the exultant exaltation of his subjects -- forgive the purple prose -- largely through a combination of impressionism and illumination, creating a realistic effect. Sargent may captivate the easily impressed, middlebrow museum wanderer like me more than he gains favor from the cognoscenti, but I will always appreciate accessible works that the common person with eyes open can comprehend and assimilate.

While the colors and forms of a classic impressionist or a modern O'Keefe are alluring, I'm often more surprised and delighted to scan a museum wall and come across a sharp depiction of daily life: an architectural sketch, perhaps a cityscape; commerce in the marketplace; an urban panorama, realistically captured; ordinary people humorously or compellingly engaged in the moment. One type of comedy originates from the surprise you get from the sudden apprehension of one of your familiar, ignoble friends in a noble venue -- in this case, a frame -- usually reserved for the high or exalted. Like Belushi and Ackroyd chowing down in a five-star restaurant, art subjects that don't behave like grown-ups provide an unexpected delight.

Which brings us to Sargent's Portrait of Miss Elsie Palmer or Young Lady in White, in Colorado Springs. Is there a hint of Mona Lisa mischief infused in the subject's deadpan smile? Is Miss Elsie Palmer in fact a common person putting on a costume for a lark, having just changed from her colorful bloomers? Is her ability to hold still for the artist a charade, the portrait's luminescence a betrayal of her luminescent personality? Is she perhaps, just maybe, in on the joke?

See, that's what happens when you expose ordinary hacks like me to art. Fifty-five visits to forty-five museums over thirty-five years, and we presume to think we see something in it.

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