'Distinction' celebrates underappreciated American art

by Sarah Givner | 5/4/05 5:00am

Featuring over one hundred drawings and watercolors from American artists, the "Marks of Distinction" exhibit serves as the centerpiece for the Hood Museum of Art's 20th anniversary celebration. On display until May 29, the exhibit covers the 200-year period from 1769 to 1969 and includes an eclectic mix of romanticists, Pre-Raphaelites, surrealists and modernists, among others. Sponsored by the Henry Luce Foundation, "Marks of Distinction" grew from a comprehensive research study that evaluated Dartmouth's collection of American works and teased out the best and most wide-ranging pieces.

Watercolors and sketches are generally overlooked in favor of more "prestigious" oil paintings, as many think that they are incapable of conveying the same power that the vivid colors and more malleable, fluid constitution of oil paint can. This is an absolute shame, and such beliefs are proven quite wrong by this very exhibition.

In order to aid the uninitiated, the exhibit carefully defines the various media used in each work and describes the particular effect subsequently achieved. This is useful when trying to sort out the differences between chalk, charcoal, pastels, ink wash, watercolors, opaque watercolors, etc. These important subtleties also help the viewer understand the mechanical processes involved in achieving an effect. Different types of paper are also highlighted; some are specifically crafted for watercolor use, while others lack in absorbency and are better suited for drawing.

"Marks of Distinction" tries to be as interactive as it can for its audience. At the collection's entrance, there are two bags featured for the visitors' enjoyment -- one labeled "Story Bag" and the other labeled "Artist Bag." The former features children's stories pertinent to the exhibition, such as "Harold and the Purple Crayon," while the latter includes stories about the artists on display, such as Jackson Pollock and Winslow Homer.

There are samples of the kinds of paper used so that one can actually feel the difference between five types of paper. The exhibition also offers headphones through which select works are further explained.

The collection is divided into two principle parts. One highlights the time period extending from the 18th century to the early modernist era. Sections include "Romantic Evocations," which shows landscapes, portraits and busts done in a classical and realistic style, and "Depiction of Modern Life," a more symbolic and abstract series often portraying urban areas. The other part of the exhibit includes works from 1930 to 1969, and featured series include "Realism in the 20th Century," comprised mostly of naturalistic compositions with a few surprisingly surreal and abstract pieces interspersed, and "Later Direction," containing blatantly avant-garde works, pop art and collage.

The most striking aspect of the exhibition is the novel use of media displayed. Generally, I think of watercolor paintings and sketches as bland works incapable of transcending the page, wallowing in dullness and lacking the vibrancy that rich color contrast provides. This exhibit, however, flaunts the power and potential of the media.

Watercolors are utilized in a jarring, modern way. For example, one work by Velino Shije Herrera depicting Native Americans performing a rain dance proves especially impressive, with its two-dimensional form and bright colors -- achieved through the use of opaque watercolors -- making an otherwise simplistic image jump off the page. Another piece by Abraham Walkowitz, similarly two-dimensional, depicts an urban landscape solely in black and white and resonates strongly with the viewer through its simplicity.

Eva Hesse uses a mix of crayon, marker, opaque and transparent watercolors, and pen and black ink to create a beautiful, abstract work with the different materials playing off each other vividly. Dong Kingman, inspired by his Asian heritage, illustrates the city of Philadelphia in a frenetic and lively way by using forms and colors generally seen in Asian art. Paul Cadmus' fine, wispy brush strokes invigorate his paintings with a sense of vibrancy, life and movement.

The portrait of Gov. John Wentworth, by John Singleton Copley, ends up as one of the most evocative pieces in the collection, as it is absolutely remarkable in its craftsmanship. A flawless portrait that is discernible as a pastel only upon close inspection, it shows the potential that the underappreciated pastels possess.

The works that shine most brightly are by and large those of the lesser-known artists, whose innovations are revelatory and refreshing. However, famed artists like Winslow Homer, Alexander Calder and Robert Indiana are well represented, with their works reflecting their own particular styles that are better known in other forms.

Through the use of bold colors, simplified forms, abstract shapes, varying brushstrokes and mixed media, these works surpass expectation and are as effective and impressive as almost any highly regarded oil painting. For what it may be worth, this exhibit was very educational to me personally, and it demonstrated once and for all the hold that watercolors and drawings can have over their audience.