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Marsh Art Gallery looks at Nell Blaine's long and colorful artistic career.

A Reckless Joy


It is not necessary to know Nell Blaine's biography to understand her art. Her exceptional paintings speak visually of their creator through a tacit confluence of pigment, binder, canvas and brush. A retrospective is the perfect vehicle to demonstrate such a point — 50 years of one's artistic life marches across the gallery walls. For Blaine, even the decades break down into easy chapters of transitions and style changes that guide the viewer along her resolute journey, driven by twin passions: nature and paint.

This is not to undermine the complexity and extraordinary contrasts that embody Blaine's art and life. Indeed, her canvases, bursting with vigorous flowers in bold, light-drenched colors that dance and move with unrestrained abandon, seem hardly the making of a wheelchair-bound woman who often painted at night. Blaine may have not painted self-portraits, but she didn't need to. Her landscapes, interior scenes and still-life works abound with an inner vitality, indomitable spirit and profound joy for living that must have come from a hand and mind that knew such exuberance.

Born in Richmond in 1922, Blaine attended the Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University) from 1939 to 1942 where she studied with Theresa Pollak, Marion Junkin and Worden Day. Having mastered an academically realist style, she was encouraged by Day to study in New York with Hans Hofmann, the famous Abstract Expressionist painter. With a new style developing that reflected not only Hofmann's tutelage, but her growing love for jazz, the 1940s were a fruitful period that begin the Marsh Art Gallery's current retrospective, "Nell Blaine: Sensations of Nature," and the vibrant pages of Blaine's artistic career.

"Composition ('The Duck')" from 1943 is a classic example of Abstract Expressionism. (Blaine was one of the few women artists associated with this movement). Absorbing the lessons of her teacher, the artist seemingly dashes together this work of a highly abstracted duck hovering over a tangle of gestural lines and shapes. Composed in complementary colors of green and orange, the work clearly foreshadows the painterly style Blaine will permanently adopt for the rest of her life. Only two years later, "Red and Black" seems the antithesis of her earlier work. Careful, sharp-edged shapes are meticulously arranged. Spontaneity has been replaced with order, structure and a machinelike aesthetic reminiscent of Léger. As the decade wears on, it is apparent that Blaine was attempting to synthesize the best of Abstract Expressionism and cool, rational Minimalism. "Avenue" from 1948 is a matrix of strongly outlined forms filled in with chalky colors in loose brushstrokes that strongly suggest the painter's hand.

Having mastered painterly virtuoso, Blaine exploits her brushstroke to its fullest during the '50s. Relying on landscapes and interior rooms as subject matter, her paintings evolve into explosions of color, pigment and brushwork. "Mountain Towns I," from 1951, reveals an almost completely abstracted view of a village. Here and there, a building, tree, or mountain can be discerned, but the ecstatic slapdash vibrancy of the scene seems to eclipse all ties to form and order. The composition conjures up the work of Cézanne, but his interest in the underlying structure of nature is not as keenly observed in Blaine's art. Rather, for her, form has taken a back seat to color and gesture. Blaine's views at this time are comparable to looking through a clear shower curtain — murky and indistinct, yet bursting with color and energy. Dissolving form with color becomes one of her trademark tactics. Blaine's paintings develop into paeans of color, singing with a willful abandonment and, as the art critic Jed Perl describes, "a reckless joy."

As the '60s unfold, Blaine begins tightening up her brushstrokes and bringing her subjects into sharper focus. Although now tamed and manicured, nature as depicted through color, is still her subject. "Interior at Quaker Hill II" from 1968 contains a table with a still life of fruit, books and flowers that opens up to a sunny screened porch. This is a composition Blaine used repeatedly — nature seen from the perspective of the indoors. Redolent of Matisse, Blaine occasionally uses dashes of arbitrary color — a purple mountain or aqua coffee — revealing her decision to let color dictate its own course on the picture plane.

Through the '90s Blaine continues her characteristic loosely abstract views of nature washed over in color. Whether a vase full of summer flowers, a spring garden, or a misty view of a harbor, her paintings literally giggle with a joie de vivre that leaves the viewer practically breathless. In 1996, Blaine painted "Blue Sunset" — the most recent painting in the exhibition. Strikingly different from earlier works, it is a cityscape bathed in watercolors of blue, periwinkle, purple and yellow. Introspective and mellow, the city is depicted at twilight — perhaps a subdued coming-to-grips vision of her own mortality. Blaine died two years later at the age of 74.

Comprising more than 70 oil paintings, watercolors and sketchbook pages, "Nell Blaine: Sensations of Nature" is the first major museum retrospective of the artist's work since her death in 1996. Blaine may be gone, but the paintings in this show are triumphant palimpsests of the amiable glow of their prolific and celebrated maker.

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