My recent visit to the Butler Institute of American Art included viewing the work of Ohio pastelist Judith Carducci.

Portrait of Louis Zona, Pastel

Carducci’s prize winning work is recognized for her good grounding in solid draughtsmanship and spot on sense of color, both attributes a product of years of drawing from life.  Carducci also presents her personal perspectives on whatever she makes, whether it is still life, landscape, figure and portrait, and relishes the act of doing so.

The congenial visage of Louis Zona commands the Giffuni Gallery with softly smiling eyes, his folded arms’ stance further reflecting his positive attitude. The Director’s 4′ square three quarter length portrait is placed against a portion of the camel/orange and silvery black Motherwell abstract, a wall of commanding work in the Institute’s permanent collection.

Several self portraits are included in the exhibition, which reveal Carducci’s skills as well as her self effacing candor.  Two of them are on either side of the Zona portrait. “Fresh Canvas” may be the earlier one, judging from the personal styling.  This three quarter length portrait views the artist from the side, apron frocked, head cocked and arms folded in a moment of absorbed appraisal.  Her right hand has a firm grasp of several brushes as the artist seems to be determining where to begin. No other studio accoutrements are shown, the only depicted action is the internal process of contemplation and artistic determination occurring within. Her figure, dramatically set in full light against a transitional tonal space, is very strategically placed, considering the confrontation.

The other portrait on the right is the likeness of the artist as you may encounter her today. However, she is captured on the easel instead of in front of it and seems to be at the mercy of one of those ubiquitous wooden mannequin aids that can be found in every studio. The artist, sporting a purple visor and apron as though ready to work, forlornly projects her appeal to the viewer outside the frame as she waits for her portrait to be finished. In the foreground, the similarly purple-visored mannequin with a decidedly feminine thrust in the hips, indicates no intention to recognize, much less accommodate, the model’s projected appeal as she tarries over the selection of colors in a box of pastels. The work is aptly titled “Role Reversal”.

There are three triptychs in this gallery including one which is a posthumous memory of the artist’s mother.  “Vanitas III” is a self portrait of the artist herself at eighty. Several panels depict the artist’s reverence for the simple pleasures in life: a good bottle of red wine with an Italian cheese, a well written book, satisfying travel to beautiful places, awards for one’s efforts in the field. Centered in an arched format above these is the portrait, though not one confined to likeness. It is a magical expression of the wizard-like creativity of the expressive act.  Stars and planets align and a magenta tailed comet whizzes through the electric blue above the artist’s personification, absorbed in her work. Spraying white hot inspiration, her scepter-like brush sweeps through the composition and envelops the decidedly androgynous half figure. Perhaps we should overlook the heavily borrowed Disney-esque imagery to grasp the point of contrast: the exhilarating freedom an artist experiences at the height of her power. It is the only panel not of this world in the grouping.

This show taps subject matter in several veins. Here I would like to touch on a series of small landscape pastels which are enjoyable for their simple shapes and charming colors. Their titles reveal Carducci’s love of travel and the experience of ‘place’.  Among my favorites were San Cristobal Old San Juan at Dawn, Aphrodite over the Acropolis, Red House at Sunset on Monhegan.  Spare shapes, windswept clouds and a wonderful misty element of mystery mark these notes with this artist’s joy of seeing.

No wonder Lou looks on with a smile.

Exhibit at the Giffuni Gallery, Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown Ohio through May 3, 2015.

–Marlene Steele

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