Friday, December 15, 2006

Jane Smaldone

The best show on Newbury street right now is Roslindale painter Jane Smaldone’s exhibit at Nielsen Gallery. Smaldone paints portraits and floral still-lifes in a naïve-looking style recalling Colonial American folk art and energized with an air of mystery that’s right out of surrealism.

In “Still Life with Red Sun” (2005-06), the orange and white flowers sprouting from an odd white vase seem to have wandered out of an early Miro. It’s not just because of the spooky clouds and red sun lurking in the background, these plants seem to have minds of their own. The Chinese girl in the pretty lilac dress in “The Girl Who Loved Animals” could be some colonial American aristocrat. She’s actually the artist’s daughter. She stares blankly at us, holding up the sides of the skirt so that birds and a snail can nestle in its folds. A butterfly pauses on her hand, a rabbit and turtle creep along the ground, a snake slithers out the branch of a frail little tree toward her.

One of the sharpest paintings here is “Nora and Isabel on the Blue Chair” (2006), depicting the artist’s daughter, Isabel, and a young pal comfortably crammed into a soft chair together. It has an antique look, but the girls’ outfits -- Isabel’s beaded heart necklace in particular -- identify them as contemporary adolescents. What’s striking is how Smaldone conveys the personality of the girls – warm, curious, bored, tired. Smaldone favors lovely odd colors – sickly greens, the grays and browns of cubism, tans versus light phthalo blues. Her apparent naïve simplicity hides her mastery. Like the best folk works, everything is precise and peculiar, all wonderfully, idiosyncratically human.

Jane Smaldone at Nielsen Gallery, 179 Newbury St., Boston, Dec. 2, 2006, to Jan. 13, 2007.

This review expands upon a brief essay I wrote for the Dec. 14, 2006, Boston Globe Calendar.


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