Sunday, August 30, 2009

REVIEW: Nelda S. Haley Retrospective at SPA in Barre

by Cully Renwick

A retrospective of paintings by the late Nelda S. Haley is on view in the Third Floor Gallery at Studio Place Arts (SPA) in Barre from August 11 to September 19, 2009. The show includes 22 oil paintings and two preliminary drawings, spanning the years from 1949 to 2004.

Nelda S. Haley was born Nelda Margaret Smith (Aug. 7, 1929) in Waterbury, Connecticut. The child of a stone mason and a music loving mother, she grew up on her grandfather's produce farm during the Depression and WWII years. An essay outlining her life was published in the Northfield News of August 6, 2009.

This exhibit of paintings offers a rare opportunity to connect with part of the very interesting east coast mid-century explosion of art styles. To see this retrospective is also to see the story of a young woman who herself so connected with the art of her times that she painted though thick and thin, with little money, while raising children in New York, while farming in the mid-west, while being active in the art of her communities. She initially studied in the schools of two great stylists of the field, and found her “voice” within the precepts of her chosen teachers, Louis Schanker and Hans Hoffman. The “language” of these two distinctive practitioners both required a starting place of actual nature, upon which they applied the distorting and expanding effects of a personal philosophy of spatial dynamic possibilities. In the end, an ultimate, expressionistic aspect overlies, but never obliterates its mundane origin. For some expressionists working within these parameters, the possibilities were primarily guttural and emotional. For others, like Nelda, they were wonderful puzzles that contemplated dynamics of balance and imbalance (Figure Resting, c.1957), relationships of motion and stasis (Dish Drainer #2, c.1961 and Old Hayrake #2, 1960), or distributions of color blocks (Mozart Opera, c.1965), for instance.

In Paper Burner, c.1960, the figure is a dervish of black, white and yellow-orange action, centrally placed, with a background separated into two colors that boldly attach to the sides of the painting. In Mozart Opera, c.1965, fast paced light and dark colors broken into squares and rectangles arrange themselves regularly enough to imply light and music dancing on walls, ceiling and audience, while a discernible figure with upraised arms appears to conduct everything. Still Life with Cellist, 1964, has an exciting surface. Beautifully handled strong warm yellows, ochres, and oranges span surfaces as shapes of foreground and background elements, separating warm dark brown shapes in the upper portion and green-tinted very dark blue shapes in the lower foreground. The cello and musician are deeply embedded but never lost. Figure Resting, c.1957, is a tall “classic” piece, a beauty. Perhaps it’s the quality of resting that seats these dark brown curves and angles so solidly and serenely in the midst of fresh whites, off center but not off balance. Blue white. Green white. Orange white… implied motion is resting just now.

Near the Mozart Opera painting two wonderful sketches indicative of other work, woodcuts, linoleum prints, and charcoal and pastel drawings, give a certain bounce by contrast to the larger works. The book-ends to the current exhibit are two smaller paintings, Windy Street, c.1949, and Three Boats on Beach, 1952 that predate and foreshadow the mature work; and a later piece, Morro Bay Harbor, c.2004, begun in blocks of pastel colors, unfinished.

Thanks to the fine curating of this show, the pieces speak for themselves, for the life and times of a particular painter, and for an interesting era in art.

Images, top to bottom: Still Life With Cellist, Paper Burner, Three Boats on Beach.