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Monday, June 20, 2011

Willard Lustenader's pure hybrids

Fred Giampietro Folk Art, Antiques and Contemporary Art
315 Peck St., New Haven, (203) 777-7760
Willard Lustenader: Areas of Refuge
Through July 1, 2011.

The first word that comes to mind as I contemplate Willard Lustenader's paintings in the Areas of Refuge show is "pure." There is an understanding of essence—whether it's line, shape, color or light—that is refreshing. The exhibit showcases a series of work based on Lustenader's study of still life geometric forms. Primarily a show of paintings, the exhibit also includes several drawings and a few sculptural works derived from the same themes.

Lustenader is a realist painter and this set of works began with paintings of paper cut-out still lifes. While continuing with the cut-outs, which call to mind simplified pitched-roof building forms, Lustenader has more recently begun painting bent wire sculptures. The bent wires resemble the definitional contour lines of the paper cut-outs. But where the cut-out paintings offer the illusion of naturalistic depth, the wire paintings suggested a flattened visual field.

Several things stand out about Lustenader's paintings. They are notable for the strength of his technique. His colors are luminous. I would say there is an intuitive understanding of the nature of light and shadow but more likely that is a hard-won skill. While these works all deal with similar subject matter, Lustenader's keen compositional sense imbues each with a strong individual identity.

Lustenader, when asked, is clear. He is painting what he sees. Yet—because he is painting geometric forms rather than, say, a bowl of pears—the paintings seem more like abstract than representational works. This is most pronounced with the "Areas of Refuge" series—specifically the bent wire paintings, as distinct from the show of the same name—where the harder linear forms of the wires are juxtaposed with the soft background traversed by translucent shadows. (Lustenader sets up his wire still lifes on a table in his studio. Working in layers over a period of time, he paints the twisted forms and the soft shadows from the crossbars of his studio windows.)

But this blurring of the line between abstraction and presentation is true of the cut-out paintings also. While Lustenader is painting from life—so to speak—the formalist nature of his shapes alludes to a Modernist tradition most associated with geometric abstraction.

For me, the standout paintings in the show are "Cut-outs, Warm and Cool" (upper image) and "Areas of Refuge #6" (lower image). The former is a tour de force of bold colors and authoritative shapes that situates the viewer within a funhouse mirror architecture. The latter painting has a far more subdued feel. Lustenader's twisted blue line forms are (seemingly) suspended over an evocative wash of diagonal shadows. Where the bright colors and cartoon-like shapes in "Cut-outs, Warm and Cool" model a playful sensibility, the muted palette and envelopment by shadows of "Areas of Refuge #6" suggests a late afternoon melancholy.

So while the first word that came to mind was "pure," there is in fact a great deal of hybridity to Lusenader's approach. Realism flirts with abstraction and formalism intermingles with feeling.

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