REVIEW: by Steve Desroches
Upon walking into the Charles Hawthorne Gallery at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum (PAAM), front and center there is a self-portrait of artist Elisabeth Pearl positioned on an easel with an empty stool at an angle. The gaze on her face is focused and pensive, apropos of the meta presentation of a work space of a painting of an artist taking a moment away from her work in her Provincetown studio with her pet dalmatian posing for attention and for the image on the canvas. It’s also an entirely appropriate greeting to the exhibition Ubiquitous and Familiar: The Paintings of Elisabeth Pearl featuring the work of an artist with a keen observatory eye that can give definition to the blur of motion by stopping it by the millisecond and adorning it with memory and viewpoint.
In its entirety, the show features 30-plus years of work showing a wonderfully restless mind exploring a variety of mediums and subjects, while each singular piece is an exploration of color, craft, technique, and subject with a touch of whimsy. Pearl is perhaps best known in Provincetown for her bright and colorful depictions of life in town, in particular of celebratory moments or active street scenes. Works like Carnival Parade, Gathering at Spiritus, Hats Off to Provincetown, and Book Sale at the Old Library all capture familiar scenes of life on the Cape tip with its unique culture. With a bold color palette and a playful adaptation of realism Pearl captures the crackling energy of each subject with the immediacy of a photographer through the prism of a painter in control of her oil paints.
A contemplation of each piece, as well as all 10 of the Provincetown scenes in the exhibition, reveals an interesting element: none of the people in the paintings are looking at each other. A few people here and there might be engaged in conversation, but a drag queen twirling down the street or a costumed reveler parading around goes practically ignored by any other subject in each painting. Perhaps it’s a depiction of the steely New England culture of ignoring passersby, especially those trying to attract attention, or maybe the seasoned townie culture of the hard-to-impress Provincetown resident who has seen it all. But as a choice it further drives home the intention of Pearl’s work and her viewpoint. What you are looking at is from her mind, as familiar as the subject may be to you. It’s a marvelous artistic narrative that is also present in the paintings that make up the Boston scenes, like Quincy Market and Davio’s. Pearl isn’t physically represented in any of these particular paintings, but it’s clear that as far as her mind’s eye goes, she is very present (as are the beloved dogs that appear in so much of her work).
Showing breadth and daring, Pearl’s work in the exhibition also presents mixed media and oil on masonite with imagery dipping into the cosmic and mystic iconography. Pearl’s “contemporary icons” are especially good and surprising in their departure from the familiarity of Pearl’s most commonly known work. It’s in this work, which mixes in Christian artistic imagery, that Pearl does depict herself, or at least that same engaged gaze as in her self-portrait—the only time an image in her work makes eye contact with the viewer. Peppered throughout are also depictions of the Pilgrim Monument, again a good-natured choice as the pieces resemble something out of Renaissance Florence, mixed with anachronism for both past and present. The mind darts back to the imagery again, questioning if it is indeed the Pilgrim Monument or its original inspiration, the Torre Del Mangia in Siena, Italy,….or both.
Ubiquitous and Familiar is a delightful show and well-deserved. It exudes with joy, aptitude, and invitation to imagination. And perhaps the core of the show, and Pearl’s work in general, is captured in the narrative element of the piece Pieta, in which, behind an image of the Madonna holding the crucified Christ, is a monolith jutting out of the water with the inscription “Art Is Its Own Reward.”
Ubiquitous and Familiar: The Paintings of Elisabeth Pearl is on exhibition at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum (PAAM), 460 Commercial St. now through June 4. Admission is $15 (free to PAAM members and children 16 and under).For more information call 508.487.1750 or visit paam.org.