Thursday, April 8, 2004
When Pamela Carroll sets up a still life to paint on her small masonite panels, she embraces both the artistic tradition of trompe l’oeil and the intimate world of her relationships to her family, friends, and the objects that she cherishes and that fascinate her.
“I’m always putting in things that people give me. I’ve a friend who owns an antique gallery in San Juan Bautista who gives me things to paint,” says the Carmel artist.
Just as the artist dazzles the viewer’s eye with her brand of realism, Carroll is also communicating subtly when she places her favored things throughout the picture plane, catching light, casting shadows, extending back into pictorial space, revealing signs of wear and tear. The objects have personal meaning, and their placement and visual relationships are planned, as if she were a director of a drama of objects.
Trompe l’oeil, a French term for “fool the eye” illusionism, is usually a cool and exacting visual game between artist and viewer in which a battery of tricks are employed by the artist to win the match. For example, pictorial space is typically shallow to avoid suspicion, objects are placed close to the edge of a table or shelf, everything is painted life-size or close to it, and no object gets cropped at the picture’s edge lest the viewer becomes alerted to the scene’s artificial nature. The paint application is at the full service of verisimilitude, so brush strokes are smooth and phantom.
But in Carroll’s painting, there might be a passage where a brush stroke is apparent. And even though her paintings are trompe l’oeil, she says, “I sometimes put in a little painterly brush stroke somewhere for the fun if it.” The artist avoids photographic effects because she paints from life, eschewing the problem-solving photo so that rendering, shading and perspective are hers alone. Little still-life arrangements just three feet in front of her easel serve as models, and her artistic skill, like an electric current, imparts a charge among the painted objects, their shadows and the spaces between them.
“Even though there’s this level of realism, I try to avoid a coldness. I want to have people look at one of my paintings and feel that they’ve lived with it already. I give each item in the painting a personality. I love old things, I love rust and age and objects with their histories written all over them,” explains Carroll.
Carroll’s studio is a small room in the back of her Julia Morgan-designed bungalow a stone’s throw from Mission Ranch. The interior design reflects the warmth of the artist’s paintings. Carroll’s enamelware collection sits atop a fine antique hutch, Early California paintings hang above the fireplace and over the sofa, decorative crafts are displayed on end tables and shelves, integral parts of daily life.
In her inner sanctum, a work in-progress shows the underpainting and a composition laid out with precision, even in this embryonic stage. In two weeks it will evolve into a finished work with cherished objects emerging from a dark background space. The painting, like most of hers, will doubtless transport the viewer to the quiet place that superb still life painting always does—a serene emotional locus for contemplation, where the extraordinary, even weird, characteristics of the mundane exude a poignant air, and common objects’ tattered tales are bittersweet.
The long history of trompe l’oeil extends back to the Roman fresco. It received special impetus during the celebration of pictorial illusion that was the Renaissance. But for Carroll, the still life paintings of late 19th-century Americans William M. Harnett and John Frederick Peto were her personal starting points. “I’ve always gravitated toward realism, so the School of Philadelphia that grew up around Thomas Eakins was a big attraction,” she says. “But the Dutch Masters are my real mentors. I’m self-taught, so I looked to Vermeer and the Dutch still life painters for their light, atmosphere, the way they evoke a mood with their lighting.”
Carroll drew and painted as a child, and continued through her early thirties, achieving some success with realistic gouache paintings. “I collected seed catalogues, and copied the pictures of the vegetables and flowers in small square paintings arranged in grids. It was very tedious work and each painting took forever,” says Carroll pointing to a painting from this phase of her life, a work with 16 individual, fully realized images tightly painted and abutting each other to make the one painting.
“My son was born when I was 34, and he became my life. He’s in his early twenties now. I got back into art about eight years ago, doing trompe l’oeil murals in houses. I did that for three years, and even painted pieces of furniture and sold them.
“I tried plein air painting but wasn’t very good at it and didn’t really enjoy it, so about seven years ago I started these paintings,” she says, pointing to the painting on her easel.
Carroll is a member of the Carmel Art Association and also shows with Hauk Fine Arts in Pacific Grove. Several years ago, visiting editors from Sleeping Bear Publishers saw her work at the Art Association and commissioned her to illustrate a children’s book. It was a big success; five other children’s books followed. “I’ve been very lucky, those books paid for my son’s education in private schools,” she notes.
Pamela Carroll: Double Vision, Artist/Illustrator opens at the Carmel Art Association on April 7, with a reception April 10. 624-1676.