Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Mary Sprague Tree Drawings

by Sun Smith-Fôret

Mary Sprague Tree Drawings
Duane Reed Gallery, Clayton, MO
September 12-October 18, 2008

Mary Sprague has been educating, delighting and surprising the St. Louis art community for years as a painter, teacher, raconteur, and unique personality in the service of Art. A founding Member of Art Saint Louis, Mary continues to serve on the Advisory Council.

In the catalogue accompanying her most recent show, “Mary Sprague Tree Drawings” at the Duane Reed Gallery in Clayton, Missouri, Jack Heinz in his introduction writes “Her trees have distinct and compelling personalities, and they are rendered in corresponding styles. Some are light and airy, drawn freely with an economical use of line. Others are menacing, broody or spooky, with deep shading and a thousand strokes. Each is her own tree."

Mary Sprague. Oak Annoyed by Mistletoe, Filoli, California (2008)

What resonates for me is the energy, restrained and exuberant, in every rendering. The style is Rembrandt-esque, with execution worthy of comparison with Gustav Dore. For people who love and know drawing, this is mark making at it's most controlled and spontaneous, it's most rich, lush, and evocative. Whether Sprague is illustrating an image of a single tree isolated on the page with minimal landscape element support, such as Pine Tree Forest Park (2007), or has located her subject tree in a complex and possibly surreal mise en scene, Oak Annoyed by Mistletoe, Filoli, California (2008)--the eye of the beholder is pleased. We know good drawing and we think we know what a tree is.

Mary Sprague. Bite of Illinois (2008)

It is tempting to locate Sprague's current work in a venerable landscape genre, the great American Landscape Tradition as practiced by such Midwestern and local notables as Fred Oakes Sylvester, Dawson Watson and Jacob Berg. Mary’s subject matter calls to mind works from the French plein air movement, the Barbizon School. However, Sprague lures us into a more ambiguous and less accessible realms of nature with the miniature scale of the images relative to our concept of 'tree'. She includes us in an exquisitely wrought visual puzzle and wry conceptual joke of the huge made tiny as she did in reverse with her enormous anthropomorphized chicken drawings and paintings in 2007.

Mary Sprague. Garden with Elephant (2008)

At first, her titles seem straightforward and reassure us about the reality of each tree in it's own particular geography, attained through rigorous observation and travel near home and far away, by van and across the country in both directions, as Heinz points out in the catalogue. Sprague, however, is always looking inward and her work invites us, should we choose, to do the same. These softly seductive intentions become more clear in her hand-colored photographs that somehow manage to look like monumental Sprague paintings even though all are drawn with inks by pen in the same small scale as the drawings. To let yourself gently into her subjective world, see Bite of Illinois (2008) followed by Garden With Elephant (2008). Drawing Elephants (2008) is a kind of grand finale except that one goes back around and around and around.

Duane Reed Gallery is located at 7513 Forsyth Boulevard, Clayton, MO 63105. 314/862-2333. Gallery hours: Tuesday-Friday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and by appointment.

Sun Smith-Fôret is a practicing psychotherapist in St. Louis and a regional artist. Her mixed media textiles, drawings and paintings on the subject of movies over time have been exhibited in numerous exhibitions, including her current solo exhibit, "Interpretation: Silver Screen Quilts by Sun Smith-Foret," Belger Arts Center, Kansas City, MO (July 4, 2008 through October 3, 2008). Her work will be presented with Marjorie Hoeltzel and Dawn Ottensmeier in "Charms and Talismans," Chesterfield Arts, Chesterfield, MO (October 24, 2008-January 3, 2009). In addition to her art making, Sun serves on the Art Saint Louis Board of Directors.