Bowery Gallery:  Mari Lyons: Figures Studies from the Model in Charcoal, Pastel and Oil   July 11-29, 2017      


Noah in Rocker II
pastel on paper
39½ x 27½ in.


Mari Lyons’ fifteen solo exhibitions at First Street Gallery left us with a vivid picture of her lifelong preoccupations as an artist, and of the particular mixture of earnestness, curiosity and humor that she brought to her work. Her brushy and intensely colored images – landscapes, city views, still lifes, model studies and studio scenes – revealed an artist possessed equally by the visual intensity of her surroundings and the disciplined routine of the studio. Elements of the playful and fantastic often intertwined, especially in her last show, which included images of palettes hovering in abstracted studio spaces. Sadly, this proved to be the last show she would attend; she succumbed to cancer just a few short months after the exhibition.

Fortunately, portions of her substantial and varied lifework will appear in several memorial exhibitions in the next few years. The first of these, at Bowery Gallery until July 29, includes 18 paintings, pastels and drawings, all of them studies of female nudes. Produced between 1975 and 2015, these works include what seem to me to be among her most deeply personal efforts. (By way of disclosure, I should mention that I’m a member of Bowery.)

Lyons’ figures turn out to be wonderfully human. The artist’s candid eye catches all that lies beyond generic notions of beauty: the patient, absent-minded expressions of experienced models, their unself-conscious poses, the individual fleshiness of their bodies. Though seated or reclining beneath one’s point of view, they feel not like vulnerable objects but people caught up peaceably in the artist’s process. There’s none of the distancing effect of political messaging or artificial classicizing. In a sense, these works are the truest portraits of bodies, capturing slight imperfections with perfect fidelity.

The two largest works in the show are oil paintings of figures surrounded by studio bric-a-brac: a Buddha head, an easel, a carved horse from a carousel. But for me the most compelling works, regardless of medium, are those focusing most singularly on individuals and the measured flow of their torsos and limbs across the surface. Several fine charcoal drawings combine incisive – practically fierce – outlines with spare but effective shading. One image of a seated model, seen from behind, stands out; its chiseled forms suggest the rawness of Max Beckmann – with whom the artist studied – only mellowed by a physical empathy with the model.

Lyons’ enthusiasms, transcribed to luminous color, animate several large pastels in the exhibition. Among the best is “Noa in Rocker II”, in which the model’s slender torso – vividly shaped in ruddy oranges and pale ochres – angles with delicate force across deep background blues. The steady rise of the figure contrasts playfully with the arcing loops of the chair arms and back, which reappear in a mirror behind the model.

Perhaps most poignant of all is a pastel portrait of a young reclining woman. The figure’s outlines are deceptively simply, capturing in one long swoop the shoulder and the arm folded beneath her head. But her solemn features, measured out in quick black lines and illuminated by blended reds and yellows, are complexly expressive; one senses a serenity verging on sadness in the eyes turning towards the light. A few other notes of colors – mint green, sky blue – are enough to establish surrounding fabrics. As with Beckmann, the artist’s sentiments shine through the interstices of an aggressive attack – but, in Mari Lyons’ case, it’s a celebration of the present, not the haunting past, that drives the painter on.  


Bowery Gallery
530 W 25 Street, New York NY 10001
646.230.6655 · www.bowerygallery.org