Jed Perl on Art

Formalism and Its Discontents

…It is true that if painters are good enough, they can convince us of the importance of any subject. But it is also true that the right subject can be a provocation to a painter's technique. This is yet another fact that formalism is ill-equipped to explain. At Mari Lyons's show of still lifes at the First Street Gallery in April, I was especially held by a painting of a large bouquet of flowers set in front of a carousel horse. I don't know that Lyons's subtly animated brushwork, with strokes in closely related hues giving mobility to even the simplest plane of color, was more convincing in this canvas than in a number of others. But I felt Lyons pushing to a new kind of eloquence as she confronted the heaped paradoxes of the subject: the carved horse imbued with the galloping energy of an animal by Rubens; the explosive elaboration of flowers rhymed with, but also distinguished from, the painted surfaces of the horse, the very idea of a not-so-still still life.

I like this painting's literary suggestiveness. The carousel horse, which provokes thoughts of play, childhood, theatricality, illusion, also has some of the fascination of the inanimate object that suggests a metaphor of action in Kleist's great essay on puppets. The bouquet and the carousel horse is a juxtaposition so perplexing that a Surrealist might have dreamed it up, and if there is a comic dimension to Lyons's paintings, it has to do with her wanting to make this absurdist arrangement appear nearly normal. The painting is a realist account of Surrealist possibility. Having watched Lyons's work evolve over the years, I can see that she is a painter who has worked tirelessly at her craft, not so that she can find something to say everyday, but so that when she has something to say, the means to say it are at hand. That is one definition of the place of formal values in the visual arts.…