BRATTLEBORO—“Between Dark and Night: New Pastels by Mallory Lake,” on display at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center (BMAC) through Oct. 20, stands out for several reasons.
First, it’s the first museum show for the acclaimed Marlboro artist. Second, it’s your chance to see 12 masterful works she created over the past 18 months specifically for BMAC. Third, the exhibit showcases Lake’s work as she takes off in a new direction.
In a departure from the pastels of Tuscany landscapes for which she is celebrated, Lake has found inspiration here in the fog, steam, and trains that she discovered in short black-and-white French films from the 1930s.
Lake majored in graphic design in college and owned her own design business in Brattleboro beginning in the 1980s. From 1990 to 1993, she was art director for Vermont Life magazine.
But her career path changed when she began creating pastels in 1988, and started shortly afterwards exhibiting them at Vermont art shows.
“At one of these shows, the Pucker Gallery (in Boston) saw my pastels and wanted to represent my work. It was a very lucky thing to happen to me,” she said.
She’s been represented by Pucker since 1990, a commitment that led Lake to resolve to take her art work more seriously. She closed her design business and dedicated herself to her art full time.
She has since exhibited throughout New England as well as in Santa Fe and California. Her work appears in the permanent collections of the Boston Public Library, the Currier Gallery of Art in Manchester, N.H., and the Rose Museum at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.
Tuscan landscapes have become her trademark subject. For several weeks each year, from the mid-1990s until 2006, Lake traveled with artists and friends to Tuscany to photograph the Italian landscape, often going off on her own to make notes, photo-records and sketches upon which she bases her highly evocative and romantic works.
An accomplished gardener, Lake has even transformed her property in Marlboro in homage to the Tuscan landscapes of her pastels.
But Tuscany is not the only subject matter of Lake’s pastels.
When Lake began painting, she focused on Vermont landscapes.
“You would be surprised to see how colorful I used to be,” she says ruefully.
Night and mystery
In “Between Dark and Night” at BMAC, Lake has created a new series of evocative and mysterious pastels of steam trains, foggy nights, and the golden glow of monumental Beaux-Arts interiors.
“I turned to the train images after catching a short film documentary on YouTube where I was struck with an image of a steam-powered train,” she says.
Lake began searching through other French films from the same era and discovered a whole arrangement of analogous images. “I work from a distinct image from these films,” she explains.
BMAC Chief Curator Mara Williams says she finds Lake’s latest works evocative of classic film noir.
“She borrows their theatrical lighting effects and raking angles, their images of steam-enveloped railroad cars and eerily empty grand interiors, to create a dialogue between what is seen and what is implied, or felt, emotionally and physically,” Williams says.
Lake employs a great deal of craft in shaping her pastels, but it is her approach to and interpretation of her subject matter which draws her ever-increasing following.
As Williams writes on BMAC’s website, Lake is a master of pastel.
“Her surface textures range from the dry, velvety softness we usually associate with the medium to an almost painterly pooling of color. Her soft-focus palette is sumptuous but subdued. This poetic indistinctness belongs to the landscape tradition of Whistler and Inness, who transcended touristic topographies in search of a more rarefied spirit of place. It is, however, the subtlety and richness of her tones that truly astonishes. Lake attenuates grays with a finesse that recalls [Whistler’s] nocturnes,” BMAC says.
Lake says she follows English painter Harold Speed’s three principles of painting: color, form, and tone. She sets a mood with her limited palette, employing only two or three colors.
“I keep the colors of my pastels limited, often using at this stage of my career only a few colors. I prefer a darker range of color. On a scale of one to 10, I use five to 10. In contrast, Turner’s work is full of light, as are most of the French impressionists, where you find their range [runs] from one to five. I like to accent this darkness, however, with a bit of light.”
Lake adds, “As living things, we are affected by light. Its quality, when transmitted to the eyes, produces an emotional response. Sunlight stimulates, twilight calms, and nightfall lends an atmosphere of mystery.”
Although her pastels often veer toward the abstract, Lake likes them to be situated with a little realistic detail.
“I seek to evoke a response by arrangement of light and dark in settings where recognizable objects merge into half-realized forms. For example, in this new series, I want the trains to disappear into abstraction. To achieve this effect I employ tonality — value relationships in a scale from light to dark — reserving the use of the lightest and darkest values for accents, and arranging them in contrast to dominant mid- to dark tones. I use softened and differentiated focus, a suppression of details, and a limited palette in favor of tonal unity.”
She quotes photographer Edward Steichen, a master of tonality, who once said, “The real magician [is] light itself — mysterious and ever-changing light with its accompanying shadows rich and full of mystery.”
Lake finds allegiance with other artists — and considers herself an artist – whose work comes from an understanding and appreciation of the history of art. Lake is inspired by 19th century French landscape painters such as Corot. She is also attracted to the paintings of the Renaissance, although she says she doubts if people would see any such influence in her work.
One of Lake’s main inspirations is not painting at all, but rather the early pictorial photographs of the late 19th and early 20th century, found in photographers such as Julia Margaret Cameron and Steichen, whose aesthetic led them often to make a photo look like a painting.
“[My aesthetic] is to make [my] paintings look like their photographs,” Lake says with a laugh.