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Nicholas Party: Pastel on view at The Flag Art Foundation

As the elevators open to the ninth floor of The Flag Art Foundation, the thick smell of pastels fills the air of Nicholas Party’s two floor exhibition Nicholas Party: Pastel. Immediately I lock eyes with Portrait of a Woman with Pink Ribbons by Jean Baptiste Perronneau which hangs at the entrance skeptically greeting visitors. The painting is rendered in muted color palette but surrounding her golden frame a round pastel mural of brightly colored pears vibrates against Pepto Bismol pink walls. I wrestled with this initially chaotic visual discordance but began to notice a dull chartreuse shared between this 18th century portrait and the lower portion of the vibrant fruit still life. This carried my gaze to the concrete floor where I discovered the same warm grey flooding the entire gallery space around me and holding my feet securely in place. I was aware not only of the art in front of me but the walls, ceiling, and foundation that held me there. This set the tone for rest of the show to follow: a perceptive, intentional and overwhelming curated experience of exclusively pastel artworks inviting viewers to not only connect with work that stretches across generations, but it also creates a unified environment where the art itself engages in dialogue with the space.             In the following room hangs another female portrait Portrait with Pink Bows by Nicholas Party. Stylistically Party’s work embodies a modern approach as his simplistic Morandi-esque figures and objects manifest into the surreal through complex fauvist color.  While all of Party’s works are faithfully executed with the materials of his predecessors, this pastel seems specifically inspired by the inaugural portrait of the exhibit as this figure shares a similar title, the pink ruffled collar, the grey hair and the piercing gaze of the woman rendered many years before.

The electric teal eyes of the figure stares intently at a small arched doorway opposite the room. Through the opening a softer lavender purple space holds a continuation of psychological portraits rendered in pastel.  Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portrait of a young woman resting against the manicured hedges of what initially seems to be an upper-class pool house or back yard slowly transforms into what feels more like a monotonously tiled prison upon further meditation on the figure.  Smoking a cigarette and staring at an empty white notebook sitting on her lap, her gaze feels as blank as the page before her. A similar Mary Cassatt, Mrs. Alexander J Cassatt in Blue Evening Gown, shares the corner. This aristocratic portrait of Cassatt’s sister-in-law also sits before a sketchbook.  Her work is in process, yet she stares back at the Odutola figure and participates in the same longing and grief. Though the women exist within different eras they are not bound by time as the look to one another across decades for answers.

Loose gestural pastels by Billy Sullivan accompany the women identifying in their sentiment and serving as a window into the intimate moments of a personal life. In Mark 1984 a young man sits quietly at home. His uncomfortable posture and hands grasped around the armrests visually lock him into the chair, and I am struck with a helpless empathy that he may never be able to rise. Sullivan’s portrait evokes a restless familiarity and enhances relatable feeling of inertia with strokes that paradoxically feel frantic and desperate. Even the paper appears to be carelessly cut from the roll. Monochromatic studies by Louis Fratino and Robin F. Williams also investigate this paralyzing external proliferation of a hidden inner turmoil.

In the next room another pastel mural by Party of lush rich green gardens filled with concrete sculptures of angels (whose stone faces are reminiscent of others hanging throughout the gallery) cover three of the four walls. The piece inspired by the rococo, a movement associated with wealth, idealized beauty, and a somewhat nauseating romanticism, is clearly an intentional symbol chosen by Nicholas to tie this show together not simply by medium but conceptually as well. In the center of the room-encompassing backdrop another small portrait of a wealthy woman adorned in silk, flowers, and status looks longingly in our direction asking for answers. As a whole the works within themselves and within the space exist in excess, in wealth, and in material superfluousness, yet regardless of the subjects’ position of abundance they are isolated and alone. A poverty and deficiency felt.

Upstairs a piece from Degas’ Milliner series, La Conversation, depicts two wealthy women in garish hats, hangs atop Party’s mural inspired by Francois Boucher’s Portrait of Madame de Pompadour of yet another distinguished woman. The woman’s flowing gown elegantly climbs up the wall, but Party crops the composition at the shoulders eliminating the woman’s identity completely. The meaning of self sought through external prestige, class, list of accolades, etc, seems not to resolve but, in this case, literally disconnect. In comparison, the woman in Degas’ pastel dawn hats designed to draw attention yet ironically their faces are hidden in shadow beneath. Conforming to the arbitrary expectation of what is worthy of admiration and praise paradoxically eliminates the acknowledgement of the individual altogether.

The final space, a bright yellow room with a mural reminiscent of Fragonard’s Birth of Venus and the floating idealized female forms of Mannerism, another era known for ornate aesthetic, extravagance and exaggerated idealized forms of beauty, book ends the exhibition. Works by Wayne Thiebaud, Marsden Hartley, and Chris Ofili continue to reinforce the thread of grief and yearning camouflaged by blissful color running though the experience Party has created. Because of this consistency I found it unnerving and unsettling to unexpectedly lock eyes with a smiling figure on the final wall. In Alive with Pleasure by Robin F. Williams a masculine figure playfully attempts a handstand with great ease as two women stand unacknowledged on either side holding his legs up to prevent him from failure. Perhaps this inclusion alluded to fulfilling imposed gender roles to accommodate someone else at the expense of ourselves. Perhaps it commented on the history of a society prioritizing the strait white male by suppressing the equal value of all others. For me, this piece created more questions but also enhanced my search towards clearer answers.

What I also found especially interesting was the glass case display of every Henri Roche pastel color. Exhibited in a show exclusively rendered in pastel it seemed appropriate that these materials would be worn down by time and use; that their threadbare, tattered, and overworked appearance would be evidence of their hard work, purpose, and vitality displayed within the gallery. To my shock they were completely unused, untouched, and spotless. This presentation of perfection rendered these pastels worthless as they could never effectuate their purpose. A weary pastel would have suggested a fulfilled life, yet these Henri Roche crayons straight from the box, inaccessible, and locked under glass were imprisoned within an experience that specifically celebrated their beauty and importance. Frustrated by idealized beauty rendering them vapid and meaningless, I was soon struck by Party’s clever decision to stage the medium in this way. The exhibition’s seductive and stimulating tribute to the beauty of what pastel can create coupled with the choice to hold them without blemish and behind glass further fueled the agency of my response to the experience.

It is hard to sum up a show so thoughtfully curated, so intimately attuned within, and so ironically brazen in presentation. Each room is a new contemplative space that encourages clarity and connection through isolation and longing. There is much to be explored in Nicholas Party’s seeming interest in the intersection between how we present things and how things truly are. How we absorb the world and how we understand each other. The internal search for self and the constant tight rope balance between confidently presenting our authentic selves and conforming to what the world expects us to be. Through the delicate and ultimately temporal medium of pastel Nicholas Party invites us into a space where we are encouraged to participate in a dialogue with artworks who seek to communicate and empathize deeply with each other across the boundaries of time.

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