The Chelsea Series
Copyright Notice

New York, September 1997  ARTSPEAK 17                                                                                                                        

  Rick Mundy’s   Luminous Watercolor Views of Chelsea

     To an interviewer who asked him if he felt himself to be in competition with abstract artists, Andrew Wyeth once replied that the contrary was true: all of his paintings were abstract in their design, if not in their particulars. The same might be said of Rick Mundy, whose watercolors of the Chelsea area of Manhattan are on view at World Fine Art Gallery, 443 Broadway, from September 2 through 27.

     Like Fairfield Porter, a realist who was very much at home among the Abstract Expressionist, with whom he fraternized and by whom he was accepted as a kindred spirit, Mundy has carved out a nice niche for himself between formal austerity and accurate representation.  He has done so by selecting  his subject carefully and proceeding to paint it with a remarkable sensitivity to qualities one normally associates more readily with abstract painting than with realism.

     To assure that he can concentrate on the formal aspects of his art without narrative distractions, Mundy chooses not to paint the street-level Chelsea of sharp contrasts between industrial activity and the recent influx of chic upscale art galleries and the foot traffic they attract. Rather he zeros in on the tops of buildings, with their interesting array of water towers, chimneys, and other protuberances set against spacious expanses of sky.  He employs transparent watercolors in a meticulous manner, as a medium for completely realized statements, unlike many others who use them for preliminary studies.  His fastidious technique creates a smooth luminous surface that lends great freshness to his compositions.  His skies are full of delicately-modulated hues that bathe the worn facades of old industrial buildings in rarefied auras, ennobling them and making us view them anew.

    In “Chelsea I,” a magnificent pink cloud streams across the building-tops, connecting a tall skyscraper – its tip cut off by the top of the composition – to a squat industrial structure with a face enlivened by many windows.  Here, too, other fiery hues play along the edges of distant office towers, reminding us that the beauty of nature cannot be suppressed by the 

Chelsea I

most mundane urban structures.  But in this painting, as in all of Mundy’s aquarelles, the artist also draws one’s attention to the subtler pleasures of pure space and light.  Mundy is so in control of the elements that make up his compositions that he never allows their more picturesque elements to upstage their quieter formal aims.  He is a consummately cerebral painter who will not be seduced by easy pictorial solutions.  Indeed, his spatial solutions are marked by an almost Mondrian-esqe stringency.  


Chelsea IX

     At the same time, Mundy can be playful and a touch surreal, as in Chelsea IX,” where he introduces the figure of a painter (presumably a self-portrait), looming on the right side of the composition and leaning over a balcony to put the finishing touches on one of the buildings clustered beyond. But this picture is something a an anomaly, apparently introduced to prevent anyone from summing up his art too easily, and the artist’s more pressing concerns come across in his handling of form, space, and color.  



     In this regard, one of his most compelling compositions is “Chelsea VII,” where the darker-hued buildings and rooftops in the foreground create a dynamic contrast to the lighter facades in the middle distance and the skyscrapers on the horizon, set against a pink-tinged sky.  Here, Mundy treats his subject with the cool dispassion of a table-top arrangement of bottles by Morandi.  His austere  forms and muted

Chelsea VII

colors create a beautifully balanced aesthetic experience.   


Chelsea IV

     In other paintings, such as “Chelsea IV,” and “Chelsea III,” Mundy creates great visual interest with the varieties of architectural ornamentation, color, and texture that characterize the different buildings.


     He depicts each particular façade with the care of a portrait painter, conveying the “personality” inherent in every structure with an almost anthropomorphic attention to detail.  

Chelsea III

     In virtually all of Mundy’s aquarelles, skies provide expressive foils to the formal function of the architectural elements, casting light that suggests transcendence and projecting chromatic relief to the organizational stringency.  These stratospheric expanses allow the composition to breathe, yet their inherent drama is kept in check by the artist’s ability to balance a picture exquisitely and provoke effects that are at once dramatic and restrained.  In this way, too, Mundy shares qualities in common with the late Fairfield Porter.  Both are painters who walk a tightrope between contradictory aesthetic impulses with extraordinary grace.

     In Rick Mundy’s case, the fact that he employs watercolors makes his work all the more remarkable.  This is a medium that American artists like John Marin and Charles Burchfield once used to create major pictures, but very few artists in recent decades have been able to use the medium effectively.  Mundy, however, demonstrates that the particular qualities of aquarelle – its clarity and transparency – can add special beauty to certain subjects and, in the hands of someone who can master the medium’s inherent difficulties, watercolor can sustain serious aesthetic statements. For these reasons, among others, Rick Mundy is a valuable and compelling painter.

                                                                                                                                         Howard Farber

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