Drawing with water

Jerald Silva at the Art Foundry Gallery

Jerald Silva, “McKinley Park Window With Toby the Cat,” watercolor.

Jerald Silva, “McKinley Park Window With Toby the Cat,” watercolor.

One of the easiest ways to offend Jerald Silva would be to call him a watercolorist. It seems odd, given that he’s worked in the medium for over 40 years and has built a successful career from it; but there is a fundamental difference between a watercolorist and Jerald Silva. In art schools, in the past as well as today, instructors teach watercolor with very direct and specific rights and wrongs—even more so than other means of applying color to a surface. The truth is, however, that someone can develop their own techniques with watercolor the same as oils, acrylics, etc., and end up understanding the properties better, consequently becoming a stronger artist.

This is not to say that Silva scorns the beauty of the translucent water-driven pigment, but his art culls its strength more from drawing conceptual expression than simply exhibiting the pretty things that his medium can do once the tricks are applied. It’s easy to understand this when looking at his paintings in a basic sense—the compositions are not traditional, and he breaks all of the rules that are taught by rigid instructors. But because he is such a master of his own technique, they hold up better than some of the simpler triumphs of the time-honored medium.

The works that Silva refers to as his “steamy window paintings,” which make up the largest part of his new show, opening this weekend at the Art Foundry Gallery, are a case in point. They do a number of subtle and sophisticated things that reinforce why Silva is a highly successful artist.

For one, speaking from the function of illusion, they work. Everyone has drawn pictures on steamed-up windows or mirrors, and they understand the visual effect. This is essentially what these paintings are. Sure, they’re different—one shows a flower garden in the background and a cat and various finger-driven smudges in the foreground, another a street scene at daybreak with an apt, playful coffee cup illustrated in the steam—but the significance of what they point to is of even more interest.

The act of drawing on a steamy window is, to Silva, the basics of drawing. The process is one of the most direct ways to doodle and engage in the dialogue of mark- making. Silva’s ability to discuss this indirectly through his paintings, while on the surface maintaining a playful accessibility, allows these paintings to transcend the typical. On top of this, Silva makes use of his own self-developed technique of creating this illusion with representational believability.

How Silva gets the extreme contrast between the clarity of the background as seen through the thick lines and the barely readable, out-of-focus nature of the steamy surface is easy enough to understand, but what he does to make it look right is the difference between copying nature and making art. “Do you see these drips?” Silva asks while discussing his process. “I’ve never seen that happen on a real window. And these highlights at the ends? Never seen those either.” In order to make his paintings read as real, Silva fakes us out and defies nature. The fact that this can happen, that the viewer can be manipulated this easily, shows the sign of a master.

And yet another, and perhaps the most important, conceptual twist of these paintings resides in the use of the two surfaces. One is the glass—a flat plane right in front of us—the other, illustrated by the marks made on that surface, reads as depth, the background that is clear. The illusion is a metaphor for the art-making process itself—a surface, a few marks and a world opening up out of the act.