An exhibit of Mary Bryan's paintings at her namesake Bryan Memorial Gallery in Jeffersonville is up for several months, and that's a good thing: It deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. With more than 100 works in the show, local gallerygoers may even want to visit it more than once.
That's because, aside from the sheer quantity of paintings to take in, nearly every one of them merits close study. Most of these works — brought out of storage and private collection for the gallery's 30th anniversary — have never been publicly shown, which enhances the viewer's sense of discovery and revelation.
One has to marvel at their diversity, too. As gallery assistant director Jim Gallugi observes, some visitors have remarked that the exhibit seems like the work of more than one artist. Bryan created in oil, pastel, watercolor, collage, gouache, pencil and more, and her command of each medium is remarkable. In fact, what impresses most in this show is the agility of Bryan's technique, whether it's the merest suggestion of form in a delicate, watercolor blur, or her confident line in minimalist illustrations, or thick, assertive slabs of color delivered with a palette knife. The artist had a deep understanding of her materials, and, one might guess, a fascination with their applications.
Stylistically, Bryan's works hint at some of the art movements of her time — 1907 to 1978. But, rather than adopt any one of those styles outright, she seems to have incorporated whatever elements suited her when representing her favored subjects: cityscapes, rural landscapes, seashore, vernacular scenes, animals. (Just about the only genre she didn't tackle, it appears, is portraiture, though human presence is often implied.)
Some of Bryan's paintings, such as the petite, 5-by-7-inch pastel titled "Barns and Mountains," exhibit a postimpressionist style and vivid coloration. "City at Easter," a 15-by-22-inch watercolor, shows how she adopted newer approaches, including cubism and abstraction, and made them her own. This is identifiably an urban scene, but abstracted: A cluster of buildings surrounds an open area, perhaps a park; these and clumps of trees are loosely sketched in, with outlines in black. Several slanted, gently cubist angles give the piece movement. The palette hews to shades between cream and rosy brown — a hard-edged subject rendered unexpectedly soft.
Contributing to the dreamy mood, the whole scene floats in the center of the paper, bordered by stormy gray-blue brushwork. Bryan repeated this island-like composition — she called such works "vignettes," says gallery director Mickey Myers — in other paintings, as well. But even in more conventional landscapes, her approach was decidedly modern.
Bryan may have been a shape shifter at the easel. But what this plethora of paintings reveals, too, is that the New Mexico-born artist really got around — with her own family and then with her husband and fellow artist, Alden Bryan. The "multiple artists" effect of this show is enhanced by the diverse geographies of her subject matter, from Arizona to Gloucester, Mass.; Alaska to Vermont. Several paintings reflect European travel, as well — one large and magnificent painting in the show is an arched-bridge scene called "Barcelos, Portugal c. 1965." The title of this exhibit is the cozy-sounding "In the Studio With Mary Bryan," but it could just as easily have been "Across the Country (and the Atlantic) With Mary Bryan."
The exhibit has too many paintings — and approaches, subjects and moods — for this page to do them justice. But one other attribute must be noted: Mary Bryan was a master — mistress? — of the dark. It's hard to believe the same woman who painted the silly "Alligator With Luggage" or any number of sunny Southwest scenes also produced paintings like "Deep and Dark." The aptly titled tempera is a 22-by-28-inch landscape at nighttime, with a barely discernible river in the foreground, a hill at the back against a moonless sky, and slivers of glimmering snow.
Equally masterful is the rural homestead scene titled "Village Crossroads at Night," painted in dark-on-dark hues except for the brilliant yellow light in the home's windows. In "Night Chores," a 5-by-7-inch watercolor of a dark barn in the wee hours, Bryan rendered an evocative scene despite the painting's diminutive size. Dots of yellow imply the hardworking farmers inside, their labors unending.
Bryan worked hard, too, reportedly at her easel before breakfast most days of her life. But, as "In the Studio With Mary Bryan" amply illustrates, her chosen occupation was a labor of love.