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Cristina Grassi - Still Life Pastelist

By Marjorie Shelley



Cristina Sanpaolesi Grassi’s still life pastels are best characterized by their boldness of color, their strong emphatic strokes, and geometric shapes. An artist of visual ideas, not seeking inspiration from the past or encumbered by theory, it is her vigorous draftsmanly technique and sharp chromatic sensitivity  as much as what she represents that is her subject matter. The pastel medium is one of great latitude. Its handling is adaptable to exactingly rendered painterly images as evidenced in the penetrating portraits of the eighteenth century. As artists challenged academic constraints in the nineteenth century they would often use these crayons in a linear manner in brilliant masses of color to deconstruct the diverse objects and themes reflecting changing society. With expressive and subjective states of mind becoming the foremost subject-matter for Symbolists, Post Impressionists, and the many artists they influenced, the color and texture of this powdery material would be exploited for its suggestive potential. Grassi’s compositions capitalize on the versatile nature of pastel to bridge drawing and painting, reality and suggestion. Her distinctly modern aesthetic takes full advantage of the expressive potential of its brilliant color and its direct unblended stroke.


While aspects of her technique, recall pastelists of previous eras: the colored reflections of Chardin, the emphatic vertical strokes  of Degas, the feverish unmodulated blocks of color of  the Fauves, the color theories inspired by Chreveul, and the spatial concepts of twentieth century modernists, she maintains that her inspiration comes not from any external sources but from within. She, however, was never distant from the great masters. Exposed to art, paintings, and museums from her childhood under the tutelage of her father, a professor of architecture at the University of Pisa, and married to the renown paintings conservator, a fellow Florentine Marco Grassi, she has, in fact, spent her life absorbing and drawing the visual world. As an adult she intermittently studied at the National Academy of Design where she trained in the time honored classical method, working in charcoal from casts and then the live model, and  later enrolled in the New York Studio School . Though she started her artistic career painting in watercolor, some fifteen years ago she would abandon this delicate, transparent medium once she discovered the depth, richness of tone, and tactile and painterly qualities of pastel – properties that suited her strong expressive temperament. Strengthening her technical skills by enrolling at the Art Students’ League, she soon abandoned this formalized course of instruction when she felt the time had come to respond to her own artistic identity and would set up a studio in SoHo, employing models, executing commissioned portraits and working in still life.


The foundation of Grassi’s pastels is her energy and intensity. Her vigorous style and jewel-like sumptuous colors make her compositions reverberate. Their subject matter is the humble, simple object, used and reused, that appeal to her because of its shape and color. These objects are never invested with sentimental content, but only the formal qualities of color and shape. Some are gifts – a vase given to her by her daughter, a green glazed pottery cup and saucer made by her son, but mostly they are common colored glassware, ceramics, artificial flowers, or lighting fixtures, rolls of paper towels, and cylindrical boxes of corn mean (its contents used to cushion the sticks of pastel), the ordinary things of everyday life found in local shops or in the corners of her studio. Textiles that she purchases serve as backgrounds, generally comprising the abstract planimetric spaces that are as much a part of the still life as are the objects assembled upon them. These fabrics embody all the colors found in the composition, serving as a means of integrating hue and form. Recently she has been inspired by the Italian seventeenth century artist Cristoforo Munari (1667 – 1720), transcribing his quiet, atmospherically shrouded delft bowls, peeled lemons, and trompe l’oiel knives into her own forceful idiom as she does in Still Life after Munari #3.


In Grassi’s work improvisation plays an important role.  Her compositions are not methodically planned but evolve intuitively as they are created. Objects are used and reused. She changes and invents their colors, the stripes and patterns of the textiles to fit or restructure the composition, or makes corrections as the work takes shape. She will add textural markings by altering the way in which the pastels are manipulated to create a subtle change in direction by altering the placement of the strokes or the degree of blending, producing effects that suggest movement.  The spirit of her method recalls the words of the Sir Joshua Reynolds (British, 1723-1792) whose description of figure painters suits Grassi manner of working her still lifes: “We are not to suppose that when a painter sits down to deliberate on any work, he has all his knowledge to seek. He must be able to draw extempore the human figure in every variety of action, but he must be acquainted likewise with the general principles of composition: He corrects what is erroneous, supplies what is scanty.” 


Each of Grassi’s still lifes, like her portraits in pastel, has freshness because she continually finds what is exciting, interesting and different; they are not static compositions, but loaded with expressive content and texture. Her images are not rendered diffusely and do not convey a sense of the fleeting or transitory, but rather are vigorous and solid objects that are precise and detailed. She intuitively knows what she wants to achieve, and knows when it is right or wrong. Each composition is structurally and coloristically balanced but never focused on symmetry.  She creates layouts that entice our eye to keep moving from one object or color to another. Her pairing of elements is intuitive: red peppers and coffee cups, paper towels and cardboard boxes, glassware and silk flowers. The beautifully rendered damasks, prints and stripes serve both as an abstract design and as complement or contrast to the shapes and hues of the still life elements. She will compress the objects and overlap them, or place cups and vases, statues or flags far apart, emphasizing the vertical and horizontal axes of the composition by their elongated shapes, or their sensuous curves. While conferring a casual quality to the objects, the volumetric forms placed close to the picture plane and the great scale of her sheets of paper give these works a monumental presence.


Grassi’s pastels do not have the chalky quality of rococo hues that evoke a feminine voice, the delicacy of Morisot’s palette, or the quiet of a Morandi , but rather a contemporary sensibility that is sometimes brash and agitated or daring. The brilliant color in Irene’s Vase, or Falling Down, for example, has a nearly electric quality. This chromatic energy is used in eye-catching repetitions and rhythms of color, that are integrated either by the harmony of her palette as in Irene’s Vase on the Blue, by the contrast of vibrant adjacent complementary colors - reds and greens, blues and oranges as in On the Orange #2, A Christmas Still Life, #4 and Untitled Red, #1 - , or in her firm handling that characterizes her style of drawing: layered, interwoven, hatched, or overlapping strokes of colors that the eye optically blends. This unity of color is similarly seen in the jewel like reflections bouncing off various objects or textiles, or transformed and multiplied into other hues as they pass through transparent vessels. Occasionally she will use a touch of black for accent, but never to create shadows or a dark indeterminate color; she creates these hues with deeper tones of pastel used elsewhere in the still life.  Not least, she regards the subtle dusting of pastel powder that falls over the surface of the sheet in the course of executing these works of art as a means of physically integrating the hues of the composition. 


Working method:  Pastel crayons are almost pure pigment. Though these are the same pigments found in oils and watercolors, they retain their brilliance in pastel because it does not contain a resinous binder that yellows, and because of the diffuse, or scattered light reflected from the irregular facets of the powdery particles. Grassi enhances the inherent depth of tone and richness of these hues by applying them to dark papers. Mostly these are hand-made with gouache preparations. Minute specks of deep rose, reddish brown, black or dark grayish purple are visible through the pastel layer where she skims the surface of the support. By entirely covering the surface with color she evokes the robust quality of a painting, a manner emphasized by the large scale of her sheets which she frequently enlarges, as did Degas, by adhering broad strips of paper along the top or bottom. Though hints of the texture of the prepared support are always present in her compositions, for more emphatic tactile effects she will often turn the paper to its rougher side, as in Loving Yellow and Irene’s Vase on the Blue, revealing the pronounced pattern of the laid  and chain lines projecting though the layers of pastel.  Grassi is not interested in representational space or highly contrasting shadows or mood, therefore she works under bright artificial light to illuminate her objects uniformly and to give full intensity to her colors. She starts by setting up her vases, cups and drapery, deciding if she has enough objects, and if the color scale and the set strikes her as “beautiful and balanced” in form and hue -  “not to look obvious and vulgar or naive”.  For some compositions, such as Falling down, she attaches the objects she will draw to bubble wrap completely eliminating any sense of perspective or actual space. She begins with a summary under drawing using a light yellow or white pastel. In a traditional manner she firsts lays in the foundation, building up the background by alternating lights and darks, then moves on to similar colors or their complementaries, allowing her ideas and the process to evolve instinctually as she works. Color is never applied by stumping or rubbing which would compromise its brilliance by compressing the powder, but in firm, assured strokes, in gradations of pure hues and tints chosen from the thousands of Sennelier, Townsend, and Schminke pastel sticks assembled on her work table. This array of crayons in various textures and shapes, historically commonplace among pastelists because the medium allows  only limited mixing and blending on the support, contributes to the effect of technical spontaneity, a characteristic that underlies the success of these, in fact, carefully structured and detailed compositions. As the accomplished pastelist James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) observed …”a painting should be more than a report on the way it was” , and indeed, Cristina Grassi’s still life compositions do not copy nature. Her engaging arrangements of objects, in which expressive stroke, layered color, and texture of the support are as integral to the work as is the subject-matter, captivate the viewer because of their sense of movement and action, immediacy and chromatic vibrancy.


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