Carolyn Brady (1937-2005) made a career of photorealist watercolors based on domestic interiors of the table, study and garden. She attended the University of Oklahoma, receiving her BFA in 1959, and MFA in 1961 while teaching at the Colorado Women's College in Denver (Colorado). She then moved to New York to work as a textile designer for Jack Prince, where she met Joseph Raffael and other New York artists. She toured Europe, with special interest in Italian frescos, in 1963. In 1970 she moved to St. Louis and exhibited sewn pictures made from preparatory watercolor sketches. In 1972 her interest shifted primarily to watercolors, and she began taking her own photographs for composition material. In 1975 she moved to Baltimore (Maryland), her home base, and decided to work in watercolors full time. After 1981 her watercolors became larger in scale and more sensuous, with intense colors and strong chiaroscuro. In her last decades Brady continued to live and work in Baltimore, New York and Maine producing more than a dozen large paintings each year.

If a single image can summarize what Brady was up to, then Dark Ground (1987, 113x79cm) is my choice for the job. At first glance we see that this is a work based on a photograph, the major point of difference with New York artists such as Philip Pearlstein who work from life. Brady also differs from the method of Joseph Raffael in her close adherence to the photographic text; she does not fragment the image into hundreds of small cells the way Raffael does. This is simply one artistic medium (watercolors) made to mimic another (color photography) as closely as the paint will allow. Brady preferred flowers, gardens, tables, desks, lamps and other domestic clutter as her subjects, typically cropped and enlarged to emphasize the materialism of the image. Unlike Raffael again, there is no overt spirituality or poetry in Brady's work: if it can't be caught with film and lens, she can't paint it. Limited to material realism, her art is entirely in the design: the value contrast of the stem clutter against the velvety dark background, the color contrast of brilliant reds against muted blues and greens, and the eye confusion that results from the blossoms lost against the woven texture at upper left, or the glass table top that reflects the drooping carnations while revealing the blue vase that holds them. Limited to a photosimulating view of the photographable world, Brady is all about conflicting eye patterns, decorative color and composition, and one medium imitating another — procedures which raise, in a domesticated way, questions about perception, artistic selection, and mimesis (the magic of art imitating reality).



Some of Brady's most striking works are photographs of litter, especially the breakfast tables of her comfy suburban home or many European hotel rooms. September Lunch: The Day's Mail (1986, 102x152cm) might seem to aspire to the status of an abstract composition, with the complex overlapping of elliptical and rectilinear borders. But there is in fact an intrusive status display in the white china and silver service, leisurely consumed food, elitist art magazines, business correspondence, and sunny habitat. (AbEx made similarly intrusive status claims through the assertion of grandiose intellectual pretensions.) When Brady calls this a "cubist" painting, or her amanuensis Irene McManus claims it "airily recalls Kazimir Malevich" (the early Russian abstract painter), or that the random scatter refers to the casting of yarrow sticks in I Ching divination or the secret synchronicities of the Jungian subconscious, we're in fact propelled into the airy realm of fatuous art blather. The Jungian subconscious is an elusive construct, but everything in this setting — anonymous glass table, mass circulation magazine, office stationery, room service china, and the same glassware found in biker beer bars — is faceless, indifferent, consumerist trash. What is this painting really about? About making a watercolor painting look like a photograph.

Brady's interest in value contrasts led her to make many paintings with lamps as the source of illumination — casting shadows across a desk and decreasing illumination along a wall. The initially impressive Emerald Light (Black Desk for Zola) (1984, 152x102cm) reveals some of the pluses and technical limitations of Brady's work. The value contrasts are nicely judged, and the strong darks are kept luminous by building them up with glazes (probably mixed from phthalocyanine blue and transparent iron oxide), which contrast with the dull, carbon black tones of the framed photograph. Her subtle touch in the very light values — the crinkled surface of side lit paper, the brass base under the lamp, or the appearance of green pattern within the shadowed back of the chair — is nicely done. But false notes appear in the grayed color of the lampshade — a familiar reading room lamp that is always a yellow green, not bluish green — or the shadowed bottom of the frame above the desk. Brady may have wanted to play the lifeless gray of the photographic image against the warm shadows beneath it, but the hues created by the green light on the frame and papers strike other false notes; the colors in this scene do not cohere. Brady hasn't analyzed the mixtures of light and reflections in this space, but simply copied a badly exposed color photograph. And the transitions from shadow to light along the wall and frame, even at the scale of this painting (roughly 3x5 feet) are dry and overworked, quite unlike the flawless transitions of photo emulsions. When McManus huffs that "the camera intercepts a reality that lies beyond the reality available to the lazy or prejudiced human eye," she not only asserts the really silly idea that artists are insufficient compared to machines, she slanders the agile and constructive miracle of human vision. In fact, Brady's technophilic procedures reveal that photographs mislead about dimly lit colors and exaggerate the glare from paper or brass, recording value transitions that are much cruder and louder than the soft, subtle transitions recorded by the eye. Her method replaced the act of constructive seeing, which engages both the heart and mind, with the dutiful acceptance of whatever technology tells us is there.

In the United States, Brady's works are available for viewing at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York. The Watercolors of Carolyn Brady by Irene McManus (Hudson Hills Press, 1991) provides a catalog raisonné with excellent reproductions of Brady's work from 1972 through 1990 (her style hasn't changed any since then).