When I first stepped into the house in Hyde Park where Brenda Atwood Pinardi had lived the majority of her life, I was overwhelmed. Every glance revealed new impressions, of her as an artist, of her life with her husband (fellow artist and teacher Enrico Pinardi), of her interests and passions, of her tendencies as a collector, of the relationships she formed with students and colleagues. The house holds evidence of a rich and creative life, with knick-knacks and gifts and artworks and books accumulated over the course of several decades. There are shelves of vintage dolls, floor-to-ceiling framed drawings and prints, small sculptural works dotting every flat surface, and marvelously pink bathroom decor. It is exactly the type of house- complete with a separate backyard studio space- that I could imagine the artist residing in, having seen her work.
Through the month of May, UFORGE Gallery in Jamaica Plain is hosting a retrospective for Pinardi, a show dedicated to sharing her work with familiar and uninitiated audiences alike. Its primary focus is on her tremendous versatility. Schooled at Mass Art and later RISD in the 1960s, she worked in a range of media and covered many subjects, incorporating different influences and experimenting with new materials over time. Her early work, Zones and Barriers, is a dark, surreal series depicting round, lumpy figures with obscured eyes and pale, sallow skin. They stand alone or in small groups on gloomy shores, surrounded by eerie lights and radiant fish-creatures. They seem isolated, both from their surroundings and from the viewer, but their standoffishness intrigues all the more, and the high contrast of white-yellow and blackened sea-green exposes as much as it hides. At UFORGE, one large canvas from this series greets visitors at the entrance, while four more form an encompassing U-shape at the back of the gallery, acting both as experiential bookends as well as a dynamic introduction to Pinardi’s represented oeuvre.
Brenda Atwood Pinardi: Card Game on the Beach, 1983.
The rest of the exhibit is laid out in small groupings, creating a number of individual aesthetic moments that balance across the whole space. A pair of canvases near the entrance shows figures suspended in the air, falling or flying, or possibly both, surrounded by mermaids, cats, and houses in a strange fairy tale pastiche. Nearby, a large square canvas titled Night Rider shows a long-haired woman clutching a horse, surrounded by swirling dots and abstract forms, all tinted a bold red hue. Evoking Seurat’s The Circus in its dynamism and Chagall’s horse paintings in its use of outline and simplified shapes, the work is still wholly Pinardi’s own in its audacity and sense of freedom. The piece is flanked by two monoprints from 1992, both featuring bold lines and rounded forms, referencing mythological beasts like the Minotaur. On the opposite wall, a trio of prints depicts strange figures of flesh and skull, rendered in grayscale stippling. This morose threesome is as surreal as the Zones and Barriers series but reads as more personal and introspective. These figures are grotesque and sad, seemingly facing an identity crisis in their composite bodies, existing awkwardly in outside forest spaces. The works were made in response to the Three Mile Island accident, their strange forms suggesting radiation poisoning and mutation.
Pinardi’s free-thinking use of color may be her most defining trait, with frequent use of sea imagery a close second. Taking in the works on view as a whole, visitors see a host of hues- midnight blues, sunny yellows, audacious reds, soft grays, sickly greens, aquamarines, bright magentas. She seems unfettered by traditional notions of color balance and realism, spreading around cutesy pinks and morbid blacks in ways that shouldn’t work in theory but somehow come together perfectly. Her assemblages- dating from the 2000s- offer playful bursts of color and form, teeming with seashells, baby dolls and mermaid figurines, vintage photographs, fake flowers, skulls, tree bark, and glitter. Encased primarily in shells and small wooden boxes, they provide numerous delights to anyone giving a close look, combining the meticulous introspection of Joseph Cornell with a little bit of Lisa Frank’s fluffy aesthetic. She constructed these assemblages regularly towards the end of her life, treating them as a kind of sketchbook practice.
Ultimately, it is Pinardi’s eclecticism and boundless imagination that makes the biggest statement here. She was an artist who found inspiration everywhere: in her travels to New Mexico, Egypt, Bermuda, and elsewhere, in her large collection of ephemera (built up with the help of her husband), in her childhood memories of Cape Cod and the ocean, and in her personal experiences both joyous and tragic. The variety of styles and media on view at UFORGE represents Pinardi’s long and prolific life, her creative shifts and personal interests, and the lasting impact she had on her friends, students, and colleagues.by