HER STUDIO is the stillest place. Vermeer might have painted it. On her table and on her easel-competing evenly for the greater claim to realness-are three eggs and one blown-glass vase. Pastel is a frail and brutal medium. Gorgeous dust rises all day.
She will puff it aside with her turkey-baster thing. When blocking out wide swatches of color she has to wear a mask. Stroke and blend, stroke and blend: lines so infinitesimal they make this comma, here, seem flourishsize. Drawn always left to right: rightside, you see, she must allow room for the maulstick on which her drawing hand rests. It may take more than a year to complete this still life. After some while, on any given day, her neck stiffens, Then her back. She has to wear glasses now. Her name is Jane Lund. And she has become, to be modest about it, America’s finest pastel artist.
I have known Jane Lund since, oh, birth. Her mother and my mother remain best friends after more than half a century. Jane, come summer, would visit our upstate mountain cabin. She had the habit of roping me into unsound business ventures: handyman service, wash delivery, even a publishing enterprise that sold home-made pulp fiction from my Janesville wagon. Jane was somewhat older than I and more mature anyhow, in the way of female children: her eccentric, bright mind propagated strange waves that still influence my thought. Even then Jane had a feverish, immediate vision that could disable reality by making it bear too much weight. Grotesque, extreme events possessed her. Every summer, after Jane left us, I slept with a night light until autumn. Yet today our artistic sensibilities are remarkably similar. And, though I was no doubt inclined by nature to this preoccupation with what is overwrought and sensuous, Jane taught me (as no adult could have) that such a fierce bent did not disqualify one from human fellowship. We have spent a lifetime, each of us, shocking our parents.
I recall an afternoon: I was 22 or so and hadn’t seen Jane in some years. I gave her a rough-draft chapter of my first novel to look through. Back then Jane was producing idiosyncratic, wild acrylic art that incorporated, among other things, human teeth. She put the manuscript down and said, “Gee. Wouldn’t it be swell if you could sell a novel and I could sell a painting?” Ah, the lost, sweet innocence of that moment. I could weep. It happened in time. Though, to be frank, her pastels now sell for more than any novel of mine ever has.
Jane was a technical illustrator at that time. Soon afterward, on the casual suggestion of some friend, she took up pastels. “Basically I’m a draftsman,” Jane said in her New England backyard. “Pastels lent themselves to my ability. In effect it was like drawing with color.“
And what drawing. For half of one decade-her “moon” periodJane drew sexual, ceremonial, doomstruck hallucinations that were to the moon as menstruation is. All perpetrated in a silence deeper than any I have seen. It was subject matter, she told me, taken from real dreams: and it starred Jane, of course, her family, and her hyperbolic subconscious. Jane’s face, by good fortune, is uncommonly useful, even iconic-severe, withdrawn in stillness: clownish and cartoonlike when in animation. “I use my face as a still-life object.” And her face gazed out from surreal imagery that would intimate, if it didn’t fulfill (almost all her scenes happen just before a terrible choice), some household dread. I could sense Henri Rousseau in this. “Yes, I really loved him at a time. But you know what has been a big influence: Little Lulu comics. A certain clarity in those pictures really interested me.” Little Lulu the midnight shamaness, that one.
Her “moon”-period pastels (and lithograph work) solicited some incriminating complicity from a viewer: for that reason they were often painful to accept. But by the late 1970s, Jane had taken still life under advisement. Her technique was now virtuosic. And she generated works so spectacular, so palpable and mute, that no viewer could disengage himself without consequence. A Lund still life has the poise and reach of great landscape. And for all their encyclopedic factuality, her still lifes have been imbued as well, somehow, with “moon”period dream pressure. They are-if this is possible-too real for realism: her intensity of vision redefines seeing. “When I make a pear-it isn’t like I’m trying to make a pear look like me-but sometimes I feel as if contours of my body were expressed in my work.” No other pastelist has ever had such ambition and the adroitness to accomplish it. In an old subgenre she has made new art.
Not without appreciable cost. “I can’t keep doing this. It’s too hard. I have to prepare for my old age.” One recent self-portrait (now in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts) took 22 months. To improve both vigor and morale, Jane re-examined what had been her “recreational” art form: watercolor. Using a flat, yet three-dimensional, construction technique (which may derive from another childhood fancy-the jump-up book), she created and boxed “little psychological scenes from people’s lives” under glass. Wit and surprise are elemental here. The watercolor constructions renounce scientific perspective: it is as if Giotto were drawing Smokey Stover. Though complex and often eerie, they are lighthearted in comparison with work from her “moon” period. Their power depends on their relaxation. For the first time-it is a sign of her maturityJane felt free to entertain.
But, by my lights, writing about art (or music) is misapplied force: like a screw hammered in. Direct experience is essential. From September 17 onward a rare, comprehensive exhibition of Jane Lund’s work-past and present-will run at the Forum Gallery in New York. Attend, if you can. It will refurbish your vision.