Dorothy Shinn

Richard Lazzaro’s work doesn’t reproduce well, especially in a newspaper.

In fact, you can’t get a full appreciation of his paintings unless you see them all together, hanging in a gallery.

Since the early 1990s, Lazzaro has worked in gouache, a water-based medium that has occasionally been likened to the “red-headed stepchild” of watercolor.

But it’s a medium that in Lazzaro’s hands seems to be astoundingly adroit and subtle, even on occasion delicate.

An alumnus of Kent State University, his work is on view through June 16 in the KSU School of Art’s Downtown Gallery, 141 E. Main St., Kent, as part of Gallery Director Anderson Turner’s homage to the school’s alums in celebration of the university’s centennial.

“My summer mission now is to bring alums back, and I’m doing that here, out at Eells [at Blossom Music Center] and at the School of Art Gallery,” Turner explained.

“This started as part of our 100th anniversary — the university’s and the school’s — and I’ve just kept it going. I think we are now 102,” he said.

Born in Cleveland in 1937, Lazzaro received his diploma from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1959. He had been accepted into Yale’s graduate school, but the artist he wanted to study with retired, so he went to Europe instead, according to Turner.

On his return to the U.S., he realized that in order to teach, he would need a bachelor of fine arts degree, so he approached then-director of the KSU School of Art, Elmer Novotny, who helped him devise a course of study for that degree.

He got his BFA in 1961 then went on to get his MFA at the University of Illinois in 1963.

He taught drawing and painting at the University of Illinois from 1961 to ’63 and from 1963 to 2001 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is an emeritus professor. He has lived and painted in Mexico, New York City and Europe.

He has been a student of the humanist philosophies of the American Scene School, as well as the Surrealist approaches of the Abstract Expressionists.

His work has evolved with the times, from the upheavals of the 1960s to the laissez-faire attitudes of the 1970s and the return to figuration in the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1969, he had to abandon oil paints because of an exposure to some of its more toxic pigments and solvents. He took up acrylics, but was never quite happy with the medium.

“For me gouache is like oils, in that it blends so nicely over the different surfaces, and it offers back more than you put in,” Lazzaro explained.

“Acrylic isn’t like that. You don’t get information out of acrylics the way you do with oils and gouache. With acrylics you’re always having to put stuff back in.”

He said he’s found a particularly fine gouache product made by Lascaux that comes in jars, not tubes, that has a much nicer consistency and doesn’t dry as fast as that in the tubes.

Lazzaro’s work at the Downtown Gallery seems to fall into three bodies of work:

• The Ramus Series, which developed from the 1970s into the 1980s, concerns itself with graffiti-like mark making and the strategies of painting, especially as the series made its way through the 1980s. The works featured several moving squiggly strokes of brightly hued color marks painted with brushes in several layers that merged into an overall structure and coalesced into expansive, overall compositions.

• The New York Series of the late 1980s, early 1990s portrayed personal iconography of events and circumstances appropriated from his own experiences — the houses he lived in, his father’s tomb, his struggle with destiny, crossroads of his life, loss of friends. In these works he was “working out frustrations of age and the phasing of time that embraces us and carries us to the next state of existence.” He sought to present the isolation and simultaneity of disparate images in order to create a sense of time that was neither three-dimensional nor chronological. He used specific, nonspecific and primal signs and gestures to evoke a variety of feelings ranging from joy to mystery and terror, while always alluding to its spiritual foundation.

• The Taiwan Series of the late 1990s evolved from Lazzaro’s study of historical Chinese brush painting and the Rationalist Neo-Confucian philosophy of li and ch’i, two fundamental realities taught by Chu Hsi (1130-1200). While li is the unifying force connecting all things, giving them meaning, ch’i is the substance of things serving to differentiate and individualize things, and therefore making them inaccessible to reason, which can understand only uniformities.

The path of wisdom and of morality lies in pursuing li to the utmost, searching for it behind the many manifestations of ch’i. The world then is a well-ordered system governed by the harmonious interaction of li and ch’i. References to mythology are integral elements of these paintings and serve tactile functions as the paintings evolve, and as the language of the works evolves from painting to painting, Lazzaro develops his strategy of composition and color out of each work.

The luminosity and vibrancy of these works belie the poor reputation that historically has burdened the gouache medium.

As we can see from these delicate, yet powerful paintings, the medium is magical in the hands of a master.

Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or dtgshinn@att.net.