The exhibition of Carole Doyle Peel's work took place at Kala Art Gallery from April 30 - May 3 with a memorial service and reception on April 30.
When I was invited to curate the exhibition of works by Carole Doyle Peel as part of KunstWorks in advising the Carole Doyle Peel Estate, I was excited by the prospect of attending to a more classically situated artist whose work was not only technically accomplished, but whose references to art history were embedded directly in the compositions of her drawings and paintings. I encountered the work for the first time through images online and printed in Helen Frierson’s monograph of the artist; through these platforms, I learned about the work's historical dimension, including Carole’s biography, interests, and artistic focus.
Born in 1934 in Los Angeles, Peel took part in the development and experimentation with modernist art that fermented in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s. She was professor emerita of California College of the Arts, where she taught for 47 years. While some of her paintings had taken on overtly political messages, she was known especially for her quieter portraits and still lifes. These were indoor arrangements combining everyday objects and art historical references, often set against vividly-patterned fabric, rugs, and wallpaper.
From portraits of friends and students to large-scale still lifes in graphite and, more recently, vibrant graphite and gouache tableaux, Peel’s work transformed everyday scenes into allegorical ones. Her graphite compositions are full of textures and pattern, a combination of visual intensity and rigorous draughtsmanship. Although more loosely-rendered, her portraits in gouache show an attention to individual personalities in a few brief brushstrokes. Through unusual perspectival arrangements and repeating motifs, her work connects classical history with modern life and references to both antiquity and the Renaissance. In surveying work throughout her career, the importance of illusion, depth, and technical rigor to Peel’s work is clear.
One description from Frierson's monograph struck me in particular. Larry McClary, Peel's colleague at California College of the Arts, wrote, “Carole skillfully weaves the dimensionality of the Italian Quattrocento, the decorative surface treatment found in post-Impressionist Japonisme, and the spatial ambiguity of abstract expressionism, into drawings whose psychological content and beautiful, abstract arrangements have won her so many admirers.” I think this accurately encapsulates the many influences and art historical techniques I encountered while spending time with the artwork.
In Duccio and Music of Berlioz, Peel foregrounds a seemingly scattered array of opera glasses on a surface of white table linens stacked four layers thick. In the foreground, the tablecloths create an unusual visual perspective. The different layers of the picture plane rising one on top of another, as though seen from above; however, the background of historical references, including the detail of an angel taken from Duccio di Buoninsegna's Maestá (1311), are shown directly perpendicular to the viewer. Delineated as large, darkly shaded and detailed forms, they draw forward into the same narrow space of the image rather than behaving as a background. Similarly, the binoculars point in many different directions, gesturing to the illusion of depth created in Peel's composition. Some seem to gaze into the distorted curves of the water glasses, while others point outward, inspecting the world beyond the frame of the drawing. Look through any set of binoculars and their distant image would jump forward, enlarged. As an allegory for the collage of vision, the opera glasses create a visual experience similar to Peel's tableau, moving from the real space of the tabletop to distant and referential spaces of Duccio, Berlioz, and others in the sheet music, notebook, and classical references.
Seeing the work in person gave me an entirely new appreciation of the level of detail, compositional complexity, and visual play in Carole’s body of work—particularly in the drawings. Many of these were larger than expected. In reiterating specific objects in successive drawings, whether the binoculars from Duccio and Music of Berlioz or ribbons, gilded frames, and water glasses like those in Fan with Ribbons and Water Glasses, these objects become symbolic, underscoring an admiration for allegorical strategies from Renaissance and European masterpieces and creating variations on a theme. Because there is so much small detail in her pieces, it was hard for me to fully appreciate each work in the rush of images collected on my USB drive. Instead, I had to wait to see them in person to fully understand their immediacy and subtlety.
The first real look I got of Carole’s work, in person, was of it filling all the spare corners and surfaces of Lars Lucker’s framing shop at North Berkeley Frame. There, the beautiful surface of the graphite drawings was finally apparent, and I could pay attention to the smaller details: the door hinge in the upper right corner of Fan with Ribbons and Water Glasses, revealing a further room and the illusionistic trick that the background is not a single, flush surface; or the shadow of the ribbon underneath the cabinet that alters the sense of lighting and space in the same drawing.
Her unique approach to drawing and portraiture fuses old-master virtuosity, a mastery of the modernist idiom, and a keen and compassionate vision of contemporary life. In honoring her work and memory, the exhibition gathered together over forty large-scale drawings and numerous unframed works on paper, both sketches and studies.