Mari Lyons's last show at First Street Gallery, in 2003, was titled "Mostly Broadway at 80th Street." In those dizzying, summer cityscapes, painted while looking down from her studio window onto the street, Ms. Lyons brought to life the hustle and bustle of the Upper West Side. Jam-packed with shoppers, joggers, bicyclists, and sidewalk cafes; cabs, buses, flowering trees, and strollers; the dynamic, vibrantly colored canvases gave us a portrait of the neighborhood as beautiful and convincing as any I have seen.
The current exhibition, the artist's 10th at First Street, consists of approximately 20 still-life paintings, all painted in her white-clapboard studio in Woodstock, N.Y. It is a joy and a knockout. Paintings burst forth in bountiful glory: of roses, daffodils, tulips, and orchids; a racing, bright-orange carousel horse; and a guitar, which lies across her canvases like an odalisque.
Manet once remarked that, when it comes to color, "a matter of taste and sensibility ... you must have something to say, otherwise good night." Ms. Lyons's palette — astringent yellows, crimsons, greens, oranges, and violets, all played off against fields of icy whites — is a beautifully blunt, no-holds-barred affair.
Ms. Lyons's brush is bold, broad, and decisive. At times, as when the artist purposefully flattens the lower half of a flower pot, it is deceptively naive. Ms. Lyons's color, reminiscent of Léger, Beckmann (with whom she studied), and Bonnard, is both cool and fiery. Her blood reds, bright pinks, and lemon yellows are felt first as sensations — a rush of heat or cold, an overwhelming fragrance or emotion. Only later does color become object: a Persian pot, pumpkin, eggplant, or squash on a gueridon table.
Ms. Lyons tints or interrupts her whites with a sunburst of color. Often she layers white on top of reds, turquoise blues, or cobalt violets. Sometimes, as in "Hanging Plant on Sculpture Stand" (2003), she transforms the white clapboard walls into a checkerboard of color. Her canvases take on human qualities, as color appears to rise, at times explode, from beneath — as if the paintings were blushing, bruising, or bleeding. There is a violence to the intermixing of paint (which often feels like tube color), not only in the sanguine hues but in the immediacy and sharpness of the application.
Almost everything in Ms. Lyons's paintings is animated, excited, and alive. Pots spin. Surfaces rustle. Flowers feel pressed into, or breaking free of, fields of white. "Still Life with Guitar and Hawaiian Watercolor" (2005) is tropical in temperament. Its bouquet of Japanese money plants expands in a fireworks display; its red, purple, and orange flowered cloth spills over the table like lava.
In "Still Life with Oranges" (2003), as in many paintings, the artist tips the tabletop and bowl of oranges upward. The contents of the canvas feel as if they are on the verge of spilling outward. To counter this she paints stems of flowers reflected in a mirror. The reflections fracture and color the mirror like a stained-glass window, and offer us a portal or a place of rest.
In her artist's statement, Ms. Lyons reminds us that during the 19th century, still-life painting "was considered the lowest of the genres: after mythological painting, historical painting, religious painting, figure and portrait painting, and landscape painting." True, but this is a strangely humble statement, coming as it does from an artist who gives human qualities and operatic, almost mythic, proportions to a bouquet of flowers or to a few objects resting on a table.
Until April 23 (First Street Gallery, 526 W. 26th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 646-336-8053). Prices: $650-6,000.