Woodbury University showcases the simple yet complex work of a former professor

Six of a collection of paintings and drawings by artist Carolee Toon, titled "Complex Simplicity," in the Nan Rae Gallery at Woodbury University on Friday, Feb. 21, 2020. The artwork will be on display through April 4, 2020.
(Tim Berger/Burbank Leader)

Some artists evoke different moods and messages with their pieces by combining various shapes, colors and other techniques, but Carolee Toon didn’t need much of that to get her point across.

The Nan Rae Gallery at Woodbury University is currently hosting an exhibit called “Complex Simplicity: A Survey of Paintings and Drawings,” which showcases the work of Toon, a longtime art professor at Woodbury who died in 2016. She specialized in abstract, monochromatic art.

At first glance, Toon’s paintings, such as “Red Bloom,” may seem like simple and plain panels that are a single color. However, a closer look reveals the meticulous detail and the shape of each panel, as well as the slight hue variations throughout.

“It’s not flashy and there’s no immediate message — in fact there’s no message at all,” said David Pagel, a professor of art theory and history and the chair of the art department at Claremont Graduate University who curated the exhibit. “She’s really focused on the quiet moments of introspective reverie that happens sometimes in life.”

He added, “I think Carolee really wants people to pay attention to the subtle nuances of their surroundings.

Pagel said that Toon was known for being deliberate and concise with her words and actions, yet she was not one to act elitist or treat her work as such.

“A lot of times, abstract painting comes off as elitist or withholding or something where you need a PhD to understand,” he said. “All Carolee asked anyone to do is slow down and look. For me, she’s made me aware of the value of every little thing.”

The texture of 'China on a Silk Road,' 2007, one of a collection of paintings and drawings by artist Carolee Toon in the Nan Rae Gallery at Woodbury University. The artwork will be on display in the gallery until April 4, 2020.
(Tim Berger/Burbank Leader)

Sue Vessella, dean of media, culture and design at Woodbury, concurred with Pagel, adding that Toon brought her attitude toward her artwork into the classroom.

Toon was stern with her students, but Vessella said her former colleague cared very deeply about her students’ success.

“It wasn’t like a mom caring for her child,” Vessella said. “She had high standards, and she expected you to meet those standards. She was very much no-nonsense, not a warm and fuzzy mom.”

Like Pagel, Vessella said Toon’s work is all about the meticulous details she put into every piece she created.

Even as an expert in art design, Vessella said she’s even stumped by how Toon was able to evoke emotions in viewers of her paintings.

“You look at them and then you notice something, so you keep looking,” Vessella said. “You’re called to spend time and engage with this thing that’s in front of you. I remember when I first saw her work and saying to myself, ‘How did she do that?’”

Although Toon was not as well known as other contemporary artists of her time, Vessella said she hopes the exhibit can change a few minds.

“I hope people can begin to appreciate the gifts she left,” Vessella said.

“Complex Simplicity” can be seen at the Nan Rae Gallery at Woodbury University, 7500 N. Glenoaks Blvd., on Wednesdays to Saturdays from noon to 5 p.m. through April 5.

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