Magic Markers 

Two painters show how both figuration and abstraction depend on illusion

Two painters show how both figuration and abstraction depend on illusion

Disparities: Works by Robert Durham and Carrie Mcgee

Through June 4

Cumberland Gallery

Cumberland Gallery's current show pairs two painters who seem to work at opposite ends of a spectrum: Robert Durham, a figurative painter, and Carrie McGee, an abstractionist who paints with rust on sheets of translucent acrylic. Though their means differ, upon reflection, their work converges around the nature of painting as an act of conjuration.

Durham's paintings are defined by strong technical skill in rendering figures, pervasive but understated knowledge of art history and irreverence often directed at self-importance in the art world. Rich with allusions, "Meeting of the Triumvirate" shows three women framed by an interior doorway. They form a loose circle, one woman holding up a hand with a Band-Aid on the little finger; another with her back to the viewer grasps that hand by the wrist, and the third in profile handles a roll of adhesive tape. Even in this mundane but odd act, the women seem alluring, powerful and distant. The woman in profile has a slight smirk, superior and hard to interpret. The title refers to a three-person ruling group common in Rome before Augustus Caesar institutionalized single emperor leadership, and the classical allusions extend to the grouping of the figures. A cluster of three women in art often signifies the Graces, and the woman holding the other by the wrist gives a modern context to the dance gestures you find in Botticelli's depiction of the Graces in "Primavera." With one smirk, a loose circle of figures and the clasp of a wrist, Durham infuses this picture with both a teasing spirit and classical allusion.

Some of the other paintings are built around more obvious jokes, like the three kitchen still lifes that include monkey puppets or a wooden chicken. In one, the chicken sits on the edge of a counter next to several broken eggshells, a mixing bowl with the beaters wet from use, and a measuring cup of flour in the back. The title is "Do You Know Where Your Children Are?"

These kitchen paintings come closest to photorealistic verisimilitude. In clear, even light, Durham reproduces the jumble of the monkey puppets' limbs sticking out of bowls and the reflective surfaces of appliances. This sort of heightened realism inherently makes a kind of joke, or at least a trick, by creating the illusion that you are looking at a photograph. When you realize it's a painting, you feel the same surprise you get from watching a magic trick: the extreme realism only draws attention to the fundamental conjuring act that goes on in any representational painting.

Durham seems always aware of painting as a ruse, and he turns the light of his Emperor's New Clothes sensibility on criticism and teaching as well. "Teaching Art (Plato's Cave)" shows a votive holder made of seven figures in a circle, arms interlinked, with the flame in the center. One of the figures wears a dunce's cap. Durham makes this found object an illustration of Plato's metaphor for human understanding or misunderstanding and a send-up of art instruction as the blind (or partially sighted) leading the blind. However, his treatment of art school isn't sour and defensive. Perhaps he sometimes feels stung by criticism or feels out of place as a figurative painter in an art world seemingly in thrall to conceptualism, minimalism and installation art. But Durham also is a founder and continuing member of the Fugitive Art Center, known as the hotbed of contemporary aesthetics in Nashville, and he did this painting after he finished teaching a semester at Sewanee. He makes fun of the art world, but it seems he includes himself in it since he has taken his turn leading the circle. This piece feels more generous than "me against the world."

The strength of Durham's work lies in using technique and sensibility without being limited by them. Several of the paintings here have a lyrical or sad tone with no punch line. "Darkness and Light" is a full-length portrait of a woman standing in a rural gravel driveway surrounded by fields, with the face of the Cumberland Plateau marking the horizon behind her. She has a pensive pose, looking down, hands in her pockets. You don't find a teasing tone except maybe in the model's natural facial expression. However, there is the subtle surprise of the sunlight catching her face and hair. Also, although much of the painting is executed in an impressionistic style, certain passages, especially around her face and clothes, have a hint of photographic illusion.

Durham's sense of humor and technical skill don't act as a compositional prescription in this portrait. He makes use of the technique required for heightened illusion to enliven parts of the canvas, but he doesn't feel obliged to wear a prankster persona. It shows he is an artist with range and tremendous control that allow him to modulate elements to achieve purposes specific to each painting.

The most visible connection between Durham and Carrie McGee lies in some colors they use. Two of Durham's paintings show a bathtub, and the green and blue cast of the wall above it is very similar to the colors in McGee's abstractions. Also, the stains on the walls bring to mind the rust that forms the distinguishing component of McGee's palette. Beyond those surface similarities, it takes some time with the work to find deeper associations.

To create her paintings, McGee lays translucent acrylic sheets in a bath of water and binder and puts metal objects on the sheets that react with the water to leave rust outlines and stains she doesn't entirely control. She adds oil paint to build up grids of circles and ovals. The thin oil paint has a similar density and flow to the rust, so it forms a similar residue on the acrylic. She marks both sides of the sheets, and most of the pieces cast shadows on the gallery wall, giving her three surfaces to work with. Color and shape progress through the grids and patterns, sometimes making a clear movement from lightness to heaviness or shifting between dominant hues. The variations in density, shape and color create distinct emotional tones within a seemingly limited abstract vocabulary.

The central body of work here is a series called "Iterations," each of which is based on a single sheet of acrylic held in a metal frame. The show also includes works with multiple pieces held together by rods or wire laid out in grids or strands. The mechanics of the fixtures are always visible and contrast with the delicate transitions of the pigments.

"Iterations 10" consists of a 5-by-5 grid of ovals with circles inside. The figures are densely and uniformly packed, as if a relentless biological growth were filling the space, giving the piece a sense of heaviness and foreboding. In contrast, "Iterations 8" has a 7-by-5 grid of circles of different sizes, less heavily delineated, with more space between them. The lighter density of markings gives individual colors more room to register, and McGee breaks up the regularity of the grid. This frees the figures to dance on the surface, and the piece captures the inherent lightness of her translucent painting surface and thin pigments.

McGee's works carry the evidence of the process that made them: the rust is immediately identifiable as rust, and most people will associate it with the way rust forms and with the settings of industrial or domestic decay where we encounter it. But hers is not a literal, one-to-one appropriation of process into the work, such as a piece that incorporates a live plant or a mechanical contraption. Instead, she conjures as much as Durham does when she turns rust and a few dabs of paint into abstract patterns that can evoke human emotions. The rust itself has no emotional life and only incidental human content until the painter-magician breathes on it.

No doubt an irrefutable sign that everyone in America will have a blog sooner or later, I've jumped on the bandwagon. You can find Perambulating the Bounds at http://perambulating.blogspot.com/. Even with the breadth of coverage at the Scene, not everything can make its way into the paper. I'll use this blog to rattle on more about art, music and culture. There will be an emphasis on Nashville, but I'm also going to talk about things going on elsewhere. The current posts include commentary on the Atlanta Biennial and the Watkins Senior Shows. Please take a look. Post a comment. —David Maddox

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