One evening at the Ryman I heard Victor Wooten and Edgar Meyer play together for 10 brilliant minutes on the same upright bass. It didn’t matter that they were just trading riffs and goofing around with their stage personas during a Bela Fleck/Chick Corea concert; I would have enjoyed listening to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” if they’d felt up to it. No, what was most pleasurable about their exchange was their sheer artistrytheir command of technique and their revelry in using it. Deceptively simple, direct, and energetic, their performance underscored the fact that even ordinary sounds can be magical if gifted artists are using them.
I was fortunate to get a very similar charge during two recent visits to Fisk University’s Van Vechten Gallery, where an exhibition of Donald Earley’s drawings, paintings, and prints is on display. Earley wields a line on paper with the same power and pizzazz that Wooten and Meyer showed that night at the Ryman. Like them, he moves in ways that seem to defy the constraints faced by ordinary artists. He creates without deliberationhis work seems to pour out of his body.
Earley makes the difficult look so easyas if expressive gestures were perfectly naturalthat he causes us to forget that spontaneity is always mixed with a ruthless discipline. Likewise, it’s so seldom one finds a contemporary artist displaying such sure and confident draftsmanship that it’s a shock to see a gallery full of so many fine examples. Earley has the sort of ability one properly calls a “gift,” though, like any gift, it requires constant training and untold hours of practice. (Earley still draws from the model two or more hours a day.) He has refined his craft until it has become second nature, and his craft in turn dazzles our eye with its decisiveness.
Earley’s line, at least in his prints and drawings, couples this rigid control with expressive energy. His lines are by turns descriptive and demonstrative, following actual contours or veering off in dramatic directions. They complement one another as they interpret form; they’re piled up in hair-like clumps, overlapped in crosshatched patterns that appear to vibrate, or set out singly like rare jewels on a pedestal. One sees these qualities of line especially in Earley’s rendering of hands, which gesture and flex exuberantly. In a singular drypoint portrait of his mother, the woman’s hands flutter like beating wings just below her face, as if she were a levitating vision of an angel.
Earley’s subjects are really quite ordinary. They include nude male and female models, trees in an orchard, children, and flowers. He describes his practice of drawing in terms of “drawing out forms,” of “responding to the rhythmic energy of nature and people.” He skillfully demonstrates a sixth sense for knowing exactly how many marks to put down or how firmly to emphasize them. In looking at his efforts, one realizes that if a single line or shape were moved, if additions or deletions were made, the beauty of the image would be lost or diminished.
This is particularly the case with his figure drawings. Among the finest of theseand one of the finest contemporary figure drawings you’ll see in these partsis a conte crayon, graphite, and charcoal mix entitled “Girls-Cat.” It consists of an intricate ballet between sketchy and firm marks, between empty and filled shapes, between correct and exaggerated proportions. There are harmonies of smudges, overlapping lines of brown and black conte, and two figures that seem solid though constructed of almost nothing.
Equally potent is “Figure Study-The Red Cat.” This female nude has skin suggestively shaded in red, orange, and yellow, with dark greens added for deeper shadows. A swatch of black depicts the jangled curls of her hair, while the cat is but a solid red geometric shape. Here the composition is elegantly balanced by a blank section of paper along the top. Metaphorically speaking, Earley walks a tightrope across the boundaries between abstraction and representation, merrily juggling color, line, shape, and space along the way. His works are academic on the one hand, pure emotion on the other.
A few drawings venture into a cubist style of abstraction. “A Thing in Passing,” for instance, consists entirely of arcs and sections of colored shapes, with black lines and layers of brush marks in gesso. But the bulk of the work on display is representational. You especially shouldn’t miss the female nude stuck in the far corner of the gallery by the exit door, a linear tour-de-force worthy of the Art Nouveau artist Gustav Klimt. Adjacent to it is a peculiar male nude, all yellows, reds, and greens, very nearly a non-objective wisp. Instead of a head, Earley has smeared in an oval of black, as if to obliterate the model’s humanity. Powerful stuff, this.
Quite different from any of the other works are four quick gestures of a muscular male whose poses recall Michelangelo’s studies of nudes for the Sistine chapel. Each drawing uses overlapping lines, crisp and black over faint gray marks, to evoke powerful masses of flesh. Yet in these forms is a sense of ambiguitya fleeting glimpse at solidity that fades into nothing when one’s glance is broken.
Not all of Earley’s work has the same charm. It’s instructive to examine the few drawings that demonstrate his college training as a fashion illustrator. It’s easy to mock their slickness as elitist or devoid of content, but then one must also realize: This is how an artist has to make a living. Despite their lack of substance, these illustrations help one understand how the artist honed his extraordinary ability to make such decisive lines, shapes, and compositions.
Then there are Earley’s oil paintings. Many lack the formal beauty of line found in the drawings and prints, and for my taste the colors in “Nude Interior” and “Untitled Landscape” are much too jarring. Not many artists are able to integrate lemon-yellow, astro-turf-green and UT-orange into a single work (although “Figure Study-The Red Cat” uses these colors with spectacular results). The more impressionistic landscapes here simply lack the conceptual power or the surface to attract our interest the way a human form does. In fact, several of these landscapes are so innocuous and pretty that they would not look out of place in a hotel lobby. To be fair, they look more like transitional works for the artist, who continues to experiment with style and content.
In a telling remark, Earley says, “I’ve been working on some subjects for decades. I wasn’t ready for things in my younger days; now that I’m older I’m ready for everything.” The wild colors are just a hint of what he’s up to.
On the whole, Earley’s works are conservative enough in subject to be called old-fashioned. I can almost hear certain friends of mine whine that they’re out-of-touch, boring. Such attitudes are more a sign of how reactionary and exclusionary the art world can be. Let’s face it: All styles are suspect; they’ve all been done before. There’s nothing new under the sunthat’s our postmodernism for you. If musical throwbacks like BR5-49 or LeAnn Rimes can hold our attention, and even generate a hip response, why not the same respect for a visual artist? It’s not a question of something being “old hat,” it’s about how well something is done in the first place, regardless of time and space. By this measure, Earley is a real master.
There were plenty of jumps and screams at the severed-head reveal at the Sunday night…
I just...this recap...why did I not know these were here until now?! 4 times on…
So long Don. Your creative energy and encouragement were inspirational to me.
It was so great being one of those kids in Dayton.
I miss Iodine.
^ It's nice to see an official acknowledgement by management. Kristen Mcarther Miles (the girl…