New Paintings and Works on Paper By Elliott Puckette
Through May 30 at Cheekwood’s Contemporary Art Galleries
9 a.m.-8 p.m. Mon.-Fri.
For information, call 343-2140
Etchings and Works on Paper by Donald Earley and New Paintings by Ron Porter
Through May 22 at Cumberland Gallery
10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat.
For information, call 297-0296
Elliott Puckette’s drawings and paintings fill Cheekwood’s cozy, well-lit contemporary gallery with the serene timelessness that only pure abstraction can evoke. Terri Smith, curator of the gallery’s Temporary Contemporary exhibit series, again demonstrates her determination to present a wide spectrum of current art, with Puckette’s calligraphic works following on the heels of Andy Saftel’s lyrical watercolors.
Born in Kentucky, Puckette grew up in Sewanee, where her father is a dean at the University of the South. She attended Cooper Union and has lived in New York City for the past few years. Terri Smith discovered Puckette’s work by accident, in a magazine article. After many months of phone tag and scheduling conflicts, Smith finally scheduled Puckette for a show.
There are two types of works included in this exhibition. One group includes three large paintings consisting of primary-colored backgrounds with what appear to be confident calligraphic strokes of white paint scrawled across them. Actually, those voluptuous lines are a study in contrast all by themselvesthe contrast between the seemingly carefree work and its arduous execution. Puckette produces the white lines not by casually drawing a brush across canvas, but by painstakingly scraping away layers of paint with a razor blade.
“These paintings,” Puckette explains, “are made on wood because I end up really abusing the surface. I put on layers and layers of gesso, mixed with powdered clay and sand in between, so it’s very smooth, like glass. Then I brush ink on top and incise it with a razor blade.”
At the other end of the spectrumand yet complementary to these large-scale worksis her array of drawings on 19th-century paper from Italy and India. Rather than a subtractive process, created by removing layers, Puckette’s drawings are assembled in the usual additive manner of applying a medium over a surface. In this series Puckette draws her trademark calligraphy in India ink across the lined columns of ledger paper. The printed words, however, are in another language or backwards or upside down, so they form merely a decorative background for Puckette’s ink stroke. This adds an artifactual sense of history without distracting from the artist’s lines.
Reminiscent at times of Arabic calligraphy or medieval illumination, the designs form a sort of imaginary alphabet. There is a joyful, gestural elegance to them. As Terri Smith points out, the drawings look the way music would look if it could be transformed into images.
Real and imagined
At Cumberland Gallery in Green Hills, two contemporaries demonstrate the seeming impossibility of grouping artists by their generation. Both Donald Earley and Ron Porter were born during World War II. Both have a strong, original style, rooted in draftsmanship and classical sensibility. It is this sense of historical awareness and classical discipline that unites their tandem showthe sort of thoughtful combination at which gallery owner Carol Stein excels. At first glance, however, the two artists’ work could not be more different.
Earley’s work here focuses on one of the enduring themes of representational art: the human figure. Indeed, some of these drawings and etchingsmostly of womenare reminiscent, in their unwavering attention, of such figurative touchstones as Rembrandt’s sketchbooks and Dürer’s etchings and the pastels of later Degas.
The artist captures the ordinary grace of the human body in reposethe elegant curve of the calf smoothly becoming the back of the knee, the way certain necks cradle the head like a column supporting a sculpture, the mortal heft of breast and hip. When Earley lovingly draws an extended arm, the viewer can feel both the musculature that enables the movement and the emotion that inspires it.
Earley’s disciplined line comes from decades of fashion illustration and his daily practice of drawing from live models. He captures gesture with a confidence that makes it look easy. But his work is too passionate, too loose, to come across as serene and intellectual, as fellow exhibitor Porter does (and, for that matter, as Cheekwood’s Puckette does). His fluid line and his choice of the female nude as a subject lend him the air of an artist respectfully following enduring themes.
Ron Porter’s work conveys a similar sense of history, although in his case the models are more recent. A taxonomist would probably classify him with the surrealists, though his playful but deadpan paintings are much more reminiscent of Magritte’s offhand wit than of, say, Dali’s delirious Freudianisms. A piece of rock shaped like a tear in the canvas floats in the sky. Cows wander Tennessee fields through which are scattered inexplicable stone markers, like reminders of a previous civilization. The Venus de Milo, cleverly painted from the rear, looks out over two scenes.
Sometimes Porter’s debt to history is overt. One clever and well-executed homage includes at the bottom the names of several predecessorsDe Kooning, Hoffman, Kline, Pollack, and Rothkoas though carved in stone. Stylistically, however, no painting in this show even evokes these modernist giants; the link here is that Porter himself began as an abstract painter.
Born in Knoxville, Porter earned his bachelor’s in fine art in his mid-40s, following that with a master’s from Ohio University. After teaching at various schools around the country, he is now an adjunct professor of art at Vanderbilt. His technical execution is faultless, rising at times to photorealism and trompe l’oeil. But it isn’t the detail and texture, gorgeous as these are, that make Porter’s work so oddly satisfying. It’s the melancholy leavened with wit, the endless delight in the textures of the world.
A few years ago Porter remarked, “When the ordinary connects with the ambiguous, I find something new.” Viewers of his current show will catch themselves feeling the same way. Surrealism taps into the subconscious because it exploits an intuitive knowledge that our conscious minds forget: The ordinary and the ambiguous are always connected.
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