PAINTINGS, PHOTOGRAPHS, FRIENDSHIP
Friday, Sept. 9, 6–9 p.m., free
FRANK Gallery, Chapel Hill
Years ago, at a Durham Bulls game, Clyde Edgerton told John Rosenthal about a man he’d seen that day whose jaw looked like it was swallowed up into his nose.
“It was one of the weirdest looking men he’d ever seen,” remembers Rosenthal. “And he said, ‘I’m’a put that down. I’m gonna store that one away.’ And sure enough, three books later, there that guy was.”
That anecdote captures the bond between a writer and a friend who is also a devoted reader. That friendship is the uniting force behind a new exhibit set to run through October 9 at FRANK Gallery. Rosenthal, a renowned photographer, shows a selection from his “Museum Series.” Edgerton, the well loved North Carolina literary figure, shows paintings based on photographs by Rosenthal and others.
Rosenthal finds this exchange profound. “Proust talks about that fraternity that exists between a writer and his readers, and I agree, but it becomes very special when the writer is transforming the work of a friend into his own artwork. I see the mischief and the humor and something terribly relaxed in the painting that might not exist in the photograph because Clyde transformed it.”
Hang on, though. Clyde Edgerton, professor of creative writing and author of ten novels, including several New York Times Notable Books, is also a painter? Apparently lightning sometimes strikes twice. Rosenthal attributes some of Edgerton’s skill with paint to his close observation of life as a novelist. But he acknowledges that discovering such a gift in one’s sixties is far from the norm.
“I’d say it’s pretty weird,” he says with appreciation. “It’s really something to see him suddenly move off into paint. When you’re a writer, there’s one word that’s going to work, but when you’re painting, it’s a thousand strokes that are going to work.”
Edgerton’s decades-long dance with the visual arts began as a teen, when he convinced his parents to pony up seventy bucks for a correspondence art course. But when he received a B rather than an A on his first assignment, he quit drawing. (He also kicked up a fuss until his deposit was returned.) Eventually he took up painting, quite casually, producing one or two in acrylic every few years.
Then he got obsessed with the grille of a 1950 Chrysler.
“It belonged to the bad guy in the novel I was working on, which was The Bible Salesman. And I just took a notion to paint it,” Edgerton says. In retrospect, it was a “mediocre to bad painting.” But at the time, in 2007, he thought it was wonderful.
“Artists are lucky when they believe in their early work,” he says. “That happens in any art, I think. If you believe in it and it’s fun to do, you keep doing it, regardless of what it looks like.”
With practice, his work started to look good. In 2008, he met Chip Hemingway, a Wilmington painter. Hemingway suggested he switch to oils, which facilitated his progress. Edgerton took a painting class with Hemingway, who has remained a mentor figure, along with one in portraiture.
Initially Edgerton was torn about his inclination to paint from photographs. Hemingway is a plein-air painter, to whom painting from a photo is akin to cheating. Then Edgerton started reading, and he learned that it was a common practice among many of his beloved French and American Impressionists. He discovered possibilities, not limitations.
“Once I have the composition down, there’s things I’ve learned I can do with color,” he says. “I can make it into something I feel confident is my own.”
Rosenthal was a fan before he was a friend. As the host of a TV show called Portfolio, he had Edgerton on as a guest in 1985 to promote his first book, Raney.
“Clyde is very loyal to his place,” he says. “He doesn’t try to invent a landscape, because he has one. It’s very seriously embedded in his consciousness, and exploring that landscape has been his career.”
Edgerton says Rosenthal’s interest has been crucial. Over the years, first by letter, then by email, Rosenthal continued to provide feedback. “He’s got a knack for pointing out things that either I’d forgotten or I was hoping someone would read and appreciate,” says Edgerton.
Rosenthal’s work ranges from stunning images of menacing ocean waves to enigmatic moment shots in the spirit of Cartier-Bresson to priceless views of New York in the seventies. One standout in this show was taken at MOMA and includes Warhol’s “Double Elvis,” anchored by the distant figure of a woman who chanced to pause at a window overlooking West 53rd Street.
“To me it’s just fascinating to look at people in museums,” Rosenthal says. “Think of the painting as a window. You look at a Turner painting of Venice, you’re stepping into commerce in 1830. If you look at a Pollack, you’re going into an argument that happened in the 1950s.”
This is not Edgerton’s first rodeo. Four years ago, he exhibited fifteen “rather small” paintings in a show with Louis Rubin, his editor at Algonquin and a watercolorist by hobby. To his delight, almost everything sold.
“I didn’t have sense to know that if you’re among your very best friends, a lot of them are going to buy your art to keep from being embarrassed, especially if it’s not too highly priced,” he says. Still, he was encouraged, even a bit thrilled. He’s kept at it since then. Lately he’s begun to go deeper.
“I’ll do a painting and it will turn out pretty bad, and I don’t know why, and I’ll do another one and it turns out, in my view, pretty good, and I don’t know why,” Edgerton says. “But I’m beginning to learn why.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Clyde Edgerton, Painter?”