Front Burner: Highlights in Contemporary North Carolina Painting

The North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh  

Through February 14 

With Front Burner: Highlights in Contemporary North Carolina Painting at the North Carolina Museum of Art, which runs through February 14, guest curator and painter Ashlynn Browning brought together work from 25 “emerging, mid-career, and established” artists to prove a simple point: Not only is painting not dead in the Tar Heel State; it’s thriving. 

Front Burner—which runs alongside other noteworthy exhibits at NCMA, including Good as Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women (through January 3) and Reflections on Light: Works from the NCMA Collection (through February 14)—opened and closed in March, then reopened in early September. It provides ample evidence supporting the thesis that painting remains on the “front burner” of the art world. 

Working in acrylic, oil, and watercolor—sometimes with unexpected added media, like grape juice or neon—the featured painters run the aesthetic gamut, from William Paul Thomas’s striking portrait heads to Hannah Cole’s studies of weeds, and from Georges Le Chevallier’s abstract “Baked Goat Cheese with Garden Lettuces (after Chef Alice Waters)” to Carmen Neely’s “In An Alternate Reality,” which features a “faux flower crown.” 

Among the stand-outs is Bonnie Melton, a longtime Durham resident whose enigmatic and engaging works explore the space between representation and abstraction. 

“Vigilance” (2016), one of her three oil-on-wood paintings in Front Burner, features irregular geometric shapes that form a leaning, roughly L-shaped construction. The shape might be the corner of a roof or a wobbly antenna, but there’s nothing definite about it. The loose paint, which drips in places, indicates dissolution, while the title suggests the opposite: attentiveness, as if the structure were a makeshift bulwark against peril. 

The other two Melton pieces in the show, “Comb for Nell” (2017) and “Throb” (2018), reveal equally inscrutable items on off-white layered foundations. If the “comb” and the “throb” are not immediately apparent in these paintings, that’s intentional. 

As Melton explained in an email to the INDY, these and other canvases “are worked over, mutated images from initial starts and then studio reckonings.” In a statement on her website, Melton reflects further: 

“I paint to let an inner dialogue surface,” she writes. “Sometimes the conversation is direct, more often than not elliptical. Associations arise, become thwarted, sink, and then re-surface through the paint. Mostly I am looking for the nerve within each painting. My nerve, the nerve of the paint.”

The surfaces of these paintings are, as she says, somewhat “lean.” She starts off with a simple blank surface, then builds on top of the solvent-infused drawing she inscribes there. Once she feels the painting is done, she lets it dry, tries to see where the varnish hot spots are, and then applies a light coat of preservative varnish “so as to unify the surface.” Lean, perhaps, but complexly overlaid nonetheless.  

Born in Lexington, Kentucky and raised in North Carolina, Melton earned a B.A. in English at Guilford College in Greensboro. In 1977, she moved to Philadelphia to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) where she earned a certificate in 1981 and won the Hobson     Pittman Prize for Experimental Painting. In 1989, she returned to her home state for good. 

Early on, Melton was drawn to landscapes. She continued with them after a residency at Millay Colony for the Arts in Austerlitz, New York, in the mid-eighties, and when she moved back South, where she painted “in those glorious open fields on a dairy farm.” “Road/In” (1990) is a resonant arrangement of rolling red earth and green fields cleaved by a dirt road. 

After a fellow artist at the Millay residency introduced her to the work of the abstract painter, Bill Jensen, Melton shifted gears. She began seeking out his paintings and, as she says, “a seed was set.” She left the representational landscape mode and began mapping an inner topography.  

Over time, Melton has developed an audience fervently devoted to her oblique and disarming creations. You can understand why: The paintings explore the intersection of mystery and recognition with idiosyncratic panache. It’s as though Melton were searching for a visual synapse between inner and outer worlds. 

Back in the fall, Melton reported having three paintings “open” in the studio—works in progress that were, in her words, “chattering for attention in the pandemic.” She reported feeling “much undertow” and found herself simply looking at, rather than painting, them. But she knows herself and her process well enough that “what needs to surface, will.” Something to look forward to as we make our way through uncharted territory. 

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