One of the weaknesses in the Triangle visual arts scene has long been the paucity of curated exhibitions of locally produced art in the top tier of museums and galleries. A fair number of artist-organized individual and themed shows and one-person shows at commercial galleries exist, but there aren’t that many exhibitions put together by curators who can offer critical context and informed perspectives different from those of the artists themselves. The N.C. Museum of Art does the North Carolina Artists Exhibition every three years, and they do have a group show coming up. The Ackland does the UNC-Chapel Hill master’s of fine arts show–and that’s pretty much it. N.C. State’s Gallery of Art and Design occasionally focuses on local work–as it is right now, if you consider central North Carolina pottery local.
By offering the opportunity to create an exhibition to each of the local art critics in turn, the Duke University Museum of Art (DUMA) has made the most consistent effort–however small–to deal seriously with the Triangle’s artists. There have now been several of these Critic’s Choice shows. For the current exhibition, Julia Morton chose three artists, Andrea Lekberg, Michael Salter and Kent Williams, as well as the theme of Life Studies circa 2000. On two of the three walls of the upstairs lobby gallery Lekberg and Williams are each represented by single ambitious pieces, while Salter’s five smaller works fill the third wall.
Kent Williams is a highly accomplished draftsman and painter, and his work never fails to astonish with its dark beauty. As far as I know, Williams’ paintings, which are both highly realistic and utterly surreal, have not been seen in the area since the Marita Gilliam Gallery closed. This is a puzzle: Mediocre schlock is readily available in many venues, but Williams’ strange and wonderful pictures can rarely be found. The intensity of emotion that they evoke must be off-putting; the work is certainly not what most people would call decorative.
“Self-Portrait as Rodin’s Walking Man, with Appendages,” the one painting on view at DUMA, is quite large, 7-by-12 feet, and in two panels. It is painted with oils, but you could just as well say it is painted with passion, mystification and faith. The Walking Man will be immediately recognized by anyone familiar with Rodin’s work, or who has been to the exhibition at the NCMA–except that Williams has supplemented Rodin’s form by topping it with a head. Placed near the center of the composition, the towering figure appears to be bronze at the feet, but becomes more and more flesh-like. The head, which looks completely alive, wears Williams’ own face. He strides, eyes closed, from back right toward front left, his muscled legs delineating a sharp triangle. In one more step, he would break through the picture plane into our world.
The man’s sturdy stance is echoed by those of the small boys standing on either side of him, whose hands he clasps tightly. Their braced legs also create triangular spaces, and the three of them together form yet another, larger, triangle. The boy on the right looks across toward the left side, but the boy on the left gazes straight out at us with large, light blue eyes. All three stand on an ambiguous surface, maybe hillocks of greenish earth, maybe clouds. Behind them, clouds definitely rise into a turbulent black sky.
This is not just a nice picture of father and sons. The man, like Rodin’s sculpture, is armless. In this painting, his wrists and hands appear in the air where they should be, but they are not attached to his body. This is odd enough, but it is the open shoulder socket that is really eerie. Instead of a solid mass of bronze or flesh–or at least a closed form–it appears that you could look into the torso (and see the heart?), if only you could get around to the right angle. From a source outside the painting, the light comes in to highlight the left side of the man’s body, except for that dark empty shoulder socket. Despite the bright angled light, the figures cast no shadows. The painting seems at once to be a group portrait and a study of the pride, strength and fears of fatherhood–and a tour de force of light, color and line.
The other work in the gallery would fare better alongside a less dominant painting. Michael Salter’s pop-culture (or non-culture) inspired pieces, several of which run on electricity, seem even more slight than they would on their own. The only thing about them in which I could work up any interest was the way the power cords hang, run, drape and connect the five pieces. I appreciate that these are quirky little comments about life in the mediated techno age, but all I remember 24 hours later are the colors and pattern of the power cords.
Andrea Lekberg’s “The Collection” is far more thoughtful and elaborate–and humorous–but it too struggles to stand up to Williams’ work. At one level, “The Collection” is a large three-dimensional collage, or, like “Whistler’s Mother,” a subtle study in shades of gray. Consisting of two tiers of nine trunklike boxes filled with miniature, vaguely 19th-century outfits, it is also a contemplation of the role of clothing in forming and restricting female identity. The little clothes are wonderfully designed and made–but there is no actual woman there to wear them, and they are displayed in airless boxes with shiny, highly functional locking mechanisms. This is a piece that makes you work a little to discover its layers, but rewards the effort. The same could be said of the local arts scene, which needs more shows like DUMA’s to give us the opportunity to uncover the work of Triangle artists. Everyone–the artists, the museums, the critics and the viewing public–would benefit from such endeavors.