Monday, May 19, 2014

Review: New Southern Paintings 1989

New Southern Paintings
111 East Gwinnett Street
Savannah, Georgia
November 20 • December 31

With the opening of a new, expanded gallery at 111 East Gwinnctt Street, "New Southern Paintings" offered Savannah a look at genuine contemporary art, something other than the art for tourists offered at other galleries scattered about Savannah's historic district. Although there is a considerable difference in style and content among these works by five Southeastern artists, what unites them is an underlying sense of humor, or rather irony. Perhaps the most obviously ironic is the work of Robert Garey whose nude studies of women in strip clubs or in the observed intimacy of a bath recall the satire of Paul Cadmus. Like Cadmus, Garey makes clever allusions to classical art, as in Walk where winged shoes are worn by a bald, voluptuous woman. Also like Cadmus, Garey is a brilliant draftsman, rendering the male and female figure with nearly surreal precision. His wry perception of our society depicted In dives or on rough urban street comers reveals a quality of humanity that somehow survives the insults it encounters. For example, the women in Baby Doll have a dignity far surpassing that of the
derelicts and stooped men who observe them. Garey's skill as a draftsman is further evidenced in exquisite, large accompanying drawings on display. In contrast to Garey's large, detailed paintings are Rhonda Fleming Long's suggestive watercolor and crayon figure studies. These works are easily the lightest and most whimsical in the show. Several are humorous and mildly erotic like Looking at Phil which portrays a pensive, bearded man sitting nude, contemplating what may be a glass of brandy, or what may be his genitals, cupped in his hands. A cat. looking almost like a rat, rolls in front of him, also eyeing whatever he holds. Known for her mastery of medium and
form, Elizabeth Cain continues to reveal her skill in her new works. Elemental Shutter consists of oil paint on plaster affixed to an actual window shutter. The large painting Square Dance is a blend of color, form, and texture. Gain's work is the most consistently "modem'" of the show, with its primary concern for surface quality. Her work has virtually none of the "postmodern" interest in classical figure, political and satirical meaning, or literary and art historical reference found in the works of the other four artists.

Larry Connatser is what I call a Fauve pointillist. True to the meaning of Fauve, his paintings often show primitive beasts emerging from lush vegetation in settings rich with color. The dot patterns swirl into energy fields of figurative form often recalling the biomorphism of Miro and Gorky. Although not Connatser's best, the three pieces in this show are good examples of his current work. Paintings For An Exhibition shows his ability to bring the frame itself into the picture space. Head Of A Composer is a playful mixture of musical forms around a lion-like portrait. For its depth and vision, A Painted Chair By The Marsh was the best of the three. The scene is reminiscent of Savannah's marshland, with its winding tidal rivers and swirling sky of an approaching storm. Tlie acrylic "sketch" on view in the sitting room is Connatser at his biomorphic
height. What is clearly the artist himself is portrayed beholding the female form floating before him. a blue dog at his feet. Ironic humor triumphs.

In the main gallery downstairs Gina Gilmour is represented by three small studies
and a large painting. The Devil and The Good Old Boys, The last continues to show the irony and wit of the other four artists in its colorful portrayal of two businessmen completing a deal with the Devil as a gardener mowing grass looks on. Massive columns in the background imply the weight of political power.
As one mounts the stairs to Gilmour's separate show in the upstairs gallery, the
words "Civil Disobedience" are scrawled along the wall. One is then confronted with large wash drawings of police brutality and videos of AIDS activism and civil disobedience. Gilmour further expresses the political function of this show with T-shirts and buttons proclaiming "Silence = Death." Unfortunately, the political function makes the art itself secondary. Unlike Gilmour's painting downstairs, the works upstairs give way to blatant preaching, as in the three long didactic videos. Considering the political climate of Savannah, the gallery does offer an opportunity to see the sort of political protest art that is showing in other large cities around the country. For this opportunity alone, I commend the show.

One of the best works of art on display here is the gallery itself. Owner John Lee has transformed his house into a near perfect space of light and form. The two large rooms central to the gallery are lit by sunlight diffused through white fabric placed over tall windows, as well as standard track lighting. The spacious area Is made cozy and intimate by small fireplaces. The galleries and the hallway take
the viewer's attention directly to the art work. The sitting room in the back makes one aware of Lee's genius for placement. Not one thing seems out of place. The comfortable room offers the viewer opportunity to sit and contemplate additional work. There, too, one can sec the more subtle works of Gilmour, such as her "Rescue" series which I found to be sensual, dreamlike paintings far richer than those upstairs. In fact, the upstairs space almost makes the show, adding to the sense of being outcast that those who suffer AIDS experience. All in all 111 offers Savannians something more than the usual run-of-the-mill. New Southern Paintings deserves our attention, and our gratitude.

Jack Miller

Jack Miller teaches aesthetics at the Atlanta
College of Art and is librarian at the High Museum.

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