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Works at On the Street and the Dixon.

The art of "Water Works," the current exhibition at On the Street Gallery, was created by three painting professors. The lessons imparted are fundamental: The American dream is manufactured, and nature, throughout its cycles and the seasons, can be both life-affirming and stark and lonely.

It's University of Memphis' Beth Edwards who pays haunting homage to the American dream. A gentrified frog drives a brand-new lavender Cadillac, a beautiful blond boy-toy shows off his sports car and home, and a young homemaker (a Minnie Mouse lookalike) stands proudly inside her immaculately clean, orange-and-avocado moderne living room.

Based on Looney Tunes and Walt Disney characters, Edwards' rubber dolls look happy — perhaps a little too happy. Little Wanderer's glassy-eyed, disheveled-hair, clenched-fist joy borders on frantic. The bug-eyed, frozen-smiled happiness of many of Edwards' toys looks as plastic as the blond hair of the beautiful boy in Noon.

As the American economy and the real estate market falter and religious freedom turns militaristic, Edwards laces her vision with irony, 21st-century angst, and garish, blindingly bright (celestial? nuclear?) light. Edwards' humor is cosmic, and the joke is on us all.

Rhodes College professor Erin Harmon's untitled watercolors take us closer to the source of things than the thick glazes, Popsicle colors, and coy Ruben-esque nudes of her signature oil paintings. Rotting tree stumps and pools of green-umber suggest the decaying plant life that nourish the watercolors' lush fields of vines, ivy, and exotic flowers. In one work, a dark-green frond stands like a sentinel between flowers and water. Its leaves are cupped into a wide-open mouth to catch the rain. It's nature's cycle: first the saturate hues of spring and summer, then the long languid decay.

Memphis College of Art painting professor Susan Maakestad used as a source for her watercolors hundreds of images of Wisconsin interstates taken by video cameras this past winter. Maakestad's scumbled washes and the soft rag of the watercolor paper replicate drifts of snow piled against guard rails, frozen fields tinted blue, and the gray grit of snow banks several months old.

Maakestad's art seems to go on forever. Snow drifts and soft-gray swaths created by snow plows dissolve into overcast winter skies. Stark-white, swerving interstates sweep the point of view far beyond the edges of the 5-by-7-inch paintings. There are no cars, no buildings, no people. Depending on one's mood and mindset, Maakestad's spare abstractions evoke serenity, loneliness, and/or wide-open mind.

"Water Works," through October 18th at On the Street Gallery

The quilts, sculpture, and paintings currently on view in the Dixon Gallery & Gardens exhibition "Ancestry & Innovation: African American Art from the American Folk Art Museum" rival the originality and complexity of artwork by modern and postmodern masters.

The dazzling colors and patterns in Leola Pettway's Star of Bethlehem with Satellite Stars Quilt pulsate like pop art and explode beyond the quilt's edges like an abstract expressionist painting. Thornton Dial Sr.'s wall-filling primordial landscapes of oppression and racism in the pre- and post-Civil War South are as raw and layered with meaning as Anselm Kiefer's mix-media explorations of lands and peoples ravished in pre- and post-WWII Germany.

In Bessie Harvey's unsettling, ultimately empowering work Black Horse of Revelations, a woman is hoisted up and nearly impaled by a steed sculpted out of roots and branches that writhe in all directions. The woman is dressed in a sequined black sheath, her head is thrown back, and her right hand is tied to the throat of the horse by a silver chain.

Black Horse of Revelations is a revelation not just of end-times but of all of life — created by a woman who divorced an abusive husband, raised 11 children by herself, and, in spite of prejudice and poverty, became a nationally prominent artist who understood existence in all its altruistic, symbiotic, predatory glory.

"Ancestry & Innovation," through October 12th at the Dixon Gallery & Gardens

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