See the Light 

Two striking exhibitions from Larry Edwards and Pamela Hassler.

If you think that seven-plus decades might have mellowed Larry Edwards, think again. For more than 25 years, Edwards, a well-known painter and former art professor at the University of Memphis, has been observing and recording what he calls the three "F's": Foolishness, Foibles, and the Frailties of human behavior.

In "Now and Then: Works Not Seen" at Delta Axis @ Marshall Arts -- an exhibition of pastel and watercolor pieces created from 1991 to the present -- Edwards proves himself to be a prophet as well as a social and metaphysical satirist. ("If you think my art is too exaggerated, just look at 21st-century politics and religion," the artist remarked in a recent interview.)

In Evil Slot Machine (2006), there are no lucky rolls of the dice, no winning combinations. The jackpots in this gambling hall combine Hieronymus Bosch-like demons with M.C. Escher's infinities. Horned, fanged monsters spew out more horned, fanged monsters, which spew out still more of these creatures. In Hell Mouth II with Imps, Sinners and Roller Coasters (2006), the imps look like putti, the plump, naked baby angels depicted in Renaissance and Rococo paintings. In Edwards' cosmology, instead of celebrating celestial or earthly love, they stoke the fires of hell and push human heads deeper into the flames.

All three F's are abundantly present in the creature of Transvestite with Wig and Corset (2005). She's wearing a pink corset, silk ribbons, and frazzled magenta hairpiece, and she winks at us through a large cancerous growth covering her right eye. The tusks, the huge face, and tough hide are distinctly rhinoceros. The creature's attempts to cover her lumbering carcass and the ravages of life with fashions and dye jobs are unmistakably human.

When Edwards is not using garish color and caricature to accentuate one of the three F's, we see an accomplished colorist and subtle draftsman at work. In Fishing Pond (gouache, watercolor, pastel and ink, 2000), sunlight filters through paler and paler shades of blue. Exotic fish and tiny white minnows swim through a silver-and-dark-green underwater forest. From pond floor to the surface of the water, every scale of fish and frond of seaweed is delicately and accurately rendered.

More impish angels cavort in the 1991 work Queen of the Grotesqueries & Her Court. They circle above an ancient woman dressed in a pink frock and tiny yellow sandals. Sharply angled wooden floor planks thrust our point of view past the winged, skull-headed babies, past the aged woman, past human heads skewered by metal spikes. An intense white-gold light streams out of the far back room of the ramshackle antebellum home in which the queen holds court.

But also in this painting is a hunchback crouching in the penetrating, possibly divine, light. This iota of hope in Edwards' house of horrors -- might there be some meaning, some transcendent function to all the pain? -- makes this grotesque painting unbearably poignant.

click to enlarge Procession by Pamela Hassler
  • Procession by Pamela Hassler

"Larry Edwards: Now and Then: Works Not Seen" at Delta Axis @ Marshall Arts through October 21st

In "Stir Crazy," the current exhibition at Jay Etkin Gallery, each of Pamela Hassler's 12 paintings and eight studies (oil pastels on paper) is a striking abstraction and an homage to light.

Light glows at the center of much of Hassler's art. It flows as pale washes in Study V, lasers down the center of Tryst, and reflects off a sheer rock face in Echo.

In Turquoise Ray I, II, and III -- a stunning triptych that evokes the minerals, magmas, and rock faces of the American Southwest -- streaks of turquoise and fragments of purple and green-ochre float Hans Hoffman-like across the burnished fields of three small oils on canvas.

Translucent blue outlines a chasm of ivory-black in Blue Line. This five-by-six-foot painting, one of the largest in the show, brings to mind the thin blue line of atmosphere that marks the boundary between the blackness of space and earth's atmosphere.

Reds and yellows search out each other's edges in several large paintings. In Echo, adobes morph out of red rock and desert ochres. Near the center of Procession, reds and oranges blaze behind tall, slender rectangles that blur into a limpid pool of yellow. Sprawling lines of conté crayon further activate the work.

In "Stir Crazy," the hand of the artist sweeps across blank canvas and shards of light move across the abyss in a body of work that seems to be about the joy of envisioning the cosmos and creating something out of nothing.

"Stir Crazy: Pamela Hassler: Recent Paintings" at Jay Etkin

Gallery through October 21st

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