Adolph Gottlieb: Early Prints," the current exhibition at the Art Museum of the University of Memphis, chronicles a pivotal moment in the history of art. The prints' titles (Pictograph, Hieroglyph, Omen, Voyage, Aura) tell the story. From 1933 to 1948, the time frame during which these works were created, Gottlieb printed and painted his way through other artists' styles and the motifs of other cultures and, with the help of surrealism, recorded images from his own dreams and personal visions.
In the 1945 etching Untitled (E # E), two necks grow from each side of an upside-down face whose features have been rearranged by cubist distortion. Whorls morph into waves into phalluses into snakes into fingers. One of these fingers presses into the body of a large fish-like creature whose mouth opens wide with surprise.
In this and many of the other prints in the show, Gottlieb develops an increasingly original, gestural, nonrepresentational style that foreshadows the work of the abstract expressionists (Pollock, de Kooning, and Kline et al.), artists who changed the face of art in this country and around the world.
At AMUM through October 20th
You'll find the most unsettling, show-stopping symbolism at L Ross Gallery in Margaret Munz-Losch's exhibition, "Damnatio Memoriae." An armadillo sits inside a rotting cypress stump in Munz-Losch's primordial six-foot-tall painting Lullaby: Madonna of the Moss. Instead of her own litter of pups, the armadillo holds an armless human baby whose left eye is milky white. Fire ants march around the infant's forehead like a crown of thorns.
The armadillo is either cradling or consuming the infant. Both readings are possible in a world where life, death, and decay are inseparable. Saplings grow out of rotting logs; cypress knees thrive in fetid, microbe-rich waters. This work's subverted religious symbols, swampy environment, and green vines wrapped around cars and a school bus suggest that the lullaby the Madonna/armadillo croons to the infant goes something like this: Neither textbooks nor creeds nor motorized vehicles can deliver us from nature which, ultimately, reclaims everything. The more we try to insulate ourselves inside our books, inside our minds, inside our cars — the more we miss out on life's raw beauty and power.
At L Ross Gallery through October 27th
Using skills and sensibilities learned from Chinese landscapists and sculptors of miniature stone mountains, Michael Costantini casts lean weathered bronzes whose irregular surfaces look architectural, organic, and geologic. In Perry Nicole Fine Art's current exhibition, "Michael Costantini," these evocative totems look like beams of a skyscraper excavated in some distant future, 200-year-old saguaro cacti whose wounds have been faithfully recorded, and/or vertical rock faces blanketed with moss and lichen.
Costantini's acrylic paintings are also composed of rough-edged, irregular geometries. Scumbled and overlapping blue, beige, and indigo rectangles in The Outer Banks hover and shift like the seas/sands/storms of the coastal community in North Carolina where Costantini lives.
At Perry Nicole through October 29th
Hamlett Dobbins' abstract paintings are visual shorthands for patterns as simple as the shape of a friend's head and for processes as complex as the evolution of friendship. In his David Lusk Gallery exhibition, "Every One, Every Day," Dobbins digs deep into mind and matter and paints what look like shadows moving across mental and physical landscapes, moisture oozing through cellular membranes, the centrifugal force of orbiting planets, and worm holes in facets of light.
Two of the show's most understated works clearly demonstrate Dobbins' mastery of color and light and, like much of Dobbins' art, evoke a synesthetic response. A 3 o'clock sun blazes at the bottom of Untitled (for L.T./G.M.). Alternating layers of transparent yellows and greens turn the canvas into a meadow shot through with light. What looks like a piece of fabric, stained green and gold, billows at the top of the painting. Stand in front of this work, and you'll feel sun on your body, breezes in your hair.
Two golden diamonds overlap and fill Untitled (for L.T./J.V.T.). At each of the diamond's tips are small portholes. Like the view through a keyhole in a Dutch masterwork, you'll see detailed worlds through these portals. Complex patterns of cumulus clouds float through 10 different shades of blue above forested hillsides, crows on pitted stone walls, and meadows covered with grains and grasses.
These small, surprisingly complex scenes demonstrate Dobbins' skill at landscape as well as abstraction and prove him to be a magician whose sleights of hand and mastery of materials teach us to look, really look, at each scintilla of shape, color, and light.
At David Lusk through October 27th