Familiar Ground

This Memphis College of Art exhibit proves you can go home again.


If you, like me, would rather watch art than football, this homecoming is for you. There is no game and no Homecoming Queen. It's the Memphis College of Art's "The Homecoming Exhibition: A Juried Show of Recent Works by Alumni," which celebrates the school's 60th anniversary.

Painter Arnold Mesches, a professor at New York University, selected the exhibit's 50 works by 43 alums, representing classes from 1957 to 1995. Participants range in age from their twenties to their eighties and come from 13 states and both coasts. The result is a pretty mixed bag. Think of it as a visual alumni newsletter, with paintings and sculpture instead of snapshots of the kids.

Paintings dominate here over any other art form. A significant percentage of the painting majors, though, chose other mediums to represent themselves as alumni artists. The only ceramic pieces, for instance, are the work of painting majors Stan Floate ('74) and Jan Singer ('76). Nadara Tollison Goodwin ('57) injects a painter's love of subtle color into her cyanotype Consorts. And jewelry major Mahaffey White ('68) offers a well-composed black-and-white photograph shot in a forest.

Both Bill Davis ('67) and Lady Margaret Keplinger ('75) majored in advertising design at the college. While their paintings are competently executed, they do not transcend representation sufficiently to make it as fine art. Davis' Little Italy/NYC would look good on the wall of one of the "ristorantes" he depicts. Printmaking major Carl Scott ('85) might have produced a more interesting image with Lady Buying a Hat if he had printed it instead of painting it. The head is fine but the right half of the painting doesn't read well and his texture falls flat.

Jane Flowers ('84) and Hal Miller ('94) offer pleasant landscapes with gently modulated color. Some other landscapes remind me how minor a genre landscape can be. Box Canyon I by William F. Polsgrove ('81) is dramatic in composition but ultimately ordinary. Beverly Mitchell's Bright Autumn employs a palette not unlike that of Freida Hamm's Ten Blue Trees, but Hamm ('84) gives hers an intensity of hue and complexity of line and arrangement that is minus in Mitchell ('83), who concentrates her image in the center and thus renders it static.

Several alumni have worked mythical themes into their works. Claudio R. Leon-Perez ('89) employs a tree-of-life motif for his Genealogy of Man. The spiky tree is surrounded by disembodied eyes. He uses negative space to positive advantage. An edge that reads as fire viewed one way is part of a wing viewed another. Betty Robinson imposes an actual mask onto her acrylic painting, to mixed results. The amusing sandpaper tongue on the mask belies the otherwise serious character of the piece. Allison Smith ('87) teases the viewer with steel, paper, and wax journals that cannot be read. Their pages are blank or cryptic or have already been shredded.

Two painters widely divergent in style treat Christian themes, Paul Edwards ('81) in Non Title and Diane Morley ('82) in Mother of God XVII. Edwards' raw descent from the Cross, with its muted palette and tortuous line, recalls Van Gogh at his most maniacal, while Morley's tranquil, Byzantine Madonna in quadruplicate is serenity itself.

Four fantasy pieces seem to belong together. All Paths, a pastel by Christy Grady Fertal ('81) suggests a politically correct attitude toward diversity conveyed in the manner of an illustration to a children's book. Light #2 by Marian Lea McKinney ('93), a charming copper-and-pewter lamp designed for reading fairy tales, attracts its own metal insects. The witty and functional Can Can by Carroll Todd ('76) is a set of shapely bronze legs supporting a glass tutu. Annabelle Meacham's superbly painted, surreal acrylic The Ideal is of the same ilk but possesses an edge of menace with its castle suspended like a marionette over a choppy sea.

Caroline Jennings' compelling Interior implies an uncomfortable narrative. Jennings ('76) arms her characters with paintbrushes as they stand defensively awaiting some brand of hell. Jed Jackson ('77) approaches narrative more directly, the way Norman Rockwell might have if he had hung out in Beat bars in the Fifties.

Oil painter Tyrone Lewis ('65) is parsimonious with paint, pigment, and image, providing the viewer with what he or she needs and no more. The odd Untitled depicts nude figures segregated by sex ambiguously either hanging or floating within a strange rectangular framework. The same framing device is found in Floral Form, which, despite the subject matter, is delightfully devoid of sweetness.