New Directions 

Pinkney Herbert and Chuck Johnson create some of the best art of their careers.

Three summer shows trace the dramatic mid-career changes of two established Memphis artists. Pinkney Herbert's paintings are on display at the Art Musuem at the University of Memphis and the David Lusk Gallery, and Chuck Johnson's watercolors are showing at Joysmith Gallery.

click to enlarge Pikney Herbert's  Firefall
  • Pikney Herbert's Firefall

Herbert paints like an abstract expressionist on steroids, turning nuanced color fields into seas of conflagration. His 6'5" frame allows him to gesture across entire canvases, covering their surfaces with firestorms, tidal waves, and whirlwinds. In the group exhibition at AMUM, "Three Paths to Abstraction," Herbert slows things down a bit. His best paintings allow us to experience a wide range of energies as well as the forces that obliterate.

The iridescent red-oranges of Firefall fount up and move like rivers of magma across the canvas. The shape at the center of the painting also brings to mind a huge tropical flower whose long blades reach up for sun and then fall back to the mars-black earth that backdrops and nurtures them.

Herbert works wet-in-wet. Umber brushed and scratched into the red-orange paint at the bottom of the vaguely floral, vaguely figurative central shape looks pubic. On the left side of the canvas, the artist pulls and re-pulls his brushes and fingers through orange and umber pigments, evolving them into the grain of fine inlaid wood.

Firefall's combination of sweeping gestures and rich detail and its shapes, lines, and colors that evoke a wide range of primal energies -- from incinerating rivers to tropical flowers in rich black earth to human sexuality -- make this a particularly powerful work.

Five primordial landscapes at David Lusk Gallery in "Recent Paintings and Drawings" stand in even sharper contrast to Herbert's earlier work. The largest of these paintings, the 6-by-8-foot Wing, evokes a surprising amount of power with the most minimal and monochromatic of materials.

With the sure hand of a calligrapher, Herbert paints a softly curving line across Wing. Above this contour of earth or ocean, he works the oils like rich earth and soft clay, folding the pigments back onto themselves. What looks like a wing billowed by air currents or soft sheaths of rain flow diagonally down and to the right, leaving the rest of the canvas wide-open and white. The quiet, Zen-like authority and graceful gestures of Wing feel as powerful as the energies of earlier paintings that swept us off the picture plane.

click to enlarge Chuck Johnson's  Brake Service
  • Chuck Johnson's Brake Service

From the incinerating rivers and tropical earth of Firefall to the clay-like impastos, gentle rain, and the wide-open sky of Wing, Herbert is a master of all of the elements, producing some of the sparest, most stunning works of his career.

"Three Paths to Abstraction" at AMUM, through September 9th and "Recent Paintings and Drawings" at David Lusk Gallery, through July 29th

As recently as last year, Chuck Johnson was exhibiting complex, multiple-layered collages. In his first show of watercolors, "Different Strokes" at the Joysmith Gallery, he proves himself adept at scumbled scenes of urban decay.

It takes courage to suddenly switch the materials one uses and the genre in which one works. This new fit appears to be a good one as Johnson transforms scene after scene of the vernacular into evocative works of art.

In Hotel Merida, Johnson's treatment of color and light turns a dining room floor into a sea of purple. We can almost see the moisture rise from the freshly mopped alizarin-crimson tiles. A light in the hallway draws our eyes down the dark umber corridors, and forest-green shadows on the walls hint of mold and mildew in this fine old hotel in Mexico City.

An up-close watercolor brings us face-to-face with an old Victorian facade in Boarding House. The image's soft light and soft shadows invite reverie, and the house's eroded eaves, front-porch swing, torn window screens, and crumbling foundation (the building lists to the right) give up some of their stories -- young women in secretarial pools in Memphis in the 1940s and retirees in this early version of assisted-living.

Brake Service turns urban decay into abstraction. The still-vivid red letters of a sign advertising "E S RVICE" is repeated in the chrome of an automobile that frames the bottom of the watercolor. In the dusty sunset, the car-repair shop's wooden facade becomes a field of orange-ochre. Johnson's keen sense of color and the complex geometries of urban architecture -- here in the deep-set doors and windows and the shadows they cast -- transform a scene of nostalgia (have you tried finding a good repair shop lately?) into a striking abstraction.

"Different Strokes" at Joysmith Gallery, through July 23th

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