Oh Oh Mama 

Ted Faiers exhibit chronicles early transition.

Having grown up in Memphis during the 1970s, I have always associated Ted Faiers with his humorous work from that decade, figurative pictures that depict politicians, good ole boys, and the like as hapless boobs. The folkish paintings, from which 3-D pot bellies, limbs, and implements jut playfully and portraits stare doe-eyed, invite the perception of Faiers as strictly a regionalist. But the new exhibit of the artist's work from the 1950s at the David Lusk Gallery suggests otherwise.

Faiers was born in England in 1908 and moved with his family to Canada as a teenager. It wasn't until his early 40s that he began to pursue painting as a primary vocation. He studied first at the University of Alberta and then at the Art Students League in New York, where he met mentor Will Barnet and was introduced to "Indian Space," a movement that bristled against abstract expressionism and sought to extrapolate from cubism. In a catalog essay for the Lusk exhibit, Bill Anthes, assistant professor of art history at the University of Memphis, says the Indian Space painters "found inspiration in indigenous sources: pre-Columbian Inca textiles from Peru and the paintings and carvings of the Northwest Coast."

The paintings at Lusk are from a period just after Faiers' arrival in Memphis in 1952 to the time he began teaching at the Memphis Academy of Art, and they bear the influence of Indian Space, characterized by what Anthes describes as "drum-tight, flat surfaces packed with ideographic patterns." While vegetative or mechanical forms are often recognizable, narrative takes a back seat to the joys of bold form, brash color, and compositional equipoise.

In an artist statement from 1972, Faiers described this transition to the South as initially jarring, being designated "a damn Yankee" in his very first encounter with a Memphian: "My limited knowledge of the South indicated the Civil War was long over, but the roll of distant musketry had sounded behind me and I hastened my footsteps. I was in a land very new to me -- I was alien, and this little incident underlined that fact. I had pulled up roots of long growth and was in the process of transplantation."

Before coming to Memphis, Faiers' paintings focused on landscape and the figure, but the "sense of detachment from an as-yet unfamiliar locale brought on a series of seemingly nonobjective works for which subject matter was drawn from the comfortable and familiar atmosphere of my current domestic environment -- home and garden."

The rendering in Faiers' paintings, such as Concerning a Tree (1955), emphasizes what Barnet describes as a "love of purity and geometry in painting, the beauty of a flat surface, [and] a cohesive quality of structure and clear forms." Bean pods and acorns, carpenters' tools and aliens are skillfully delineated with serpentine ribbons of color. The distinct flavor of Faiers' graphic mark as well as the palette of earthen olives, oxides, ochers, purples, and pinks are informed by the artist's knowledge of the woodcut, a medium with which he was equally prolific during his career.

A real oddball in the show is Throne of a Martian King (1956). Straying from the block-print mode, it is a decidedly more painterly effort -- swaths of translucent orange woven over a simple underpainting, behaving as a tart scrim. Orange Flight (1958) is from Faiers' experiments with calligraphic line, influenced by the similar inquiry of pal and fellow teacher Burton Callicott. Around 1960, Faiers returned to a more obvious use of the figure, and Oh Oh Mama from 1962 depicts the hourglass torso and draped tresses of a nude. Of this period, Faiers remarked, "There had been much said in the 1950s of the 'end of figurative painting' and in the putting down of 'social comment.' I found some satisfaction in attacking these taboos."

Faiers is remembered by longtime friend and patron Don Bennett as "very droll and self-effacing," that he would "never brag about what he was doing or give the impression that he had answers" but that he did love "making fun of the world." Callicott has said that "like Hogarth and Daumier, he was a keen observer of contemporary life and mores -- and like them he had a special awareness for the comic and false."

Several of the articles I found relating to Faiers express regret that the artist has been slow to receive proper acclaim. In a 1979 article from The Commercial Appeal, Faiers said, "In terms of art, Memphis is passive. There's only a small group which understands or pays attention. People who have money are basically conservative. For artists, Memphis is a $200 town." But lest one get the impression that he was miserable, he added, "I've been happy working here. I think it's always been true that situations which seem adverse can be a creative stimulus to an artist."

Through July 6th.

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