Riders of the Storm 

Local art in 2006: signs of the times.

It was a hot year, literally and figuratively. Global warming became an unassailable reality as temperatures reached record highs. There was much inflamed political rhetoric and patriotic fervor, and modern weaponry and car bombs blasted into soldiers and innocent bystanders around the world. Closer to home, local and national artists tracked and tried to comprehend the political/social/cultural/environmental chaos with fierce, piercingly honest works of art.

Two venerable voices from the past weighed in on the current drama with ribald and unabashedly politically incorrect exhibitions that, rather than feeling exaggerated or dated, cut right to the heart of the matter. "Red Grooms: Selections from the Graphic Work" at the Art Museum of the University of Memphis and "Pattern Recognition: A Ted Faiers Retrospective" at Power House depicted humanity as misguided/deluded/wounded creatures engaged in millions of simultaneously running tragicomedies.

Local artists continue Grooms' and Faiers' legacy. Jan Hankins' searing paintings at Clough-Hanson in the November exhibition "Sleepless" documented the passions and instincts that drive humanity and threaten to destroy the fabric of existence. There were slender threads of hope in Sleepless 2, a large oil on canvas that retold a classic tale of imperfect beings who yearn for relationship and beauty. Water roared across a devastated landscape and around a stitched-together Frankenstein monster that strained toward his bride strapped on an operating table. Beneath the table, a panther devoured a human heart. In this scene of raging emotions and thwarted desire, another bandaged creature (or another aspect of the feminine) rose from the bride's chest and reached for a rose engulfed in light.

Many artists refused to see 2006 as apocalyptic. They looked for ways to curb the ethnic/religious/political rancor. In "Lapses To Kill," Greely Myatt's June installation at David Lusk Gallery, a Styrofoam sculpture, Formal Arrangement, depicted a woman in a mauve taffeta gown balancing on the head of a man dressed in a tux. The couple stared at an upside-down steel word balloon placed on top of another balloon. Like this couple contemplating upside-down thoughts, Myatt asked us to laugh at our cockeyed notions, to turn things over in our minds and to see things anew.

For years Pinkney Herbert's thick saturate paints have roared across large canvases. Several of these works were exhibited in "Three Paths to Abstraction," a group exhibition at AMUM. For the show "Recent Paintings and Drawings," which ran concurrently at David Lusk in July, Herbert created some of the most minimal works of his career. A wing billowed by air currents or soft sheaths of rain flowing diagonally down a large canvas left most of the picture plane wide-open and white. With the addition of the graceful Zen-like painting Wing to his repertoire, in 2006 Herbert both depicted the fierceness of the times and embraced a more contemplative state of mind.

Even in the most abstract and ethereal of works, there were intimations of the times. At Perry Nicole Fine Art throughout November and at Clough-Hanson Gallery in a show that ran from January to the middle of February, the eerie reds of unshielded night lights and chemical greens of corporate crosswalks colored Susan Maakestad's cityscapes. Swerving highways in most of her midsized canvases connected one painting to the next and created a shorthand world of artificial colors, speed, and concrete that left us wondering: When/if we ever slow down, what will remain of our sense of community and self?

At the L Ross Gallery in June, photographer Ian Lemmonds took us beyond the turmoil. With images of cheap plastic toys, sunlight, and translucent curtains that hung lopsided in windows, he created luminous worlds of possibility and joy where small white ponies galloped along window sills, materializing out of and disappearing into pure white light. In "Altered," a November exhibition at the Jay Etkin Gallery, Pam Cobb explored dark places and produced some of the most powerful paintings of her career. A trace of light in Thistle revealed faint feathery weeds set against a background so dark one felt swallowed up by rich umber earth fertile enough to regenerate itself even after nuclear catastrophe.

Much of last year's local artwork celebrated the potential and indefatigable spirit of humanity. For the exhibition "Origin" at the L Ross Gallery, Kurt Meer paired accomplished, ethereal landscapes with small figurative works. In Voyage III, a young woman, head tilted down, looked absorbed in the moment. The light and color that swirled around and inside her suggested that consciousness, fully engaged, could shape the cosmos.

She Spoke Softly, a self-portrait that was both Eden and primal scream summed up Memphis College of Art freshman David Gillespie's eight-day sojourn on Horn Island. A blue-green human heart floated in an idyllic turquoise sea. A beautifully crafted ceramic torso sat on top of the painting. Its chest, throat, and mouth were wide open. Like many other artists in 2006, Gillespie became a channel for our times, opened up his heart, and roared.

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