Peter Morrin

Arts

Kathryn Keller: Digging in the Local Dirt

Kathryn Keller’s landscapes at the Moremen-Maloney Contemporary Gallery in Louisville, Kentucky succeed on three scores: they are authentic in conveying a particular geography, they evoke reverie and they bespeak an eloquent silence.

Kathryn Keller, A Live Oak Growing, Oil on Paper

Keller lives near Alexandria, Louisiana, close to the center of the state. This varied sub-tropical flat land, agriculturally a mix of crops and livestock, is Keller’s subject. She succeeds in what poet William Carlos William termed “the achievement of a locus:” her vision is fresh, largely free of clichés, and works a taut balance between observation and the dictates of the oil and watercolor mediums that she employs.

Open fields, groves of trees, and the vagaries of climate and weather share the focus of attention with the flow and drag of a loaded brush against paper or canvas. Mottled passages of black-blue-green foliage fulfill the needs of description as well as calling attention to the moment when pictorial order supersedes realism, balancing abstraction and representation. Despite heavy impasto and forceful application, the paintings are well ventilated with an envelope of atmosphere and transparency of light. This part of the world comes across as Keller’s spiritual turf: she would seem to be of this place, not merely from it.

Of particular note in this exhibition are five studies of the side of a house, the artist’s home. These modest easel paintings (the largest of which is 26″ x 22″), read at first like the everyday moments in the deadpan photography of William Eggleston and William Christenberry. The side-long glancing views, the simplified architectural geometries of windows, chimneys, and rooflines, and the casually foreshortened perspectives connote an easy familiarity with the subject. But on further examination the house is invested with flat built-up surfaces of long continuous paint passages. Shadows that seem more substantial than the building and Rorschach blots of plant life provide psychological comment on life within the inner sanctum. In only one of these studies is an entry to the home depicted.

Kathryn Keller, Bleakhouse Cedars, Oil on Paper

Prolonged meditation on the subject of house is also suggested by the palette: Bleakhouse Cedars – possibly the most successful of the series – depicts an overcast sky, the building in desaturated tints of gray and yellow, flanked behind by Keller’s black-green foliage, and at the side by an acidic greenish hedge and lawn, painting in elusive variation of olive-algae hues. Overall the muted color chords of faded yellow and gray played against the varied greens convey an intense concentration on excluding everything extraneous to the artist’s narrative.

The result of Keller’s focus in all of her works in this exhibition is a sense of reverie, of something half-remembered, a predigested memory as if the viewer had already been to this home and had rich associations with the place. Keller gives us the first paragraph, and no more, of imaginary short stories echoing William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, or Alice Walker.

Kathryn Keller, Front Porch, Oil on Paper

Quietude and melancholic introspection also come across in works in which two houses are included in similarly reduced views. In Front Porch, a saw-toothed shadow and black windows on the near side of a house lead perspectively to a dwelling in the middle distance beneath a bare tree. Which is the home place? We are not told. Part of the fascination of these works lies in their evasiveness: the density and weight of the bare walls, the status of light, and the air of stillness spark curiosity about the calculated privacy and secrets withheld.

They are elegiac paintings, wrestling with how past informs the present and future (their closest photographic analogy is with the cemetery scenes of Clarence John Laughlin, not the snapshot sensibility of Eggleston and Christenberry). Locked down and contemplative, these are silent pictures: silence as a moment of stopping, as a condition of consciousness, as a cultivated inwardness. Close values and a subdued timbre characterize some other painters of silence: Hammersoi, Morandi, Balthus, Hopper, Reinhardt and Rothko, for example. All share a monastic relinquishing of immediacy and spontaneity in favor or an extended awareness of presence and place.

To return to William Carlos Williams: “It is because we confuse the narrow sense of parochialism in its limiting implication, that we fail to see the complement of the same: that the local in a full sense is the freeing agency to all thought, in that it is everywhere accessible to all…every place where men have eyes, brains, vigor and the desire to partake with others of that same variant in other place which unites us all.”

Kathryn Keller: A Sense of Place, Moremen-Maloney Contemporary Gallery, 939 East Washington Street, Louisville, 40206, through August 31st.

Arts

Beyond Twangy: Southern Accent at the Speed Museum

Three current exhibitions in Louisville, Kentucky offer an opportunity to assess a southern aesthetic in the visual arts. Two of the three shows define their topics narrowly, providing a specific critical viewpoint. The third invites something altogether different.

“Provoking the Uncanny: Ralph Eugene Meatyard”  (Schneider Hall Galleries, University of Louisville, through August 14th), curated by Hunter Kissel, zeroes in on Freudian implications of the Lexington photographer’s use of blurred and prolonged exposures while photographing masks, dolls, as well as child and adolescent models. Meatyard’s inventive Southern Gothic conveys the combination of fright and anxiety Freud believed arose from recognition of imagery associated with traumatic memories of a childhood long suppressed in the subconscious. The psychoanalytic concept of the uncanny provides a fresh critical view of Meatyard’s ability to tap into a hallucinatory merging of reality and fantasy.

Comparably focused is “Southern Elegy: Photographs from the Stephen Reily Collection” (Speed Art Museum through October 14th). Reily assembled a connoisseur’s selection of Louisiana-centric images starting from the premise that “southern photography is often inspired by its own sense of captured memory, self-aware of the losses that underlie the landscape before us as well as target the losses that will transform it once again.” Staving off oblivion is a risky endeavor, but the collection evades the obvious risk of mawkishness, first through the extraordinary quality of the work, and secondly through the selection of photographs which are broadly poetic representations of the South rather than documents. The most affecting photograph in the collection is Sally Mann’s sun-struck shot of the bank of the Tallahatchie River where the murdered body of Emmett Till was heaved into the water. Mann has written that she finds the South “death-haunted, pain-haunted, just haunted, period…I was looking for images of the dead as they are revealed in the land and in its adamant renewal.”   “Provoking the Uncanny” and “Southern Elegy” are both tightly conceived, coherent bodies of work that provide excellent complements to their larger counterpart.

In contrast, “Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art” (also at the Speed Art Museum through October 14th) is a grandly multifarious affair, an exhibition that leads in multiple directions. It promulgates, in its various threads, the argument that the South is in the throes of revolutionary evolution. Yet, the exhibition’s ambitions go beyond simply tracking that rapid change: the mind, the culture, the zeitgeist, the possible personal meanings of “the South,” are addressed through the works of art, the accompanying audio library of southern music, and the 275-page catalogue, which variously includes scholarly essays, artists’ statements, poetry, anecdote, a cultural chronology, a music library, and a reading list. The show broaches “the complex and contested concept of the American South through the lens of contemporary art” in this sweeping (and ultimately affectionate) effort at “enacting and interrogating southern identity.”

The title “Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art” is therefore not about a distinguishing twang, but accentuation on a trenchant and consequential moment in American art played out in a particular region of the United States. Time is not a continuum in this show, but a mechanism for looping back to the past – not as the object of a long, fond, lingering look, but as a departure point that posits a more benign future. And unlike earlier regionalisms, the art seldom aims to find the universal in the local, but rather to demarcate and hail its particularities.

The co-curators, Miranda Lash of the Speed Art Museum and Trevor Schoonmaker of the Nasher Art Museum at Duke University, subvert the magisterial authority of the curatorial voice in resetting the parameters of inquiry into American regionalism, and reformulating traditional imagery of southern identity. There is no acoustic guide sequence for touring this exhibition, allowing for individual pathways of discovery. To me, it prompted a train of musings about nature and sense of place, cool and anti-cool, art as witness, speaking truth to power, and finally, the possibility of prototypes for a new sectional iconography.

Thornton Dial, 1928-2016, Monument to the Minds of the Little Negro Steelworkers, steel, wood, wire, twine, artificial flowers, ax blade, glass bottles, animal bones, cloth, tin cans, paint can lids, and enamel 76 x 138 x 46 inches, Courtesy of the Artist and the William S. Arnett Collection of Souls Grown Deep Foundation, Atlanta, Georgia, © 2017 Estate of Thornton Dial / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The introductory work in the exhibition sets the tone for much of what follows: Thornton Dial’s “Monument to the Minds of the Little Negro Steelworkers” is a screen relief as rigorous and formally elegant as any by the late Sir Anthony Caro. A self-taught (or indigenous) artist, Dial arranged wrought iron floral plumes on the screen, adding to this scavenged assemblage plastic flowers, an ax blade, animal bones, glass bottles, tin cans, paint can lids, enamel paint and scraps of cloth. Some of these additions are associated with traditional African-American burial practices and are believed to have protective powers. Dial’s sculpture performs a sacerdotal memorial to the creativity as well as the dangerous lives of African-American steel workers. At Sloss Furnace National Historic Landmark in Birmingham, Alabama, where Dial lived, one learns that black workers had the hottest, most arduous and most dangerous tasks in the foundry. Sloss Furnace is locally believed to be haunted because of the many workers’ deaths during its years of operation (1882-1971).

“Monument to the Minds of the Little Negro Steelworkers,” in aesthetic disguise, conjures up a propitiatory tribute to marginalized mill hands. In the broader context of southern icons, Dial turns on its head the clichéd views of New Orleans’ French Quarter balconies and transforms associations with the conventionally picturesque into a potent argument for the moral intelligence and pertinence of a disparate group of repurposed objects.

Sense of place is not directly addressed in this exhibit but it is continually manifest in the imagery of climate and vegetation. The searing, unforgiving intensity of summer sun and heat is conveyed in Benny Andrews’ fabric collage of a stalwart woman passing a row of workers’ cabins, her black obelisk-shaped shadow competing for attention with the figure herself. Like heat, vegetation is a place marker but there are no grand allées of live oaks festooned with Spanish moss and no genteel borders of azalea. Plant life is mystically profuse in the wonderful pairing of watercolors by Walter Anderson and crayon drawings by Minnie Evans. Jim Roche’s photographs with text and Howard Finster’s tree of life “vision of the angels feed on the fruit of a farren [sic] land” share a vitalist sense of a benevolent plant world. These stand in contrast to the malevolent, inexorable advance of kudzu in photographs by William Christenberry or the eerie algae scum in Jessica Ingram’s forbidding photo of a cypress swamp.

Southern Accents: Seeking The American South in Contemporary Art, Speed Art Museum, FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Henry Harrrison Mayes, Untitled, n.d.; Howard Finster, Vision of the Angels – Honey Without Bees; William Christenberry, Building with False Brick Siding, Warsaw, Alabama, 4 photographs, 1974-1994; Benny Andrews, Down the Road, 1971; Romare Bearden, Profile, Part 1, The Twenties: Mecklenburg County, Sunset Limited, 1978; Romare Bearden, Watching the Good Trains Go By, 1964, FOREGROUND (Left) Beverly Buchanan, 1940-2015, Family Tree House, 2009, cedar and acrylic, 2009, 17x10x14.5 inches, Courtesy of the Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York, New York (right), Moonshine Man’s House, wood, 12×16.75×18.5 inches, Courtesy of the Andrew, Edlin Gallery, New York, New York Installation View Photo Credit: TL Dickman

The uses and moods of a pressing natural world find little concordance with depictions of the built environment. Over 50 of the 125 works in the exhibition feature structures of some sort, but outdoor views vastly outnumber interiors. Neighborhood, family and street life vanished: boarded up after Katrina, obstructed by segregation, wealth or ethnic distinctions, or abandoned because of economic shifts, misplaced governmental policies, or migration away from the South.

Beverly Buchanan’s miniature cabins made of scrap wood are cenotaphs – tomblike monuments- for generations dispersed from farmland but poignantly and equivocally are also loci of longing for a fixed and familiar home place, however impoverished. Douglas Bourgeois’ ironic interiors-without-walls, as in “American Address,” depict in hallucinogenic detail the unreality of that pining. Curator Trevor Schoonmaker observes “the acts of leaving and coming home seem an integral and commonplace part of southern life.”

Douglas Bourgeois, b. 1951, American Address, 2006, oil on panel, 20 x 16.75 inches, Private Collection

I perceive another sub-theme in the expression of cool and anti-cool. First used by jazz musician Lester Young in the 1940s, “cool” denotes a defiant assertion of individuality, independence, and rebellion. Cool is sartorially resplendent in Barkley Hendricks’s 1971 painting, “Downhome Taste”, and echoes the theme of black masculine empowerment in Blaxploitation films of the same era – downward tilted hat, sunglasses, cigarette, leather jacket and woven belt – costumed as if in a film still. Cool exists on a continual gradient. In Fahamu Pecou’s self-portrait as a high-stepping vaudeville performer, the words CHIT’LIN CIRCUIT celebrate the show people of that segregated tour while an Outkast lyric sprayed across the top of the canvas offers an ironic comment on the circumstances of those performers’ lives. Pecou’s engagement with an obsolete version of cool induces a searching dialogue with historical versions of black male identity.

Cool as a personal style, a way of being in relation to a particular time and place, is deeply interwoven and intrinsic to Southern identities. Hats, headdresses, and hair-dos proclaim the with-it-ness of those depicted as in Willie Birch’s monumental and joyous drawings of the Storyville Stompers Brass Band and Second Line and the Big Nine Social Aid and Pleasure Club. Anti-cool is signaled again and again in the exhibition by hats: helmets, snap-brims, police caps and Klan hoods. Although the concept of cool is historically African-American, the inextricable mix of southern identity and cool go beyond the black-white binary. Diego Camposeco’s portrait of a fifteen-year-old Mexican-American North Carolinian in a flouncy blue gown is one example of how “southerner” now has multiple modifiers beyond African-American or Caucasian. Other ethnicities and sexual orientations manifested in the exhibition include Native American southerner, Afro-Native American southerner, Vietnamese-American southerner and lesbian southerner. Multiple cool southern identities are conjoined in Jeff Whetstone’s portrait of “Caitlin,” a teenage hunter, posed in the woods wearing camouflage, shotgun across her lap, made up with polished fingernails, lipstick, eyeliner and pearl earrings.

Art as witness and speaking truth to power parallel different concepts of self outlined above: there is an implicit revolutionary bias in many of the guises adopted in “Southern Accents” portraits. Of all the adversarial forces to be overcome – hurricanes, economic hardships, prejudices, or, for some, godlessness – racism takes center stage. In terms of visual imagery the archetype is the Civil Rights protests of the last half of the 20th century. Two contrasting marches, seen in Michael Galinsky’s chilling edit of 1987 video footage, “The Day the KKK Came to Town,” and Hank William Thomas’ installation of sixteen photographs on mirrored surfaces of the Bloody Sunday march in 1965, encapsulate curator Lash’s description of “the region’s layered history of racism and oppression.”  Speaking truth to power underlies William Cordova’s “Silent Parade: Or the Soul Rebels Band Vs. Robert E. Lee,” a video depicting the jazz troupe’s musical jeer at the New Orleans monument to the Confederate general. (The monument has since been removed).

Finally, there are works in the exhibition that invite (at least theoretically) performance and decoding: set as stage sets, like good drama, they offer if not a healing catharsis, then the extended reflection that follows adept provocation. The struggle against privileged legacies takes many forms. Theaster Gates’ “Soul Food Rickshaw for Collard Greens and Whiskey,” a beautifully crafted pushcart made in part from recycled desk drawers, is a rolling tabernacle for a ritual African-American meal. It is accompanied by two stools implying shared sustenance.

Sonya Clark, b. 1967, Unraveling, 2015-present, Cotton Confederate battle flag and unraveled threads, edition 2/10, 70 x 36 x 7 inches, Courtesy of the Artist

Sonya Clark’s “Unraveling’ is a Confederate flag, the threads of which have been picked asunder to straggling tatters. Part of the magic of Clark’s invention is that we are accustomed to seeing ragged and worn flags in history museums. Clark signals that a new battle has been enjoined and new purposes may be found for the salvaged threads. In his interactive video projection, Hank Willis Thomas recolors the Confederate battle flag into the colors of pan-African liberation, black, red and green. There is a microphone placed before the screen. The video morphs into kaleidoscopic star bursts when the viewer sings along with Thomas’ playlist of R&B classics, thereby enlisting the viewer as part of the implied call to action.

Hank Willis Thomas, b. 1976, Black Righteous Space (Southern Edition) 2012, DVD (Play list and video installation), microphone and Mac Mini, runtime continuous, Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, New York

More complicated metaphors provide syntax for a subtly inflected diction of psychological emancipation. “Southern Comfort” by Sam Durant juxtaposes a gray army blanket, an ax handle and a pint of the sickly sweet liquor, Southern Comfort. A symbol of staunch segregationism, ax handles were given away by Georgia Governor Lester Maddox at his fried chicken restaurant. The Confederate gray of the blanket and the Currier and Ives steamboat on the Southern Comfort label collude to cast into doubt the universality of the concepts of southern hospitality and comfort to strangers.

Radcliffe Bailey, b. 1968, Up From, 2015, Canvas tarpaulin, velvet, Georgia clay, wood, rock, thread, rum and tobacco, 132×72 inches, canvas tarpaulin, velvet, Georgia clay, wood, rock, metal, thread, rum, and tobacco; 132 x 72 inches Courtesy of the artist and the Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, New York

Radcliffe Bailey, Up From, 2015. Detail Photo Credit: TL Dickman

Radcliffe Bailey’s “Up From” is a canvas tarp rubbed with Georgia red clay dirt, Caribbean rum and tobacco, like African sculptures encrusted with sanctifying liquids, but also substances associated with the history of slave labor. An iridescent black head wearing a battered top hat sits on a rock in the upper half, like an intercessor or divine guide for the tracks or ladders stenciled on the tarp. Miranda Lash associates the diverse array of symbols stitched on the tarp with signs from the “Underground Railroad, Yoruba and Kongo cosmology, Haitian Veve  and black Southern artists and craftsmen.” The title may reference Booker T. Washington’s 1901 autobiography “Up From Slavery,” which advocated black advancement through skilled trades. The ladder and snake imagery on the tarp may also reference the ancient board game, Snakes and Ladders,  in which players endure the perils of continual reversals and slipping backwards from the start (bottom square) to the finish (top square) – a potent metaphor for the uncertainties of black American lives in the 20th and 21st centuries.

On May 17, 2017, the statue of Robert E. Lee was removed from its pedestal in New Orleans. On that occasion, Mayor Mitch Landrieu remarked, “I want to try to gently peel from your hands the grip on a false narrative of our history that I think weakens us…Centuries-old wounds are still raw because they never healed right in the first place…We justify our silence by manufacturing noble causes that marinate in historical denial.” Surely his statements go a long way to explaining the reasons for and the power of this show.

In effect, the slate is clean and cleared for a new iconography of the South. Does “Southern Accent” offer a proto-history of that stylistic evolution?  Think of Eastern Europe after Glasnost, South Africa in the Mandela Era, or Ireland in the years leading to and after their Civil War with the revival of the Gaelic language, popular song, the Abbey Theater, the paintings of Jack Yeats. If the American South were a foreign country (and it some ways it is), it might be easier to recognize the pivotal character of the present moment.

“Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art” is foundational, essential viewing for anyone with an interest in regional American art and culture.

Arts

Radical Visions: A Review

Gordon W. Bailey has given thirty-five works of art to the Speed Art Museum. A World in My View: Gifts from Gordon W. Bailey includes art by twenty-one artists.

An introductory selection of twenty-six pieces is on view at the Speed until February 5th.  All of the artists are African-American and are predominantly from the rural south. The selection is extraordinary on many counts – for the authenticity and depth of emotion in many works, for the range and brilliance of invention, for the improvisatory response to a welter of non-traditional scavenged materials, and not least, for the boldness and freshness of color.

Testimony to religious faith is a recurring theme. Herbert Singleton’s Danieal in the Lion’s Den depicts a stalwart Daniel with a shepherd’s crook standing very upright, looking straight ahead, seemingly unfazed by the lion and lioness confronting him. A hole in the red painted board which provides the support for this sculpture in low relief reinforces the witness to faith: conviction outweighs correct spelling or traditional artistic finish. A jagged broken edge of the board is echoed in the lion’s bared fangs.

Nellie Mae Rowe American, 1900-1982 Peace with Blue Hand, 1980 Crayon and graphite on paper 14 x 14 in. (35.6 x 35.6 cm.) sheet Gift of Judith Alexander

Nellie Mae Rowe is represented by Peace with Blue Hand. Rowe frequently traced her own hand in her art as a way of bearing witness and asserting her presence in the world. The hand points to the word “peace” and a bicolored red sun with green and brown rays. The curve formed by the artist’s thumb and wrist provides a contour for the silhouette of a bird: Rowe was a master at using one line to serve divergent forms. The hand/bird is flanked on the right by the back of a mauve cow and on the left by a pink-leaved flower crowned with a bud in the form of turbaned blue woman’s head. In Rowe’s art blue was often code for black. Race, mysticism, prayer, free association and a profound identification with nature come together in Rowe’s vision.

Purvis Young American, 1943 – 2010 Christ Watching Over Dudes, 1990s Mixed media on wood 68 × 24 in. (172.7 × 61 cm.) Gift of Gordon W. Bailey in honor of Chuck Pittenger

Purvis Young’s Christ Watching over Dudes shows the divine head loped over diagonally above three figures who are defined by an open weave of shimmering horizontal and diagonal strokes in green, carmine, black, blue and yellow.  Christ’s eyes are closed and his mouth is open, as if in prayer.  The three “dudes” are afloat, spectral presences, perhaps already entered into a redemptive afterlife.

J. B. Murray American, 1908 – 1988 Untitled, 1970s Mixed media on wood 25 1/4 × 25 in. (64.1 × 63.5 cm.) Gift of Gordon W. Bailey

J.B. Murry’s work extends the spiritual theme. Murry was convinced that he was scribe for a divinely inspired “language of the holy spirit.”  The example at the Speed holds its own as a color abstraction of the highest order: translucent horizontal and vertical squiggles form a rose, blue and yellow bar hovering over vertical trails of green, yellow, black, blue and purple, partially surrounded by an orange border. The indeterminacy and richness of markings are seemingly offhand but deft in their intuitive sense of economy, providing just enough for a work of art so inbred with transcendence that Murry’s belief that he was amanuensis to divine dictation has its own fictive plausibility.

Not all of the exhibition sticks to spiritual themes:  Henry Spiller’s exuberantly bawdy women display their most intimate attractions with bravado, and Spiller’s extraordinarily well endowed donkey is depicted with echoing curves to provide maximum emphasis to this equine’s outsized masculine attributes.

James “Son” Thomas American, 1926 – 1993 Untitled, 1980s Unfired clay sculpture 8 × 10 × 8 in. (20.3 × 25.4 × 20.3 cm.) Gift of Gordon W. Bailey

Jimmy Lee Sudduth and Son House offer disorienting, unsettling experiences with their portraits of women.  The body of Sudduth’s woman is defined by a brown circle seen against a yellow ground. The asymmetrical face addresses the viewer with a commanding, arresting stare.  Comparably, Son House’s unfired clay head sports a wig, gold eyes and gold teeth, and her head is tilted to one side as if in animated conversation.  In both works there is an uncanny sense of the unfamiliar familiar, artworks that seem very real without the traditional trappings of realism.

Equally haunting are Welmon Sharlhorne’s precisely delineated fanciful architecture, evoking funhouse or carnival buildings.  Drawn on what appears to be the backs of yellow manila envelopes, the artist’s studied designs take their coordinates from folds in the paper.  One of his drawings features a clown figure wearing a beanie with a clock on his nose. (Sharlhorne spent many years incarcerated and clocks and closed doors in his drawings may have autobiographical significance).  The beanie demarcates the roofline of the building and flips in and out of three dimensionality, becoming a dome in Sharlhorne’s Escheresque perspective.

New York Times critic Roberta Smith has remarked that looking at the work of self-taught artists has made her “more open, less tolerant of rules and orthodoxies, more understanding of the human urgency to make art and how widespread it is.”  The indigenous artists’ works on view at the Speed offer precisely that aesthetic liberation.

Arts

A Review: Gaela Erwin: Reframing the Past

Gaela Erwin: Reframing the Past is on view at the Speed Art Museum through October 30th. It complements an earlier art exhibition, Gaela Erwin: Mother that was on view at the University of Louisville’s Cressman Center for the Visual Arts this past summer.

In each show Erwin explores her genealogy, both familial and artistic. The German Expressionist Max Beckmann wrote in 1939, “the self is the greatest mystery in the world.”  Like Beckmann’s pursuit of “the mystery of being,” Erwin’s art may be seen as a continual effort to be ever more specific about the psychology of identity, household relationships and art historical heritage. The family portraits are less about lineage and more about penetrating self-discovery. The artist is not leaning on art historical models for legitimation or prestige, but to delve deeply into the nature of portraiture in past and present practice.

Gaela Erwin (American), Portrait of my Mother in her Wedding Dress, 2013, chalk pastel, Collection of Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, 21c Museum Hotels

Erwin’s greatest invention in the Cressman show was to depict her nonagenarian mother asleep, reclining full length, attired in her wedding dress. Erwin’s mother (now deceased) suffered from dementia and Erwin’s use of her mother as a subject ironically presents a gifted physiognomist contemplating a loved one subtly expressionless. The bridal gown unfamiliarizes the sitter: dress-up is a way of losing touch with time, and heightening, in this case, the struggle of age versus beauty.

In her affecting portrayals of the last years of her mother’s life, Erwin conveys a telling inventory of the symptoms of dementia evoked in John Bayley’s phrases describing his wife, Iris Murdoch: “behindhand;” “unreassured;” “wonder on the edge of fear;” “the daily pucker of blank anxiety.”  Erwin charts her mother’s mien, the dropping lower lip, the sagging flesh, and the bulging carotid artery, yet also intimates empathy for a striking woman seemingly accustomed to being beautiful, the chalk uncannily taking on the substance of rouge and lipstick. The pastel is handled very directly in this work and left unblended as in the bold red and black marks defining the arthritic fingers of the sitter’s right hand.

Several double portraits of Erwin and her sister Shelley were in both exhibitions. Especially in the costumed double portraits in the Speed show, the artist intimates the complexity of sibling relationships and the numbing exhaustion of negotiating the care of a dying parent. In The Erwin Sisters as Artist and Poet compressing the figures against the frontal plane signals both closeness and discomfort. Nonetheless, the recurring portraits in 18th and 19th Century costume create an air of politesse, courtly manners and courtesies, as if these traditions offered a pathway to an authentically civil society.

Gaela Erwin, Self-Portrait as Twins Separated at Birth, 2016, pastel on paper, Courtesy of the Artist

An extension of the portraits with her sister is Erwin’s Self Portrait as Twins Separated at Birth. The backdrop of trees adapted from Francis Cotes in four works is here rendered a trompe l’oeil picture within a picture held on the wall behind the double portrait with push pins and masking tape. The finesse with which the sheen of blue satin is rendered in the 18th Century Erwin, on the left, contrasts with the abstract expressionist gestural drawing describing the faded Union Jack t-shirt in the contemporary Erwin on the right.

The gaze of the informal, t-shirted and blue-jeaned self is direct and confrontational, while the historicized figure averts from looking at the viewer. A traditional symbol of vanity, a peacock feather, adorns the shawl draped over the arms of the costumed version. The constricted period gown and blonde wig gives the fictional character an air of hauteur, dominating the sister two centuries her junior. A literal depiction of the idiom denoting worry and anxiety, “ I am beside myself,” is given a narrative cast. As in many other works in the exhibition, there is a sense of incipient action – the moment before the moment something momentous will happen, perhaps when artifice is revealed and the real Gaela Erwin steps forward.

In the catalogue to the exhibition, Eileen Yanoviak, Exhibition Coordinator at the Speed Art Museum, places Erwin’s portraits firmly in the tradition of the fantasy portrait, with its openings to associations and fictions about the past:  “They are a sort of ‘self-fashioning’ through history, a way to select those attributes and narratives that define an individual. Removed from contemporary reality, these portraits seem to reveal the paradoxes and complexities of the present through the past.”

Erwin pays homage to pastel practice with riffs on studies by 18th Century masters in the Speed’s collection by Jean-Baptiste Perroneau (1715-1783), and Francis Cotes ( 1726-1770), as well as the 20th Century artist, Winold Reiss (1786-1953).

Gaela Erwin (American), Licia and Neema, 2016, Pastel on paper, Courtesy of the artist

The exhibition’s tour-de-force is a double portrait of Licia Priest and Neema Tambo modeled on the Francis Cotes depiction of two young women. The African-American subjects are resplendent in 18th Century costume: Erwin’s pastel is more finished in these likenesses than in other works in the show and Priest and Tambo occupy a more ample field. Erwin deploys her technical skills to provide a convincing case for the dignity and self-possession of the sitters. Yanoviak notes, accurately, that they are “aggressively present.”  The fantasy of elegant, aristocratic black women in 18th Century high fashion garb engenders a back-and-forth meditation on sexual and racial politics in the 18th Century and today. Staging does not constrict the figures or indulge an inveigling flattery but instead re-doubles ironic reverberations between person and persona, actor and role. Like a great evening of theater, the performers seem totally believable, the artificiality and glitz of setting and costume enhancing rather than detracting from the illusion.

The Speed needs to be applauded for a very full presentation of a Kentucky artist with an excellent illustrated catalogue. Also notable is the juxtaposition of historical works from the permanent collection and contemporary responses. For all art museums, the holy grails of relevance and accessibility are elusive – Gaela Erwin: Reframing the Past sets a high and imitable standard.