Art, dreams and visions have always had a lot in common. That was true even before the surrealists came along and incorporated Freudian dream themes into their imagery. And visionary "outsider" artists have long been with us, even though they have typically been innocent of academic training. Beyond those categories there is yet another, less known genre: academically trained Southern populist artists who paint what only their mind's eye can see.
South Carolina-born, Atlanta-based Charles Keiger is a case in point. Although elegant plantation houses appear in the background of many of his paintings at Cole Pratt, Keiger is a populist in the sense that his imagery is generally accessible to anyone. The tone is folksy and there is an implicit, if conjectural, story line. In fact, his stuff is actually reminiscent of those early American "primitive" painters of the 18th and 19th centuries.
In Walk With Sunflower, a woman walks a small dog on a path over rolling hills. Raising her arm skyward, she is flanked by tall, spindly sunflowers and everything stands out in dreamlike relief including a discarnate hand, like a wispy, backwoods version of the hand of God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, reaching toward hers from out of the clouds. It's an epiphany-drenched moment, but it's up to the viewer to decide what the story line might be.
Thirst for the Past depicts a Hank Williams sort of archetypal Southern musician clutching his guitar as he dips an old bottle into the tepid flow of a fountain in front of a plantation house, and we know this must mean something, but what? As in Sunflower, visual logic -- or dream logic -- trumps Cartesian reason. As Fellini proved in film, the image is its own justification. Much spookier are some other paintings with clown-like figures that initially suggest sappy waiting room art, but might possibly be stranger and darker than that. All in all, Keiger's paintings distill something of the Southeastern predilection for dreamlike nostalgia.
Also dreamlike and accessible but sometimes far less ambiguous are Florida-based artist Nancie Warner's new paintings at LeMieux. Warner can be perplexing because her imagery can be so cartoonishly opinionated that it might seem as if it escaped from the op-ed pages of a mass-market publication. Only up close does one notice the unusual depth and finesse of the finish. What looks flat and ordinary from a distance attains a jewel-like luster at close range, a depth that sometimes seems incongruous with her occasional "hit 'em over the head" style of messaging.
In one noteworthy example we see some evil-looking geek at his desk about to stick a pin through a monarch butterfly. Other insect victims appear impaled with pins or trapped under glass and the whole scene is as twisted as a Gahan Wilson cartoon. Yet it's finely painted in delicately layered oils on board primed with rabbit-skin-glue gesso, an old master technique. As if to make sure we know that she thinks of this dude, the painting is titled Slime McGee, and it's possible to agree entirely with the sentiment and still come away feeling that the overkill isn't just limited to the guy sticking pins through insects. Dreamlike imagery works better when life's essential mystery is represented, as we see in Time Is, Time Was, The Time Has Passed, a view of a dusky woman standing waist deep in the sea. Her headdress incorporates an hourglass and the moon floats above her outstretched hand, and here the image serves as a meditation on the eternal enigma of time. Dream imagery is effective when it evokes those subjective realities that lurk just beneath the surface of experience.
A good example of how social commentary can work within that approach is seen in John Scott's spectacular woodcuts at Arthur Roger. Beyond his tribute to Louis Armstrong in the front gallery, his Blues Poem for the Urban Landscape series in the middle gallery is a dreamily expressionistic evocation of the milieu from whence Armstrong came, the back streets of abandoned cars and antiquated, tumbledown housing. Scott effectively distills the vitality as well as its claustrophobic chaos of those places in this subtly powerful series of prints that no fan of works on paper should miss.
- Find the plot in the painting: Charles Keiger's Walk With Sunflower suggests a story line behind its state moment of epiphany.