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Gambit Weekly Art and the Poetry of Place

By D. Eric Bookhardt

DECEMBER 15, 1997:  As a subject of story, song and fable, the South long has been defined by an unusually close-knit relationship between the people and the land, an earthy bond that evolved back in the days when the entire region was still mostly rural and agricultural. At some point, the legendary Old South of Faulkner and Twain, Brer Rabbit and Uncle Remus was replaced by the New South of Wal-Mart, Disney World and Ted Turner. While the connection to the land still lingers in wayward cul-de-sacs and backwaters, the endless onslaught of malls and sprawl has taken a pervasive toll.

Jack Spencer's densely sepia-toned black and white photos at Bassetti hark to the dark, alluvial soil of that earlier South and to the people who seemed as rooted there as the verdant green fields they tended. But this is no nostalgia trip, no gift shop reminiscence of Rhett and Scarlet, and there are few flashbacks to lost glory or grandeur beyond some spindly columns arising in poetic decrepitude from what was once Windsor Plantation. Rather than reveling in the usual pictorial cliches, Spencer's approach amounts to an eerie evocation of the land itself and the tone of mystery that lingers in its silent shadows, in places where the people and their world seem woven from the same rugged fabric.

There is an almost abstract, yet fiercely elemental quality about this, as we see in Burning Field No. 1, an infernal pastorale in which a worker's gnarly outline is silhouetted against dense smoke and smoldering stubble under a shrouded twilight sky. While the burning of fields is a traditional practice in places like Louisiana cane country, the tone of such images is oddly mythic and foreboding, a kind of gotterdammerung of the nature spirits.

On the other hand, pictures of children and flowers ordinarily are lighthearted symbols of hope and happiness and, on the surface of it, Girl With Sunflowers is no exception. Here, a sprightly young black girl stands resplendent in her Sunday finery, a white satin and lace dress that glistens in sparkling sunlight against an assembled choir of sunflowers. The girl stands half facing the flowers, head cantered off to the side as if anticipating something yet unseen, and the whole scene is a study in contrasting ebony and ivory, darkness and light. Here we encounter not just ordinary sensibilities of youth and beauty but a deeper and more timeless current as well -- poetics of the earth and sun, of mystery, time and light.

Hans Hofmann's Table and Vases is a precocious blend of European and American influences.
So Spencer draws from a deeper well, from underground streams roiling with the mythic currents of place. A Southern place of pale horses and bare feet, white flowers, ebony faces and gold teeth, all rendered in dense, earthen tones like the residue of primal chthonic fire. It is the fiercely sweet beauty of a land both harsh and sublime and, like most such places, it is fated, doomed to fall before the bulldozers.

The only image that refers to the onslaught of mass culture here is Amorous Window, a faded advertisement for black hair care products displayed in an abandoned shop window. In it, a dashing gent in a tux embraces a nubile maiden with a shimmering mane of curls, a Motown Cleopatra in an opera of dry rot and desolation. As spectral as anything by Clarence Laughlin, this resonates with a ghostly quality of light that seems to dance between dimensions.

Spencer's fondness for the poetic painted abstractions of Mark Rothko is sometimes evident in the swatches of mysterious velvety dark tones that define his prints. And Rothko, like most of the original abstract expressionists, was himself influenced by Hans Hofmann, a resident of Munich and Paris who emigrated to New York in the early 1930s. There, he taught and lectured on modern art techniques gleaned from his own personal friendships with Picasso and Matisse as well as some of the German expressionists.

Although Hofmann's own work remained European in tone, his impact was such that he became known as the godfather of abstract expressionism, a uniquely American modern art form. It was, in fact, America's raw and rugged qualities (the ruggedness seen in Spencer's work) that distinguished domestic abstraction; Europe had been cultivated for centuries, while the U.S. went from frontier to shopping mall almost overnight.

In a compact selection of paintings at Arthur Roger, we see hints of Hoffman's American influence as well as his European pedigree. Table and Vases depicts a woman defined by swatches of bright colors and black lines as she greets us precociously from 1935 with intimations of Rothko, Pollock and DeKooning, as well as memories of Matisse. And it's all there -- the demure passion under the prim facade, the freewheeling art of the modern jazz age not quite concealed by the conventions of an earlier day.

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