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4-person exhibit focuses on delicate art of portraiture

Mar 9, 2003

"Diverse Portraits: Trena McNabb, Meredith Steele, Gary Palmer, Grace Li Wang"

Grace Li Wang Art Gallery, Raleigh, through March 31.

"Delicate Positions: Marty Baird"

Raleigh Contemporary Gallery, Raleigh, through March 30.

Thank heavens for the commercial gallery. Yes, they want to sell art and the artists want you to buy, but in today’s economic atmosphere, that is not happening as often as it should. Yet, the galleries keep their doors open because of their love and passion for art. And the artists, who are probably moonlighting as teachers, food servers, or computer programmers, make art because they cannot live without it.

So I was off to visit two galleries, and my first stop was at Grace Li Wang’s gallery, which is less than a year old. There, Wang has arranged a four-person theme show around portraiture.

Trena McNabb, who works with near life-size figures drawn in graphite on raw canvas, surrounds them with colorful objects that describe the person or what they do. For example, in "Migrant Worker," a mother holding a baby dominates a canvas where objects within and outside an implied house move vertically up the canvas. At her feet are the kitchen, children’s toys, a double bed. As our eyes move to the top of the composition, we see a ramshackle house, a dilapidated trailer and a packed clothesline.

McNabb has caught the very essence of this woman, and she is able to successfully do that over and over —- whether she’s conveying a fireman with his tools, an art collector with his treasures or a missionary couple surrounded by the Africans they taught. Although they seem like specific portraits, there is a universality to each because of the way she weaves the objects in and around the figures. In every canvas, we see the work of an artist who is technically sure and artistically original.

Meredith Steele juxtaposes images from commercial culture with a colorful palette and use of collage as an under-surface technique. In "Sock Monkey, Paperwhites, Aluminum Siding" she surrounds the toy with rectangular collaged squares painted with such images as a cup, street signs, and a water tower. Her canvases intrigue us as we try to figure out the relationships between the images.

In her single portraits, the face crowds the surface, surrounded by large collaged color fields painted over with various shapes. Steele’s art is not easy; her canvases are a challenge. Long after most paintings are forgotten, however, her compositions will linger in our memory.

Gary Palmer’s spare drawings of women with pixieish faces are done in charcoal and coffee. With a sure line, his women settle into a portion of a square white canvas, never centered. He then uses real coffee, mixed with pigment, to stain the canvas. The final result is a thin wash that runs down the canvas, through the faces. At first it appears that the artist has made a mistake and that the image may disappear. This ephemeral quality makes an average portrait into something unusual. Palmer’s art holds a lot of promise; we need to see more of it.

Wang, a Taiwanese who has been in North Carolina since she was 11 years old, owns the gallery and is as devoted to her artists as she is to her own artwork. Her paintings in this show consist of only one portrait (I would have liked more) and a series of nude figure studies. The portrait, which is a fine facial landscape, fills the canvas to its edges and is heavily encrusted with paint and color.

Wang believes in North Carolina as an environment that produces very special artists and has set up her gallery to showcase them as well as her own work.

Solo abstract show

Next on my gallery tour, I moved downtown to the Raleigh Contemporary Gallery where Marty Baird is having a solo show. Baird is an abstract painter, who peels, scratches, digs and labors over her surfaces.

Sometimes her work seems so focused on surface and texture that themes are not immediately apparent. She talks about her work as two sides of a coin, "They reveal and hide, protect and conceal. I can hide my demons or show them."

Baird lost a daughter a couple of years ago and one way she deals with that tragedy is through her art.

"We planted a small garden in her memory," she told me, "and I started collecting fern in the early spring and taking rubbings of these natural elements. It was a way of touching her, I guess." She has also made rubbings of wrought iron fences, gates, posts and other architectural elements.

This series is an incorporation of those delicate leaves and the intricate designs of old wrought iron on her heavily worked canvases.

Baird explained her process. "I use the best Belgium linen available and stretch it very tight. I need my support to withstand all the digging and scraping I do with the paint."

In "At The Edge," she silhouettes a black rocklike formation against a pale yellow ground while a single leaf floats above. Here, the surface is pockmarked with spots where she peeled back the paint to reveal a blue layer underneath.

In "Delicate Positions," the outline of the wrought-iron design comes through a delicate brown wash that settles near the bottom of the painting while sprigs of fern float near the top.

For all the working and reworking of her surfaces, the results are delicate. Only in "At The Edge" is there even a whisper of blackness. This artist has reached that fine balance between rough and elegant, between tough and soft.

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in The Arts. She can be reached at blueg@bellsouth.net or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, P.O. Box 2092, Durham, NC 27702.


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