Art Review: Painter's 'Visions' focused on mystical world

Elliott Dangerfield's 'Christ Stilling the Tempest' reveals the full range of the artist's talents, as well as his involvement in the spiritual subject.

Elliott Dangerfield's "Christ Stilling the Tempest" reveals the full range of the artist's talents, as well as his involvement in the spiritual subject.

Art is everywhere, it seems, displayed in commercial galleries, shops that specialize in local artists, museums, various stores that just want to hang some art and sell it, the lobbies of performing arts centers, storefront alternative spaces, restaurants.

There's plenty to see, but at this moment, if one of those darling Muses came to me and said, "You may choose any work of art on display in the city and take it home with you at absolutely no cost or blowback to yourself," the piece I would select might seem rather out of the ordinary.

Elliott Daingerfield's 'The Genius of the Canyon' is from 1913.

Morris Museum of Art

Elliott Daingerfield's "The Genius of the Canyon" is from 1913.

At the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, in the exhibition "Elliott Daingerfield: Victorian Visionary," hangs a small, almost minuscule undated watercolor titled "Nocturne: Moon and Surf." In its technical spontaneity and immediacy, in its engaging sense of nature's remoteness and vitality, in the close-to-abstract character of its treatment, in its very luminosity, this little gem feels not just irresistible, but oddly profound. One realizes that the artist probably regarded the piece as no more than a hasty sketch, and indeed it could not have required more than five minutes' attention to lay out its swaths of whites and grays and blacks, but it embodies a directness and an instinctive insight into the world of sky and sea and night and infinity that belie the heavy-handed symbolism and allegory of Daingerfield's more "important" paintings.

Daingerfield was born in 1859 in Harpers Ferry, Va. The family moved to Fayetteville, N.C., when he was a child, and it was in this town that he was raised and first began studying art. In 1880, he moved to New York to take classes at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League. During the 1880s and '90s, Daingerfield's work took on pronounced spiritual elements, and while many American artists were embracing that European export Impressionism, with its flickering lightness and emphasis on everyday life, he intensified his efforts to convey mystical states via the medium of thick dark pigment and allegorical figures.

"Elliott Daingerfield: Victorian Visionary" was organized in 1994 by the Morris Museum of Art, in Augusta, Ga., and has been seen extensively in the South. Coincidentally, J. Richard Gruber, director of the Morris at the time and contributor to the out-of-print catalog of the exhibition, was director of Memphis Brooks Museum of Art from 1983 to 1989. The Morris has an extensive collection of works by Daingerfield. The exhibition will be displayed at the Dixon through Jan. 28.

The full range of Daingerfield's talents is revealed in a painting like "Christ Stilling the Tempest," from 1905/1910. The small representation of Christ standing on the prow of the beleaguered boat is almost incidental to the remarkable depiction of the storm, which writhes and heaves across the plane like a sentient being, recorded in dense, rapid emotional strokes from a loaded brush. One senses the artist's involvement with the subject and with the paint, his investment in the viscous, in the slashing darkness of the pigment and in the revelatory dynamics that bring a ray of light and hope at the top of the picture in the guise of a barely visible blood-red sun. Because of its balance of theme and medium, its culmination of technique and effect, it's the best painting in the exhibition.

Unfortunately, Daingerfield's work became more ponderously symbolic and allegorical, and in an age in which artists in Europe and American began to question the aesthetic and cultural values of the Victorian age and to sow the seeds of Modernism, he clung tenaciously to his mystical agenda. In 1910, Daingerfield was one of a group of artists commissioned by the Santa Fe railroad to travel to the Grand Canyon. Typically, he perceived this great natural phenomenon not as a geological wonder, however awesomely beautiful, but as a set of allegorical struggles and achievements.

To be fair, Daingerfield was almost transcendentally skilled at bringing nature to hyperrealistic life, though his encrustations of mystical yet opaque narrative seem ludicrous from our vantage. In "The Spirit of the Canyon," one cannot speculate as to why a naked woman is clambering up the sheer walls toward a tiny angel at the top while an ethereal city looms cloud-like overhead. And in "The Genius of the Canyon," usually regarded as his masterpiece -- and in several senses it is magnificent -- there rises an exotic golden city observed by a languid odalisque. One wonders what the executives of the Santa Fe railroad made of such a thing.

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'Elliott Daingerfield: Victorian Visionary'

At Dixon Gallery and Gardens, 4339 Park, through Jan. 8. Call (901) 761-5250.

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