Art Review: Smaller collections worth a look at Memphis Brooks Museum

'Compressing Cotton for Liverpool (Memphis),' etching, Elisabeth Searcy, 1925.

"Compressing Cotton for Liverpool (Memphis)," etching, Elisabeth Searcy, 1925.

'On This Land,' artist, Karen Kunc; author, Lenora Castillo, woodblock, Blue Heron Press, 1996.

"On This Land," artist, Karen Kunc; author, Lenora Castillo, woodblock, Blue Heron Press, 1996.

The main exhibition at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art — "Art and Scandal: The McCall Purchase" — closes May 13, so there's not exactly a rush to see it, but you shouldn't dawdle either.

While you're at the Brooks, however, don't neglect a couple of smaller and more intimate exhibitions or the reorganization of the museum's collection of modern and contemporary art. Museums could not survive if they only produced or took on loan the showy exhibitions; there's a lot of square feet of wall space to fill.

"Architectural Perspectives: The Etchings of Elisabeth Searcy and Joseph Pennell" was curated by Marilyn Masler, associate registrar at the Brooks, from the museum's collection. Pennell (1857-1926) was one of the most highly regarded print-makers and illustrators of his time, especially in the field of architecture and the urbanscape. Looking at his masterful etchings brings to life the long-vanished auras of New York, Paris and London.

The other artist in this show, Elisabeth Searcy (1877-1965), was born in Arkansas and raised in Memphis (and died here). She studied at the Art Students League in New York, and Pennell was one of her teachers, accounting for the conjunction of the two. Among her etchings on display are several of the Memphis waterfront, for example, "Rescue Boats at Memphis in 1927," with the Harahan Bridge in the distance.

While Searcy was a talented etcher and her pieces in this exhibition present a good eye for detail and a firm hand, her work seems a bit dutiful alongside the work of her mentor. Pennell was capable of a freedom of line and design that feels almost giddy, as in the quickly sketched — I mean, etched — cloud shapes in "The Woolworth Building," from 1915. Still, Searcy's work offers great charm and lively technique.

Visitors to the Brooks should also take a look at "Revealed Terrain: Landscape in Contemporary Artists Books," curated by Cynthia Nourse Thompson, a faculty member at Memphis College of Art who has organized a series of provocative exhibitions for that entity, at the Overton Park building and the Downtown graduate school. This pristine gathering of spectacularly beautiful and, in their own way, provocative books satisfies on the esthetic level and also expands the viewer's notion of what a book is or could be.

Thompson selected the objects from the museum's extensive collection of fine press and artists' books and from collectors and presses around the country. Just as the notion of what constitutes a book is expanded here, so is the interpretation of terrain and landscape, bringing to these irresistible (and in some cases tongue-in-cheek works) a sense of imaginative unsettledness, of fictive geography found on no physical map.

Finally, visitors should make their way to the back corner of the first floor galleries where the permanent collection is displayed to see how Marina Pacini, the museum's chief curator, has re-organized the museum's holdings in modern and contemporary art. Such an undertaking carries risks, because no museum can display all of its art at the same time, and longtime patrons of the Brooks may look through these rooms and miss some favorite pieces.

The point, though, is what's there, not what's not — to express the notion in a Zen sort of way — and to that end Pacini has assembled and arranged a group of dizzyingly diverse works that play off each other with potent resonance. Especially affecting is the first gallery devoted to abstraction in myriad styles that greatly benefit from the juxtapositions of form and color and keen attention to lighting. It's a stimulating jewel-box of a room.

Memphis Brooks Museum of Art

"Architectural Perspectives: The Etchings of Elisabeth Searcy and Joseph Pennell" is on exhibit through July 14, and "Revealed Terrain: Landscape in Contemporary Artists Books" runs through July 20; 1934 Poplar, in Overton Park. Call (901) 544-6200 or visit brooksmuseum.org.

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