There's a fine line between sincerity and commercialism that often manifests itself in a sort of fantasy folk art style whose sheen of color and sophistication can be mightily, though superficially, appealing.
That thought was never far from my mind when I visited the exhibition "Jonathan Green," at Dixon Gallery and Gardens through Oct. 14.
Green, born in 1955, grew up in the Gullah culture of South Carolina, and his bright, rhythmic paintings purport to pay homage to the traditions of work, play and worship that are his heritage. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, worked through an evolving series of styles — his paintings from the mid-1980s in this exhibition reveal a marked influence of Picasso and Synthetic Cubism — and gradually came into the manner that made his fame.
Color is the inescapable element of his efforts. One large piece, "Silver Slipper Club" from 1990, depicts a dance in a roadhouse in full swing. The composition is dominated by four dresses that from left to right feature horizontal green and yellow stripes, multicolored polka-dots on a shimmering black background, green triangles on a pink dress with purple trim, and large bluish circles on a green background. The bravura effect and the sheer musicality of the piece are exhilarating.
"Silver Slipper Club" serves as a kind of "Saturday Night/Sunday Morning" bookend to another large painting, "The Congregation," also from 1990. Here the assembled host is arrayed in church pews that extend from the foreground up to the top of the plane, where the choir stands. Portrayed in a rich mélange of black and brown skin hues, the congregation sits solemnly, though dressed in bright colors and the women in fantastic hats, while one woman, in the background, dances in an exuberance of faith.
The difference between these seemingly related paintings — truly this exhibition's centerpieces — in that in "Silver Slipper Club" the dancers have no faces, while in "The Congregation" the artist has bestowed individual faces on the people. Green has said that the device of depicting his characters without facial features is his way of asserting the sense of community they share, yet when you see the myriad faces in "The Congregation" and the manner in which those features give resonance and depth to each figure, then the "faceless" device becomes a mere tic, more annoying and inadequate each time it's seen.
This exhibition was organized by the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Ga., with whom the Dixon has had a long and fruitful relationship. I wonder, though, why the Morris put this show together anyway, when Green's work can be seen on many sites on the Internet and most prominently on his website jonathangreenstudios.com. While it's interesting to see some of Green's older work (this exhibition stops at 2000), is that because after the turn of the century Green's constant enforcement of innocence and nostalgia became repetitive and commercial?
The anomaly in this exhibition is a stunning little colored pencil on paper piece called "Nun from Guatemala," from 1982, the only overtly political work by Green that I have seen. Here a terrified nude nun, her head being devoured by an eagle whose feathers are stars and stripes, is wreathed by a giant snake bearing in its mouth a bright red apple.
The feeling of menace and despair are palpable, as is the artist's commitment to a political position. It's a long way from this riveting and deeply invested work to one more depiction of bright quilts waving on a clothesline.
At Dixon Gallery and Gardens, 4339 Park, through Oct. 14. Call 901-761-5250 or visit Dixon.org.