The problem that has to be dealt with at Rhodes College’s Clough-Hanson Gallery is the windows, five of them, broad and inescapable, two on each long wall, one in the center of the back wall. In fact, there’s very little back wall at all, and not a lot of long wall space. Galleries need light, but controlled light, not sunlight glaring on works of art.
Curators and directors of the gallery have worked around the windows in various fashions, but artist Tom Lee, whose installation “Sheer Delight” will be displayed at Clough-Hanson through Oct. 12, had his own way of handling the situation.
He removed the shades or blinds from the windows so that light pours in, and hung diaphanous scrims and ephemeral curtains that not only do not prove a barrier to light but seem to welcome light and gather it in their gauzy folds.
In the center of the room stand four slender wood columns that are gently rhythmic and modulated in their curvaceous, rippling upward thrust, though “thrust” conveys too much a sense of dynamics and purpose. These columns, turned on a lathe, while muscular, are calm and meditative, Brancusi translated into Zen.
Each column is surrounded by paper “doilies” of the utmost complexity and delicacy, two square, two rectangular, lying flat on the floor; the columns are like strange plants that have grown up and through the protective yet fragile ground of the hand-cut doilies.
Look at the curtains again. Their embroidery conceals not only swirling botanical and floral motifs but odd, even threatening figures: bird-cows, fish-men, little monsters, elemental mythic beasts; a fecund world of catastrophe looms in the gossamer webs.
This enclave of tranquility is not exactly what we expected; it’s more baroque and ambiguous. The columns take on more power — this happens as the light subtly shifts — evoking a feeling of enigmatic totems, beautiful, strangely spiritual, unknowable, defining a small vestal precinct for meditation, prayer or sacrifice.
Lee’s work has always encompassed complementary and contrasting concepts of craftsmanship, handiness, artifice and naked materiality. In the past, going back to when I first wrote about his work in 1991 — a faculty exhibition at Memphis College of Art — Lee’s efforts included sly (and sometimes not so sly) elements of humor and satire.
In “Sheer Delight,” however, we see an artist who can do anything he wants with the mediums he employs, but who chooses the road of simplicity, childlike wonder, dreamlike myth and transparency. Viewers will want to hunker down for a while and watch the light change and the installation change with it.
The new director of Clough-Hanson is Joel Parsons, replacing Hamlett Dobbins, who is at the American Academy in Rome for a year. With “Sheer Delight,” Parsons makes a terrific first impression.
Tom Lee, “Sheer Delight”
At Clough-Hanson Gallery, Rhodes College, through Oct. 12. Call 901-843-3442 or visit rhodes.edu/gallery.