Let’s forgo the usual commentary about beauty and what is beauty and does beauty exist and if it does who cares and did the 20th century kill beauty and can ugly things be beautiful and just say that “A Different Kind of Landscape: Maysey Craddock and Erin Harmon” at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art is an exhibition of rare beauty.
That evaluation applies both to the work by these well-known local artists and to the arrangement and hanging of the show, organized by the museum’s chief curator and curator of American, modern and contemporary art, Marina Pacini.
The exhibition title is apt. Neither Craddock nor Harmon has the least interest in broad fields, hazy mountains, towering forests, seething rivers or flaring sunsets. The landscapes they create, in varying forms of intricate mixed media techniques, reflect emotional and psychological reactions to the external world, reaching from the summit of transcendence to the depths of the unconscious, mythic, witchy, mysterious.
In an interview with The Commercial Appeal in 2005, Harmon spoke of “balancing interior and exterior space,” a concept that still applies to her now very different work, and to Craddock’s as well.
Thematically and technically, Craddock has produced a consistent body of work. Her “canvas” typically consists of found paper bags that she flattens and sews together; the medium is gouache, a form of watercolor that’s thicker and a little chalky.
Profoundly affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Craddock produced paintings dense with foreboding, disaster and ruin, formulating skeletal remains of shattered buildings and trees and bridges.
Craddock still treads along the edges of this motif but with growing maturity, insight and detachment, offering a more generalized view of the human condition through these utterly stylized and fairly drastic visions of twisted and tangled roots and branches and rural dwellings.
In fact, among the most intense of Craddock’s pieces in this exhibition are a pair of small recent paintings — “the shadow of lost trees” and “maritime” — that come close to abstraction while expressing a deep and contradictory sense of rootedness and isolation.
Harmon’s work has undergone immense transformation since she had shows at Second Floor Contemporary in 2005 and Clough-Hanson Gallery in 2006. (She arrived at Rhodes College in 2004 and is now chairwoman of the art department.)
Of her highly polished paintings in 2006, I wrote, “With their lush yet glassy smoothness and weird tactile spoonability, they seem like exotic sorbets preserved in a deliciously dangerous aspic.”
Harmon’s métier in those days was excess; now it’s painstaking intricacy and reticence, though with no less concentration on the paradoxical marriage of gaiety and the sinister. These are dark carnivals, disturbing bouquets.
There’s something of magical about Harmon’s method in these works of gouache and collage, and also something — if I may be forgiven an old-fashioned reference — feminine, in the sense of the delicacy and dedication with which, for example, my grandmother painted floral designs on a pot and the fragile little cups of a hot chocolate set at the turn of the preceding century.
My grandmother, however, would not have brought a strange and colorful sentience to a “Post-Historic Landscape” or “Land of Lost and Found,” the first on a black background, the second on white, each projecting the feeling of an out-of-focus fairy tale.
Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but mostly the truly beautiful partakes of elements not only harmonious but novel, idiosyncratic, remote. Those aspects elevate the work of Craddock and Harmon to a higher level of singular, uncanny elegance.
“A Different Kind of Landscape”
Works by Maysey Craddock and Erin Harmon, at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, 1934 Poplar in Overton Park, through Nov. 10.
Call 901-544-6200 or visit brooksmuseum.org.