“Who among us would be without the land on which to build our lives?” asks Russell Worth Parker in an essay from a series of Southern creatives included in the catalog accompanying the latest special exhibition at the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta accompanied.
Entitled The View from Here: Three Master Painters Consider the Landscape, this small exhibition of 10 paintings provides at least a partial answer to the question Parker posed. Differing in style and focus, the landscape paintings by John Cleaveland, Julyan Davis, and Philip Juras show three individual responses to the natural environment. The works reflect the visual language used by each artist to flesh out their perception of the world around them.
The largest works in the current show are by Cleaveland; his The Nature of Remembrance, for example, is 10 feet in diameter. Viewing this work, one wishes that the gallery space chosen for this exhibition could have been larger so that visitors could step back and comfortably view the work in its entirety. Yet, even from close range, this view of a secluded, rock-framed creek sheltered under a canopy of sun-dappled trees envelops—one might say embraces—the viewer.
In a talk at Morris on June 9, the artist spoke of the shock of the death of his teenage son and how painting this particular landscape, a picture of an environment his child favored, helped him find some solace in his loss. He painted, in his own words, “what his heart dictated”. The resulting image translates a creek bed loved by father and son into a verdant chapel of calm.
Born in England but now based in Asheville, Davis is represented on the current show by a single triptych inspired by a patch of Lowcountry swamp in the Beidler Forest Wildlife Sanctuary. Echoing the three-part altarpieces whose uses transcend any particular religion, The Beidler Triptych refers to the indwelling spirit found in the natural world.
Davis cites his collaboration with famed poet Glenis Redmond in introducing him to the animist focus of much Afro-Carolina religious practice. Thus, with this emphasis on the essential spiritual essence of each piece of the natural landscape, the artist has offered highly painterly images of cypress knees and various birds, set against a background of shimmering, toned tree trunks. All three central paintings are surrounded by similarly painted frames, the shapes of which reflect Gothic patterns.
As an aside, the plan is to bring Glenis Redmond, who has served as a teaching artist at both the Peace Center in Greenville and the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC for programs at both the USCA campus and the Center for African American History, to Aiken in February , Arts and Culture.
The third painter featured in the current exhibition is the Augustan-born Juras, whose earlier work has been shown twice at the Morris, the first time with his imaginative landscapes based on the journals of the 18th-century naturalist William Bartram. His latest painting project derives directly from his volunteer service as an “Eco-Burner” at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Nature Conservancy. The term “eco-burner” derives from the controlled burns that are often used to maintain the viability of a particular ecosystem.
Each of the five Jurassic paintings now on view offer glimpses of controlled fires at various locations in Georgia, from Tallulah Gorge to Little Saint Simons Island. Depicted from up close or from afar, these flame and smoke fires are set against a variety of vegetation, from upland pine forest to coastal savannah. The Jurassic landscapes show the same meticulous attention to detail seen in the Cleaveland paintings, but the focus on the effects of fire and smoke gives the works a more impressionistic feel.
The View from Here offers visitors to the Morris through 9/11 three personal perspectives from painters on our collective relationship with the land. The exhibition catalog also includes essays by J. Drew Lanham, Jason Thrasher and John Lane. Lane, a poet, environmentalist and author of My Paddle to the Sea and Coyote Settles the South, was inducted into the South Carolina Literary Hall of Fame at a ceremony in Greenville in 2014; I still remember his eloquent acceptance speech.