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The World and What's In It

Paintings and clay sculpture come together for an exciting exhibit

by Heather Joyner

My friend Maureen is always welcome to join me in gallery-hopping expeditions. Beyond her interest in seeing new art, she brings to the experience what I can only refer to as a physical connectedness with what she's looking at. While I'm "interpreting" an artist's work in an all-too-cerebral sort of way, she's hunkered down beside it like the gardener that she is, taking in its components...checking out where it's at in the developmental scheme of things. After all, whatever "truth" an artist seeks to convey through a specific piece is first and foremost an actual presence; that truth cannot overcome form that contradicts it.

So there's Maureen, tilting her head to one side and identifying the numerous found objects that Yvonne Hegney and Thom Kittredge have incorporated into ceramics they're currently exhibiting at the Bennett Galleries. I recognize bicycle chain forming a fringe-of-sorts around drain plates set into Hegney and Kittredge's "Rusty Time," but Maureen is the one who can point out the less obvious. She tells me that finer chain festooning what could be a squat Romanesque vase is nothing other than what you'd find in your toilet at home. We talk a bit less about Teri Thomas Gilfilen's more traditional paintings but agree that they could stand alone as well as complement the three-dimensional fare.

I've said little to describe individual pieces, and in a sense, I don't want to—perhaps because the landscapes and clay vessels show works so well as a whole. Gilfilen's colors at times create an almost scorching backdrop for the subtle hues of featured ceramics, something Hegney would appreciate as a former set decorator for both stage and film. Given his construction-contracting past, Hegney's husband Kittredge might acknowledge intervals in Gilfilen's built-up surfaces of pigment. Gilfilen herself manages to display somewhat large canvases without dwarfing the ceramics. It's a pleasing and dramatic combination.

The couple behind the many clay objects has shared a home in Western North Carolina for more than a decade, and Gilfilen lives in Ohio. All three have exhibited widely and are represented in diverse collections belonging to the University of North Carolina, corporations like B.F. Goodrich, HGTV, and New York Times Publishing, and private patrons (including singer Judy Collins). Although who owns what is not the ultimate measure of a piece's value, it's encouraging that so much art is being purchased, and without undue emphasis on a handful of "big names." Maybe it's the sale of their works that permits these particular artists to be as prolific as they are. Maybe they're simply jazzed about what they're doing. Either way, we have plenty to see—most of it produced within the last year or so.

As stated above, Gilfilen's landscapes are traditional. That is, they pay homage to a genre of American Realism that has intrigued us for centuries. If one believes that Abstract Expressionism rendered all that preceded it null and void—as have many artists schooled within the past 30 years—it's easy to pooh-pooh what may seem stodgy or uninventive at first glance. However, there are surely Expressionist landscape painters who can exhilarate viewers via the way they lay down paint (as do their more abstract-oriented brethren). In "Olde Florida," an imposing 4' x 5' canvas employing acrylics, Gilfilen achieves both illusionistic space and the kind of daring frontality that allows us to revel in surface detail. The astonishing range of color found in Gilfilen's diminutive "Gilded Sundown" seems almost garish until we let our eyes roam the image and discover its complex logic. The brilliant blues, magenta, yellows, you name it, are no more outrageous than nature itself.

The work of Hegney and Kittredge might also appear a tad over-the-top. Yet the fantastic transformation of mundane materials into elements integral to the pieces they serve feels inevitable. For instance, why shouldn't a storm grate or cast-iron harness resemble an unearthed ancient treasure within a certain context? Maureen calls one particularly Asian-looking vessel "the Emperor's Cookie Jar." Mention that to a group of school kids and I guarantee they'll believe you. All of the ceramics are constructed from coiled clay that is either smoothed over or left in various stages of exposure. The coils are built up to accommodate whatever objects have inspired the form they assume, then treated with metal oxides that produce unusual textures and colors once fired in a pit. There's not much variation to Hegney and Kittredge's shared process, but it seems they have far to go before they exhaust it. What could be a gimmicky approach is instead clever, lighthearted, and substantial. Yet no amount of cleverness can create something from nothing. Maureen could tell you that, and that this show is definitely something.

May 25, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 21
© 2000 Metro Pulse