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Sometimes it's worth taking the time to go out and see actual art. In some cases there is a payoff.

Art in a municipal building that's actually worth seeing 

Works by Troy Wingard, Una Pett and James B. Ward

Troy Wingard, Una Pett, James B. Ward
Chapel Hill Town Hall
Through Jan. 29

Sometimes it's worth taking the time to go out and see actual art. In some cases there is a payoff. The thumbnail image on your computer screen or the pixilated reproduction in your newspaper doesn't always pack the same punch as in that moment when a real live art piece enters your visual field.

You might want to consider dropping by Chapel Hill Town Hall before Jan. 29. Troy Wingard's "Doug," on view in the main lobby, is worth seeing in person. "Doug" is a larger-than-life photorealistic drawing, pastel on paper. Its subject is the face of a young man in a knit cap. He projects a look of placid concern, his brow furrowed in thought. He's framed by darkness, but his face is illuminated, luminous. Light is reflected in his eyes, it seems to emanate from his skin. A central impulse in much of Wingard's work, as we see in Chapel Hill's Town Hall, is light itself, its presence, and the idea of light as a portal to the sublime.

With "Doug," Wingard posits portraiture as landscape. This has something to do with scale. The outsized drawing emphasizes the planes of the face as mappable expanse. The subject's expression sets forth a feeling of a "place" of contemplation, process, thought, intention. It's a fleeting moment that's also infinitely complex and absorbing. It is difficult to view this work for any amount of time without an involuntary empathic shift into a shared state of being with the drawing's subject.

Wingard's "Freedom Icon" depicts a young man rendered in black and white. He wears glasses, a cap, dreads. He looks outward. His head is encircled by a metallic gold halo. If there were any question as to whether Wingard strives for an almost religious, spiritual statement, "Freedom Icon" puts that question to rest. While the iconography of the halo may scan as heavy-handed, one has to appreciate Wingard's bold inference. Wingard bears witness to the sacred in the mundane, and for him this means seeing divinity in people he knows.

Troy Wingard's "For Posterity." Pastel on paper, 76 in. x 23 in. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CHAPEL HILL TOWN HALL

Another overt take on religious art is "For Posterity," which features four beatific figures, each set off by an arch. They are young people, pale, awake, with a gleam in their eyes. They are dressed in contemporary casual clothes: orange zip-up vest, leather jacket, a hoodie, fashionable glasses. One figure sports a nose ring. Wingard draws his friends as he sees them, scruffy saints set against a stormy grey backdrop.

In the title "But What is Your Intent?" Wingard echoes the kinds of questions put to art school students. This subtle two-part composition sets forth an upper arch that frames the torso of the artist, hands open to reveal fingers, thumbs, palms covered with pastel dust. The lower section features two figures: one in a green T-shirt who wanders off, while the other is seen in close-up, his eyes trained downward through glasses toward an unseen light-source, inquisitive. His face is soft, mouth a bit slack. The quality of this particular gaze at this particular moment is the focal point of the piece. Informed by photography and perhaps even Photoshop, Wingard's imagery reflects contemporary technologies in an ancient medium. The beauty of Wingard's work is in his capacity to transcend his own mastery of the medium. That is the mandate of virtuosity; once it is achieved it becomes a given. It is then up to the practitioner to determine how to put it to use. That is something art school cannot teach.

Unfortunately, the Town Hall show is hung in such a way that Wingard's work is interspersed throughout the building with work by another artist, Una Pett. This random, hodgepodge presentation diminishes the power of both artists' work, and much is lost in this curatorial approach.

click to enlarge "erin" by Una Pett. Oil on canvas. 11 in. x 14 in. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CHAPEL HILL TOWN HALL

Pett is an accomplished, competent portrait artist. The work on display highlights her preoccupation with the geometry of portraiture—she takes an architect's approach to the depiction of the face. The graphite pieces have the quality of architectural blueprints. Breaking the pictorial plane into an agglomeration of surfaces, Pett employs precise cross-hatching and an assured hand in her drawing. She also works with erasure as a mode of construction.

"jane" (all Pett's titles are in lowercase) is done in graphite, water color and gouache on paper. In this piece, paint is applied with economy, highlighting the outline of a figure rendered primarily in pencil. The drawing's subject is seen reclining, reading. Pett's composition is paradoxical; its active, gestural markings coalesce to convey a figure in repose.

Pett's "conversation" series consists of long narrow drawings, studies of rows of standing figures seen mainly from behind. "conversation III" is perhaps the most successful. Rendered against a gray-green background, the drawing comes alive with the painterly, visible brush strokes that form the negative space in monochrome, vibrantly setting off her figure studies.

Many of Pett's pieces are formal studies of heads that bear names of people who are close to her. These are well-worked, considered canvases. However, many of them feel more like perfectionistic studies than fully realized paintings. One exception is from Pett's "lou" series. "lou I" is Pett's smallest scale offering in the show, but it is the most fully realized. Its simplified palette and deft composition gives this diminutive work aesthetic weight.

click to enlarge Wheel-thrown stoneware by James B. Ward - PHOTO COURTESY OF CHAPEL HILL TOWN HALL

Rounding out the exhibit are elegant examples of wheel-thrown and altered stoneware by James B. Ward. These are simple utilitarian pieces: bowls, plates, cups and teapots. Ward's glazes are subtle, rich earth tones. The works are humble in the best sense. They hold the space with grace and generate a renewed excitement about the idea of the handmade.

Chapel Hill Town Hall, located at 405 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., is open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m.to 5 p.m. For more information, call 968-2749 or e-mail info@chapelhillarts.org.

  • Sometimes it's worth taking the time to go out and see actual art. In some cases there is a payoff.

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