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Earth Movers 

Somerhill Gallery's exhibition of landscape paintings alternately invites and repulses

I think it would have been brilliant to be a painter when the art of painting was also regarded as high technology, a magical accomplishment needing to be underwritten by powerful, wealthy patrons. Today, the formula is somewhat reversed: Technology informs the commercial arts, which now bring in more revenue than all the oil painters laboring away in relative obscurity.

Both the fine arts and the commercial arts are about the presentation and projection of images that have the power to seduce, but the fine arts are less concerned with appealing to the viewer's vanity and basest desires. Which is one of the reasons the fine art of painting is of any value at all today--it is an art well behind the tide of human events, and as such remains one of the few possible repositories for the consciousness of the lone artist.

Somerhill Gallery in Chapel Hill is exhibiting, through June 22, five landscape artists--working in oils or pastels--Howard Petote, Suzanne Howes-Stevens, J. Chris Wilson, Kevin Beck and Rebecca Beeston--whose work reminds us of the power paintings have to seduce through simple representation. Two of the best artists in this show, Rebecca Beeston and Suzanne Howes-Stevens, stake out opposite poles in their manner of portraying landscapes.

Beeston, by a too-great focus upon detail and the honing of it into a sharp flatness, fails to capture the awe-inspiring depth of the greatest landscape painters. But there are certain places in each painting where this is achieved. For instance, in the wind's roiling of a row of trees, almost unnoticed beneath the immensity of a flat green hillside--yet the invisible wind is evident, nearly audible. Even when Beeston deals with the most lush locales, there's a sharpness to her work that conveys a bleakness, a coldness that repels the viewer at the same time that it presents an intriguing clarity. All of this comes together for greatest effect in a large portrait of a forbiddingly high, white and desolately lovely wind-swept peak in the Swiss Alps.

Turning to the landscapes of Howes-Stevens requires a 180-degree spin. Somehow Howes-Stevens captures, with far less detail, that quiet intensity found in the stillness of natural landscapes (though not often seen in portrayals of them)--particularly those suffused with water. This effect is immediately evident upon a first viewing of her works; yet it diminishes after closer examination. There is this difference--and an interesting one--between Beeston and Howes-Stevens: Beeston arrests you at first glance with an obviousness of detail that almost repulses, though it is her very detail that drags you against your will into an appreciation of her work--a precise, cold detail that conveys the strangely alien, vaguely malevolent artlessness of nature; Howes-Stevens' paintings invite you into them, however, drawing you nearer and nearer until the artifice of the illusion, suddenly revealed, destroys them. Perhaps this is intentional, for the biographical data supplied by the gallery informs us that Howes-Stevens is concerned with the destruction of nature. And indeed, each of her paintings is of a place considered threatened. The paintings themselves are rendered upon maps of these very places; and where water is depicted within the landscapes ("swampscapes" would be a more accurate description), these watery places are allowed to show vaguely through the maps. This effort is facilitated by the application of lighter-colored paints in spots where the artist has captured the appearance of still water reflecting the weak, diffused lights of dawns or evenings.

This "trick" with maps adds to or detracts from the work depending on one's taste. I imagine they would work well hanging in the lobby of the business offices of the Nature Conservancy, or as an illustration to a Harper's article about the unfolding "ecocaust." They would serve well as propaganda, and fail as traditional landscapes, while succeeding as good or even beautiful pictures in their own right, pictures well-executed after their own style.

Kevin Beck's works have the charm and surreality of certain cel-frames from Disney's experimental animated film, Fantasia. There's a draftsman-like quality to them, a quality evident also in the works of J. Chris Wilson. Wilson's paintings, however, possess the candidness of a culture nearing its demise, specifically, that of North Carolina's first culture: agriculture. One painting shows a cotton field in cloud-white, over-the-rainbow bloom; another depicts giant, sun-lit, spiraled rolls of hay tumbling upon freshly cut fields. His beautiful series of paintings may as well be titled, "May God Save the State of North Carolina."

Howard Petote is exceptional. He lacks the degree of technical proficiency the other artists can claim, but his obvious enthusiasm, the force with which he renders his peculiar vision, obliterates any deficiencies by co-opting them and impressing them into the service of his wonderful verve. Petote's framing and presentation of his subjects, combined with his sense of color and value, impart a depth and volume, a near-savage vitality, that the other artists in the exhibit, for all their accomplishment, simply do not show. If asked for an opinion of his work, one could be priggish and say something along the lines of what President Kennedy said when asked his opinion of Washington, D.C.: It "combines the best of Northern hospitality and Southern efficiency." But to say this would be in the spirit of Aesop's fox who disparaged the obviously inviting grapes because he could not raise himself up high enough to apprehend their substance.

Meanwhile, in Durham, Craven Allen Gallery is preparing to exhibit Twenty-Eight Twilights, by Sue Sneddon, a Durham artist who travels each fall to the Bogue Banks of North Carolina. The twilights are a series of gorgeous pastels and oils executed at Emerald Isle during her particularly epiphanous sojourn of 1990. "I wanted to record my moments of joy and reverence, of feeling one with something so huge and powerful; this space, where I can stand on the wet sand that is reflecting a perfect twilight, is where I feel most alive," she says. These images were clearly created out of a sense of tranquility, and capture the muted fires of suns setting and melding with the infinities of sky and sea. After experiencing the savage energy of Howard Petote's work at Somerhill Gallery, a viewing of Sneddon's Twilights at Craven Allen will lay a blanket of calmness over the gallerygoer. EndBlock

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