In one work, nude couples loaf pleasurably on a beach beneath a tropical sun. In another, a woman turns her back on a disastrous winter sky, shielding her eyes in fright.
But the beach scene (titled “Southbound: Allegory of Summer”) isn’t all steamy indolence. In the background, a menacingly large waterfowl parts the ocean with sharp wings.
And does doom really lurk behind the polar hills in the latter painting? Maybe not: One child in “Northbound: Allegory of Winter” holds out a teasing hand to a leaping dog; both figures seem oblivious to the landscape’s numbing desolation.
Robert Godfrey, the artist responsible for these scenes — part of Points on a Compass, currently on display at Zone one contemporary gallery — has been a professional artist for more than 30 years and is the chair of Western Carolina University’s art department. Godfrey’s work, which he’s exhibited all over America and abroad, has enjoyed enthusiastic reviews in such esteemed publications as the New York Times, ARTNews and ART Magazine. and was considered a highly influential force in the New York City art scene of the late ’70s. Still, the Asheville-based artist continues to welcome fresh interpretations of his work.
“What surprises me the most is when people have said that [the "season" paintings] look apocalyptic,” he explains. “Whereas I might see certain images as playful or nurturing [and] certain gestures as romantic, the critics or audience might view them as threatening. They don’t see the romance that I see.”
Trapped in the throbbing underbelly of the earth’s four seasons, the men, women and children inhabiting Godfrey’s latest series of paintings cavort in climates of strange energy. That one viewer sees dancing where another sees panic does not perturb the artist, who asserts, “I think about it, but I don’t agree or disagree [with differing perceptions]. One job of art is to make you see a piece in a way you haven’t previously experienced it. Since I am also a critic and a writer, I [realize] that everyone has a right to their own story.”
In creating the paintings in Points on a Compass, Godfrey was further inspired by the cynical pronouncement of a fellow art critic, who felt that the artistic exploration of nature’s cycles was a bit (ahem) out of season.
“It was something that had just been mentioned in passing, but I thought it was sort of funny,” Godfrey notes of the assertion that the four-seasons theme is washed up. “I had already started the series, and that [comment] made me dig my toenails in a little more.”
Stroking new life into an ancient subject requires a visionary palette; Godfrey’s arctic pinks, extreme oranges and urgent blues gain restless definition in his smaller works — a series of 12-inch-by-12-inch distillations of the larger paintings, displayed in a neat row. One gallery staffer remarked that these small works tended to acquire new characteristics, depending on where they were placed in relation to one another.
“That’s true in any series where color is key,” Godfrey concurs. “The final placement was by chance. I didn’t have a scientific place [for them].”
In “Eastbound: Spring,” however, that animation must be conveyed in stark silhouette. This charcoal landscape lives apart from both the small series and the larger oil paintings. Here, couples merge in helpless kisses amid frenzied trees, while a small army of cupids hovers overhead, arrows poised for action. The work is dedicated to the artist’s one-time colleague and mentor, Larry Day.
“[Day] did a series of drawings before he died called ‘Tempi di Giorno,’ that featured a kissing symbol lifted from Fragonard,” he remembers. Appropriating Day’s own appropriation formed a fitting tribute to his late friend, feels Godfrey — who also borrows images from around his own home (his dog, Betty, is a frolicking constant in all of the larger works).
To every season, there are shades of meaning: “Westbound: Allegory of Autumn” and its fraternal twin “Northwest II: Early Autumn” cater generously to this timeless truth. In the first painting, a festive group of men and women witness a transcendent sunset; but in the companion piece, the prominent couple (pictured in the right-hand foreground both times) seems strained in argument, and the campfire — a cool blue in its early phase — blazes skyward with violence.
“I was trying to [explore the stages of the seasons], but I’m not sure that I’ve been entirely successful,” notes Godfrey with a brooding air. “It’s interesting to see [that theme] progress, but I’m not sure it’s completely developed … and, also, I was playing with how subtly and how literally to show the [changes].”
Emotion through movement is this artist’s indisputable coup: Godfrey’s human figures are largely faceless; their deep expression resides in their wistful and vigorous body language.
“I’m as much of a draftsman as a figurative artist,” he agrees. “The meanings come through with gesture. In drawings where I’ve had time [to add] a lot of detail as I’m developing a figure, I sometimes find that I’ve sacrificed too much.”