Touching the intangible

Drawing and painting can be learned. Using those skills to explain the world is when the creative process becomes art.

Georgia painter/professor Ralph Gilbert teaches these subjects as tools to capture intangibles.

The relationship between skill and imagination, the definition of art or great art: These issues are difficult, subjective — and fleeting. And understanding how a painter struggles through them gives us insight not just into the artist, but into ourselves. For a brief period of time, Asheville is hosting a pair of shows that offer a glimpse into the very nature of creation.

Gilbert’s current series of paintings, The Dream Life of Babies, is on display at UNCA’s University Gallery. Babies centers around Gilbert’s young daughter and the world of her dreams. She is portrayed sleeping peacefully in each, while her dreams fill the rest of the composition with mysteries. Dense and complex in application and imagery, the paintings are often puzzles full of hidden, oblique references to Velazquez, Goya and Titian. Gilbert studied many of the Spanish masters at the Prado Museum while living in Madrid, making sketches of some of the world’s most treasured masterpieces. This exercise dramatically influenced the series, not just by invocation and direct reference, but, in the best cases, through emotion.

“The Babysitter” depicts a television glowing quietly in the corner with Diego Velazquez’ puzzling “Las Meninas” frozen on the screen, the baby quietly sleeping yet still interested in the commotion behind her. As with Velazquez, Gilbert’s puzzles aren’t meant to be solved so much as merely felt. The mystery and allegory serve more as meditations and illusions than questions wanting specific answers.

“My philosophy is to portray the intangible through tangible means,” he told a lecture audience prior to the opening at University Gallery, “[and] to create allusions to and illusions of a world that exists outside the painting.”

Gilbert struggles with the philosophy of art, within his own works and those of his students at Georgia State University. His role as a teacher extends outside the classroom: The body of work on display is not merely about his child (and her dreams), nor is it merely about art and its duties to explain the world, but about the greater mysteries of life itself. For Gilbert, these higher ambitions help distinguish and define the essence of art.

Running concurrently with the paintings at UNCA, Gilbert is displaying drawings from his Music Series at the Black Mountain Center for the Arts. The series is a mix of conte-crayon and pen-and-ink drawings and watercolors; all serve as preparation for paintings now underway in his studio. For this series, he observed chamber-music practices, studying movement and capturing gesture. The drawings show his search for what he calls the “subjective nature of observation: the connection between looking outside and looking inside, drawing the real world and inventing through imagination.”

Through the various media, we’re guided through the different stages of his creative process, from quick sketches to meticulous watercolor studies in composition, space and light. Taken as a whole, the pieces illustrate Gilbert’s professed philosophy of creation: Studying the real world of the musicians, grasping at the nature of what he has seen, and, finally, shaping their world.

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