Anyone familiar with the Asheville art scene over the last 20 years must suspect by now that Will Henry Stevens was the most prolific painter of the 20th century.
The current Blue Spiral 1 exhibit of new — that is, never previously exhibited — Stevens pieces consists of 60 or so canvases and works on paper. Still, his familiar, stylized mountain landscapes are here, plus some obviously experimental (though not groundbreaking) abstracts.
What finally makes Color and Harmony: The Poetic Visions of Will Henry Stevens a little different are the landscapes depicting the painter’s home in Louisiana. (Blue Spiral, which has exclusive rights to Stevens’ estate, mounted a show a decade ago that included a number of his Gulf Coast works: Will Henry Stevens: From the Mountains to the Sea. Yet for the most part, Asheville has only seen Stevens’ abstracts and regional landscapes.)
Water is the vital element unifying much of Stevens’ output. His mountain rivers hurry over rocks and carve gorges; his bayou swamp is ominously still. It’s been said that a good landscape tells the viewer how the air there meets the skin — and, accordingly, some of the Louisiana works sweat real humidity.
“Untitled #1433″ is a simple pastel depicting a boat moored in murky brown water before an unexpectedly pink-and-turquoise fishing camp. Scrubby dun woods lurk in the background, but everything within that moment captured keeps quiet and still. Almost all of Stevens’ figurative works show houses or stores, clusters of small homes, barns, shacks, sheds and even a few churches — however unobtrusive, the human hand remains evident.
Stevens reveals nothing, though, in the full glare of day. He favors subdued light — either pre-storm calm or end-of-day softness.
The viewer with an art-history background will likely take deeper interest in Stevens’ newly exhibited abstracts (Kandinsky and Klee are widely acknowledged influences). Several works straddle the figurative/nonfigurative line — “Untitled #1150″ includes flowers (water lilies?) and twig shapes arranged on an abstract blue-green background suggesting, unsurprisingly, water. Some paintings have triangles at the top like mountain peaks; in others, leaf shapes and fish can be discerned.
Georgia O’Keeffe could have created the unusually large and tranquil “Untitled #609.” Its muted palette of pale grays, mauves and browns supports simple shapes, making this work unique to the exhibit. Another pastel, “Untitled #1173,” is a more typically complex arrangement of forms that edge away from organic.
And then the suddenly title-worthy “Circle Half Circle” appears, strongly geometric. Here, well-defined forms float in undefined space. Chaos has given way to clarity.
Sadly, most of the other displayed pieces are untitled — and, worse, undated. A timeline detailing the painter’s struggles with non-objective work would be useful in placing his abstracts in a historical context.
Color and Harmony may seem less focused than some of Blue Spiral’s earlier, more tightly curated, thematic shows featuring Stevens. But for that very reason, the current exhibit offers an opportunity to explore the far-reaching curiosity of this prolific Southern artist.
Stevens, who died in 1949, worked during a turbulent era characterized by rapid change, and must have felt torn. In his day, artists were doing exciting new things based on the new technologies, the new machines — paintings about speed and mechanization and progress. In his nonfigurative work, Stevens obviously succumbed to that tug.
Yet, more than anything else, he continued to go on painting his beloved bayous and mountains. Even his most nebulous abstracts betray this bias, oozing nature’s wild harmony from their tenaciously soulful forms and hues.
[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based artist and writer.]
Color and Harmony: The Poetic Visions of Will Henry Stevens remains on view at Blue Spiral 1 (38 Biltmore Ave.) through Friday, June 25. Call 251-0202 or visit www.bluespiral1.com for more information.