While not romantically rendered, the figures in Warren Dennis’ paintings are certainly romanticized. Dennis has described his work as a “meditation on the American spirit.
“I have seen this spirit in its humor, its complexity, its struggle, and above all, in its unquenchable determination to triumph over adversity,” the Mississippi-based painter noted in the artist statement accompanying his featured work now at Marie-Terrel Gallery.
And yet most of Dennis’ subjects do not seem to struggle.
His “Outfielder,” for instance, stands at the ready on unnaturally green grass under an intensely blue sky, the player’s right hand casually resting on his hip, his left loosely holding a bat. Like Dennis’ other figures, this one is highly stylized; he has big hands and an elongated, heavy torso, plus feet like a dancer and a small, almost-featureless head.
“Playing in a Field” is a necessarily large work showing four male musicians enjoying themselves under a shade tree in early autumn. Three of them strum away, while the fourth listens contentedly. Once again, the figures have large, capable hands and feet big enough to take them anywhere. Tiny heads rise from thick bodies set atop long legs.
But unlike in that roomy work, Dennis often boxes in his subjects. The seated figure in “Artist and Model” — a linear painting done in soft sepia, a pale limited palette — is placed low on the picture plane. She is, of course, nude; nonetheless, she appears comfortable with her circumstance.
Adversity is finally suggested in the body language of the man striding down a frigid beach in “Winter Walk II.” He leans forward against the wind, moving with effort along a seacoast where a strong horizon line divides the land from a deep, cold ocean.
The specter of potential disaster also enters the vaguely surreal “Bird Act,” wherein a pinheaded magician in a badly fitting blue suit stands before a red curtain, releasing a flock of doves from a roasting pan. Two of the winged creatures land in the outstretched hands of his skimpily attired assistant.
Still, Dennis’ most provocative painting is “Carnival Dance,” in which a sexy orange floor is graced with an animated hootchie-cootchie dancer in full, undulant motion.
Yes, Dennis’ figures are pleasant to look at, and they do reflect certain slants of contemporary American life. But isolating struggle from these whimsical, roaming excursions is the viewer’s burden to embrace.
[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based artist and writer.]
Warren Dennis’ figures are part of Curator’s Choice, a salon-style exhibit introducing three Southern artists at Marie-Terrel Gallery (20 E. Walnut St., 254-5353). The show is up through August; gallery hours are 11 a.m.-6 p.m.