Blue Spiral 1 management is rightfully proud of its Will Henry Stevens exhibit. The paintings in this bountiful retrospective — which spans the period from the ’20s to the ’40s and includes three separate stages of the late artist’s work — have never before been served up to the public.
Stevens was an extremely prolific painter, which accounts for the existence of so many unknown works. But these are hardly throwaways — no mere B-sides to his better-known “hits,” if you will. In fact, many of these freshly revealed works are considered important examples of Stevens’ later style.
The gallery employs the word elite in trumpeting the virgin exhibit. But many comments attributed to the Southern artist paint a portrait of a humble naturalist.
One remarkable quote — gleaned from Bernard Lemann’s manuscript The Pictorial Ideas of W.H. Stevens (1948) — forms the preface to Estill Curtis Pennington’s 1994 essay, Will Henry Stevens — From the Mountains to the Sea (published by Blue Spiral): “I am not ambitious to be known … [although] I feel guilty when I hide my work away, and good when I attempt to show it, even if many of such attempts have been failures. So much isolation is required to do creative work, but I have no wish to retire entirely from the world I live in. My pictures are my contributions, as they are the best I can do. If they are not good enough or the world can’t be interested just now, still I feel this is the contribution I should make.”
A chemist’s son who solidified in his work the deepest miracles of nature, Stevens was innately attracted to an object’s innermost makeup, even inventing his own smudgeproof pastels. Blue Spiral’s A Tribute to Will Henry Stevens highlights landscapes both realistic and nebulous, as well as examples of his later, undeniably abstract style — strongly featured in the artist’s 1944 one-man exhibit at Black Mountain College.
Stevens taught art at Tulane University and frequently summered in the Southern Appalachians. In capturing the particularities of bayou and mountaintop, he seems to champion the restless life of even inanimate objects. “#1420” [the Stevens works on display at Blue Spiral are numbered, rather than titled], is a New Orleans-area landscape whose unreal sky and jauntily delineated structures are made ominous by oddly leaning telephone poles (are they tipping with age, or swaying in storm winds?).
But in “# 866” — a lakeside scene — boats and houses are incidental to the reeds that grow from the water and the trees that border the shore. Man-made structures recant their worth in the wake of the highly textured vegetation, darkly outlined here and almost upsettingly alive.
Conversely, “#1418” is a local vista whose soft blues and greens appear governed by a gentle nostalgia. A similar landscape is offered in “#1441,” but without the comfort zone: A rhododendron in full bloom marks the work as a mountain scene. But the surrounding trees are painted as though viewed through a microscope; the intricacies of bark and leaves protrude. evoking a jungle swamp, rather than a placid Appalachian forest.
One wall is devoted to the artist’s final stylistic phase. In a curious way, these abstractions of his beloved nature themes are both evolutions of his earlier topics and a distillation of their barest elements. “#1274” swarms with jewel-toned amoebas and primordial almost-insects for a panorama that recalls at once a South American wall hanging and a spread of fishing tackle.
“#446” is a Picasso-like delight in which open-mouthed sharklike figures rise, dreamlike, from a busy sea.
Stevens was a late bloomer who did not even begin to feel the full range of his artistic powers until he reached his 60s; the works found in this exhibition are a testament to his exhilarating and never-ending quest for self-realization.