Only half the story

Art has escaped.

Oh, sure, there’s still plenty of it to be found in the Asheville Art Museum and in the galleries around town — but it’s everywhere else, too, shading daily life with a narrative of its own.

You’ll find art in bookstores, coffee shops, hair salons and restaurants, in libraries and in tattoo parlors. In gourmet-food stores.

In churches.

For their local shows, though, artists Lila Graves and Bennett Strahan are displaying their works in a gallery setting.

Graves, an Alabama native, is as well known for her life as her art. She moved to Mexico after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, and claims to have painted herself back to health. While there, she also took to wearing a homemade pair of angel’s wings, apparently trying to forestall the real heaven by creating it on earth.

Just as local art has sneaked into the workday world, Graves often seeks shelter in the company of untrained artists. In her current exhibit at American Folk Art and Framing, though, her illustrative works — which do look somewhat at home surrounded by the work of self-taught painters — are flanked by pieces far too accomplished and sophisticated to be considered “true” folk art.

Graves has been to art school. She has traveled, and seen great art. And this is reflected in her facility with a brush.

Like it or not, she is a very accomplished painter.

“Flowers in a Ball Jar” is simply but elegantly composed, the background Crayola blue, the flowers primary red and yellow. Graves says she’s always loved to paint flowers, and these examples evoke the hot, humid days on which you’d find a zinnia in full bloom.

A couple of interesting female nudes are included in the exhibit, along with a strange, wimpy-looking male in white boxer shorts. Graves is trying to tell us something here, but her message is a little unclear.

The show’s most interesting work may be a painting of a rather innocent-looking bra-and-panties set. The background here is the color of the green mints found in candy dishes at Southern baby showers and weddings. The garments are virginal white, feminine but not fussy: This is not underwear for a seductress.

Graves’ work is clearly intuitive and personal, and brings up that old question about whether there’s such a thing as a Southern aesthetic. The canning jars and the faux-finished frames point toward that theory — but the artist is ultimately living in a bigger world.

The work of Bennett Strahan, on the other hand, is carefully structured: There’s nothing of the primeval feminine in a vertical painting of a horizon.

Many his works currently showing at Studio ItaliAna depict nature on a rampage — but even then, Strahan’s dynamic brushwork is neatly boxed in. Bands of subtly changing neutral colors form a protective barrier surrounding forest fires and tornadoes.

Like the resurrection slant that colors Graves’ reputation, Strahan’s story sometimes shadows his art: As a child, the painter suffered life-altering misdiagnoses before it was determined he was dyslexic. Now dividing his home between the Lake Lure/Chimney Rock area and Cimarron, N.M., he seems to prefer an ever-altering landscape, storing up impressions of shifting light, cloud patterns and changing vegetation.

For him, nature is glorious but furious.

In “Red Skies in the Morning,” a lush, sap-green panel is placed over another, larger one. Rich olive pales as it dissolves into the light of morning, and the greens of the earth are sharply bisected by a vermilion stripe melting into a purple-to-blue sky.

“Prairie Fire” is one in a series of 40 paintings Strahan made about the 80-mile-long Gladstone Fire that swept, several years ago, through New Mexico after a seven-year drought. In this painting, earth and sky are divided by a line of orange flames. As in “Red Skies,” the vertical landscape is cloistered within hard-edged, metallic bands of neutral color.

Strahan’s monoprints are unexpectedly soft and gentle. “Untitled Landscape” is, again, vertically oriented — but here the muted colors rest.

His current environment, though, is giving the artist some trouble. The only North Carolina paintings in the show are coastal scenes: Strahan says he hasn’t figured out how to fit the complexities of the Chimney Rock landscape into one painting.

But he’s working on it.

Effervescence: Lila Graves shows at American Folk Art & Framing (64 Biltmore Ave.; 281-2134) through Saturday, June 28. Bennett Strahan’s Paintings From the Road shows at Studio ItaliAna (25 Patton Ave.; 250-0567) through Monday, June 30.

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