Narrow Earth Bridge to the future

Ex-Western Carolina University art-department head Robert Godfrey has always defended the place of women artists in the establishment. He began 15 years ago to collect paintings for a women’s-studies collection — works by largely ignored, or at least undervalued, artists.

Along with the current efforts of Martin DeWitt, the first director of WCU’s new Fine Art Museum, Godfrey’s vision boldly impacts the inaugural exhibit at that venue.

Conshohoken, Quita Brodhead
“Conshohoken,” 1935, Quita Brodhead

Born in the first year of the last century, modernist Quita Brodhead, who lived through 2002, was a teacher for many years at Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Her painting in Worldviews: Selections from the Permanent Collection and New Acquisitions, titled “Conshohoken,” was done in 1935. Brodhead’s palette is very like that of Kandinsky, and the structures of a village with a bridge in the foreground are decidedly cubist; she was paying close attention to what was unfolding in the larger art world.

Other works from this group include Martha Armstrong’s resolute landscape, May Giddons’ abstraction painted in Vermeer’s blues and yellows, and Jane Culp’s “Narrow Earth Bridge” showing strong color and dynamic brushwork. We also see a decidedly postmodern serigraph by ex-nun Corita Kent called “Pig Pen,” and a huge, mysterious figurative painting by Edith Neff. Still, arguably the most impressive work among this group is Jane Piper’s airy oil pastel. The work is melodic. Colors are bright, but not at all harsh. The feeling: calm joy.

The Museum’s collection is nothing if not inclusive — the other portion of Worldviews exhibits an interest in just that: “The world,” says DeWitt, “is becoming smaller. … We plan to establish exchanges with other countries. This will allow WCU’s students to expand their ideas about art, and strengthen their work.”

Monumento II, Miguel Angel Couret
“Monumento II,” 1998, Miguel Angel Couret

Japanese ceramist Masaki Matsumoto left intense finger marks on his two-foot-tall red-and-black pot from 1987. Though shaped like a lily, the piece is thick and heavy. By contrast, Cherokee artist Joel Queen’s new blackware pot is smooth as a petal, its intricate patterns carefully delineated. Native American art is well represented, including works on paper by some of the best: Edgar Heap of Birds, Mario Martinez, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Emmi Whitehorse, Duane Stick, and Melanie Yazzie. Kay Walkingstick’s “Magical Night,” wherein nude male and female figures, cut off at the waist, frolic against a dark lithographed sky, leaves a lingering impression.

A moving etching of Martin Luther King by John Wilson and a large color intaglio work, “Document,” by Deborah Muirhead (which uses text from a slavery flyer as a point of departure) are among the pieces by African-American artists.

Spanish-born American Abstract Impressionist Esteban Vicente (for whom the Spanish government has constructed a whole museum) is represented at Western by a striking lithograph. There is an early etching by Austrian-born Joseph Margulies, and an enticing surrealistic color lithograph by Colombian Guillermo Silva.

Two of the show’s most political works come from Cuban artists. Mario Garcia Portela paints a small boy in sepia tones: The child sits on a dock and looks longingly at a toy motor boat. But the quiet contemplation shown in Portela’s work is quite absent from that of Miguel Angel Couret, which is angst-ridden and plain in-your-face scary.

Reef, Kenneth Noland
“Reef,” 1967, Kenneth Noland

Shown too are interesting photographs and lovely glass pieces — but paintings form the core of the collection. Louis Finkelstein, Chuck Bowdish, Rosemarie Beck, Barbara Grossman, Bill Scott, John Heliker, Quita Brodhead and others offer an exciting survey of 20th-century art from America and from around the world. Still, the indisputable star of the show is “Reef,” a signature striped painting from 1967 by Kenneth Noland, who’s been called the “greatest colorist since Matisse.” Just so, “Reef”‘s colors literally radiate. As does this fact: Noland was born in Asheville.

[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based painter and writer. Her work will be seen next at the Meadows Museum in Shreveport, La.]

Worldviews: Selections from the Permanent Collection and New Acquisitions will be featured at Western Carolina University’s Fine Art Museum in Cullowhee through Friday, Dec. 16. (828) 227-3591.

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