Change may be inevitable, but to many artists a change in style or materials is something seen as dangerous—something to face with fear and dread. For an outsider, however, the opportunity to watch serious artists move with confidence from one period of their work to another is always interesting.
Pleasant surprises await viewers who have followed the careers of painter Ruth Ava Lyons and her sculptor husband J. Paul Sires since their work began appearing in North Carolina exhibitions 25 years ago. With their current exhibit, Footprints: Documents in Time, on display at Brevard’s Drew Dean Gallery, this is an excellent opportunity to see this artistic growth firsthand.
Sires was working in clay in the ‘80s. The work was adventuresome and masculine, with massive platters decorated with earthy glazes and 6-foot-high unglazed cylinders with thick walls inscribed and heavily textured. There was an unbridled energy in much of his output.
Today, however, there is an aura of quiet thoughtfulness in Sires’ work. True, he has switched to much heavier materials, but some of the new works look light enough to soar into the sky. These pieces are visually simple but complex in both construction and concept.
There are two large works by Sires on display, “Untitled Round” and “Untitled Square.” These sophisticated granite pillars are bisected with narrow bands of darker stone. Set on thick stone bases with rough-cut sides, they rise upward with a sensuous elegance. Two small, similarly shaped works are titled “Moderd 1” and “Moderd 2,” (presumably referring to a geologic term having to do with the amount of oxide in a particular rock, and how that determines its weight). The first one has the intricate bands of darker granite; the second is executed in white marble. Sires makes a comment on development with “Terse,” a long, horizontal, white-marble base with a modern high-rise building at one end, a circular sports arena at the other and, sitting alone in the center, a modest home dwarfed by its new neighbors.
Sires has another white-marble base with a cluster of houses—some large, some small, some shoved against each other, and some stacked, one on top of the other. The work is called “Urban Sprawl.”
Both artists are addressing the changes in our world that give them concern for the future. Lyons’ work was, for many years, about women. There were rich paintings of Madonna-like figures surrounded with symbols of the sacred feminine. Despite the over-used topic, Lyons’ work was dramatic and never slipped into the trite New Age genre.
Now her concern for the future of the planet has become the focus her paintings. To express her apprehension about the perilous state of the natural world, she has created shiny surfaces with great depth. Many layers of paint are scraped and scratched into. The top layers consist of thin liquid glazes in seductive colors that slide over the canvas. The work resonates with concern, but the botanical specimen in each work expresses a confidence that, as Camille Paglia asserts, “Nature always wins.”
In her “Brave New World,” a thorny, leafless branch leans toward a bunch of red poppies, some in full bloom and others just the dried seed pods holding the promise of more flowers next year. A sprig of ivy trails down from the top of the composition, and a bright yellow dandelion sits defiantly under the twig. All these elements are held together with fiery red glazes. Scale is largely ignored in the work and the concept that a dandelion can creep through the tiniest crack in a sea of asphalt and a lily bulb can thrust its bloom resolutely through 6 inches of gravel provides a reason for hope.
“Fruit of the Vine” is a square painting with a thinly painted artichoke, a bunch of grapes and a pale lily shape sprouting from scratchy burnt sienna grass. At the top, two oranges dangle from their stems. This painting is a great example of Lyons’ consummate understanding of texture and color and their function in the expression of ideas. Lets all hope that her guarded optimism is justified.
[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based painter and writer.]
who: Footprints: Documents in Time
what: Paintings by Ruth Ava Lyons and sculpture by J. Paul Sires
where: Drew Dean Gallery (114 W. Main St., Brevard)
when: Through Saturday, Dec. 29 (877-5272)