‘Fur seals in the desert’

Just inside The Captain’s Bookshelf, en route to a must-see art exhibit showing in the back through the first week in January, is a newspaper clipping from The Richmond Times-Dispatch dated Nov. 30, 1950.

The article mentions two young Virginia artists; the accompanying photograph shows a studious-looking young man and an attractive young woman with an alertly curious demeanor.

And though Lewis and Porge Buck are older now and have since relocated to Black Mountain, little else about them seems to have changed.

The current showing of their work at Captain’s Bookshelf gives Asheville’s serious art students, collectors and connoisseurs a rare opportunity: the chance to see works spanning a significant portion of the couple’s rich careers. The pieces included in the exhibit have been carefully made — and just as carefully chosen.

Close attention to life itself

Lewis Buck has 33 works in the show, the largest being “Phantom Ampersand, deep in cornflower blue.” A 72-by-52-inch oil-and-acrylic painting on canvas, “Ampersand” is luminous; the cornflower blue seems to float above a structure of geometric colors layered deeply beneath.

Lewis boasts the rare ability to work in any size. “Permafrost” — less than 4 inches wide and 4 inches tall — easily holds its own among the larger pieces. A work of deep contemplation, “Permafrost,” in its horizontal structure, evokes a serene, peaceful winter morning — cold, still and unhurried.

The titles Lewis has chosen for his works reveal a light, somewhat optimistic sensibility. Many are straightforward: the names of bodies of water or streets. Others, however, are more enigmatic: “Fauve O’ Clock,” “Do Not Take A Bath in the Jordan, Gordon!” and “Etiolated Rag.”

The piece “Green Tee” is ostensibly a collage about golf (and an obvious play on words), but with far-reaching implications (golf-course greens aren’t natural and require ecologically devastating chemical assistance).

“Cross-section Mt. St. Helen, early, 18 May, 1980,” another of the exhibit’s smaller works, seems at first blush a serene landscape — until the viewer notes the sliver of ominous red creeping up from the stratas’ depths and then making a sharp turn toward the volcano’s peak.

Surfaces vary from work to work. Some pieces, such as “Kattegat Squared,” look like aging skin. Others are flat, with Lewis’ layering, scraping, wiping and building up of paint creating an endless variety of color combinations and possibilities.

In “Ghardaia,” he achieves an amazing harmony of both structure and color. Edges of color seep from underneath undulating blue-grays. A small, somewhat irregular horizontal band of dark blue punctuates the upper edge of the canvas, and a luscious, pale-salmon stripe climbs placidly up the right side.

“Ghardaia” is a piece by an artist who’s spent many years perfecting his craft. But, perhaps more importantly, Lewis has paid close attention — not so much to art, but to life. Following his lead, the viewer of his work is rewarded through deep contemplation.

Good sport

A delightful edge of sharp, dry humor flows through Porge Buck’s work. Connections and implications are endless.

One wonders what the recently deceased TV producer Rhoone Arledge would have done with Porge’s paper-bag-flying competitions! The artist conceived this “sport” in the ’70s, and four works in the exhibit offer delightful ringside seats. Though these pieces provide a biting parody of organized athletic competition, Porge makes her point without preaching. With giggles — and unforgettable images — she addresses the ridiculous salaries some athletes command, the frequent lawlessness of fans, and the public funding of huge arenas.

“Family Cat” depicts the nightmare animal that lurks about the house, unappreciative and dour — and possibly dangerous! In “Monet’s Pond,” Porge takes a deeper look beneath the water’s edge — a skeletal frog sits serenely underneath the lily pads. Is this a comment on the “art lovers” who think there’s been no art since Monet? Or perhaps on the inevitability of death?

Then again, it could simply be an extraordinary example of Porge’s skill as a printmaker.

Printmaking is an unforgiving medium requiring a great deal of technical knowledge and an unwavering hand. Porge’s exhibited collection of tiny etchings, gathered in a three-ring binder, is a remarkable example of the art form: She can tell a story or evoke a mood in an impossibly small, 1-by-2-inch space.

The same meticulous hand is clearly visible in her hysterically funny stamp collages. Using images from old postcards as background, she creates surreal situations with intricate cutouts of postage stamps. “Swans at Sunset Witness the Jubilee Rain of Elizabeth II” shows a flock of the graceful birds lazing across a tranquil pond while multicolored, teardrop-shaped heads of Queen Elizabeth II fall from the sky.

Indeed, Porge’s titles are as intriguing as her images — “The Conquest of Space by Betsy Ross,” “Washerwomen Observe the Pheasant-Led Departure of the Wood Duck Heads,” “Migration of the Bark Canoes,” “The Eastward Movement of the Night Lunch Wagons in the Days When Their Numbers Blotted Out the Sun” and “The Launch of the Lighthouses Against Grant’s Tomb.”

The piece “Lief Erikson Discovers Fur Seals in the Desert” looms dark and rich, with pyramids rising in the background and Ericson, in full Viking gear, striding toward a group of seals perched atop and around a pile of rocks. The subtleties of color and the piece’s formal elements draw the viewer’s attention first, making the content more surprising — and more fun.

The last group of Porge’s exhibited work consists of three pieces collectively titled “Ephemera.” The artist takes as her medium commonplace, throwaway clothes-dryer lint, transforming it into a study of formal arrangement and soft color variations.

The results are intrinsically feminine. Displayed on rectangles of fancy paper, they beg to be petted, though they are clearly much too fragile to be handled. “The First Book of Lint,” opened to the center, features pages that rise and gracefully fall, revealing the delicate colors and beautiful, deckled edges of the underlying sheets.

Josef Albers used to say that he could not teach his students to be artists but that he could teach them to see. Lewis and Porge Buck seem to have embraced those words as fundamental truths.

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