Like a dream or a memory, the large-scale figurative paintings by recently retired UNC Asheville professor Virginia Derryberry are strangely familiar. The works, ranging from 5 to 8 feet high, depict larger-than-life figures set in lush environments. The exhibition, Private Domain, remains on display at S. Tucker Cooke Gallery on the first floor of UNCA’s Owen Hall, through Friday, March 4.
“I’ve given myself permission to select the visual components that interest me,” says Derryberry. Through subtle alterations and slight modifications to reality, she creates an eerie, not-quite-real atmosphere. “In some paintings, I might have two slightly different times of day being represented by the lights and the shadows,” she says. There’s also Derryberry’s selective intensification of color. These variances work just under the radar of the viewer’s perception to create the appearance of an imagined space or a representation of a memory.
“I’m fiddling with truth,” says the artist.
Despite these distortions, much of what Derryberry paints is pulled from reality. One painting’s title, “Celo,” places the streamside setting on the nearby South Toe River. The figures, featured so prominently in the works, are pulled from reality to become characters in Derryberry’s dream world. Friends, family and even her students have sat for her paintings. Yet imagination works in tandem with what she sees — when painting a person for the second time, their appearance shifts as Derryberry finds new personality aspects to portray, resulting in a new character to paint.
Female figures are often central to the paintings. “They are almost always very strong, and they’re straightforward. Many of them are tall, and I’m not,” the artist says. Much of a work of art’s interpretation is determined by viewers who bring their own perceptions and context to the work, but, “There are some things that I do hope are communicated,” says Derryberry. She mentions memories, dreams and relationships, as well as the “strength of these bodies that are in the picture.”
The landscape also plays a significant role with the majority of the works being set in exterior locations. “It’s not exactly like a Garden of Eden, but it could be,” says Derryberry. Though that reference isn’t specifically religious, the artist views the settings as “a contemplative place where things can work out — whatever that means — where there’s that possibility and hope.”
The lush outdoor locales root the work in the Southeast. “The atmosphere in my painting is tinged with, or colored with, the heat and the richness of the environment,” says Derryberry. And though she sees how the character relationships in her work might prompt a regional label, “I would also hope that they are a universal human narrative.”
In the solo exhibition Private Domain, Derryberry shows about a dozen large-scale figurative paintings from the last seven years, as well as some smaller works from a new series that incorporates sewn fabric components. The capstone event celebrates Derryberry’s retirement after her 20-year career of teaching studio art at UNCA. Because she maintained an active studio practice while teaching, she does not see the shift to being a full-time artist as a radically significant change. Her plans for the upcoming year include serving as a visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome, along with mounting three solo exhibitions in different parts of the country.
Derryberry’s undergraduate degree was in art history, and the symbolic references that she learned have been embedded into her studio work. For example, a recurring element in her paintings is water, which has many possible meanings or interpretations. Even in its representation, it can be painted to show transparency or fractured light reflections. “And water is a source of life,” says Derryberry. “So that’s another sort of Eden, another sort of place where there are possibilities.”
Despite the benefit of instant recognition representational paintings offer to a viewer, Derryberry hopes to avoid the pitfall of figurative or narrative works being read like an illustrated story. “Illustration is not a bad thing, but it can be really one-dimensional,” she says. Because the paintings can be seen in different ways and understood on different levels, Derryberry sees her art as closer to poetry. Ultimately, she says, “My work is not about a bottom-line kind of one-liner message.”
WHAT: Private Domain, a Virginia Derryberry solo exhibition
WHERE: S. Tucker Cooke Gallery, on the first floor of UNCA’s Owen Hall. avl.mx/282
WHEN: Through Friday, March 4. Open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.