MEACHAM MIXES SURREALISM, WHIMSY

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - ARTS - By Fredric Koep­pel Spe­cial to The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal

In Annabelle Meacham’s long ca­reer as a painter, she of­ten de­scribed her style and method as surrealism. What does that mean?

My “Mer­riam Web­ster’s Col­le­giate Dic­tionary, Tenth Edi­tion,” de­fines surrealism as “the prin­ci­ples, ideals, or prac­tice of pro­duc­ing fan­tas­tic or in­con­gru­ous im­agery or ef­fects in art, lit­er­a­ture, film, or the­ater by means of un­nat­u­ral jux­ta­po­si­tions or com­bi­na­tions.” The term, from the French for “above re­al­ism,” was coined in the early 20th cen­tury by French poet Guil­laume Apol­li­naire and taken up in the 1920s by An­dre Bre­ton, Louis Aragon and other par­tic­i­pants in the for­mal Sur­re­al­ist move­ment in their ef­fort to plumb the depths of the Freudian dream-world, in the af­ter­math of the dev­as­ta­tion of World War I, and bring it to the sur­face. It’s al­most need­less to say that the im­pulse was dark and the re­sults mainly dis­turb­ing.

Now, it’s true that Meacham’swork­some­times tip­toed at the edges of dark­ness, but her “jux­ta­po­si­tions or com­bi­na­tions” were more typ­i­cally sunny and droll, while be­ing psy­cho­log­i­cally acute. We could even say that her paint­ings were more whim­si­cal than sur­real, and in her ex­hi­bi­tion, “My El­e­ment,” at L Ross Gallery through May 28, she con­tin­ues that trend.

As long as we have the dic­tionary open, let’s look up whim­si­cal.

Mer­riam Web­ster says: “full of, ac­tu­ated by, or ex­hibit­ing whims; re­sult­ing from or char­ac­ter­ized by whim or caprice.” I think that’s more the note we’re look­ing for in Meacham’s work, now, that is to say, de­light and del­i­cacy, fancy and the fan­tas­tic, wit and wan­ton­ness, even, per­haps, more than a pass­ing glance at the in­ex­orable en­gines of mor­tal­ity.

The piece that caught my at­ten­tion first in this show is “My Ad­ven­ture,” a paint­ing that ex­udes a sto­ry­book aura com­mon to many of th­ese works. A blond-haired girl, a wreath of flow­ers in her hair, wear­ing a pink top and striped pants, sits astride a large Amer­i­can Goldfinch, ac­cu­rately ren­dered with his bright yel­low body and black cap and wings. The land­scape is sim­ple and iconic; the light blue sky in the back­ground is densely pat­terned, as is the gold frame, lend­ing a hi­er­ar­chi­cal air. Are we look­ing at a dream, a tale, a vi­sion? This unan­swer­able ques­tion reinforces the im­age’s de­fi­ance of in­ter­pre­ta­tion, even as its sense of mys­tery ac­cen­tu­ates the mag­netic at­trac­tion.

Meacham is at her best when she ma­nip­u­lates that feel­ing of mys­tery and am­bi­gu­ity, as in a se­ries of three “Lay­ered Re­al­i­ties” paint­ings that seem to reach deeply into the per­sonal el­e­ment of the ex­hi­bi­tion ti­tle. The most strik­ing of th­ese is “Lay­ered Re­al­i­ties: Sun­set and the Com­mence­ment of Dreams,” a 30-by-40-inch can­vas di­vided into three un­equal sec­tions — all the works are acrylic on can­vas or pa­per — that with its flo­ral mo­tifs, its pair of birds sit­ting on a branch fac­ing op­po­site di­rec­tions, and its con­trast­ing col­ors, both bright and deep, seems to en­cap­su­late the hu­man yearn­ing to com­pre­hend the am­biva­lence of space and time, life and death.

The artist oc­ca­sion­ally de­pends on a Magritte-like de­vice that forces her idio­syn­crasy into cliché. This oc­curs, for ex­am­ple, in “There Is a Sim­ple Land, for Dream­ing,” in which a bril­liant half-moon shines on a full, round tree so the tree’s shadow takes the shape of the half-moon. One’s re­ac­tion tends to­ward, “Oh, yeah, right, I get it.” And the ex­hi­bi­tion re­veals an un­wel­come strain of sen­ti­men­tal­ity, as in five small paint­ings of dif­fer­ently-posed rab­bits wear­ing lit­tle El­iz­a­bethan col­lars. Still, it’s al­ways worth­while see­ing what Meacham’s chimeri­cal imag­i­na­tion dredges from her slightly bent per­spec­tive, es­pe­cially when she fo­cuses on the dusk-like com­mon­al­ity of our hopes and fears.

Annabelle Meacham’s “The Ad­ven­ture,” acrylic and mixed me­dia on can­vas, 30-by-30 inches from her “My El­e­ment” ex­hi­bi­tion at L Ross Gallery through May 28.

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