Ex­hi­bi­tion tells story of one artist’s growth

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

The elec­tronic archives of The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal go back to June 1990, and look­ing back re­cently through that dig­i­tal store­house, I dis­cov­ered that I have been writ­ing about Pinkney Her­bert’s work since July 1990. Yes, al­most 26 years, a long stretch of time in which to be­come fa­mil­iar with an artist’s style and method. For­tu­nately, Her­bert is a pro­tean fig­ure, a shape-shifter and pusher of bound­aries — his own bound­aries — who both ac­qui­esces to and kicks against the lim­i­ta­tions of his medium.

In fact, the artist’s most re­cent work, in the ex­hi­bi­tion “Knotty Time,” through May 14 at David Lusk Gallery, reveals signs not only of ad­vance­ment but also of re­ju­ve­na­tion. Th­ese paint­ings and draw­ings, bril­liantly col­ored and ac­tive, seem to be the prod­ucts not only of a ma­ture vi­sion but also of the recklessness and bravado of youth. The re­sult of this ex­plo­sion of con­fi­dence is ex­hil­a­rat­ing and in­vig­o­rat­ing.

Sev­eral years ago, Her­bert be­gan ex­per­i­ment­ing with paint­ing on dig­i­tal prints, not an in­no­va­tion in it­self but a de­vice to be tested for its fit into his meth­ods. The artist ex­tends that prac­tice in “Knotty Time” so that the dig­i­tal print (on panel) that serves as the sur­face for some of th­ese paint­ings be­comes en­tirely sub­sumed by the swirls and slashes of oil pig­ment. Or does it? Part of the fas­ci­na­tion of this show is the mys­te­ri­ous hide-and-seek qual­ity in­her­ent in the re­la­tion­ship of the ab­stract images — that is, the vis­i­ble con­tent — and the largely in­vis­i­ble but sig­nif­i­cant plane, also ab­stract, that lies be­neath.

The large paint­ings are al­most mon­u­men­tal. The vi­brant “Totem,” for ex­am­ple, mea­sures 4-by-5 feet, in a hor­i­zon­tal for­mat. “Brook­lyn,” per­haps a homage to Joseph Stella’s “Brook­lyn Bridge” paint­ing of 19191920, and “Knotty” are equally as ex­pan­sive, though ver­ti­cally ori­ented. Her­bert has not so much toned down the fe­ro­cious en­ergy and tor­nado-like vor­texes that once char­ac­ter­ized his work — and oc­ca­sion­ally ren­dered it one-note — as he has sub­merged the dy­namism into a dream-like sheen of pent-up power and de­sire that res­onates with a pe­cu­liar blend of an­i­mated and med­i­ta­tive qual­i­ties. The works on pa­per, mea­sur­ing 41-by29-inches ver­ti­cally, are more del­i­cate, more el­e­gant and sinewy, dis­play­ing ra­di­ant white space and in many cases mak­ing dis­tinctly flo­ral ref­er­ences.

It’s grat­i­fy­ing to wit­ness the meta­mor­phic di­ver­sity of the pieces in “Knotty Time,” though the ex­hi­bi­tion ti­tle lends a clue to the en­tire en­ter­prise. In a sense, all ab­stract art is about time, be­cause while the na­ture of ab­strac­tion is the diminu­tion of rec­og­niz­able con­tent, the process of its mak­ing is fully recorded for ev­ery viewer to see, stroke by stroke, ges­ture by ges­ture, over-and un­der­paint­ing. There may be an artist some­where who ti­tles work by the length of time it took to cre­ate.

Yet time is not sim­ply a stream that flows unim­peded. It’s “knot­tier” than that, with all the hitches and glitches of mem­ory and nos­tal­gia, grief and joy, and the per­cep­tions of mov­ing faster or slower that make our lives ei­ther bear­able or un­bear­able, de­pend­ing on the cir­cum­stances. Yes, it’s all rel­a­tive. The paint­ings in “Knotty Time” form a tra­ver­sal of one artist’s re­la­tion­ship to time, each piece fram­ing a solid rel­a­tiv­ity.

Pinkney Her­bert, “Totem,” oil and dig­i­tal print on panel, 2016. LEFT: “Knotty,” oil and dig­i­tal print on panel, 2015.

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