Exhibition tells story of one artist’s growth
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.