Number Magazine Fall 2002
Larry Edwards at Jay Etkin Gallery
May 10 - June 14, 2002

Flamingos and Other Animals

With a painter like Larry Edwards it’s difficult to talk about his summer show at Jay Etkin Gallery without making reference to his earlier work (especially considering the two signature pieces that hang across town in the AMUM’s Twenty @ 20 show). The Edwards pieces that spring to mind are usually gouache and pastel pieces on paper with nightmarish scenes from asylums or bordellos. Scary tusked boars mix it up with Johns and whores. Old people dangle from meat hooks or fall down stairs; all are painted with an attention to garish detail. The sense of space is skewed by disproportionate focus on details in glistening chandeliers, hardwood floors or the artist’s renderings of the flames of hell. While the themes of Edwards’ paintings, particularly vanitas and the weakness of man, remain intact through his career, he continues to explore new manifestations of these classic themes in his work.

Since his retirement in 1997, my many studio visits with him have seen his paintings grow more mature and interesting. Shortly after his retirement the burning bat horror scenes gave way to equally twisted garden scenes. Delicately rendered Japanese irises began to share the paper with gloved hands skewered by gardener’s shears or ants overtaking a baby in the garden. The painting in the pieces have become less fervent in exchange for a far more witty and challenging mix of images.

The piece in the Etkin show that is the most reminiscent of Edwards’ older work is “Misstep in the Flamingo Room.” It shows an unforgiving, oversized foot coming down on the neck of the flamingo. The hardwood floors shown in one point perspective, the use of old-school parlor furniture, and a signature red-yellow-orange palette set the brutal scene the viewer has come to expect from the artist. Compared to the pieces across town at AMUM, “Misstep” breaks away from previous work with its detail and more careful consideration of the materials and surface.

The newer work in the show is the most rewarding with its complicated juggling of images and ideas—still horrific, but with a more mature sense of timing. The brutality of the newer images gradually reveals itself, now paired with a slower, more patient painter’s hand. More evident now is the delight in painting that can only come from being a full time painter.

One of the highlights of the show is the detailed painting in “Defeated Victims at the Terminal,” with the cages around the armored elephants, hogs, and flamingos. In the lower right hand corner of the piece a crimson lattice of bars cages the elephants’ rich brown-gray. It’s as juicy as painting gets.

Edwards’ new pieces have become far more risky in terms of color and space. The dense concentration of the roller coaster’s imperfect grid in the lower half of “Night Carnival” is deftly balanced by the tiny, whirling birds, insects, and gravity-less Ferris wheels in the black space of the upper left hand corner. His composition creates a situation as precarious as the teetering roller coaster image at hand. The painting works like the roller coaster, as much fun as it is scary. The consideration of color and composition is equally mature in “The Flamingo Factory.” The painting’s flamingo furnace is as strong and immovable as the web-like skylight arch is delicate and vulnerable.

While the weaker odd-man-out pieces (the figureless Moroccan streetscape and the fragmented “Flamingo Tango (La Boca)” fell short or didn’t pull the same weight in the show, one could see how their architectural elements were used in the show’s best piece: “Harem Table, Flamingos, Eunuchs.” Edwards’ rich scene is confined within an arched doorway. A long indigo table frames the heads and necks of two flamingos in the immediate foreground. Aside from the flamingos, the table guests include two boars, an alligator and a rhinoceros (again the best, juiciest painting is in the lower right hand corner!). The careful balancing of open areas (the black-blue that frames the piece, the red walls, and the indigo expanse of the table) mixes with the intricate patterning of the yellow and green tiled floor and the various animal hides to make for some of the best painting around.

When asked about the changes in his work in the documentary film A Life Lived, Philip Guston talked about artists who went through the motions following the formula. In an arts community the size of Memphis, it is all to easy for established artists to stick to what works, to become what Guston called “wax museum.” It is crucial for young painters to understand that a lifetime of work isn’t about a look or a style but rather about understanding what it is that motivates you to make work in the first place and to follow that impulse. Edwards’ exhibit at Jay Etkin Gallery does just that, it shows he is growing as he continues to make strong work.

Hamlett Dobbins
Hamlett Dobbins, a Memphis painter, is interim director of the Clough-Hansen Gallery at Rhodes College.

Reprinted by permission.

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