Death and the Maiden, by Virginia Derryberry
The fellow wearing the accordion is tapping his watch. Time is of the essence, apparently; the okra smugglers need to pick up the pace. His pants are already stuffed to overflowing with the Southern delicacy, but the young lady in bonnet and pearl slip has plenty of room left under her skirt, and the gentleman bearing a strong resemblance to David Bowie has a whole bucket left to empty down her backside. She doesn’t notice the admonishment of the accordion man; her face is turned to lock gazes with us, the corners of her lips slightly upturned.
There’s a story here, or several. Like all the paintings in Allegorical Realism, the fall exhibit of downtown Greensboro’s Green Hill Center for North Carolina Art, Henryk Fantazos’ “Okra Smugglers” (2007) holds a narrative that extends beyond the boundaries of it’s egg tempera surface. The show unites the work of four North Carolina artists: Besides the Polish refugee Fantazos, there’s Asheville resident Virginia Derryberry, Burlington native Jack Ketner and Greensboro resident Mark Kingsley. Besides a focus on the human figure, it’s that focus on deeper narrative that ties these painters together.
“Allegorical realism” is the type of phrase you can’t just look up on Wikipedia. To understand it, it’s best to break it down into its separate parts. Realism is easy; an accurate depiction of life. Anyone who paid at least a little attention in high school English will likely think of Dante’s Divine Comedy (The Inferno being only the first of three parts) when they hear “allegory.” The poem is, after all, allegorical. Dante Alighieri didn’t just take us through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven: The fictional journey Dante takes represents the very real exile he endured for being on the losing side of Florence politics.
But, as discussed in Richard H. Langsign’s The Dante Encyclopedia, the Italian poet also filled his work with realism, filling his worlds with real people both historic and contemporary who Dante felt belonged in the state he placed them. As Langsign wrote,
“Dante’s Commedia poem has the special power of conveying realistic images of both the real world and human experience while simultaneously empowering that reality to suggest higher levels of meaning.” Thus, allegorical realism.
In the Green Hill Center show, it’s easy to see how the paintings presented fall under that definition. Of the four artists, only Kingsley veers anywhere near abstraction with his soft, Goya-esque figures held in the most cinematic compositions of the exhibit. The allegory comes from the setting — ghostly figures stumble like refugees by the US Capital building (isolated in a field of snow), or loom over an anonymous excavation.
On the other end of the “realism” spectrum is Virginia Derryberry, whose large portraits are the most photorealistic of the group. This makes the surreal symbolism of the work both more subtle and sharper in contrast.
Whereas Jack Ketner’s figures swirl and twist through their bizarre settings (more on that later), Derryberry’s are stoic as they hover through the forest, blend into the trees or dance with skeletons. Her use of color is also more obvious, occasionally even monochromatic like in the crimson background of “Death and the Maiden/ Die de los Muertos” (2008).
Ketner’s work is more challenging in tone and style. His figures are swirling caricatures, locked in worlds of drug fueled debauchery, dissolving on surreal beaches or crushed by oncoming storms. Still, the symbols of Ketner’s worlds are easy to spot, even if their meaning is hard to decode. Repetition is the key: pop cultural refuse, musical instruments, fishing hooks, knives embedded point down, booze and cigarettes all show up again and again in his work. Another common image is an airplane — in his artist statement Ketner says it “symbolizes the way modern man in his hurry is above everything and misses so much around him.” And finally back to Fantazos, the most inscrutable of the four. Like Ketner the symbols are easy to discern: floating cabbages and accordions as fashion to name a few. But no easy solutions are given because while Ketner’s work is grounded in contemporary culture, the language of Fantazos seems older and further away. There are a few pop culture nods (Look for the Land ‘o’ Lakes butter girl and the Tin Man in “Dieties of Metals”), but beyond that you’ll need more than one afternoon to solve Fantazos’s puzzles.
Luckily Allegorical Realism will be up until November 2. You can also hear the artists talk about the work themselves: Derryberry will speak Oct. 2 at 12:30 p.m., Fantazos and poet Jack Gilbert Oct. 23 at 5:30 p.m., and Ketner and Kingsley Oct. 29 at 5:30 p.m. Curator Edie Carpenter will give a walking tour October 15 at 12:30 p.m. Other scheduled events in connection with the show can be found at the Green Hill Center’s website, www.greenhillcenter.org.
To comment on this story e-mail Chris Lowrance at Chris@yesweekly.com.