We talk a lot about diversity these days, about how one form of culture should not necessarily dominate over another. If art indeed does mimic life, we can conclude from two exhibitions currently on display in Chapel Hill that plural perspectives are now well established. And even if these two shows offered nothing else, they would present an opportunity to meditate on the elasticity of the word "art," and to ponder how a single word could denote such varying works.
A few pieces by Marc Leuthold, who is also included in the Interiors exhibition at the N.C. Museum of Art, can be seen in the John and June Allcott Gallery (the glass gallery) at UNC-Chapel Hill. (Leuthold received an MFA degree from Carolina in 1988.) The show is called Hints and is almost unbearably exquisite. On the wall is an excerpt from Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, about the coded, elliptical, hyper-delicate form of communication among the characters in her story of upper-class New Yorkers in the late 19th century. For these people, form and surface were content, and the same could be said of Leuthold's art.
Leuthold works with clay in an unusual way, carving it with the precision of a chef slicing butter with a wire. The resulting surfaces looked like pleated silk or sometimes water-carved silt. Hints includes three carved wheel shapes and one "geode," glazed light brown, almost iridescent. The geode piece is a big sphere of clay, cut away across the center and the cut surface ripple-carved. The outside is wonderfully cracked and stamped with round shapes, some spoked and some cross-hatched. Looking at it, you feel as you do with an actual geode, that there is mystery cloaked in enigma here, and the fact that the sphere has been opened to reveal its center only adds to the sense that there are more levels to this phenomenon than meet the eye.
The carving on all the wheel pieces radiates from the center, but on the dark wheel the ripples and pleats are not so regular and make you think more of the sea floor than of spokes or pleats. This piece has a beautiful reverse: A mottling of soft color provides shimmery contrast to the dry charcoal gray of the carved side. There's one unglazed white wheel, carved on both sides, which is pleasing in its purity, but the strongest piece here is a red wheel, also double-faced. On one side there's a pink glaze over the dark clay, and on the other an uneven red glaze creates lots of visual activity between the outer tips of the "pleats" and the crevices. This wheel appears to be whirling along, and looking at it I heard Gram Parsons in my mind, singing "Hearts on Fire."
A few blocks away, at Toktúmee European Art Gallery, the young German artist Uta is showing for the first time in this area. Not convinced yet that the Triangle is an up-and-coming area for the arts? Uta thinks it is. This 29-year-old from Stuttgart wants to move here--not to Berlin, which is supposed to be the coolest city in Europe right now for artists, nor to any other European city. Not to New York, Philadelphia or even San Francisco. All those places were interesting, she says, but she likes North Carolina better. This is certainly the reverse of the usual trend of artists leaving here for better prospects in other cities.
I can't pretend that Uta's work is to my taste, but in its way, it is perfectly charming. Uta abstracts and simplifies recognizable things, shrinking and expanding and rearranging them into funny little vignettes composed of flat areas of color and geometric pattern. The work is vivid and bright, comical and cartoon-like, and has a sort of cheerful hipness. In fact, its appeal lies in its utter lack of angst or cynicism. While many of the images have an almost childlike quality, and others seem to derive from folk designs, there are also sophisticated references. Some of the shapes are reminiscent of Matisse's cut papers, and others seem to have come from early Arthur Dove abstractions. And a number of Uta's pieces remind me strongly of Stuart Davis, with their flat colors, quirky space and use of lettering. This is the work of an artist for whom the world is still a wonderful place, full of surprise and simple pleasure--and that's an attitude we could use more of, in art and in life.
Marc Leuthold will lecture on his work Monday, Oct. 16 at 5:30 p.m. in Hanes Art Center Auditorium. Reception follows.