Geoffrey Holder cuts a wide artistic path painting cultural scenes, biblical references, still lifes and nudes, and he is featured in a top-notch exhibit chronicling over 20 years of his work at Carrboro's Sizl Gallery. Jim Moon, a highly regarded artist collected by the NC Museum of Art and the MOMA, joins Holder at Sizl. Two Good Friends, Two Extraordinary Artists reunites these two creators in a show that is miles apart stylistically, but cozy in the way it presents narratives so unique and yet so universal. Holder paints expressively, Moon uses details to distinguish many facets of his complex works.
While Holder is best known as a painter, he's also known for acting, dancing, choreography, directing Broadway plays, costume design, photography, and writing that emanates from his loft that appropriately overlooks Broadway. He's a Renaissance man, but don't let his 7-UP ads (remember the Un-cola?) or movie roles, (e.g. Live and Let Die), sway your opinion about his art. He's collected by museums because his paintings are very strong, not because he won two Tonys for his work on The Wiz.
Holder makes rich oils, then often adds outlines in oil stick, that, while risky, pay off because the lines define much of how we see his paintings. He occasionally uses the bright colors of his native Trinidad, but is more likely to use umbers, orange and black to portray slices of his multi-faceted life.
In "Maria Virginia," Holder depicts a courageous, confident African mother holding her new child in front of a crowd full of women with differing degrees of disbelief on their faces. Some have curious eyes, others are raising hands, awestruck, while the three figures closest to Maria all have their eyes closed. He also places one man in the crowd. He's wearing a pork-pie hat, and is painted in profile, so the viewer is not sure what his expression is. Maria's modern white dress implies that if she is a virgin mother, she is proclaiming her sainthood some time in the early 20th century. This is more than Holder wondering why we see the Virgin Mary painted as a white woman all the time. There is a lot to contemplate here, but Holder himself would not ponder the painting in a phone interview."I paint a slice of life, whatever it is that day," he said. "We are too quick to put labels on things. It is my profession. I get up and paint. Everyone wants to put a label on it, but I am a free spirit, so I fight against that."
"Showing Off" may be Holder's strongest painting in the Sizl show. The foreground couple is in a very deep dip, with the woman sliding underneath her man while he stands, feet apart, propping her up as she clutches his arms. Magenta lipstick and nails stand out as she opens her soul to the rhythms. The perspective of the two dancers is pushed forward by linear moments found in the floorboards and legs of women in the background.
Norman Pendergraft, a retired North Carolina Central University professor and Director Emeritus of NCCU's art museum, puts Holder's paintings at the top of his many fields of endeavor. "When Holder first went to New York, [at age 22, in 1952] he kept his dance troupe alive by selling paintings," Pendergraft said, from his home in Durham. "Jim Moon introduced me to Holder, and later I recommended Holder for an honorary doctorate from NCCU. The ceremony included a visit from Bishop Desmond Tutu, it was quite a sight, as Holder is over a foot taller than Tutu," Perndergraft said.
Like Holder, Moon left familiar surroundings for New York City at a young age. "I was enrolled at Cooper Union at age 16, that was in 1945. He gained instant stature in the art world by age 18, with technically sound paintings full of rich stories. By 1947 I was exhibiting in the gallery that became the NC Museum of Art, and in 1948 I had a one-man show at Norlyst Gallery in New York. Max Ernst's son, Jimmy ran the gallery with Eleanor Lust. I met all the people who supported me the next 20 years from that first show," Moon says. He founded the visual arts program at the NC School of the Arts, and was its director for many years. Moon also formed the non-profit art organization Asolare, Italian for "under the sun," in 1994. His work, with eight other board members, has allowed NC artists to show at the Cork Gallery, located in Lincoln Center. "The idea is to help young or underexposed artists find exhibits in New York, and everywhere, really," he says.
Moon's paintings may not be purposefully narrative, yet he is able to squeeze and entire novel into a painting. In an untitled work that depicts a boy holding a lamb, at first you see a content young man protecting a lamb. His arms and body are pale and at times disappear into the lamb's wool. The joy on the boy's face is real, and set off by the dark green forest in the background. A field of deep red poppies creates another type of contrast that pulls the lower body forward. The boy is nude, but prepubescent, so his nakedness does not overtake the painting.
The story unfolds in the background details. A rising moon suggests mid-summer, a purple dog panting at the boy's feet nudges in for attention, and a far-distant temptress seems, at first, inviting the boy and his friends to swim. You have to look closely to see that the blue area she is pointing toward is not a body of water, but the body of a charging rhinoceros. Is her arm up to try to embrace the beast? Is she trying to fend it off? Is she so far away that the boy cannot hear her pleas for help? Or is the boy so enraptured by his own friendly animals that he wouldn't notice an exploding bomb?
If hung in the right home, this painting could easily inspire a novel, but it would also leave a singular impression on passersby who are only see it for a short while. You can't help but invent a story when you see a boy and a bearded man riding along on top of an elephant. Moon uses a delicate but firm brush to make details pop to life, using pink fleshtones against a maroon elephant and black sky. You have to see the humans as the subject, no matter how big the elephant is.
For such a talented man, his main theory about art is unusual. "There is no talent in art, the only success in life is through persistence," Moon says. "The talented genius often falls by the wayside." He credits an excellent public school education in Graham for the literary content of his paintings and insists that his work has literary subjectivity but is not mythological. "Jim Moon discovered his style at an early age, and has been refining it ever since," Pendergaft says.
There are always stories behind the major artists. We remember Pollack because he was the first to splatter, and because his life was so full of self-induced tragedy. Van Gogh was a master following his own path, completely ignored, but now never forgotten because his story was also so tragic. Jim Moon is still with us, and his story demands a little more research to understand. Rather than taking any tragic route, Moon accepted his role and followed a spiritual path. He could have greedily latched onto the New York City art scene, after all, he was part of it at such an early age. But after finding success, he chose to help others find their way to the Big Apple, and beyond.
It is hard to understand why anyone would do this in the dog-eat-dog system known as American Art. The answer is in Moon's paintings. Note the quests that are difficult, but made easier thanks to the bonds of friendship.
Both Moon and Holder would argue that paintings are to be enjoyed for what they are, not for who makes them or the story behind who makes them. Holder's stories are of the street, the exuberance of youth and the role of religion in a world so often shaped by desires of the flesh. Moon is the best friend you ever had as a child, but he's still here, still as interested, still as supportive, and still painting, like Holder, because it is his profession.
"2 Good Friends, 2 Extraordinary Artists" is on view through April 6 at Sizl Gallery, 405 E. Main St., Carrboro. 960-0098, www.sizlgallery.com. Reception Friday, March 11, 6 p.m. At the time of this story, confirmation of Mr. Holder arriving in Carrboro for a reception in early April was not confirmed. Stay tuned.