I am often surprised by the art at Chapel Hill's Horace Williams House, but the surprise is not always a happy one. While the gallery features the occasional outstanding show like that of Andrea Gomez' paintings this summer, all too often one finds mediocrity there. That crime is generally compounded by ill-advised pairings of artists. In the current exhibition, however, there is no crime. Alice Boyle's photographs and Ippy Patterson's drawings are a match made in an obsessive-compulsive heaven, and the pleasure of viewing them is only increased by the surprise of discovering such refinement in a venue where that characteristic does not always appear.
To say that Boyle makes photographs understates her process. Yes, she does take photographs, and yes, she makes silver prints from her black-and-white negatives. But then she paints them.
How to convey the strict purity and delicacy of her work? Hand-painted photographs in general have a coarseness, and while they may be amusing, or pleasing in brash sort of way, rarely do they succeed either as photographs or as paintings. Many suffer from the awkward application of crude color, and one often feels that the color is but an attempt to distract the viewer from the underlying weakness of a lackluster photograph. But there is nothing crude about Boyle's evanescent tints; nothing slapdash about her carefully composed photographs. Although there are a few where the color relationships are a little off, Boyle mostly succeeds in melding those two divergent approaches to picture-making, and the images on which she chooses to exercise both demanding crafts underscore her skill and her desire for the most subtle of visual effects.
All of Boyle's pictures here are landscapes, mostly of a type without hard edges. She favors open flat vistas, especially those of low-country coastal South Carolina, although there are also some images of open land near her Mebane home. Boyle shows us a world that seems to flow outward from her lens. Not for her hard boundaries or strict demarcations of space; she prefers diffuse forms in a subtly changing spread of soft light that shimmers like the water meandering through many of her images. Whatever mad compulsion drives this artist to paint thousands of meticulous strokes in such a way as to make them invisible except for their delicate hues, the result can be breathtakingly lovely, as in Dusk, South Santee River, South Carolina, or Small Pond, Cedar Grove, North Carolina. These are no mixed-media mongrels. Boyle's hybrid process results in a pure art that can be respected by both painters and photographers. It has been many years since she last exhibited her painstaking work in this area; maybe this small show marks a welcome end to that lengthy hiatus.
Ippy Patterson also gives us something we don't see enough of: drawing--highly skilled, highly finished drawing, with images arising both from nature and from the artist's fertile, fervent, imagination. Some readers may be familiar with her illustrations for last year's collaborative project, An Elizabethan Bestiary: Retold. The work on display here makes even the most fantastic of those animals appear ordinary. Patterson fills page after page with a torrent of undulating forms--plant, animal and human life morphing into one another, untrammeled by the demands of gravity, perspectival space, or even possibility.
These images are as dense as Godiva chocolate, and give you a similar thrill as your eyes consume them. They are a nacreous accretion of hair-fine lines, of small patterns repeating, of larger patterns gracefully building. They are mystical, at once luminous, air-filled--and dark, claustrophobia-inducing. In their sensuous curves and reliance on natural forms, as well as in their air of intelligent decadence, they hark back to the art nouveau of a century ago. In short, at a time when brusque and brutal draftsmanship sweeps up the accolades, Patterson's elaborate, strange drawings are rather an anomaly.
Perhaps even more surprising than these, however, are her large, simple drawings from life. There is a quick response to a flowering pear branch that is as fresh as its subject, and so vivid on the paper that I could almost smell it. And there are two wonderful female nudes. Composed of just a few perfect lines each, they reveal most clearly the artist's values: A beautiful line is a necessary good, and it springs forth from the confident, practiced hand, working in service of the refined and demanding eye. If only more artists were so relentless in their demands.