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The Far Side of Memory

Southern perspectives from Jeane Umbreit and Pam Cobb.

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Jeane Umbreit and Pam Cobb are two artists who have a deep affinity for the South -- the rivers, the history, the culture. Their current exhibits, Umbreit's "Blackbird" at David Lusk Gallery and Cobb's "Recent Paintings" at Jay Etkin, draw us into Southern locales that evoke feelings and memories.

In "Blackbird," Umbreit's gelatin silver prints (hand-colored with oils) follow the course of nature. Waters of the Mississippi appear to wash over and through the face of a beautiful and composed African-American woman in the montage Flood. In another image, Godchild, the same young woman stands behind a screen door, but the metal mesh neither obscures nor flattens the portrait. Umbreit develops her own film and paints her prints, taking care to record every gradation of tonality, hue, and, in this work, every nuance of expression. Godchild's hand presses against the torn and warped screen. Her eyes and mouth are relaxed. She looks directly at us, her godmother, and the world beyond. She appears calm and assured, knowing who she is and where she is going.

The boarded-up portals in Homesick suggest Umbreit's desire to hold onto the past and her realization that it is impossible to go back. In Mercy, she acknowledges nature's power to reclaim by superimposing an image of her home with an image of the Wolf River. In Outside, large vines wind through and around the fence posts of her garden.

And there are blackbirds. An injured bird attempts to fly in a pre-Civil War courtyard made of beautiful brickwork crumbling with age (Blackbird). Other blackbirds fly high above a roof (New Year) and tangled tree limbs (Nightlife). They swoop into synchronized patterns of flight and are swept up in stormy skies (Backyard).

These blackbirds, as in all of Umbreit's subjects, evoke the evolution of the South -- its pride and decay, its holding onto to old ideas, its pushing through to new ones.

Pam Cobb's "Recent Paintings" include works from several series. Ripple Effect is a stunning, carefully observed depiction of sunlight on water. To create this work, Cobb covered a 24-by-36-inch wood panel with gold leaf, then acrylics -- chartreuses for moss-covered rocks, purples for shadows, turquoises for algae-filled waters, and stark whites where direct light bleaches out all color.

Gold leaf is a difficult material to master. It can overpower, become too saturate, and appear inappropriate to the subject matter. But here Cobb's use of gold leaf is almost flawless. Just beyond the white, where yellow-gold radiates into bronze, just there and only there, Cobb wipes back down to the gold leaf. Elsewhere, the gold leaf remains an underpainting that reads as sun warming rocks several feet below the surface of the water.

In addition to waterscapes, there are three large paintings of nude figures lavished with gold leaf. Some of the figures have been painted to look like very ripe pieces of fruit (She's Not Pear Shaped I-III). While Cobb's deliberately campy nudes work as parody, they are not nearly as satisfying as her explorations of light dancing on water at dusk (Pickwick Series) or glowing like candles in three small, dark still lifes (Braeburns, Mangoes, and Apples and Pears).

One of the most evocative "Recent Paintings" is Old Schoolhouse, a depiction of a turn-of-the-century Tennessee schoolhouse. In this 43-by-68-inch mixed-media painting (acrylic, plexiglass, and plywood), stippled sunlight streams through broken windows and eroding walls. Burnt sienna lines crisscross the work, thrusting our point of view across a room full of golden-brown light and cast shadows. Because the work is framed like a window, there's a bit of mixed-media gimmickry at play. But beyond the kitsch, Old Schoolhouse allows each of us to rediscover an autumn afternoon in grammar school on the far side of memory.

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