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Making Light

A Burton Callicott retrospective romances the visible spectrum at CBU.



The small downstairs art gallery at Christian Brothers University was packed this past Friday for the opening of "The Light Within," a look back at the career of Burton Callicott, the artist and educator who has held Memphis in thrall since he first picked up his brushes eight decades ago. At the center of the crush sat the 95-year-old Callicott who, now confined to a wheelchair, shook hands and engaged in lively conversation about his life and long career as an artist in Memphis. Generations of Memphians, artists and admirers alike, stood stunned by both the man and this breathtaking sample of his extensive body of work.

"I knew it would be crowded," says the U of M's Patty Bladon Lawrence, who curated the show. "I think a lot of people were there because word had gotten out that there were going to be some [paintings] from the '30s. There are very few of those around." The paintings Lawrence mentions are a cracking pair of oils picturing shadowy, nocturnal landscapes. Road at Sunset, from 1934, takes as its subject matter the last rosy glow of the sun as it sinks beneath a pair of silhouetted trees. Moonlit Road, from 1936, is a brooding, moon-washed landscape in blue and green. In spite of their obvious subject matter, these paintings have very little to do with either trees or secluded byways. Just like his later, and certainly more famous, paintings, they are about the many tricks that light can play on the eye.

Lawrence has a history with Callicott. She was instrumental in the Brooks Museum of Art's acquisition of Callicott's preliminary sketches for the W.P.A.-funded Hernando de Soto murals, which are on display at the Pink Palace. This is also the second time that Lawrence has assembled a major collection of Callicott's work for exhibition, the first being a lifetime retrospective at the Brooks in 1991.

"This show was not intended as a rebirth of that," she says. "It was simply intended as a look back again at [Callicott's] treatment of light. I wanted to point out once again how the body of work from the very earliest paintings on through his late work reflects the same vision, his sort of penetrating observation of nature and all of its light and dark aspects. To show that [even when the artist was working in his nonobjective] period -- a time when there was very little recognition of nature in the works -- those works still had a ground in nature."

When Lawrence speaks of Callicott's "nonobjective" work, she is generally referencing the color fields and rainbow patterns for which Callicott is most famous. Surprisingly enough, there are very few of these paintings collected for "The Light Within," and the ones that are on display pale next to eerily luminescent landscapes and portraits of shadows rendered so perfectly an observer might believe that they were merely the unfortunate byproduct of a bad hang. More than one unschooled observer looking at Sun Print #5 turned around hoping to find the source of the leafy shadows only to discover they had been tricked by a master.

"We chose not to show [the rainbows]," Lawrence says. "Unfortunately, the rainbow has become such a signature. I think sometimes those sorts of signatures limit our ability to look at an artist, to look beyond things most easily recognized." Rather than showing the artist's best-known work, Lawrence chose to hang some pieces that have never been shown publicly: works forsaking the traditional mediums of oil and dry pigment. Lawrence has juxtaposed each painting with one of the painter's poems.

"It's a risky business matching words with these paintings," says Lawrence, who was afraid that too many descriptive words might wreck the illusion. "But it's not as if there is a painting on the wall and a person standing there telling you about the painting, and you want them to quit talking and let you look at it."

Callicott's verses read like entries from an artist's private journal. They give the observer insight into the painter's motivations without revealing his process. Next to Embrace #4, a painting of a yellow-boarded house wrapped by the shadow of a tree, there is a poem that reads, "The wide-spanning shadows/of all its branches fall/over roof and wall/is how (in case you wondered)/a tree can embrace a house." According to Lawrence, the poem had not been written specifically for that painting. It just seemed to fit.

"The poems aren't about a painting. They are all about his paintings," she says. "Plural!"

"The Light Within: Paintings and Poems of Burton Callicott" is on display at the University Gallery at CBU through October 10th.

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