Words Don’t Tell These Artists’ Stories Print
Art - Reviews
Tuesday, 24 April 2001 18:00
The two artists featured in the current exhibit at Quad City Arts in downtown Rock Island aren’t what you might expect after reading their statements. Matt Pulford wrote a longer exposition of his work that suggests a literate artistic style. James Henry, on the other hand, penned three sentences, with which one might predict a feeling, nonliterate style.

Both assumptions are wrong.

Pulford’s paintings are colorful, emotive, abstract shapes. Unlike the verbose artist, though, viewers will struggle to find words for the work. They have the atmospheric quality of an impressionist work with complete abstraction of form and shape.

And the paintings of the brief Henry are literate allegories complete with symbolism, surreal images, and political commentary. For example, the painting for which he named his show, Promise Land, shows an image of Martin Luther King Jr. with a confederate flag tattooed across his face and an American flag as a backdrop. The image is respectful of King and, at least for me, recalls the question of how well the country has fulfilled the promise the civil-right leader envisioned; it is one of my favorite Henry paintings in the show, with the simplest composition conveying great power.

“My surrealistic works originate from dreams and events that involve social and political concerns,” Henry writes in his artist’s statement. “The boldness of subject matter and strong use of color in many of my works of art make people more aware of the problems of the world and leave a more lasting impact on the viewer. I feel that I am some sort of messenger, documenting life’s happenings through my paintings and sculptures.”

He achieves this high goal in his Promise Land composition. Other paintings are strong, also, but contain more images, which diminishes their impact; the compositions attain a comic-book quality as he layers surreal image after surreal image. It seems as though Henry doesn’t trust viewers to get his message, and he packs his paintings with so much visual information that we can get lost in the details and feel bashed over the head.

For example, Relatives for Dinner features the skull of a gorilla (or similar animal) with the top carved off so the head forms a bowl exposing the brain, which has been served in a soup being taken by a robot to a woman, sunning on a deck. The composition would be fine if left at this stage, but Henry adds a Darwinesque image from a textbook as an insert in the lower left, showing the evolution of man, silhouettes of apes to Cro-Magnon man to modern man. We get that eating the brain of an ape is having a relative for dinner; the overstatement of the textbook insert only dulls the impact.

But even with Henry’s tendency to overdo images, I like his work, and it’s reasonably priced, as well.

If you tire of multiple surreal images, this show gives you the respite of the impressionistic abstract shapes of Pulford’s work, with one shape per painting. The luminous quality of the light, the moving of color and shape to create emotion, and the use of a few shapes stands in great contrast to Henry’s works.

Pulford’s choice of color is wonderful. He uses the yellows and golds of early morning and the atmospheric quality of clouds to make landscapes without shape. His painting Neponset Poet suggests a meadow or river valley through only color and shape. The warm golds and browns seem to move and have a peaceful feel without shape.

“My work over the last year has taken a few different paths, but all stem from all these thoughts and feelings I am describing,” Pulford writes in his artist’s statement. “From the gritty, personal narratives in my recent intaglio prints to the minimal landscape paintings that shine with vibrant color, I yearn to leave my mark, to tell a story.”

It’s interesting that Pulford gives such a complex statement – “This eclectic and wide-ranging mix of work I have created over the years moves in and out of itself, traversing through its layered meanings, and comes together shining with abstract notions of hope, freedom, and beauty” – while creating simple, gorgeous paintings. The vocabulary and convoluted phrasing cannot describe compositions that are so elegantly uncluttered.

Pulford is more successful describing his work when he reminisces about “getting away” to the farms of family members in rural Iowa. “Although an hour and a half away from my home, it was quite evident to me at that age that the land they lived and worked on was a magical place to me,” he writes. “The otherworldly golden sunsets and smell of summer sweet grasses filled me with some sort of healing power that took me away from the ‘everyday.’”

This show does that, too, although in two completely different ways.