Liquid Light: Watercolors From the KMA Collection, occupying two galleries at the Knoxville Museum of Art through April 15, presents 50 watercolors drawn from the museum's permanent stash. A few selected artists are widely known (Charles Burchfield, Janet Fish, Alice Baber, and the Nashville-bred Red Grooms, for instance), while others are familiar on a smaller scale, primarily within regions they've called home.
Watercolor is what unifies Liquid Light, as its title conveys. Despite utilizing the same paint, artists with works on view have achieved an impressive variety of results, and museum-goers might find themselves forgetting that distinctive pieces share a common medium. That's not bad, since it challenges some people's notions that watercolor only lends itself to soft images of flowers or seascapes awash in pale pastel colors.
Liquid Light can be split into work by artists associated with the University of Tennessee; artists unschooled and relatively isolated; artists bestowed with star status; and longstanding artists within various communities. Names including Thomas Campbell, John Chumley, Kermit "Buck" Ewing, George and Dot Galloway, Charles Krutch, Whitney Leland, Walter "Holly" Stevens, and Betsy Worden are likely familiar to many Knoxvillians.
Whatever the extent of their recognition, artists in the current show represent comparable levels of creativity and ability. Viewers who have considered watercolor somewhat less substantial than other mediums should be markedly surprised by what this exhibition has to offer. After all, individuals seem compelled to rank works of art as more or less valuable within any culture. And what's valued in art is often influenced by the perceived degree of skill, talent, and time that a specific object requires to take shape. Occasionally, art transcends monetary value altogether and becomes "priceless," the apex of an imposed hierarchy.
Liquid Light also brings realism and abstraction together in equal measure. But George Galloway's "Past Gone," an image of a decrepit barn with a rusted roof, possesses linear elements that are expressionistic instead of stiff. Partner Dot Galloway, in her magnificent "Sunflowers II," paints what is at first barely discernible as flora; her sensuous and crisp-although-complex piece likewise leans into abstraction.
Art in Liquid Light, being as diverse as it is accomplished, ranges from the untrained, vernacular work of Thornton Dial—like his memorable paintings of elongated figures reflecting the African-American experience—to constructions like Grooms' "Hot Dog Vendor No. 3," the show's lone three-dimensional piece, cleverly assembled from paper cut-outs of people and a street cart, to Carl Sublett's "Center Fold," consisting of what looks like stitching on paper painted in shades of white, creating an illusion of embossment.
Speaking of Sublett, numerous paintings by the late local hero/artist almost trace the arc of the show itself. His "Keeper's House, Port Clyde, Maine," however loosely rendered, is representational, depicting a wind-battered structure. "Night Tree" and "Storm Beach II," painted approximately 15 years earlier, bridge the gap between recognizable subject matter and abstract landscape. In Sublett's purest abstractions (i.e., "Winter Run"), his mastery when layering semitransparent paint is most evident.
Although nonreproducible, watercolors, unlike photographic negatives or etched stone, are sometimes characterized as hasty efforts less significant than painting on canvas. Whereas artists "labor" at oils, they "dabble" in watercolor. Several small geometry-driven images by Jared Sprecher are the show's sole pieces resembling sketches or studies. Not concerned with watercolor's legitimacy, they perhaps allude to future versions of themselves.
These contrasts result in Liquid Light being a bit disjointed. After all, finding themes to provide context for works culled from a smaller museum's collection is not always as simple as emphasizing a single medium. Regarding this particular show, an opportunity to exhibit paintings that are exclusively Southeastern in origin appears to have been missed. Such a show would unfortunately exclude Burchfield's "Winter Mist and Snow," a moody scene with scraggly trees and houses in tones of gray and blue, and "Fresno 5" by Pulitzer Prize and Oscar-winning novelist and playwright William Saroyan, among other exceptional pieces.
Also missing would be "8 Games from Sunday, Feb 25, 2006/NBA," a papier collé assemblage with 384 sections serving as "coded translation…. each cel an unexpected union of sports, chance, time, [and] performance" by California artist and former baseball player Lee Walton. Yet much would remain, as 42 of the 50 works now on view have been produced by Southeastern artists. It therefore stands to reason that the quantity of regional art, combined with its quality and truly interesting histories, would be more than enough to produce a satisfying and satisfyingly coherent exhibition.
Liquid Light inspires us to consider the many approaches one can choose with watercolor, and it encourages us to question the essence of creating art with such an inherently luminous and seemingly unlimited medium.