It’s best not to pin the works of artist Carl Sublett into any particular category. Turn a corner at the Downtown Gallery’s new retrospective of this acclaimed and influential artist’s works, and you’ll stumble upon a delightfully anomalous series of watercolors and paintings. The show, entitled Image Tracks, is a posthumous collection from arguably Knoxville’s most successful and prolific artist of the 20th century, and also duly serves as a loose survey of the watercolor medium.
Image Tracks was curated by Sublett’s son, Eric, who affectionately assembled the show from his father’s massive body of work, produced during a career that spanned well over 75 years. Born in 1919 in Johnson County, Ky., Sublett served in World War II and mailed home drawings of fellow soldiers rather than letters. After the war, in 1945, he moved to Bristol, Tenn., to care for his ailing father. Over the next 20 years he would become a draftsman, a newspaper cartoonist, an art director, and eventually a University of Tennessee assistant professor.
Sublett received countless awards for his watercolors, exhibited throughout the country, and eventually became a full professor at UT. His legacy as an educator and mentor is equal to his talent and enduring art career. He passed away earlier this year at the age of 89.
Newcomers to Sublett’s work will undoubtedly respond to his astonishingly vast range of works and styles. Primarily a watercolorist, Sublett produced both traditional landscapes and environmental abstractions, with several series of work falling somewhere in the middle. Keenly inspired both by nature’s pure forms and its subtle variations, he effectively used color and composition to achieve varying states of realism. The show reveals a body of work that is rich in continuity and variety, as well as vitality.
The show begins chronologically with several of Sublett’s cartoons, drawn from his time as an illustrator for the Bristol Herald Courier. “General MacArthur” and “We Vote to Make Things Right,” both from 1952, are political in nature, while “PeeWee the Little Hillbilly” serves as a Southern comic strip featuring a Little Rascals-style protagonist. These are a nice addition to Sublett’s oeuvre and add some light humor to the show.
There are several prominent Knoxville landmarks found in Image Tracks, but thankfully no Sunsphere. The graphite-on-paper drawing “Summit Hill,” from 1974, shows downtown’s Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in all of its Victorian Gothic beauty, highlighting its central clock tower and turreted spire. “Southern Icon, #193” is a luminous 1993 watercolor study of the old Southern Railway Station.
“Bandstand, Chilhowee Park,” a watercolor from 1955, best captures the Knoxville spirit. The subtle greenery and distant viewpoint of the East Knoxville park vividly highlights Sublett’s ability to use the watercolor medium to create a sensory experience. The work shows two distant figures huddled together on the bandstand amid the lush expanse of the park, and it is one of the highlights of the show.
Sublett worked hard to buck the staid conventions of the watercolor, and his abstract works reveal his determination to challenge himself. “Color Bend Series #377” and “#477,” from 1977, reveal a scope well beyond the limits of realism and use line and color to shape an experience. “Structural Series #376” uses architectural elements and flat planes to lead the eye through its composition. “Kite Series #378” from 1978 plays with themes of industrial design and mass production to create new forms. There are also several stunning oil paintings, including “Pond Series II,” which continue Sublett’s lifelong study of natural forms in various states of realism and abstraction.
Sublett spent many years at his studio in Maine, and there are a handful of works from his time there. “Maine Studio, Port Clyde,” from 1967, captures the essence of the small building in its New England splendor, while 1991’s “Night Light” is a more haunting moonlight landscape. The artist completed “April White” just months before his death, but the work is a snow-filled watercolor imbued with the same vigor as his works from 50 years before.
Image Tracks doesn’t feel overly sentimental or elegiac, and Sublett’s work gleams and inspires. The show serves as a profound testament to one of our own, a Knoxville artist who will be greatly missed.