The audacity of beauty lies in its ability to take over our lives and stop time. During this moment we are suspended in a state of wonder that goes beyond contemplation to pure awareness, nerves, feelings and imagination fully open. Viewers can experience these moments frequently in “Over Time,” an exhibition of paintings by Beth Edwards that runs through Dec. 3 at the Clough-Hanson Gallery. The title of the show is apropos. It is a small retrospective collection of 17 works, spanning from 1993 to 2015, and it represents the tendency of art to triumph over chronology.
Edwards is a professor in the Department of Art at the University of Memphis, where she has taught since 2000. The exhibit is a partnership with ArtsMemphis and Metropolitan Bank, which recently awarded Edwards the 2016 Emmett O’Ryan Prize for Inspiration artistic.
The first image in the exhibit is “Dinner,” a simple depiction of the American appetite featuring five pieces of meat – one in a roasting pan – and a glass of water, isolated and evenly spaced against a turquoise background. The piece exudes a deadpan, sardonic undertone not usual in Edwards’ later work. A particularly touching little painting from 1997 is “Crying Woman II”, a depiction that focuses narrowly on the title subject, wiping the tears from her face with a yellow handkerchief. Mysteries abound, mostly revolving around questions of who the woman is and why she’s crying. Since it is impossible to answer these questions, this piece gains importance beyond its size, magnified to timeless and mythical proportions.
Edwards spent about a decade immersed in a body of work involving rubber figurines from the 1950s and 1960s, mostly cute or goofy animals wearing human clothing. Most of these images offered an implicit narrative for the viewer to speculate on. The exhibition includes six such pieces, beginning in 2003 with “Doll V (Imp)”, a close-up portrait of a smiling, dimwitted clownish figure, and ending in 2010 with “Into the Evening”, one of the brightest of these pieces. Edwards moved from single depictions to tightly staged interiors that often paired a toy in some kind of modern Danish environment with an art history painting on a wall, like, for example, the painting by Edvard Munch “sick girl” in “Lost II” or the Cubist Portrait of Picasso in “Happy Day”.
The figures from “Into the Evening” sit in a Mercedes-Benz convertible. Seen from behind, the figures are impossible to decipher in terms of “species”; most likely they are simply humanoid “animals” dressed in human clothing, including somewhat ridiculously flippant hats. The pink light of the sunset to the west reflects off the trunk of the Mercedes, while to the far east, across the rolling landscape, a bank of clouds darkens at dusk. We only see the characters’ faces from a quarter profile, so we can’t read their expressions, but their positions in the car, the slight drooping of the posture, signify a questioning attitude, a feeling of apprehension in the face of the inevitable coming of night.
From the early years of the second decade of the 21st century, Edwards has focused on floral paintings of transcendent beauty and astonishing technique. In front of demonstrations of virtuosity as dazzling as the complex interlacings of “Clover” (2016) or “Hydrangea II” (2013) and their inexpressible mixture of shadow and light, one senses a complete subsumption of the artist’s personality in his subject, an inextricable web of craftsmanship and lack of ego. It is beauty that hurts and leaves an indelible impression on the mind.
The work is displayed exactly as it should be, 13 pieces in the elongated main gallery — cluttered from the start with too many windows — and four in the smaller side gallery. The presentation is clean, elegant and unadorned, to better focus on the paintings themselves and their mesmerizing effects.
Beth Edwards, “Over Time”
Until December 3 at the Clough-Hanson Gallery, Rhodes College, 2000 North Parkway. Call 901-843-3442 or visit rhodes.edu/gallery.