December 9, 2007

The Mark Coplan Exhibition at the State Museum

A friend and I visited the Mark Coplan exhibition at the South Carolina State Museum the other day. It was the second time for me and the first time for her. The exhibition was impressive the first time around but the second time I could really study and appreciate the collection. It was an eclectic body of work. Primitive self-taught artist's visionary imaginings hung alongside the schooled work of seasoned and emerging artists. The exhibition poignantly expressed the vision of a collector with a passion for art and an uncanny sense for what would endure. The art was brilliantly hung with an artist's eye for creating a visual narrative by judiciously aligning details of various works with compatable elements in neighboring pieces. The eyes in Sam Doyle's "King Kong" with their gleaming whites were echoed in the equally strong eyes of Paul Matheny's "Knowledge." A wall of frontal portraits arranged like icons confronted the audience with brutal intensity.
There was a beautifully arranged corner of the exhibition which appeared to be a reconstruction (actual or imagined I am not certain) of a corner in Mark Coplan's home. The platform in the corner was replete with artistic furnishings - including coffee tables with books and magazines featuring artists in the collection. It was tastefully done, evocative but melancholy in underscoring the absence of Mark Coplan (He passed away in 2002). Two paintings stood out for me in this corner. One was "The Yellow Cat," a primitive work made with house paint on a paper bag. The cat's claws were made of applied pine cone fragments painted a carnivorous red. "Sneaking up on Ken Wilbur," by Neville Chuzzlewit (aka Tom Styron), featured two comic figures painted in oil on plexiglass which were reminiscent of the art-brut works of Jean Dubuffet. The only work that was not well-served by the corner arrangement was Lee Malerich's "More To Me and Less of Me." Lee's small, meticulously detailed embroidery was like a page from an illuminated manuscript- meant to be studied at close range and not sequestered ten feet away.
What was remarkable about this exhibition of a portion of Mark Coplan's vast collection was its diversity and strength. Just about every work in the exhibition bore a strong artistic statement but each in an honest, individual way. Brian Rutenberg's two abstract paintings were inviting compositions of beautifully orchestrated squirts, smears and washes of paint with gorgeous colors. Ghost-like homeless figures were painted so tenuously as to be barely there in William Thomas Thompson's "The City." In this powerful yet restrained painting these figures' struggle to survive the cruel city of the night was palpable. As sophisticated as these works were passionate were the large abstract paintings of Carl Blair, Ken Page and Robert Day. I particularly liked the Giacometti-like palette and brush work of Carl Blair's "Three Clouds, West Taos New Mexico." Black spindly lines criss-crossed a subtle expanse of greys, whites and touches of pinks.
There was one mixed media painting and assemblage which captured our attention not only for its simple virtuousity but for its humor. J. Scott Goldsmith's "Brownie Buster" featured a carnivalesque painting of a man taking a picture of a lion. The remnants of a broken brownie camera are glued to the side of a canvas. That was Mark Coplan, alternatively sophisticated, strong, refined, outlandish and occassionally very irreverent - but always with a good eye for art.

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