The first thing a person notices in entering the Jung Center gallery rooms is that there is a strangeness to the paintings. Not strange in the sense of inappropriate, but strange in the sense that they are highly unusual and distinctive. The explanation lies in the duality of the art.
The artist Earl Staley, who did a series of paintings of Greco-Roman mythology 30 years ago, has now cut each of these works into strips of canvas, repainted over them with brush strokes and dots, and reattached the strips to a new canvas. The result is a double image resonating of both the past and the present.
In some paintings, the original image has almost entirely disappeared; in others it is still dominant. It is most visible in Polyphemus and Galatea, portraying the Cyclops Polyphemus forcing his attentions on the nymph Galatea. The overpainting seems to screen the sensuality, but curiously, it actually heightens it.
In Messenger the image seems clearly to be that of a mermaid, with blues and greens depicting her ocean. It stand out by itself, as a fascinating waterscape, without having to know its original connection. Odysseus on Circe's Island also clearly shows a variety of nymphs, distanced but not obscured by the dots. The choice of colors here is pastoral, suggesting flowers and growth, and the greens, blues and other colors merge into a soothing pattern. Overhead at the top, a semi-circle of purple hovers - perhaps this is duty calling to Odysseus to give up his idyll and resume his responsibilities. The Crucifixion is less satisfying, as the repasting seems crude, but even if this is deliberate, it nonetheless suggests an unfinished work-in-progress, rather than finished art.
Winged Mermaid is brilliantly successful - it is colorful and powerful. The antecedent painting is largely invisible, bit it is hardly missed, as the fresh art sings of joy and delight. The same is true of Animas. The colors here are deeper, equally varied, less joyous, but even more powerful, as though emotions had deepened. For these, the overpainting is so exciting that they stand on their own as works of art, without referencing the past.
In Contortionist, the image still emerges clearly, though obscured, and the entire impression remains that of a circus, witty, amusing light-hearted, a holiday treat. Drunkenness of Lott has green colors at the bottom, red at the top, but these choices seem arbitrary, less persuasive. One is put off, rather than drawn in.
In the wonderful Awakening, the joy in nature and the burgeoning of growth is paramount. One senses buoyancy, a savoring of the pleasure to be found in shedding the old for the new. Perhaps that is a metaphor, and what this highly innovative and dramatic exhibition means to this very gifted artist as he senses new horizons. Earl Staley: Reconstructions continues through September 25 at the Jung Center, 5200 Montrose, Monday to Thursday 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., Friday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., 713-524-8253, junghouston.org.
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