Symbols of Life and Death Populate New Works by Texas Artist Kermit Oliver

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It's not all sunshine and roses over at Hooks-Epstein Galleries, though you'll find a little bit of both amid the symbols of birth, life, death (lots of death) and resurrection in new works created by Kermit Oliver over the past two years.

Oliver is often described as a complex man with simple needs, shunning modern-day electronic devices in favor of his books and art supplies. He's also a deep thinker, perhaps a habit that buoyed his 36 years as a postal carrier and helped carry his family through darker times.

He's big on symbolism, mining heavily from the Old and New Testaments, Greek and Roman mythology and Jungian theory. His image of Paul's conversion experience (Saul on the Road to Damascus) is updated with modern garb and embellished with Lone Star style (those red boots are decidedly Texan).

The almost 50 works on view are hanged and framed beautifully in the gallery space. There's a group of a dozen or so tiny landscapes with whitewashed frames here, another grouping of small, dark vignettes framed in simple black over there.

One of the largest and most striking pieces is Wedding at Cana, with its nod to the first miracle attributed to Jesus from the Gospel of John. The symbolism is applied with a heavy hand and everything is just slightly skewed and off-kilter. The wedding party includes a skeleton and a mysterious, shrouded figure; the lamb of God is partially sheared and stands precariously in a crown of thorns; and flora and fauna are abundantly sprinkled throughout the scene as the guests await salvation. There's much that's open to interpretation here: Is this the wedding of a polygamist Jesus, does the moth represent the two wives of Yahweh, is the watchful owl an indicator of a fertile bride?

He pays homage to his friend, Houston artist Bert Samples, in The Palimpsest; he used the same title in a 1999 exhibit at the gallery, adding yet another layer as he pulls from the past to create something new. All of the works in the exhibit are either painted with acrylic (though it's so diluted that he almost uses it like watercolor), or drawn on paper with graphite, pen or crayon.

Temptation of Christ in the Wilderness: Tyi Wara, though less than seven inches in size, is darkly disturbing. Using only pen and ink, Oliver has illustrated a horrific scene to accompany an excerpt from Charles Ball's text on slavery.

Oliver pens the text below his drawing, "... A moment after I saw coming from behind a large tree, the form of a brawny, famished looking man, entirely naked, with his hair matted and shaggy, his eyes wild and rolling; and bearing over his head, something in the form an an arch, elevated three feet above his hair, beneath the top of which were suspended bells, three in number whose sound had first attracted my attention. I perceived that it wore a collar of iron about its neck, with a large padlock pendant from behind, and carried in its hand a long staff...."

Though the methods of torture inflicted by slave-owners were cruel and grotesque, Oliver has come full circle with his title, referencing the mythical hero Tyi Wara, a half mortal, half animal creature often called upon during times of sowing and harvesting. Those Mali rituals included elaborate headdresses designed to summon the spiritual antelope during agricultural dances.

Several of Oliver's pieces were already sold before the opening night reception; his works are in corporate collections as well as at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and The Dallas Museum of Art. Born in 1943 in Refugio, Texas, Oliver has held more than two dozen solo exhibitions in Texas since 1987, but we can no longer hold sole claim to this artist. His work was included in this summer's opening exhibition at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, and he's the only American artist to have designs selected for scarves produced by the French fashion house of Hermès.

"Kermit Oliver" continues through January 7 at Hooks-Epstein Galleries, 2631 Colquitt, open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 713-522-0718, hooksepsteingalleries.com. Free.

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