Durham Artist Bonnie Melton’s Contributions to a NCMA Exhibit Make a Case for the Transcendent Power of Painting
Front Burners: Highlights of Contemporary Painting in North Carolina
The North Carolina Art Museum, Raleigh
Until February 14th
Front Burner: Highlights of Contemporary Painting in North Carolina at the North Carolina Museum of Art, Guest curator and painter Ashlynn Browning, who runs through Feb. 14, brought together work by 25 emerging artists to prove a simple point: not just that painting isn’t dead in Tar Heel state; it thrives.
Front Burner – which runs alongside other notable NCMA exhibits, including Good as Gold: Senegalese Women Shaping (through January 3) and Reflections on Light: Works from the NCMA Collection (through February 14) – opened and closed in March and then reopened in the year early September. It provides ample evidence for the thesis that painting continues to be at the forefront of the art world.
The painters presented work in acrylic, oil and watercolor – sometimes with unexpected media such as grape juice or neon – and range from William Paul Thomas’ striking portrait heads to Hannah Cole’s weed studies and Georges Le Chevallier’s summary. Baked goat cheese with garden salad (according to head chef Alice Waters) ”to Carmen Neely’s“ In an alternative reality ”with an“ artificial flower crown ”.
Notable personalities include Bonnie Melton, a longtime Durham resident, whose enigmatic and engaging work explores the space between representation and abstraction.
“Vigilance” (2016), one of her three oil-on-wood paintings in Front Burner, has irregular geometric shapes that form an oblique, roughly L-shaped construction. The shape could be the corner of a roof or a wobbly antenna, but there is nothing in particular. The loose paint that drips in places indicates dissolution, while the title suggests the opposite: attention, as if the structure were a temporary bulwark against danger.
The other two Melton pieces on the show, “Comb for Nell” (2017) and “Throb” (2018), reveal equally unfathomable objects on cream-colored, layered foundations. If the “crest” and “throb” in these paintings are not immediately noticeable, that is by design.
As Melton explained in an email to INDY, these and other canvases are “revised from the start, mutated images and then studio calculations”. In a statement on their website, Melton further reflects:
“I paint to create an inner dialogue,” she writes. “Sometimes the conversation is direct, mostly elliptical. Associations arise, are thwarted, sink and then reappear through color. Most of the time I look for the nerve in every picture. My nerve, the nerve of color. “
The surfaces of these pictures are, as she says, a bit “slim”. She starts with a simple blank surface and then builds on the solvent-infused drawing she writes there. As soon as she feels the painting is done, she lets it dry, tries to figure out where the varnish hotspots are, and then applies a light layer of preservative varnish “to make the surface even”. Perhaps slim, but still complexly overlaid.
Melton was born in Lexington, Kentucky and raised in North Carolina. He earned a BA in English from Guilford College, Greensboro. In 1977 she moved to Philadelphia to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), where she received a certificate in 1981 and the Hobson Pittman Prize for Experimental Painting. In 1989 she finally returned to her home country.
Melton was drawn to landscapes early on. She continued with them after living at Millay Colony for the Arts in Austerlitz, New York in the mid-1980s and when she moved back south, where she painted “in those beautiful open fields on a dairy farm.” “Road / In” (1990) is a resonant arrangement of rolling red earth and green fields, which are split by a dirt road.
After a colleague at the Millay residence introduced her to the work of the abstract painter Bill Jensen, Melton changed gears. She started looking for his paintings and, as she says, “a seed was planted”. It left the representative landscape mode and began to depict an inner topography.
Over time, Melton has developed an audience passionately devoted to her quirky and disarming creations. You can understand why: the images explore the intersection of mystery and recognition with idiosyncratic vigor. It is as if Melton is looking for a visual synapse between the inside and the outside world.
As early as autumn, Melton reported that he had “opened” three paintings in the studio – ongoing work, which she said “clattered for attention during the pandemic”. She reported that she felt “very under-challenged” and just looked at her instead of painting. But she knows herself and her process well enough that “what has to emerge will”. Something to look forward to when we set out on our way through uncharted territory.
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