Celebrate the Art of Carroll Cloar in Memphis
Like the river or the music, some things become part of your fabric when you live in Memphis. Carroll Cloar is one of those things. Though born in Arkansas (1913), the artist attended college in Memphis and returned here in 1955 following his discovery and success in New York City. He remained in Memphis until his death in 1993.
But greater than Cloar’s connection to Memphis is his connection to the American South, and beyond that, his connection to humanity and memory. You’ll feel it when you encounter The Crossroads of Memory: Carroll Cloar and the American South, on view at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art (through Sept. 12).
The exhibit gathers 85 works from private and major public collections (Joseph Hirshhorn and Nelson Rockefeller were collectors), and I think that mass is essential to understanding the artist, who’s classified as a Magic Realist, Regionalist and Surrealist among other schools.
Look once and you’ll appreciate Cloar’s paintings as time capsules. (The artist, in fact, described his subjects as, “American faces, timeless dress and timeless customs…the last of old America that isn’t long for this earth.”) Here’s one example:
For me, Cloar’s use of landscape as character further emphasizes that timelessness. Painting after painting, flowers, leaves, moons, suns and skies glow. Grasses, boughs and tree trunks, whether imbued with intricate textures or rendered in Pointillism, consume me:
Ultimately, it’s humanity Cloar magnifies most as he paints these scrapbooks of Southern life. Again – look once, and you’ll see a family portrait set in beauty and simplicity:
But look twice, particularly if you’re a fan of Southern Gothic literature (as Cloar was), and you might see tension or fear; dreams or nightmares:
The story Cloar paints is one his mother told of a woman spooked by a panther in the Delta wilds. The exhibit lets you peek behind the scenes on this one, posting a photograph of one of Cloar’s Memphis College of Art colleagues posing, in period dress, as the woman for Cloar’s sketches.
No matter how his paintings first appear – women quilting, children playing, field-hands picking – memory has the stronghold on Cloar’s brush. And the neon colors and kaleidoscope of techniques his memory summons make his work distinct, whimsical and often thrilling to behold.
As I’ve shared with you here before, the Brooks always does an impeccable job making its exhibits interactive. This time around, you can grab a free Cloar audio tour with museum admission (and a Cloar bingo sheet) to guide your visit, and take the kids (or no kids at all) to the Cloar Interactive Gallery, where you can play with color and texture on a light table and decorate walls in Cloar’s style, pasting them with images, newspaper clippings, photos and postcards. (Truly, Cloar adopted the style from humble cabins he knew, and applied it in his studio. You can see his workspace reconstructed at the Art Museum of the University of Memphis during this #summerofcloar – and use this hashtag to find other related activities around town.) For other Cloar events and enrichments, including the family-friendly Brooks’ Creation Station on Aug. 10 and a suggested reading list (stacked with Faulkner and Welty, natch), mark this page.
Have a favorite Cloar painting or #summerofcloar event? Tell us about it in the comments section below!