Herbert Creecy

Nexus Contemporary Art Center

This recent retrospective of Herbert Creecy’s work brought together 70 works, including the large acrylic paintings for which he is best known, as well as smaller canvases, mixed-media sculptures, and whimsical toy sculptures. The vocabulary and distinctive style of Creecy’s paintings, characterized by a diffuse focus and abrupt shifts in line and texture, have remained remarkably consistent throughout his mature career. Some works, like Potato Valley Creek under Pressure, 1987, are contests between straight diagonal lines (with occasional graceful curves) and smokelike trails and squirts of color. A Day in the Life of the Green Flyer is 15 years older but remarkably similar in style, although it puts greater emphasis on the irregular smoke- or cloudlike forms —so that the earlier canvas suggests a view of the sky, and the later, with its diagonal semigrid, an aerial photograph.

Many of the purely abstract works suggest figures or narratives, particularly since Creecy never fixes a central focus. The viewer’s eye wanders across the surface, repeatedly succumbing to the temptation to interpret collections of smaller forms. But when straight lines or a grid predominate in a given work, as in Shakin’ Shanty, 1983, Creecy achieves a resonance not found in the more diffuse and gestural works. In its dark ground and its brown, white, and pink grid, Shakin’ Shanty evokes the tar-paper shacks of the rural South, and the squiggles of color here and there across the canvas enliven the painting and suggest the unsuppressed energy of the shacks’ inhabitants. The strength of Night Wire, 1976, an irregular grid superimposed on a dark ground with short, gestural strokes, demonstrates that Creecy is most interesting when he imposes more structure on his gestural impulses. However, in several recent works that include representations of airplanes set into the artist’s typical swirling clouds of color, a Pop element becomes too blatant. These works do not achieve the depth of the shantylike paintings.

Several sculptures made of found objects, most of which relate to the craft of painting (brushes, knives, paint tubes), offered an interesting counterpoint to Creecy’s canvases: the color and line of the brushes and tools assembled in The Garden, 1972, might be considered the visual armature for one of the large paintings. But in order to do justice to the sizable body of work Creecy has produced in the last 17 years, the show included a number of weak works, particularly a group of toys with paint dripped on them. This large exhibition was a risk for Creecy; the focus of many of his works is so diffuse that the manipulation of paint became the main somewhat academic interest and the consistency of his style began to look repetitive. Still, there were enough strong works here to make the show a valuable survey of one of the most extensive bodies of work in Southern abstract art.

Glenn Harper