Kermit Oliver

Hooks-Epstein Gallery

It's impossible to account for the past three decades of Texas art without including Kermit Oliver in the picture. The reclusive Waco resident is known throughout the state for his haunting still lifes, landscapes, and portraits based on the Bible, classical mythology, and literature and folktales from around the globe, all retold from a contemporary point of view. He gained more widespread recognition when three of his large paintings were chosen for “Beau Monde,” Dave Hickey's SITE Santa Fe exhibition last year. But critics haven't known what to do with Oliver: They've tried to pigeonhole him as a folk artist, a magic realist, a surrealist, a contemporary figurative classicist, even a Pre-Raphaelite, to no avail. Mysterious, poignant, and wryly reflective, Oliver's work is as elusive as it is tantalizing.

The recent paintings and drawings on view in this exhibition reprise Oliver's basic imagery but with a perceptible shift in mood: For all the brightness of the light in the outdoor scenes and the sweetness of the colorful palette in the still lifes, darker intimations of mortality are never far away. The painting I have read of birds raining from the sky, so upon a cardinal cloth I have gathered a darkling grackle dying from a eucharist of poisoned rye (all works 2001) shows the artist sitting at a table covered with a red cloth on which he has placed a halved pomegranate, a bouquet of roses, a botanist's book opened to illustrations of pears, and a weak-looking black bird clutching a few leaves of rye. Oliver portrays himself coldly turning away from the viewer as if to implicate us in the neglect and abuse of the natural world that will result in the death of the grackle. The cut roses (a common sign her for the ephemerality of beauty) completes the picture of a paradise lost, while the sliced pomegranate (an ancient symbol of fertility in many cultures) hints at the potential for regeneration and revival.

Themes of transience and transformation also underlie Young Pasiphäe: A Large Sketch for a Small Cabinet Painting. According to Greek mythology, Pasiphae fell in love with a white bull; the Minotaur was born of their union. Here Pasiphäe is depicted as a young African American girl in a frilly white dress; a huge black-and-white bull turns his head in her direction as he strides forward: The tension between the small figure of Pasiphäe, who peers shyly at the viewer from her position at the very front of the pictorial space (the toes of her shoes touch the edge of the frame), and the pacing bull behind her, barely tethered by the red string attached to his hind ankle, heightens the charged atmosphere. Set within a manicured garden and illuminated by a new moon, the scene has the saturated sensuality of a deep dream. And as in a dream, the beauty is paired with menace.

Oliver's metaphors can occasionally border on the trite. Faith as a Young Prosperone, for instance, a portrait of a button-cute little girl and her beatific lamb, could double as the front of a Hallmark card. But Oliver refuses to censor himself in an effort to avoid kitsch or maintain a consistent style. He would rather keep his viewers guessing, following a complex image rich in symbols with an overly romanticized vignette, a disciplined drawing reminiscent of Ingres with a painting in loose impressionistic brushwork. Whether Oliver depicts an obscure or a simplified moralism, it is always part of his vision of the world, never mere striving for effect.

Susie Kalil