Quietly tucked into the unassuming edifices of law offices and dance studios, you’ll find the Marcia Wood Gallery, a tidy, modern art space with a simple, effective flow. Hanging on the walls this month are works that, at first glance, seem unoriginal, perhaps even cliché; however, this exhibition harbors secrets that only a prolonged viewing will unveil, as well as a level of mastery that eventually staggers the viewer when he or she finally understands the difficulty that lies behind the technique.
This is Light and Shadows, the newest exhibition by painter Drew Galloway. The show, which will run through the 28th of July, showcases a series of still life paintings by a man obsessed with capturing the silent moments of nature.
When viewed closely, the bulk of Galloway’s work seems like a jumbled mess of random brush strokes and awkward, abstract, incongruous shapes. As the viewer steps back from the work, however, and allows the mind to explore the painting further, its Impressionist qualities present themselves to reveal a collection of decipherable, natural scenes. Indeed, from a distance, the seemingly chaotic settings, all rendered with oil paint on large tin sheets, transform into something very recognizable: still lifes of reflecting pools in wooded areas, in which beams of sunlight highlight a complex series of layers. As the sunlight casts shadows from behind the trees and clouds above, one notices the depth of the pool below and the flotsam floating on and beneath the water’s surface. Also visible are muddy banks at the water’s edge lined with stones and grassy patches. Below this, one can make out the soil and stone beneath the water itself. Together, these varying layers offer a manifold brilliance, whereby one can see all the facets of the natural landscape simultaneously. The effect is stunning.
“These works represent my desire to create paintings that reinterpret the poetic realism that I admire in prints and paintings of historic Chinese and Japanese artists such as Hokusai,” says Galloway when asked about his work. He explains that he achieves this “by using materials and subject matter that are indigenous to the landscapes that are part of my everyday life.”
And while these works are certainly not as stylized as those paintings of East Asia, there is an undeniable quality to Galloway’s work that stops the viewer well short of labeling it as “realism.”
“I think over time I have developed a style similar to Degas, where realism is embraced but evidence of the human hand is left intact,” explains the artist.
Galloway’s career began more than two decades ago, with his first solo exhibition taking place in 1989. Since then, he has certainly found his muse. A native of Birmingham, Alabama, Galloway learned that an artist, even one who deals with still life works, does not need to travel far and wide to find a subject. Galloway paints the serene moments in the woods of the American South—the shimmer of the sun as it reflects on a gently rippling pond, the mirrored surface of still water reflecting the tree canopy above. Even in the works that capture these scenes up close, clues to the Southern locale are readily available: live oak leaves glide across the water as red clay peers up from beneath. All of these details initially clash. But once the paintings have been unraveled by the mind, the works take you to a place of quiet solitude. So compelling and familiar are the images that one can almost hear the ubiquitous thrumming of cicadas and frogs in the gallery.
Galloway, however, does not believe that such moments of Zen-like serenity exist only in his backyard:
“[If I were raised in Iceland] under those circumstances I would still paint the tiny streams created by the melting glaciers or perhaps the temporary ponds created in the backyard after a rainfall.”
His point is that moments of perfect natural beauty occur around us constantly, whether we live in Alabama, Atlanta, Iceland, or Japan, and that artists need not set a bowl of fruit on a table in order to capture the vivid splendor of the very familiar. And unlike those works of realism that capture the stillness of a room, Galloway’s still lifes speak of motion, however gentle and natural. A pool of water, as we all know, is never still for long.
Even with his professional career having spanned nearly a quarter century, Galloway feels strongly that there is so much left to learn. During our interview, I asked the artist what he thought about his paintings being referred to as masterworks. The motivated painter once again drew from a life time of inspirations for his answer:
“Hokusai wrote about his own skills,” relayed the artist. “Saying, ‘At one hundred and thirty, forty, or more [years] I will have reached the age where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive. May Heaven, that grants long life, give me the chance to prove that this is no lie.’ So no mastery, not yet.”