The paintings in Heather Hartman’s exhibition Spare Room (at Nashville’s Channel to Channel through October 19) are made up of oil and acrylic paint, gouache on paper, and polyester mesh. In one painting, bronzy light appears as though coming through leaves, focusing the image at the point where the fabric comes close to the canvas in soft, quick proximity. This close spot is a privilege. (It reminds me of one time my high school English teacher’s husband came to buy groceries at the store where I was a cashier. I did not expect him to, but he remembered me. He was so kind and sincere that I kept trying to end the conversation before he felt used up.) Hartman’s unique layering technique can be disorienting, though each painting provides a gratifying sense of flickering illumination. Many of the paintings show circles of light like those that appear when you try to photograph a Christmas tree, small overlapping orbs. I cannot tell if the spots are rendered in the negative, encircled, completely surrounded on every side by something lighter or darker than themselves, or if they are rendered on top of the painting, having planted themselves easily and smoothly like a well-behaved contact lens. Hartman’s work has me chicken and egging my fingernails, wondering about the half-moon beds and where the white marks come from.
In Megan White’s solo exhibition Paintings from a Room (at The Electric Shed in Nashville), paintings are arranged according to subject matter: one grouping contains paintings of bugs; another, paintings of one window painted in several different hues of light; and, facing these, three bright white window paintings. A few paintings are not included in the arrangements but are spaced a little apart from the others—they are deliberately sitting alone at breakfast. Among these straying paintings is one of a bug installed in the arch of the roof, looking saintly, happy to have found its natural place in the gallery. It’s too high to reach and insists, I’m a bug! This placement makes it hard to see the wasp in the painting, devastated by pool water. The liveliness of its position is contradicted by its limpness after drowning. Now it seems even saintlier.
It makes me a little concerned: what does it mean to make artworks by paying attention to the things God certainly put on this green earth to distract you from yourself for a moment? This concern is borne out of the assumption that making art is like having children with your well-loved partner, the World, who you expect wrongly to have your eyes and the World’s nose. You hope to see yourself in your work. So when White makes paintings focused on beetles and moths, I wonder if it reduces the value of those creatures in life, where they exist apart from the self, work, and reputation. On the other hand, White is noticing. Her paintings remain faithful to the bugs. They have shadows as wonderful as the real things. The ladybug left yellow fluid on the windowsill, so we know it was frightened. The bug is so small yet has the imaginative depth of a protagonist because it is so attentively rendered.
Hartman and White’s work appears as though it could have been done from the same quotidian station—a desk. Nashville artist Matt Christy writes of White’s work, “I sometimes get the impression that these paintings approach the limits of naked vision, as if taking one step closer would blur her vision and open us up into an endless, murky expanse.” For a moment I considered the possibility that Hartman is like White if you crossed your eyes, but that’s not right. The title of each artist’s show is accurate. Hartman’s Spare Room could be anywhere, whereas White resolutely occupies the room where the titular Paintings from a Room were made. Hartman’s paintings are those of a domestic cowboy, far off even when she’s in the room. The unfocused and dusty view they offer feels abstracted and distant. It reminds me of this poem by Emily Dickinson:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —Emily Dickinson, J1129
As for White, perhaps it is unfair to consider bugs as reminders of something other than ourselves but not light or leaves. I think our love—our attention being maybe the same thing as our love, and that maybe being why and how White paints bugs—and our desire to praise and be praised are impossibly intertwined. These impulses are a gleeful, shrewd, vain, and loving middle school girl’s sleepover. When I went to the copy of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson my grandmother gave me to look up the poem above, I found a twenty-dollar bill. Thank you Gran! Thank you, selfishness and generosity who make their bed together and wake up joyful.
Heather Hartman’s Spare Room is on view at Channel to Channel in Nashville through October 12.
Megan White’s Paintings from a Room remains on view by appointment at The Electric Shed in Nashville.