“I have seized the light. I have arrested its flight.” —Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre
“Splendor: The Work of Jim Waters” at the High Museum engages light as the force that brings the organic into being. The exhibition by the Atlanta-based artist includes 29 works on paper with watercolor, glitter, dye, polymer resin and holographic vinyl. All convey the sense of wonder experienced when confronting nature in its micro and macro manifestations.
In drawings and paintings, Waters infuses light into forms that are evocative of nature. Micro watercolor drawings floating on large sheets of rag paper, and a macro installation of brilliant sunbursts capture the full spectrum of the artist’s response to nature.
In a recent conversation, Waters described his fascination with the natural forms that grow and change over time. His curiosity about form was ignited in the 1970s when he was a young student at the Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. Regular visits to the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens inundated his sense with the infinite variety and complexity in the lush subtropical landscape. Memory of the verdant garden contributed to Waters’s life-long exploration of form.
While nature’s myriad forms have influenced Waters, his untitled drawings and paintings come straight from his imagination and not from observation. The connectivity of natural forms and a deep understanding of sculpture come together in these carefully rendered abstractions. Intentionally unlinking the works from specific references, Waters has left all the works in the exhibition untitled.
In one watercolor, tendrils radiate out from a center in a gentle unfolding of red and green organic oval shapes. The ovals change scale and drift away as though falling in space. Pigment floods the shapes and pools at the edge, forming a thin line of concentrated pigment that holds the form in place. According to Waters, this fragile edge mimics the serrations found in leaves, an evolutionary device thought to capture light in the early stages of photosynthesis.The gentle curve of the tendrils creates a swaying motion. In close scrutiny of these drawings, we see the world as Waters sees it, wondrous and complex in its simplicity.
The watercolor drawings convey the mystery of emergent forms and are the foundation for his work infused with the light-bearing properties of glitter, transparent dye and resin. The contemporary materials bring subtle substance to these paintings. Images acquire physicality while the sparkle of glitter and resin enhances the sense of an emerging micro world. The mysterious forms almost float off the surface as so much detritus still pulsing with life.
In one painting, a quiet drama unfolds as a small amoeba-like shape with gold glitter sparkles through orange-dyed resin. The form appears to grow on the page. Tentacles in olive and spring green are poised to emerge from the edges. The light-captivating materials suggest a pulse emanating from the form. These works present conundrums for knowing what we are looking at. Is this nature, culture, an ambiguous abstraction, or all three? The question hangs in the air as we encounter these imagined forms.
The macro world of nature in Waters’s spectacular installation covers one wall in a connecting gallery in the Wieland Pavilion. Consisting of 45 sunburst shapes arranged in a grid on a long wall, the installation creates an environment that is visually dynamic. Iridescent flashes of color subvert the gridded formation as each sunburst mutates with the viewer’s movement. Hovering on the wall, the sunbursts sparkle, shift colors, and keep us moving. In this work, Waters owns up to his most playful instincts, and we are richly rewarded as we try to hold still in this light-filled world of suns.
Light is an animating—in life and in this work. From the watercolors to the glitter and resin paintings, to the holographic sunbursts, light is the unifying principle that animates nature and Jim Waters’s exquisite drawings and paintings.
“Splendor: The Work of Jim Waters” is on view at the High Museum through June 8.
Maggie Davis is an artist and scholar living in Roswell, Georgia.