As I entered Charlie Lucas’s exhibition “In Transition,” on view at MINT through March 22, I was drawn by the work titled Hot Chili Pepper, a rusted green vase topped with a hodgepodge of intertwined scrap metal and plastic chili peppers. It’s playful and endearing. Most of the works in this exhibition are light-hearted, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be taken seriously. There is an innocence and impulsiveness in Lucas’s works, not because the artist is self-taught but because it seems as if he creates without encumbrances, reservations, or hesitation. He is free of judgment. His wire dinosaur Longtail, 14 inches tall and perched as if ready to dance rather than attack, seems like a feeling acted upon rather than a premeditated, meaning-laden work. And that’s okay. I feel a little bit closer to the artist after I meet this reptilian anachronism, because it’s full of character and life. I can’t help but imagine it as an embodiment of the artist’s personality.
Awareness of time and place is an important aspect of Lucas’s work, which is even evident in the title of the show. “In Transition,” in part, references the creative process. The exhibition includes material from a prior installation, completed works, and materials from the artist’s studio—the beginning, middle, and end. Although the parts to make a great story are present, I am not quite convinced. The presentation of Lucas’s in-process work is lackluster and missing the charm and allure of the presentation of his finished work. Because his materials are such an integral and meaningful part of his creations and are full of so much heart and narrative, I thought being able to observe his process would provide even more depth to my understanding of his work. But a sign reading “Charlie Lucas, Selma, Al,” stacked on top of a wooden crate and partially covered by ceiling fan blades, sits lifeless against a wall like the last few items left in an apartment on moving day. The beige and orange fabrics taken from Lucas’s slavery-related installation “In the Belly of the Ship” have little context besides the short description next to it, and it’s draping, overwhelming, and allusive material feels misplaced and forced.
Unlike the process materials, Lucas’s finished work succeeds because it is true to itself. Do You Hear Me Moaning, a set of six wall-hung faces made of wood, old quilts, and table legs, is expressive in its use of material and construction. Three of the faces are clustered in a corner, as if in conversation. After all, from the tattered old bed covers, to the captivating faces, to the story of the six-legged table that donated its parts to this work, it feels as if they are in conversation—with each other, with me, and with history.
TV Snacks, a series of drawings on little rectangles of cardboard, is a favorite. Depictions of abstracted moments that Lucas may have experienced, they’re short, sweet, and mundane, like TV dinners. Similarly, a tiny sculpture of a woman with a washboard and basin, Washing the Clothes, captures a small slice of ordinary life. Then there’s Getting a Grip on Life, a wonky hunk of metal and bicycle wheel that isn’t quite composed or stable but also isn’t afraid to admit it. Lucas is telling us to pay attention, to preserve, and to let go. This is the transition that is apparent to me in his work. He seems to respect and cherish time. His artwork is sincere and non-apologetic. When “In Transition” emphasizes this, it becomes less about one man and his artistic process and more about learning to recognize and treasure one’s own life process.
Yves Jeffcoat is an Atlanta-based writer and a participant in the BURNAWAY Emerging Art Writers Mentorship Program.