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A Screaming Across The Sky

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There's a new show in the Knight Gallery at Spirit Square, one worth seeing. The artist is Peggy Rivers, a Rock Hill artist and recent 18-month artist in residence at Tryon Center for the Arts -- oops, I mean the McColl Center for Visual Arts. I forgot we're renaming the city a block at a time.The Rivers exhibit, titled falleg malverk, shares space in Spirit Square with two juried shows inspired by the recent Romare Bearden exhibit at the Mint Museum. One was chosen by David Driskell, art educator and rabid Bearden collector and enthusiast; the other show is local middle and high school talent letting us know they know Bearden's work. Many artists in both Bearden love fests have picked up the artist's collage and color overlay tricks, and some have assimilated and expressed a bit of the artist's homegrown, down-home earthiness. One or two have pinched a bit of the man's ineffable spirit.

Bearden's great, but I'm just about Bearden-ed out. Let's move on.

Peggy Rivers' art is more interesting and more irritating. I'll often walk away from the chance to review a show of artwork because it's too loud or too cliched or just too damned stupid. This one is irritating for different reasons, reasons that warrant staying and wrestling with the work.

These paintings are that beautiful woman at the dinner party who deigns to talk with you and then insists on enlightening you with the fascinating relationship between postmodern theory and urban sprawl. These paintings lure, pummel and exhaust. And make me feel stupid. What's going on here? There's got to be a theory.

Rivers can paint. She makes unimaginable images familiar. Her images are concocted from forms hovering at the edges of our dim understanding of the little seen worlds of microbiology and outer space. Her paintings are maps of the areas in between.

The 16 paintings are large and small. The surface of each painting is divided into a vertical and horizontal grid cross-sectioned by an additional diagonal grid. Imagine an oversized tic tac toe board with Xs. A lot of them. Each grid line is laid over a painted organic surface -- patchworks of either mottled or discrete colors sometimes resembling aerial photographs of patches of earth.

These patches of earth are not the familiar vistas we remember from flights over patterned fields of crops and pasture and forest. Through this window we see the landscape of the artist's mind, organic fields and streams of form -- diffuse yellows, greens and oranges dissipating into an aqua ground, fluorescent in vitro eggs floating in a viscous brown soup, and magnified cellular structures floating across a dark modulated surface.

So far, so good. I don't feel stupid yet. It's the all-about-surface, post abstract expressionist aesthetic contained within a rational mind's need for a grid. And it's well done. Lush and alluring. Were this it, if the paintings ended here -- with organic shapes floating on a come hither surface in a grid work of lines patterned over -- I could leave, knowing another good painter has found Charlotte. But that's not all there is.

I'm pleasantly lost in unfamiliar territory, wandering new ground on a warm spring day, with new and seductive surfaces to explore -- hills, rocks, outcroppings etched in color. I feel both sated and excited. I check my map to see where I am and across the map's surface spins a brightly colored cartoon character who pauses to laugh at me and spin off the edge of the map. Others follow. Help.

Rivers paints discrete hard line objects over her pristine grid work and ethereal ground. The objects make me feel a little crazy. A tingling sensation tickles the skin covering my brain stem and I feel a pinch between my eyes foreshadowing a headache. But really, how maddening can a painted object be?

These are solid, brightly colored striped ornaments bobbing gaily across the canvas. They are screams across the quiet night sky. They are painted to appear three dimensional, with the widest portion lighted and the receding edges shadowed, like a cue ball lit by a flashlight. Some are shadowed by a darkened halo that brings the object forward.

The ornament designs vary -- heart shapes capped with conical crowns; stacked orbs resembling flattened clay spheres mashed together; playful inflated turbans reminiscent of Dr. Seuss costumes; fluorescent jellyfish; bisected radioactive apples; festive Russian onion domes.

I can't make the images fit. I'm missing something. OK, now I feel stupid. When a delightful and satisfying field of color and design is blithely corrupted by an image so buoyantly strident, I need a theory to salve my wounded optic nerves. Give me a theory. Why are the Golden Arches out here in the wild?

But like I said, the woman can paint.

When I strip the ornaments from the canvas (in my mind's eye, not with my fingernails), the images left behind are powerful, the paintings are the stuff of talent, of a mind reaching out into those areas we've forgotten how to explore. The grains of sand in the oyster are those truculent and giddy ornaments bubbling across the surface like anthropomorphic cartoon characters.

There's always the chance these are really pearls and I'm blind. I write this knowing I could have walked out an hour ago. There's more here than I'm seeing. Welcome to intellectual vertigo. You can either hang on and plow through or weave your way back out to the street.

Staying put takes an act of faith. The faithful flourish.

The exhibit falleg malverk will run through January 5 at Spirit Square. Call 704-372-1000 for details.

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