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Hard Acts to Follow

Commonplace exhibit only skims the surface

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An exhibit of fine art prints that features the work of some of the greatest American and European artists of the 20th century would be a hard act to follow for many an artist. Young painter Christopher Clamp, whose one-person inaugural show, Commonplace Treasures: Narrative Still Life Paintings, currently on view at Melberg Gallery, is at a distinct disadvantage alongside the supremely more intriguing Contemporary Master Prints show.

I can find no comparison between this low-key 21st-century painter (someone whose vision is still developing) and the work by inimitable 20th-century artists such as Robert Motherwell, Louise Nevelson, Romare Bearden, Jean Dubuffet and Helen Frankenthaler, to name only a few whose prints share the gallery with Clamp.

Showing these very blue-chip artists is part of the Melberg Gallery tradition, and works by some of them are stunning. The Jean Dubuffet and two gorgeous, almost miniature works by Louise Nevelson soar off the walls of the first gallery.

In the next room, as the second act currently playing the interior spaces of the gallery, Clamp's work is nice, but it is not stunning. At worst, his paintings can be insipid, and any narrative content in "Homecoming," with its representation of Fisher-Price toys and realistically rendered bricks, is frankly uninteresting.

To his credit, the surfaces of Clamp's modestly scaled paintings on canvas are quite sumptuous and appealing, and "the carefully executed textures within the paintings" (as noted in the gallery press release) are certainly worth pondering. The surface that Clamp ultimately produces, however, is a plane so cool that the artwork on top of it never warms up.

In paintings that aim for narrative content, the quality of surface is not enough. And where is the narrative? The artist's vision as presented here is so neutral as to be almost invisible, and the story lines we try to weave from Clamp's disparate objects fall flat from lack of content; the glib objects and minimal backgrounds fail to stir the imagination. The artist's wish for the viewer "to bring his or her own personal history to the narrative that unfolds within each painting" is a legitimate but unoriginal desire, much touted by many artists for many years. Here, the emptiness of the paintings seems to mock the viewers' attempts to participate in the work.

This is a visually pleasant show, but the ensemble has a timid quality. Within their modest proportions, his paintings maintain the feeling of being appliquéd, almost as if decals had been adhered to the canvas. Of course, the idea that simple objects, minimally presented, can be imbued with deep, contemplative power is one that holds tremendous potential, but these still lifes are not as sublime as they'd like to be -- even if Christopher Clamp's imagery is "deeply personal," it remains mundane. It takes a painter like Morandi to pare down to the sublime, or someone like Warhol to put a twist on the commonplace. The everyday objects depicted here, especially the childhood toys, are handled in a way that doesn't capitalize on the strangeness of seeing them presented in a gallery, as if Pop Art or surrealism never happened. "The commonplace toys and objects" featured in these paintings never jump from the mundane to the sublime, or from depiction to meaning. One dull little painting, "Aftertaste" (featuring an apple core), epitomizes this problem: It has no real wit or unique quality of any kind, and ends up looking more like a Hallmark greeting card or children's wallpaper than serious art.

One oil on canvas promises some ironic impact, but ultimately delivers none. "Blonde Hair, Blue Eyes" remains tame -- a coy children's book illustration. Is this quality intentional, or is the artist coasting? The painting may be cute, but is this kitsch?

Some paintings hover between warmth and coolness. "Fragile," a painting of a circle of small birds' eggs, is sweet and well-executed, but again, the artist seems to retreat from his subject matter. The detachment is not profound enough to strip down the piece to essentials, and contrasting possibilities of potential warmth are hampered by Clamp's uninvolved manner. Another pleasant piece, a painting of a honeycomb and half a glass of milk, delivers visual sweetness rather than a luscious depth of taste. To confuse matters, this piece has an unresolved horizontal line running through it. This contradiction again could lead to some spatial ambiguity, but it remains unexplored.

The minimal content is inoffensive, and I feel mean for not liking the work more. I realize how young the artist is. Commonplace Treasures is the inaugural exhibition for Clamp, a native of Leesville, SC, who earned his BFA in painting from Winthrop University (2001). Maybe he's just too young, and the gallery is looking to groom an artist for greater things. Let's hope it happens.


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