By Kathy Swartz
The Carnegie is currently presenting two solo exhibits, each to give a deserving Cincinnati artist time alone in the spotlight. But sometimes 1 + 1 = 3. By pairing Tony Dotson with the late Edie Harper, exhibitions director Matt Distel has created a super-sized — and super-enjoyable — look at stripped-down visual language, with more than 300 examples in all.
For the first time, Harper — so often referred to as “the wife of Charley Harper,” the Midcentury Modernist known for his geometric paintings of wildlife — is receiving a solo retrospective of her diverse career. Who knew that she was not only a painter, illustrator and photographer, but also that she mastered sculpture, enameling and weaving?
Harper, who passed away in 2010 at age 87, had been featured alongside Charley, who died in 2007, in major shows at the Contemporary Arts Center and Cincinnati Art Museum. She also received smaller solo exhibitions during her life. But E is for Edie: An Edith McKee Harper Retrospective encompasses a half-century of work, dating to her student days in the early 1940s at the Art Academy of Cincinnati.
Dotson, whose cartoon-like folk art is familiar to Carnegie audiences from The Art of Food extravaganzas, created 50 new works for his first solo show in four years. “I wanted to set him free from a theme and let him express the insanity happening in his head,” Distel joked during a preview tour.
Though Harper and Dotson are separated by generations and tone, the prolific Cincinnati artists share an affinity for basic shapes and childhood memories. “Both practice deceptively straight-forward image-making,” Distel said, “but to different ends.”
Dotson’s exhibit is titled An American Outsider. The 45-year-old is a self-taught painter who combines recognizable pop-culture icons with biting social commentary about racism and myths we’re fed as kids. His materials are junked wood and house paint.
Dotson’s depiction of a Disney cruise ship is a full-steam-ahead assault against “The Wonderful World of Stereotypes” seen in the studio’s early cartoons and WWII propaganda films. White folks, represented by smiling circles in the shade that Crayola used to call “flesh,” enjoy the nice view on the deck, while Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans and American Indians are packed in steerage. Walt Disney has been frozen and tossed overboard.
“I do not play by the rules,” Dotson said during a gallery talk at the opening. “I see things through a 6-year-old’s eyes and put my spin on them. I paint like a child that’s been warped.”
In Dotson’s version of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred and Captain Kangaroo string up that interloper Barney the dinosaur.
Though Dotson built a towering, 20-foot sculpture of King Kong and the Empire State Building under the Carnegie’s rotunda, Distel does just manage to contain Dotson’s impishness downstairs, reserving the upper galleries for Harper. Even so, visitors can’t consider one artist without thinking about the other.
“I could have been one of her kids,” Dotson remarked, as he compared their minimalist styles.
Harper (who was the mother of another local artist, Brett Harper) was focused on form but inspired by sweeter subjects — like nature, her cats and family gatherings. Yet she also took a tongue-in-cheek approach to everyday themes and even the Bible, with fun titles like “Super Supper” and “What Ever Happened to Baby Moses?”
Arranged chronologically and by subject, the Harper exhibit reveals an inquisitive artist with a sense of whimsy — one who freely moved from one medium to the next in order to grow creatively. In a 1947 self-portrait hung at the entrance to the show, she crosses her freckled arms, smirks and cocks her head as if to say, “I’m really too busy to sit still for a painting.”
While at the Art Academy, Harper demonstrated she was a skilled at Cubism and Surrealism, painting portraits with alien faces. Once she settled into her sparse Midcentury Modern style, she applied that lens to any medium or subject.
During World War II, while her beloved Charley was overseas, Harper was using an actual lens as a photographer for the Army Corps of Engineers in Cincinnati. The “dullsville” job meant taking pictures of experiments with soil, concrete and airplanes, but she also created fine art by focusing her camera on the same kinds of lines, shapes and patterns that she already was painting on canvas. She received a solo show of her photographs in 1961 at the Contemporary Arts Center.
Formalism was her overriding approach to seeing the world. In one upstairs gallery, Distel marveled at a square weaving with an open circle in the center as being “unmistakably Edie.”
When she took “a new look at the Old Book,” as one section of the exhibit is called, Harper wasn’t motivated by religion but an opportunity to create interesting modernist visuals using the Bible’s narrative. As the work was being installed, Dotson especially envied Harper’s sparse geometric paintings depicting the Apostles.
“I made a Last Supper for Art of Food that I thought was as simplified as you could get,” Dotson said. “She did 12 circles and some lines and blew me away!”
Both solo exhibits were blowing people away on opening night. According to Distel, this is the most art The Carnegie has shown at once in a long time. And for Harper, one more huge display could be ahead.
ArtWorks, which honored Charley Harper with a downtown public mural in 2012, says it hopes to add Edie to its 2017 portfolio. But now that The Carnegie has revealed how broad her talent was, will the side of one building be big enough?
AN AMERICAN OUTSIDER and E IS FOR EDIE continue through Feb. 11 at The Carnegie, 1028 Scott Blvd., Covington, Ky. More info: thecarnegie.com.