No mas diablo, but 'Nature' still force at the TMA

Published on Thursday, 16 January 2014 23:13 - Written by By Jon Perry Guest Columnist

El Diablo is about to hit the bricks.

The malevolent little bugger who’s been glowering behind a Plexiglas cube for the last eight weeks in the Tyler Museum of Art’s North Gallery is headed back to his storage purgatory as of 5:01 p.m. Sunday. He’ll be among friends with the other 75-odd pieces of Mexican folk art we’re moving out as we close our Celebration of Life and Death exhibition that day to make room for the upcoming 10th Annual High School Art Exhibition.

This weekend is your last shot at Celebration of Life and Death, but you have until March 23 to experience what many of us agree is the most arresting exhibition we’ve presented at the museum in years: “Illuminating Nature: Recent Paintings and Works on Paper by Billy Hassell.”

Billy is best known for his stylized renderings of birds, none more prominent than “Roadrunner South of Marfa” – a painting in the TMA’s permanent collection that beautifully encapsulates the artist at the peak of his creative prowess. Aesthetically complex yet immediately accessible, the eponymous Roadrunner appears appropriately wide-eyed and wondrous in the foreground of Billy’s kaleidoscopic Southwestern vista, with a coy but unmistakable suggestion of those taunting “Marfa lights” in the distance. Yet there’s a self-satisfied defiance, almost a smugness in the countenance of this giant flightless bird, not unlike his Looney Tunes counterpart after emerging triumphant from Wile E. Coyote’s latest Acme product calamity.

I’m torn as to which piece in the exhibition I would consider my favorite. The Generation X-er in me wants to cast a vote for Spring in East Texas, a quite recent painting that evokes palpable memories of the 1970s Ad Council campaign featuring Woodsy Owl.

But I’m perhaps even more captivated by Origins, his 1996 study of salmon swimming upstream to spawn – salmon the artist intended to be male, yet upon closer examination are distinctly of the opposite sex. Billy admitted a misunderstanding of piscine anatomy circa 17 years ago resulted in the gaffe, but I think the painting is all the more intriguing because of it. And yes, I’m as perplexed as anyone about the significance of the buffalo in pointillistic silhouette behind the fish. Our interpretation manager Derek theorizes that Billy must have been a huge fan of “Northern Exposure,” the granola-hip CBS series that was popular in the early ’90s ‑ and if you’ve met Billy, you easily could understand why Derek would think that.

Though you might have heard Billy’s work described as “whimsical” in reference to his vivid color palette and penchant for oversize canvases (most of which are bigger than my car), I would hesitate to attach that rampantly overused term to any of the 27 pieces on view in “Illuminating Nature.” (If everything we dubbed “whimsical,” in lieu of more appropriate adjectives, actually were so, we’d be exposed to enough drollery to induce toxic shock in all seven people on Earth who still think “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is funny.)

While many of his natural subjects do betray a playfulness and a pronounced freedom of spirit, the abiding mood in Hassell’s work is contemplative and ‑ to borrow a term Stewart used in a recent interview with Billy ‑ even reverent.

If you’re looking for something to do this Monday, you have a perfect opportunity to interpret Billy’s work for yourself during our next Seniors’ Day. The Museum typically is closed on Mondays, but on the third Monday of each month we throw open the doors to give seniors in our region a free look at our offerings, with guided tours at 10:45 and 11:45 a.m. By “seniors” we mean age 65 and older, not academic upperclassmen ‑ but it’s safe to assume we won’t card you at the door.

You won’t get whimsy, but you will get an unforgettable experience. See you soon.