In the poem, “Anecdote of the Jar,” Wallace Stevens places a plain glass jar, “gray and bare,” on a wild hilltop in Tennessee. To the poet’s eye, the tidy manufactured orderliness of the jar transforms the landscape around it to a messy wilderness. The presence of something artificial changes the way we see the natural.
In her show “Reliquaries” (at Sue Greenwood Fine Art, 330 No. Coast Hwy.), Deborah Davidson tells her own anecdotes using jars.
Davidson’s stories are about how a small thing can become a universe when it’s surrounded by walls — the opposite effect from Stevens’ poem. Her paintings, all oil on linen, depict a series of objects, or even symbols, placed inside plain glass jars.
A reliquary is a container for holy objects — bits of bones of the saints, shreds of clothes — so the names of these paintings become very important. The names identify the importance of the object.
“Are You O.k.?: Sticks and Stones” (26 x 13) is a good place to start. This glass jar contains a house floating in water. It’s not a Monopoly-style toy house; it’s a pleasant red with a dark roof and two open windows.
The jar is placed on a shelf covered with a cloth that still shows the pleats where it was precisely folded. Pinned to the cloth behind the jar is string tied with a rock at one end and a “stick” that looks a lot like an artist’s crayon.
Where to begin. Here, as in other canvases, the artist shows her virtuosity with technique: she is painting something clear (glass) holding something that’s also clear but bends light (water) in front of a white background that nonetheless is complex with shadows and reflections.
White is very hard to paint. White cloth is even harder. Add to that light shining through water onto the white cloth, picking up a tint from the red house, and you see what I mean about virtuosity. Even the twine’s tiny frayed tendrils seem to cast shadows.
But it is the artist’s symbolic purpose that is most captivating. The house floats off kilter, two darkened windows just above the surface of the waterline — but only just. How small this world. Yet it is a version of existence: the house is us, the water our condition. “Are you o.k.?” is the question, but with the all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune ... maybe the answer is “no.”
Sometimes the stories in these jars are even more harrowing. “Healthy” (14 x 14) is part of a triptych that also contains “Wealthy” and “Wise.” Health comes in the form of a pink-eyed mouse. He clamors over a twig in an heroic effort to get to the top of it.
We want to help him in his mighty struggle, tiny feet clinging to what to him is a branch. But the lid to the jar seems to be screwed on tightly. And the line above his ears may be a ripple in the glass, or a waterline.
I’ve been pondering “Unrequited Love” (28 x 22) for a few days now. It shows a simple black and white target, pinned upside down to the wall behind the jar that holds a single dart, lid off.
Does this mean an unrequited love makes you vulnerable, or is the love the dart that’s never thrown, a dark Cupid reference?
Other paintings are more direct. “Kelly” (30 x 36) is a lock of dark hair suspended by a string and a stick resting on the rim of the jar, a more literal reliquary. What’s amazing here is the scale: The fine, fragile strands of hair, the blunt edge of the lock at this size seems so important, so much attention lavished on a single memento.
“Four Elements: Air, Fire, Water” (18 x 48) is a tour de force. In this long and narrow composition, two jars rest in front of a dark ground on either side of a pink votive candle. One jar contains a twig (the unnamed earth of the title) in water, the other a small round mirror.
The painting is majestic, an example of visual metonymy, where a part represents the whole.
In a sense, the painting contains the elements of life.
As I was leaving the gallery, my eye stopped on a small painting of jar half filled with an amber-colored liquid. The jar is otherwise empty. It’s titled “Portrait of an Artist,” a perfect artist’s statement. The artist is the medium; she has no self, only her subject.