In 1967, two Little Rock lawyers got together and decided their firm should collect art. Maurice Mitchell, who founded the Mitchell, Williams, Selig, Gates and Woodyard firm, was also a member of the Arkansas Arts Center Foundation board of directors and other arts endeavors. Chris Barrier, a lawyer with the firm, had served on the Arts Center Board of Trustees and was himself a cartoonist. Collecting was a way to support the arts in Arkansas.
For the next 35 years or so, the firm’s Corporate Art Collection grew to include 92 artworks. As it happens, many came from the talents in the art department at UA Little Rock, such as professors Al Allen, Kathleen Holder, Rocky Sapp and David Bailin; and students Alice Andrews, Dominique Simmons (who later taught), Kitty Mashburn, Gertrude Tara-Casciano and Anne Fordyce.
So the Mitchell firm and Brad Cushman, director of the galleries at UA Little Rock, put their heads, and art, together to create an exhibition that draws from the firm’s collection and the university’s. The result is “Pairing Collections: Contemporary Art in 1980s Arkansas,” which opens Friday, Aug. 16, in the university’s Cushman Gallery in the Windgate Center for Art + Design.
The exhibit’s 22 pieces from the Mitchell firm and 11 from UA Little Rock include fine examples of work by the artists already mentioned, as well as printmaker Evan Lindquist, professor emeritus at Arkansas State University; the late Tarrance Corbin, an art professor at UA Pine Bluff who became nationally known; and artists David Bailin, Patrick McFarlin, Warren Criswell, Sally Williams, Cheryl Wall, Lou Boswell, Reita Miller, Margaret Speer, Warren Sims and Cheryl Wall.
Much of the work in the show is on paper, due in no small part, Cushman said, to the fact that the university got it — milk carton paper on huge rolls — free from UA Pine Bluff. There is also commonality in some of the works, likely due to the teacher’s influence of the student: The gestural marks in Dominique Simmons’ “Dead Banjo Player” and Kitty Mashburn’s “Eartha (Rhino), Arkansas River Series,” and the abstract sweeps of Tara-Casciano’s large pastels “Untitled” and “Self Portrait” might owe something to then-professor Kathleen Holder’s pre-minimalist stage.
Evan Lindquist’s mid-’80s engravings “History Lesson: Cleopatra” and “History Lesson: Napoleon” are two wonderful works by the state’s artist laureate. The powerful pair face each other on the wall, Cleopatra with her serpent and buzzard headdress and Napoleon with his feathered, two-cornered hat, drawn in Lindquist’s exquisite calligraphic line. Both are from the Mitchell Williams collection.
Warren Criswell’s “Two Men on Stilts II” from the UALR collection finds a kindred spirit in David Bailin’s “What They Know They Know for Us” from the Mitchell Williams collection. Criswell’s is a scene of two men (both Criswell, of course) on absurdly tall, rough-hewn stilts walking past a burning downtown; Bailin’s depicts a man (his always-pondering hero) on a path overhung with trees, an archetypical house hovering above and its earthly manifestation in miniature at the man’s feet.
The decision to use works made 30 years ago by people who were working in concert — geographically, that is — allows the viewer to see their influences on one another, as well as their work’s evolution. Simmons still works in a gestural way, her spaces filled with lines of color. Criswell — already a mature artist then — has continued to produce his crepuscular visions, with no diminishing of skill. Bailin, who worked for a time in charcoal with coffee adding the only tint, has begun to add color again. Alice Andrews — whose abstract “Blue Rock” in the “Pairing Collections” show is an ethereal Chagall-meets-Frankenthaler — was exhibiting scenes of Ozark streams in her show at Boswell Mourot Fine Art in 2018. William “Rocky” Sapp’s handmade rolled paper abstraction “Art Compartment: Laconic Section” (1984-84), stands in contrast to his later figurative bronze sculpture.
Al Allen is one of the most revered artists Arkansas has ever produced, and his works in “Paired Collections” are nice examples of his oeuvre, crisp images of light on windows and clapboard siding. Tarrance Corbin was another, and it’s good to see his jumbled geometrics here. A compelling abstracted landscape in reds and blues, “Amputated Landscape,” is a work by the late Ann Fordyce from the Mitchell Williams collection. People reintroduced to the work of former Arkansas artist Patrick McFarlin in his show in the Butler Center of Arkansas Studies’ Galleries at Library Square will be glad to see “Mast,” his multimedia drawing of hopscotched figures.
The gallery will host a reception from 5-7 p.m. Aug. 22. The exhibition runs through Sept. 29.
On the Windgate Center’s ground floor, in the Small Gallery, is “New in LOU, Drawn Daily,” accordion books that Meena Khalili drew daily to record her year in Louisville, Ky. The 365 pen and ink and brush drawings of shops and streets and houses and drinks, some collaged with newspaper and other printed material, stem from the graphic artist’s interest in geography, history and impermanence, according to UALR. Khalili, a first-generation Iranian American, is an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. That show also closes Sept. 29.