Symbols of hope, despair

Nature's bounty, adversity depicted in gallery exhibit

ArtReview

May 31, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

In Greek mythology, Persephone was the beautiful daughter of Zeus and Demeter. But while yet a maiden, the girl was abducted by Hades, god of the Underworld, and carried off to his dark realm.

Persephone's distraught mother searched for her everywhere, in her anguish wreaking havoc far and wide. To calm her, Zeus finally persuaded Hades to let his daughter return to her mother for eight months every year; this is the season when the earth blooms, and so Persephone came to be worshipped as the goddess of fertility and the harvest.

In the paintings of Chevelle Makeba Moore Jones, at Steven Scott Gallery through June 29, the figure of Persephone appears in nearly all the approximately two dozen works on view. These beautifully painted canvases, with their richly patterned surfaces and vivid tropical colors, seem like some protracted idyllic dream concocted out of the commingled minds of Gauguin and Matisse.

In Moore Jones' work, the ancient myth of Persephone is a metaphor for both the life force that produces nature's bounty and its opposite, the nemesis of human happiness and aspiration, often symbolized by a menacing wolf, a black-hatted man or a raven.

The painting Home, for example, depicts three women seated on a patterned rug around a rough wooden table. Two of the women clasp each other's hands in a gesture of tender affection that recalls the powerful mother-daughter bond between Demeter and Persephone; on the table sit two red pomegranates, a fruit that symbolizes both Persephone's fertility and her captivity in the Underworld (before allowing her to leave his realm, Hades had tricked Persephone into biting into a pomegranate, food of the dead, thus ensuring her return).

The brilliant colors of the scene are counterpoised by two black ravens hovering over the young woman's head, emblems of the ever-present reality of death and loss. It's a theme that is echoed in the aging features of the gray-haired woman who turns her back on the contented mother and daughter. But for the moment, all is well; the old woman clasps a flowering plant to her breast, holding fast the thread of life. Moore Jones' tableau presents the forces of life and death in balance, neither able to completely exclude the other, yet here the attachments of love are clearly ascendant.

In other paintings, Moore Jones uses the calla lily, the fish, the door and the dove as symbols of redemption and renewal made possible by the human capacity for choice - between good and evil, light and darkness, hope and despair.

For example, in the painting It Is Well, whose title is taken from an old African-American gospel tune, four women are surrounded by symbols of malevolence and adversity - a wolf, a black-hatted man, ravens - yet they find strength in each other and in the beauty of life around them. So "it is well," even though life is always in the balance; our precarious perch in this world has the potential for being either joyful or tragic, depending on the choices we make.

This is the strongest work yet produced by Moore Jones, and visually it is a stunning exhibition. One hopes it will speed the artist on toward the wider recognition that she so richly deserves.

Exhibit

What: Works by Chevelle Makeba Moore Jones

Where: Steven Scott Gallery, 515 N. Charles St.

Hours: Noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and by appointment; through June 29

Call: 410-752-6218.

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