Bright's realism is art that will not die

His sculpture is on exhibit at Hagerstown museum

Arts: Museums, Literature

September 09, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

When I was a kid, we drank Borden's brand milk that came in glass bottles with a picture of Elsie the Cow on the label. So you know how long ago that must have been.

Ever since, though, I've had a soft spot for cows, and judging from the unapologetically realistic sculptures of Pennsylvania artist J. Clayton Bright, on view in Hagerstown at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts through Nov. 7, so does he.

Bright's biography reads like that of an Old Fashioned Artist before the proliferation of Master of Fine Arts degrees succeeded in post-modernizing the outlook of anyone with a paint brush and a shred of talent.

Born in Philadelphia in 1946, Bright enlisted in the Army after graduating from a New England boarding school, served in Vietnam as a member of a long-range reconnaissance patrol, then worked as a stockbroker in Philadelphia "until a chance encounter with a Jersey cow in 1977 tempted him to try sculpture," according to his biographical blurb.

Bright's sculptures of farm animals, pets, human figures and portrait busts are the equivalent of snapshots in bronze. He's a kind of late-blooming Pop artist without any of the self-consciousness or irony of the New York kind - when he casts a sheep, it looks like a sheep, not like the wise-up animals in a Serta mattress ad.

This kind of realistic figurative art has been unfashionable for decades - witness the art world's neglect of masters like Washington's Frederick Hart, Antonio Mendez of Frederick and Baltimore's Joseph Sheppard - but it has never gone away: People just like it too much.

There's plenty in Bright's exhibition to like, from a near-life-size equestrian sculpture of a girl riding a pony to charming bronze tchotchkes of birds, baby boys and, of course, cows.

Also on view at the museum is a sparkling exhibition of paintings by The Eight, who at the turn of the 20th century created a new kind of American realism so disturbing to their contemporaries that they were dubbed the Ashcan School.

Plus la change, plus la meme chose.

The museum is at 91 Key St., City Park, Hagerstown. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. Call 301-739-5727.

For more art events, see Page 38.

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