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Notes from a Child's Odyssey: The Art of Kermit Oliver
March 6 - July 4, 2005
The first retrospective exhibition of Kermit Oliver's work, opening at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on March 6, 2005, traces the imagery used by the longtime Waco resident over four decades. Inspired by his rural Texas heritage and his study of mythology, religion, and history, Oliver blends contemporary and classical elements to create a unique vision of the world in a style of painting he calls "symbolic realism." Notes from a Child's Odyssey: The Art of Kermit Oliver, a survey of more than 90 paintings and other works, reveals insight into the complexities of his work and into the complexities of the man himself. The exhibition is organized by the MFAH and will be on view through July 4, 2005 in the museum's Caroline Wiess Law Building. (right: Kermit Oliver, American, born 1943, K. J.'s Calf, 1975, acrylic on masonite. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; gift of an anonymous donor at "One Great Night in November, 1991")
"Kermit Oliver's work is fired by a keen intellect and a vivid imagination," said Peter C. Marzio, MFAH director. "He reinvents age-old stories of civilizations and cultures from around the world filtered through his experience as a man of the 20th and 21st centuries. The museum is pleased to present a comprehensive overview of this important Texas artist's haunting work."
Oliver's life is a fascinating blend of creativity and practicality, of well-protected privacy and public recognition. For most of his adult life, he has worked full time as a mail sorter at the Waco post office and has pursued a full-time art career as well. A steady income, he reasoned, was the most logical way to support his family while giving him the freedom to follow his artistic muse. In 1982, he began a long-term relationship with Hermès, the famed Paris fashion house, after his work was brought to Hermès's attention by art consultant Shelby Marcus, wife of Neiman Marcus executive Lawrence Marcus. At that time, the upscale retailer was the only store in Texas to carry the distinctive Hermès scarves. Oliver became the first American ever commissioned to create silk scarf designs for Hermès, and has completed 14 to date. Among his many commissioned paintings in Texas is the altarpiece for the renovated chapel at Trinity Episcopal Church in Houston, unveiled in 2003. The 9-by-6 foot composition shows a youthful Christ rising from the tomb wearing a crown of white lilies.
Preparatory drawings for the Trinity Episcopal painting are shown in the exhibition, along with paintings, drawings, and sculpture spanning his career, including 10 works from the museum's collection. Images of murals he has painted in various locations are shown on a flat screen. In all of the works, Oliver's spirituality is evident, says Alvia J. Wardlaw, MFAH curator of modern and contemporary art, who is organizing the exhibition. "It all stems from his Texas upbringing, his closeness to nature, his sensitivity to the relationship between man and animals," she says. (right: Kermit Oliver, American, born 1943, Adonis, 1970s, acrylic on masonite. Private Collection)
Oliver, who is African-American, grew up in the small town of Refugio, near Victoria, among relatives who were ranchers and cowboys. In high school, he developed a serious interest in art, influenced by his rural surroundings, his family's strong oral tradition, religion, and the illustrations he saw in both the Bible and secular literature. He further refined his techniques and his interest in narrative painting as a student under Dr. John Biggers at Texas Southern University in Houston, where he earned a bachelor of fine arts degree and met his wife, Katie, who also is an artist. (A showing of their early works will be on view at University Museum at Texas Southern University from May 27-July 10, 2005.)
"In his work, Kermit Oliver takes Texas in terms of the land and his sense of the people -- his father was a working cowboy for many years, so he had these heroes growing up -- and he overlays that with the mythology he's created," Wardlaw says. "He paints in a classical manner, but brings in contemporary figures and elements and hopes viewers will be drawn to look deeper, to find more meaning."
Young Pasiphae: A Large Sketch for a Small Cabinet Painting is based on the Greek myth in which Pasiphae fell in love with a white bull and their union produced the Minotaur. In Oliver's version, Pasiphae is a young African-American girl holding an offering for a huge black and white bull that appears to be pacing behind her, his head turned toward her. She stands just out of his shadow, shyly looking away.
Oliver's allegories -- in landscapes, still lifes, and portraits -- are inhabited by people from his own life. The artist himself is frequently the subject, either in direct self-portrait or as the key figure in a larger scene. In I have read of birds raining from the sky, so upon a cardinal cloth I have gathered a darkling grackle dying from a eucharist of poisoned rye (2001), the artist sits at a table covered with a red cloth, looking away from the viewer. On the table are an opened Book of Hours, a pomegranate, a bouquet of roses, and a sickly black bird. It has been suggested that Oliver is indicating that environmental abuse will lead to the death of the grackle, and his position in the painting is man's indifference. The flowers represent the transience of beauty, but the pomegranate -- an ancient symbol of fertility -- conveys hope of rejuvenation.
In K.J.'s Calf (1975), from the MFAH collection, Oliver presents a religious allegory of death and rebirth. The calf stands in the foreground in a grassy field, a bucket on one side, a lily on the other. Oliver talks at length, Wardlaw says, of his realization growing up that the transformation of animals into human sustenance through slaughter was a rite of passage. In the painting, the bucket becomes a holy vessel to hold the blood of the animal, while the flower signifies rebirth. Oliver later created a frame for the painting, as he does for many of his works, to enhance the meaning. He placed K.J.'s Calf in an altar-like gold frame.
An illustrated catalogue published by the MFAH accompanies the exhibition. Notes from a Child's Odyssey: The Art of Kermit Oliver features an essay by Alvia J. Wardlaw and a foreword by Peter C. Marzio. The book will be available in hardcover in the MFAH Shops. (right: Kermit Oliver, American, born 1943, Primavera, 1980s, acrylic on masonite. Private Collection)
Notes from a Child's Odyssey: The Art of Kermit Oliver is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, under the direction of Alvia J. Wardlaw, MFAH curator of modern and contemporary art.
The exhibition receives generous funding from the Vivian L. Smith Foundation. Major corporate sponsorship is provided by Hermès. Additional support is provided by Anne Lamkin Kinder, an anonymous donor, and the Texas Commission on the Arts.The catalogue that accompanies this exhibition was funded by the Bob and Vivian Smith Foundation.
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