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Gary Monroe

April 27 - June 3, 2006


(above: Gary Monroe, The Mystic Marriage of Saint Barbara Elkins of Jolo, WV, 2006, Chalk and pastel on paper, 76" x 49" Photo credit: Gary Heatherly.


"Blurring the line between art and religion, Monroe reminds us
that both hold out the promise of spiritual transcendence,
and both may cost their practitioners more than they expected."
-- Eleanor Heartney


The controversial practice of snake handling performed by small sects of Pentecostal Christians in Southern Appalachia is the subject for Gary Monroe's selection of more than 10 chalk, charcoal, and pastel drawings on view. The drawings reflect the Tennessee-based artist's long-standing interest in the folk life of Appalachia and his recent fascination with a 100-year-old religious rite largely based on literal interpretations of the bible concerning the taking up of serpents. It is also frequently a family tradition, passed on and performed by self-described sign-followers in order to demonstrate religious fortitude with repeated immunity from venomous snake bites serving as a sign of God's blessing.

By portraying contemporary serpent handlers as realist figures in classical poses and Renaissance settings, the artist's monumental drawings pay homage to the many serpent-laden narratives found throughout Christianity and Greek mythology. Among the recurring motifs in Monroe's baroque compositions are figures adapted from Michelangelo's depictions of The Brazen Serpent and The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden. The artist also frequently references the contorted mythological figures of Laocoon and his two sons bracing themselves from attack by monstrous sea serpents. Allusions to classical works by Michelangelo, Rubens, Titian, Bronzino, and Caravaggio are also joined with sly references to more contemporary iconographic symbols such as Kasimir Malevich's crosses, and the faces of Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock. (right: Gary Monroe, The Death of Sister Melinda Brown of Parotsville TN, 2006, Chalk and pastel on paper, 82" x 47" Photo credit: Gary Heatherly)

While paying homage to the figurative traditions of Western art, Monroe's narratives are also steeped in the lore of snake handlers as latter-day martyrs. According to exhibition curator, Eleanor Heartney, The Death of Sister Melinda Brown of Parotsville, TN (2006), draws on Renaissance representations of the death and assumption of the Virgin to depict the death and subsequent deification of a practitioner who died of a serpent bite after refusing medical care. The Vision of Free Pentecostal Sherman Lawson of Path Fork, KY (2004-06) blends elements from El Greco's version of Laocoon with figure composition evocative of Matisse's dancers to suggest Lawson's ecstatic vision. Legend has it that the evangelist preacher, upon being blessed with a vision of serpent handlers, became an initiate apparently unaware that the ritual had already been in practice for 20 years. More ominously, The Assault of Sister Glenda Darlene Collins of Scottsboro, AL (2006) quotes from Rubens' Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus to tell the true story of a member of the sect who attempted to kill his wife by forcing her to thrust her hand into a box full of venomous serpents.

In order to further heighten the sense of spectacle, Monroe may clad certain figures in contemporary clothing while choosing to drape other subjects within the same painting in classical garments traditionally found in Old Master allegorical paintings. At other times, he may add elements associated with Renaissance architecture or landscape to works depicting the countryside and interiors of present-day Appalachia. By juxtaposing modern with traditional elements and figures, Monroe's drawings present a spiritual practice filtered through the entire historical canon of western art.


About the artist

Gary Monroe was born in Enterprise, AL, in 1956. He attended Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, KY, from 1975-1978 and currently lives and works in his hometown of Knoxville, TN. In the eighties, Monroe was an active member of the 500X Gallery in Dallas, TX, and frequently exhibited at various galleries and institutions throughout Texas. After several years as a predominately abstract artist and at mid-career, Monroe began a group of figurative drawings based on Southern narratives, of which the subject of Appalachian Serpent Handlers became the focus.

Recent exhibitions include Serpent Handlers and Other Saints at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, Knoxville, TN, in 2002, and New Drawings at the Rodman Townsend Sr. Memorial Gallery in the Knoxville Museum of Art Annex in 1999. His work was also exhibited in the group show Thresholds: Expressions of Art & Spiritual Life curated by Eleanor Heartney at The Green Hill Center for North Carolina Art in Greensboro, NC; The McColl Center for Visual Art in Charlotte, NC; Transylvania University in Lexington, KY, in 2005; The State Museum of South Carolina in Columbia, SC, and Owensboro Museum of Fine Art in Owensboro, KY, in 2004 as well as City Museum of Charleston, SC, in 2003. The exhibition at CUE represents his first solo show in New York.

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