Irma René Koen: An Artist Rediscovered is one of the most accessible and engaging painting exhibits I’ve enjoyed at the Figge – accessible because the still lifes, seascapes, and landscapes are inviting to the untrained eye via her popular French impressionistic style. But Koen simultaneously straddles the Ash Can school with Hopper-esque treatments of late-afternoon light surrounded by observational draughtsmanship achieved with efficient impasto and layered washes. Her styles range from thick sculptural surfaces in a brilliant still life of flowers to thin but firm and not-too-bright gouache accounts of the Eastern seaboard. The sizes range from small 12” to large 36” mostly-square canvases.
The collection of 40 paintings on display is even more engaging when one learns the backstory of this Rock Island native who lived in Mexico for 30 years, traveled the world, and painted for 70 years. She was an active member of the Davenport Municipal Art Gallery in the ’20s and ’30s and was a rare success for that era as a woman making a profession of her passion. She passed away in 1975 at age 92. Thirty-five years later, art historian Cynthia Wiedemann Empen, Ph.D., first tugged on this thread of a local treasure heretofore unrecognized except in the private collections of many of the region’s leading private collectors, many of whom generously loaned these gorgeous works. Irma René Koen’s works are on display through December 31, 2017.
The Haitian artist as shaman, Edouard Duval-Carrié has a cohesive and well-constructed mixed-media installation that takes full advantage of the fourth floor’s vast gallery space. If one is into synthesizing and expressing the nexuses between history, myth, and religion with iconography writ large, then this is the exhibit for you. The title of the exhibit is Endless Flight, and references a multi-part altarpiece Duval-Carrié created in response to the increased Haitian migrants to the U.S. The works modernize and depict central Voudou deities, or Iwa, as a superhero, a stripper, and a solider. Seven free-standing or suspended-from-the-ceiling sculptures capture the viewer’s immediate attention. Sprawling, organic animal-like legs over 10 feet tall raise up one Endless Flight taker like a goddess being paraded through the heavens. The material of the structure is flesh-like at first due to the pink hue and lumpy texture, but as one gets closer, it’s clear this is substantial and solid, like wood. The sculptures depict these Iwa inside one- or two-person flat- or rowboat-like structures. Each is fitted with a very tall dual descending rudder below an ascending mast-sail structure. Blades, knives, swords, candles, and flowers, and adorn the structures, giving a nod to the Voudou-themed journey.
Some may find Duval-Carrié’s works just this side of gaudy with the decorative flourishes in the sculptures and glitter-looking material in the massive, multi-panel paintings. But get beyond the surface and examine the craftsmanship, because it’s worth noting. The lush jungle landscape paintings on aluminum echo the subject matter of prior works, but blend an industrial-material discipline with a Chinese-ink-painting sensibility. Duval-Carrié may have created the next centerpieces for the Miami-mansion set with these bling-infused wall installations. The other paintings include an elaborate frame-facia atop the panel depicting a stylized tree with snake-like roots. The colors are rich, cool, and are a welcome riff on the traditional Haitian pallet one can view in the permanent collection. The patterns and shapes in these paintings mimic the supernatural beings depicted in the metal wall hangings just outside the gallery, located in the spacious indoor winter garden overlooking the river. Despite the similarities, this is not your grandfather’s Haitian art exhibit. Duval-Carrié’s exhibit is up through February 4, 2018.
Be sure to enjoy, up close and personal, the assemblage skills in Deborah Butterfield’s Half Moon horse sculpture on semi-permanent display. Is it bronze, or wood? There are nods to these materials in several of the photographs in the New Photography exhibit in the Lewis Gallery around the corner. The photo exhibit showcases experimental and pre-Photoshop brilliance of photographers from many decades. My favorite is Barbara Morgan’s black-and-white “Hearst Over the People” from 1939, depicting the king of yellow journalism’s face close-up inside an octopus with sprawling arms over a city teeming with people.
Visit the Plan A Visit section of the FiggeArtMuseum.org for details on hours and pricing, including free admission after 5 p.m. on Thursdays. No excuse now to set that screen down.