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Fabric of life

Benny Andrews captures elegant slices of life

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Longtime painter Benny Andrews is a storyteller. His tall, soulful characters appear in visual vignettes that describe African-American life and social conditions in both historical and contemporary contexts. They inhabit many of his Observations on view at the SunTrust Plaza gallery downtown. The artist shows his signature range of subject matter -- traditional Southern life, jazz, spiritualism, poverty and suffering -- in this beautifully laid out exhibition. His collaged paintings have never looked better. Andrews has mastered the fusion of fabric with paint to an almost trompe l'oeil effect. Combining remnants of cast off clothes with carefully considered strokes of paint, he applies folkways to formalism. He embraces the African-American tradition of scrap quilts, while transforming the practice into a vivid conceptual element. In "Bluesman," for example, the lonely curve of a man's back is accentuated with a piece of blue jean fabric. Sometimes he borders on folksy excess, as in the rainbow hued pastorals and the image of a woman, dressed in real eyelet lace and a flowered hat, waiting for church. Stronger impressions are made by the insinuation of fabric into "Ode to the Road." The surreal tree towering above a lone traveler and his guitar make the open road and sky that stretch before him seem even emptier.

Stylized memories of the old South are abundant in "Wash Day," "Old Man River" and the plantation series. Sentimental images include the crying heart in "Love Gone Wrong" and the lovers gazing at "Paper Moon." Musical allusions run deep. Both in pen and ink and paint, there are lots of blues; a jailhouse, a farm, a bar and a juke joint set the scene for his musical allusions.

Andrews records a broad social spectrum in his images. In "Chanteuse," the singer's slim, elegant figure arches inward, her intensity punctuated by narrow, pointed red shoes. The poor man in "Homeless" pauses to regard a single flower that has sprouted through a crack in the sidewalk. "The Repenter" communicates stark anguish in the acutely curved figure of a man.

The artist, whose work is in numerous museum collections, is also a writer and lecturer with strong opinions about the importance of widening the art audience. So it's no surprise that in this show, Andrews has extended his visual commentary to the subject of art criticism.

His comic protest is first indicated in "Critical Moment." A serious-looking painter sits facing a blank white canvas where a bikini is suspended on a small nail. Tacked high on the wall behind him are art historical references -- small cubist, figurative and impressionist paintings. "Interior/Exterior" in oil and collage on canvas shows a row of critics attentively noting the value of contemporary art, a line hung with laundry and pinned to a canvas, to the neglect of classic paintings on the walls behind them.

Andrews' finely rendered pen-and-ink drawings in The Critic Series are even more trenchant. In "Keepers of the Flame," he mocks a trio of look-alike men, whose self-congratulatory posturing denies their critical credibility. "Predators" shows two smiling critics with notepads and pencils chatting over the ruined artist at their feet. Having examined his vulnerability, the artist turns to present a slim self-portrait reflecting his ever modest style. The true picture? Andrews is a strong, honest painter who has brought a unique viewpoint to contemporary art. u

Observations is on view at SunTrust Plaza, 303 Peachtree St., through Aug. 30. Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. 404-816-9777.

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