Luvon Sheppard’s exhibit is a balancing act of density and levity: dense in imagery and intent, and light in palette and translucency. Sheppard’s world is a place where Christian, religious, and spiritual motifs proliferate – horses, lions, eagles, fish, hearts, crosses, angelic wings, bread, and water. Yet the imagery is not didactic nor proselytizing but imbued with a transparent sense of genuine spirituality-translated-into-humanity.
As with all exhibits, I look first and read later. While the immediate impression of ”Allegorical ‘Visual Relationships’ “ is one of lightness, the weighty subject matter is not trivialized nor sublimated by its rainbow-almost-pastel palette. The watercolor, acrylic and oil paintings are rendered with consummate professionalism; Sheppard received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Illustration from RIT. In fact, Monroe Community College’s Mercer Gallery Director and Associate Professor of Art, Kathleen Farrell, encourages her illustration students to soak in the visual mastery that Sheppard offers in this exhibit.
Sheppard, who received his Master of Science in Art Education from RIT, where he has taught since 1972, is a full professor in RIT’s School of Art and Design. In 1970 Sheppard was the Memorial Art Gallery’s first neighborhood affairs coordinator; his work is in the permanent collections of the MAG, RIT, Museum of Fine Arts – Boston, and the University of Seoul – South Korea; and he is the director of Rochester’s Joy Gallery.
Rochester’s history and humanity are expressed in downtown scenes and legendary portraits, Sheppard’s tribute to his native city. Well, almost, as the artist moved here with his family at age 5. Revelation II, a 1991 watercolor, appears to be set in the Washington Square Park area. The well-executed cityscape dovetails with the layering of allegory: a stampede of “Marlboro” horses in reflective windows, whose own images are reflected in the water through which they gallop; a chalice and cross tucked into a corner of the commercial building’s window; and a simulated “in God we trust” from the ubiquitous American dollar bill floating prominently across the picture plane. The viewer is left to connect the proverbial “dots” in this visual relationship.
The scale ranges from a small oil on canvas, Garth vs. Ancestors, to a 6-foot acrylic-on-canvas cross, titled Ascending; but the thematic river that flows through the two decades of work represented here stays on course. It is the mixing of the sacred with the secular that intrigues. “The consistent fluctuation of current events, social change, political and religious ideas and their ramification on the human plane are deep motivators for the content and character of my work,” Sheppard writes in his exhibit statement. The visual relationships exist within individual pieces as well as between and among the works.
The 4×4.5-foot acrylic on canvas Obama is an example of the co-mingling of sacred and secular. A bust of Barack Obama looks skyward to the bust of his self-proclaimed mentor Abraham Lincoln – a ghostly image floating among the clouds albeit anchored on a 5-dollar bill. The rendering of the “5″ brings to mind Charles Demuth’s Figure 5 in gold and Jasper Johns’ #5, although Sheppard does not cite either of these artists among his influences. Among the other ghost images are the eagle, lion, and horse, conjuring yet another reference: C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. The formal artistic elements of other works, such as the 2006 acrylic painting Bread for Wine or the 2006 Ascending, are overshadowed by their overt religiosity.
Two personal favorites are the 2010 watercolor, Circle of Influence, and the 1996 mixed media, Martin Luther King’s Fence. A “fence” of paper weaving overlays a neighborhood landscape and surrounds a superimposed watercolor comprised of tenebristically-rendered silhouettes of Martin Luther King, Jr., and others. The silhouettes themselves are composed of photo-montage-like images. All of Sheppard’s visual imagery appears purposeful yet occasionally cryptic. Martin Luther King’s Fence bridges the span between the artist’s two-dimensional watercolors and his three-dimensional wood, metal and found-object sculptures. In Circle of Influence, it is the use of graphite and pen, as well as watercolor, that appeals and makes the iconic political and cultural figures - Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Jr., Sojourner Truth, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, and others - more immediately accessible.
Opening reception for “Allegorical ‘Visual Relationships’ ” is Friday, January 27, 7-9pm, followed by a Workshop/Gallery Talk on Wednesday, February 1, at Noon. The exhibit continues through February 24. Mercer Gallery hours: Monday-Thursday, 11am-6pm; Friday, 11am-4pm; other times by appointment. Mercer Gallery is located in Monroe Community College, 1000 East Henrietta Road, Rochester, NY 14623; 585-292-2021; www.monroecc.edu/go/mercer