The Agony & Ecstasy of Two Abstract Expressionists

By Kathleen Sloan

HERALD Reporter

William Butler Yeats, during World War I, gave us the defining poetic lines for the next 100 years in his “The Second Coming”:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…

The splintering and factionalizing of social institutions continued after World War I, “the war to end all wars.” It has been reflected in the proliferation of art movements and schools that became so numerous by the 1970s that by now, labels have become meaningless. Each artist is on their own – a movement of one – a monad among monads that do not add up to a group.

Two artists’ work are showing at three art galleries in Truth or Consequences who can still be reasonably compared to two distinct movements within Abstract Expressionism – one of the last of the great movements before ‘monadism,’ my own term and example of a meaningless label.

William Bertrum Sharp (1924-1984) can be seen at Hot Springs Frame & Art Supply and Rio Bravo Fine Art. Fernando Mercado can be seen at Rio Bravo Fine Art and Niche Gallery.

Their works will be on display until the next Art Hop in Truth or Consequences, held the second Saturday every month, or by appointment at these galleries, or during regular business hours, Wednesday through Sunday at Hot Springs and Rio Bravo.

William Bertram Sharp was a World War II veteran who served in the United States Navy, according to a brief artist’s bio written by H. Joe Waldrum. Waldrum founded Rio Bravo Fine Art and is an artist of regional, national and international fame, who died in 2003. Waldrum collected and acted as an artist’s representative for Sharp, and according to his daughter, Ruanna Waldrum of Hot Springs Frame & Art Supply, he lived with her family for a year and a half when she was a little girl.

According to H. Joe Waldrum, Sharp was “the first GI to go to art school on the GI bill.”

Sharp attended the Bemis School of Art, which is part of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center in Colorado Springs. Sharp grew up in Pueblo, Colo., according to Waldrum.

Sharp is among the first wave of abstract expressionists, such as Adolph Gottlieb and William Baziotes. In the first aftershocks of World War II, artists turned inward or back to aboriginal, tribal cultures, emphasizing ritual, intuition and spiritual faculties in producing their artwork.

There was a distrust of the scientific method, rationalism and applied science that horrifically led to weapons of destruction, Nazi experimentations on humans and the belief in a breeding plan to produce a super race.

There was also a turning away from patriarchal, institutionalized religions whose creation stories have a male god associated with the heavens.

There was a conscious recognition among these abstract expressionists that they were inventing their own archetypes.

Most importantly, the worst thing an artist could be was decorative or pretty.

Sharp, in an artist statement provided by Rio Bravo Fine Art, says his daily struggle was against his own “prosaicness.”

The art was dark and angst ridden, and Sharp’s was no exception. One of the strongest works, at Rio Bravo, conjures a trapezoidal being struggling in a rich, black gravy, a star shape giving anchorage in a directionless void.

Another – in beige, oranges and yellows – is divided into upper and lower shallow chambers with totem-like figures reminiscent of Baziotes or Gottlieb.

Art in America, in 1956, chose Sharp as one of the “outstanding artists” of that year. Ill health and mental instability plagued him, however, and his oeuvre is a pattern of peak, brilliant, arcane works and muddy, less distinguished ones. The chthonic “underworld,” as a source of inspiration, is a rich and dangerous place and getting lost is easy.

Fenando Mercado’s art comes out of the California Color Field, Lyrical Abstract Expressionism tradition of Richard Diebenkorn.

Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series obviously hugely influence Mercado’s Kimono and Window Series.

There are the same geometric divisions. Some are whispery boundaries, some are obi-like belts, edging color fields that are layered and smeared and pocked and patterned.

There is no angst in this California expressionism, only dreamin’. They have a spare elegance that shies away from firm statements, just as a polite geisha hides her open mouth behind her hand.

Even though the kimono has a Japanese connotation, this is Western art that fills the canvas, leaving no ‘ma’ or empty space – there is no Eastern ‘nothing’ that moves the ‘something.’

Kimono are made, traditionally, from a 14-inch-by-12-yard single bolt of cloth. The dozen or so rectilinear panels cut from the bolt are joined and pieced together. In Mercado’s hands, these rectangles are more reminiscent of the Greek ideal “golden section” than any Eastern composition.

Mercado uses the kimono pattern, just as Diebenkorn used streets and boulevards meeting ocean and sky as stoppages and intervals in his Ocean Park series.

Diebenkorn, inadvertently or not, brought beauty and the near decorative back into painting.

Mercado’s work is also light, airy and has carefully worked-out compositions.


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