VISUAL ARTS REVIEW: John Hull & Barbara Duval: Works 

Stiff Little Figures: Students and professors brighten up the Simons Center with their work

John Hull & Barbara Duval: Works
On view through Dec. 7
Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art
Simons Center for the Arts, College of Charleston
54 St. Philip St.
(843) 953-5680

Once a year, students at the College of Charleston's School of the Arts get to examine the work of their professors — a couple of them, at least — when faculty members exhibit at the Halsey Institute. This time around it's the work of Barbara Duval (who teaches printmaking, painting, and drawing) and John Hull (SOTA's new chair and professor of painting) that's on display.

Duval came to the college over 25 years ago. Her art is assured and mesmerizing. Her key piece is an untitled oil on canvas (84 inches by 60 inches), with broad red brushstrokes flaming into the sky and six figures running towards it or dancing around it. These mysterious, silhouetted figures reappear throughout the room, in monotypes ("MWH2") resembling shadowy illustrations or etchings with chine-collé that have a photographic feel.

For example, her "RAF WP.2" resembles a faded snapshot. In "N," Duval creates an effective perspective with a few simple, humanoid shapes. In "QPP," similar running figures are less prominent, almost blending into pink vertical and horizontal lines. Only Duval knows whether her figures are ancient savages rushing toward a forest of red-lit reeds or a bunch of bums at Burning Man. All of her work, though, has a sense of twilight mystery and spark-like movement — the kind of motion that's strangely lacking in Hull's paintings.

Hull has been given the second floor of the Halsey to show his work, which includes examples of his realist series, Divertimento. Climb the gallery's staircase and at first sight, the space looks alive with color and spectacle. Although they're works in progress, the Divertimento pieces shine with bright, sunny yellows. They're derived from detailed drawings Hull made at the Roberts Bros. Circus years ago. All the trappings of the Big Top are there, but the subjects look static.

The bulk of Hull's work is from a series called Pictures from Sonny's Place, recording everyday life in a Wyoming junkyard. Hull displays an incredible grasp of composition, using it in ingenious ways to create depth. Junk is heaped on the left and right sides of "One Way" with a yellow bulldozer shoving the viewer's eye to the center of the image. "Twilight" reverses the technique with undergrowth to the fore and hills in the background. From a distance, the best paintings are like double-wide windows on a lucid trash-strewn world.

Despite the wrecked cars and garbage included in Hulls' paintings, there's plenty of tidy symmetry, too. In "Conversation in Junk Yard," a monkey stands on a flatbed full of tires, mirroring a boy chatting with his dad. The dad is concurrently balanced with an older man, ignoring the ape. Hull's spot-on with the deft facial mannerisms of his junk family, his composition, and his atmospheric lighting.

Since all of these elements are perfectly wrought, it's bizarre that Hull's human and animal subjects are all so stiff. There's little sense of movement, even though each character obviously has a feeling and function. Even the monkey looks like something out of a taxidermist's wet dream. Presumably Hull's made a conscience decision to embalm his characters instead of creating the impression that they're on the move. The resulting paintings are more staid than they could have been.

Visitors to the Halsey exhibition would be well advised to take a look at the other art on display in the Simons Center. New Works includes a variety of promising photographs, paintings, and a smattering of sculptures by students. There are expressive portraits by Lainey Harrison and Emily Lyles, a trippy blue and yellow jellyfish tableau by Andrew Smith marrying street art with traditional painting, and a dramatic representation of an artist at her easel who obviously doesn't want to be painted.

There's a lot to be learned from Hull and Duval's masterful artworks, but the students can't be beat for sheer exuberance.


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