Beyond the imitation evergreens near coat check and the “runway” photographer’s backdrop, the distinctive smell of cooking sherry wafts above the merry crowd and the cold drizzling night slips into the mind’s recesses.
On the first evening of December, Collector’s Choice fundraiser attendees mix with exhibiting Winter Show artists over hors d’oeuvre, wine and spirits. The exhibit at Greensboro’s GreenHill Gallery is an annual collection of more than 120 North Carolina artists working in sculpture, photography, painting, jewelry, glass, ceramics, fabric and fiber.
Artist statements and curriculum vitae are tidied in a white, three-ring binder near the purchasing table where four staffers bustle ceaselessly, but the main gallery space is the watering hole. Ribbons fixed to clip-on name tags distinguish some guests as committee members or donor-level patrons; gold-star stickers denote supporters. The few who paid at the door pen their names in black Sharpie. Staff and interns weave through strolling loners and packs of glamorous couples to place pill-sized red stickers on sold pieces’ descriptions. They’re going fast.
A woman clutches Bryant Holsenbeck’s “Jack Rabbit #2” mixed-media sculpture by the neck and turns it in her wrist as though examining a Ferragamo heel under consideration. It stands more than a foot tall on its hind legs, ears at attention, serving as the lookout for the other three jackrabbits on display. The artist had wrapped polychromatic, heavy-knit yarns taut around an unseen, realistic carriage. She re-places “#2” in a slipshod manner, its buttermilk-colored belly protruding toward new indoor vistas. A few yards away, a man sets a glass of merlot on a contemporary sculpture as though it’s the granite island in his kitchen.
All the while, food runners charge through this tipsy sea of shoppers and socialites with hot beds of Santorini-style turkey meatballs basking in lemon-infused prosecco velouté, and Chianti-braised lamb, root vegetables, sliced toasted almonds, shredded manchego, saffron and whole mushrooms seared in sherry — that’s where the smell comes from. They silently collect deserted plates and empty glasses, or parade garlic-licked shrimp. Specialty cocktails are up-for-grabs on the dessert table just before Luis Ardillo’s trio of oil paintings.
The green-eyed queen wears a skyscraper crown in the indigo-drenched “Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg in Macondo’s World.” Golden butterflies, an iguana and a dark tropical bird join her alongside the visage of Gabriel García Márquez who wrote local mythologies, magic and fantasy into the laws of nature in Macondo, the fictive Columbian town in his celebrated novel One Thousand Years of Solitude. Márquez and now Ardillo toy with past, present and future as infinite and inseparable, our experienced realities as highly subjective narratives that are not as irreconcilable as some might think.
Alongside descendants of generational wealth — the ones who sit on the board of this or that and subsidize the arts — there are couples who splurged on this holiday outing, hungry for an excuse to spruce up, and who could be seen clumsily kissing cheeks after the second glass, feeling a little closer than they had in weeks, maybe longer. There are exhibiting artists who span generations, identities and creative perspectives. There are young artists not (yet) on display and who abide their own dress code, and the children of new money playing it safe in 2016 J. Crew.
Sam Wade, a 31-year-old Greensboro artist, stands beside two of his paintings: one, a study of his younger brother and the other, a striking portrait of a local man named Ernest Washington.
“He was the custodian in the building where I have my studio,” Wade says. “He walked in and he was wearing these fucking amazing shoes and this hat, so I said, ‘I wanna take a picture of you.’… It wasn’t two days after I took this picture… the big tornado destroyed his house and I haven’t seen him since, I don’t know what happened to him. I want to get in touch with him; I sold this painting, so I owe him some money.”
Washington is a lithe, older black man who wore Converse high-tops, a white long-sleeve shirt, light jeans and an unassuming ballcap that day. As he did in front of Wade’s camera, he sits with his knees spread wide in a wooden chair — fingers interlaced on his lap — in the oil portrait on the wall. The look on his face says he’s got nothing to prove. Not to the aging eyes inspecting new works through the lenses of fashionable eyewear, or the men adjusting silk bowties in the windows’ reflection before turning back to sophisticated finger-foods or making their way to the purchaser’s table.
Despite all the diplomas, the power, curiosity and good intentions gathered here tonight, nobody knows what’s happened to Washington.