From the retrospective exhibtion at the Tennessee State Museum November 20, 1997 Through March 1, 1998

Landscape Vision

Works Of Charles Brindley 1980-1997

An Essay By Susan Knowles

In the spirit of its original inhabitants, artist Charles Brindley stands in awed silence before the majesty of the middle Tennessee landscape with its dense woodlands, undulating hills, gurgling creeks and streams, and jutting stone promontories. Like the roaming Woodland and moundbuilding Mississippian Indians, the Shawnee, Cherokee, Chickasaw and Creek hunters; the early settlers who floated the rivers and traveled overland; and the farmers of yesterday and today, Brindley knows this land by instinctive memory. As did those who came before, he breathes in the fragrance of summer's wild honeysuckle vines and feathery mimosas, bristles in the rising wind of autumn's distantly rumbling thunderstorms, and wathches the leaf-laden branches of a mighty red oak pelted by a driving spring rain. Neither archaeologist, nor nature's conservator, the artist finds his inspiration purely in the forms of nature.

Brindley, whose patient draftsmanship delineates the gnarled trunks of native hardwoods, and whose meticulous applications of multi-layered glazing reveal deepset caves and crevices in the limestone outcroppings, seems also to conjure, somehow, the restless spirit underlying this placid carpet of nature. Somnambulance exhales from the rolling green hills and quiet lakes surrounding Nashville, yet Brindley uncovers, perhaps unintentionally, the wakeful soul that remembers a violent past. In oils, he paints the ruins of handlaid brick walls, and in graphite pencil renders racks of antlers, vines overgrowing rickety garden stakes, flocks of blackbirds fluttering from a hundred-year-old gabled rooftop. In strokes of oil pastel, he summons the slight rise of a grass-covered burial mound in a midsummer field of purple clover.

In beautiful depictions of symbol-laden subjects, Charles Brindley reminds us, in bittersweet manner, of times passed and lives wasted. His works call to mind the ravages of nature‹ the twisted tree trunks, scarred surfaces, and eroded rock faces‹as well as the violence of human dominion over beast and other humans. In the 1790s, when Revolutionary War land grantees were building brick and stone homes along the Cumberland River, Indians attacked on several occasions despite the treaties set in place between ther chiefs and Nashville's founders. Several decades later, bloody battles were fought across the farmlands and horsefields of Middle Tennessee during the Civil War, their desperate participants unaware of the silent witnesses in centuries old stone-lined graves.

With Brindley's assistance, we recollect the legacy of these lands. The haze rising from the moist earth, trees and rivers settle like a soft, semi-transparent, cotton cushion on the craggy hills surrounding the Nashville basin; the almost tangible thickness of the atmosphere disturbed only by a sound curtain of crickets in summer, the whippoorwill calling at dusk, the caw of crows, or the whistle of a red-tailed hawk high above. The comforting blanket of sights and sounds waits to be stripped back by the sharp light of Brindley's vision. Just as the morning fog blunts the tips of downtown skyscrapers, so the carpet of green and lavender covering low mounds along the Harpeth river masks these suble reminders of early peoples who once lived along the banks of the area's rivers and streams. Where historic markers atop the hills of suburban neighborhoods southwest of Nashville recite grim statistics of the Battle of Nashville in December 1864, the exact site of four ancient Indian ceremonial mounds, located just an outfielder's throw away from the Davidson County courthouse, across the Cumberland River, has long been forgotten.

Brindley's fascination with the past extends well beyond the ordinary. Living at historic Nashville houses hidden in the midst of suburban neighborhoods, he has been able to create a style of living that reveres the architecture and careful craftsmanship of those buildings. To a degree shared by few others, he seems to be able, somehow, to live within history while remaining perfectly suited to the present. Deliberately executed design, careful observation, and minutely detailed technique characterize his artwork. Precision of thought and manner, combined with rapidity of visual composition and adept manipulation of electonic media, mark his professional graphic skills. Drawings made from nature are often done in stages, sometimes years apart, with times and dates noted in the margins. Sketching, observing, building layer upon layer, Brindley arrives finally at a point of completion.

In late winter, when leaves are off the trees and the bony skeleton of nature is revealed, Brindley's drawing skills triumph. Not only does his artistic mastery meet his subject more that halfway, but the expressive qualities of line and shadow lend drama to the scene. Within depictions of crooked limbs and decaying plants dwells the suggestion of death, as anyone knows who has looked at the works of German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. While Brindley's works do not aspire to the melodramtic extremes of Friedrich's ruined Gothic cathedrals or desolate ice floes, they do possess the same sombre tone as those lonely scenes of nature stripped bare. With a great deal more optimism than Friedrich, Brindley takes on the whole cycle of nature as a recurring theme. He balances his sere winter scenes with depictions of forest glades in first flower and open fields in high summer. He captures, with such an exacting palette that its truth resonates within us, the bright­almost too bright­green of early spring. In the mid 1980s, Brindley began painting an unusual series of garden stakes whose rough-hewn upright poles, used as trellises for climbing vines and top heavy vegetables, took on a vaguely cross-like appearance. Silhouetted against a sunset sky, they suggest a Christological reference, or at the very least, the parallel between nature's fallowness and fertility and human birth and death. These works stir within us the comfort of knowing that the long dark days are over.

By the works of his gifted hands, Brindley both marvels at nature and comments on its intersection with human civilization. He is an uncompromising taskmaster, pushing himself to capture in minute detail exact patterns of tree bark and particular plant species on the forest floor. He is mesmerized by the inevitability of nature's patterns as the sun-worshipping Druids in the British Isles. He admires human attempts at building structures in nature's midst, but makes us always aware of their impending disintegration. It is no coincidence that the standing stone outcroppings Brindley paints remind us of dolmens and menhirs, the predecessors of post and lintel construction. More than any manmade architecture, he seems to revere these markers, placed in our landscape not by early pagans but by mysterious geothermal events of long ago. The artistic vantage point he chooses, usually well below rock formations that are shown standing above and against the sky, allows us to position ourselves, vicariously, at the mouth of the cave, peering into the antechamber of imagined caverns. These visions are the stuff of powerful dreams. We hesitate before entering, poised alongside the artist, rapt with wonder at the power and magic that resides within.

Susan Knowles Art Writer September 1997

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