The importance of painting at home

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In art, pride in the region of one's birth is frequently supplanted by an unwarranted embarrassment for its supposed provincialism and lack of cultural sophistication. Talented younger artists cannot wait to flee to the acknowledged art capitals of the nation or the world, and to dissociate themselves from what they perceive as the small-mindedness of their home communities.

This situation isn't as bad as it once was, however. Pride in the accomplishments of local artists, together with an awareness of the complexities , overcrowdings, and artificialities of the New York gallery world, are persuading growing numbers of younger American artists to remain in place and to seek creative and professional fulfillment nearer home.

Exhibitions such as ''Painting in the South: 1564-1980,'' on view at the National Academy of Design here, remind everyone that artistic quality and tradition can flourish in smaller cities, villages, and rural communities - as long as they are appreciated and supported.

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This important and excellent show covers more than 400 years of Southern art drawing material from an area extending from southern Maryland to the Gulf of Mexico and westward to the Mississippi and East Texas. It includes 121 paintings (53 less than the number shown when it opened originally at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond), many of which have not been seen publicly before.

The National Academy is the exhibition's only Northern stop on its two-year tour of Southern cities. ''We felt it was important that the show be seen in New York,'' explains John Dobkin, the academy's director. ''Despite its richness and diversity, relatively little has been known about the regional art of the South. This exhibition contributes immensely not only toward our knowledge of artists who worked in or were influenced by the South, but also to our understanding of American art in general.''

''Painting in the South'' is divided into five chronological sections: ''The Early Years: 1564-1790''; ''The Emerging Nation: 1790-1830''; ''Growth and Development of the Old South: 1830-1900''; Toward a New South, The Regionalist Approach 1900-1950''; and ''The Post-War Period: 1950-1980.'' Each section was curated by a different specialist, who also contributed an introductory essay to the exhibition catalog.

The 1564-1790 section covers the Colonial years, beginning with two late 16 th-century bound volumes on the New World with engraved illustrations by Theodor de Bry; continues on through a number of charming but rather unsophisticated portraits; and ends with an excellent study of ''William Smith and His Grandson, '' by Charles Willson Peale.

The 1790-1830 section covers a much shorter but no less interesting period. It was when territorial expansion, political unification, and a quest for national unity were the primary issues, and when Southern as well as Northern artists sought to define the new ''American,'' or ''republican,'' character. It was also the time of Audubon's watercolors and engravings; Joshua Johnston's painting of ''Mrs. Thomas Everette and Children''; the first successful American still lifes (Sarah Miriam Peale's ''Still-Life of Watermelon and Grapes'' being a particularly good example); and landscapes that began to celebrate America's great outdoors.

The 1830-1900 period was one of growth for Southern art. Outstanding from these years are a stunning family portrait by James A. Cameron; ''The Carnival, '' by Winslow Homer, painted during one of his periodic visits to Virginia; ''Mich-e-no-pah,'' George Catlin's portrait of a Seminole Indian chief; ''Negro Boy,'' by Eastman Johnson; and a remarkable unsigned portrait of a ''Maid of the Douglas Family,'' which might have been painted by Jules Hudson.

According to Rick Stewart, who organized the 1900-1950 section, painting in the South during the first 70 years of the 20th century witnessed three clearly defined periods. ''The first, encompassing 30 years or so, involves a group of artists whose roots and training lay largely outside the South but whose later life and work in the region developed in a clearly defined pattern paralleling the quickening resurgence and self-definition of the South itself. . . . The second period begins at about the time of the depression and includes the period during, but not immediately following, World War II. Although art never rose to the heights of literature, it nevertheless made an important and lasting contribution to regional and national culture. . . . The final period, which comes after 1945, can be seen as one of consolidation and synthesis, a maturation of the Southern painter, an artist who knew his roots but who fashioned work that transcended them.''

And Donald B. Kuspit, writing on the art of the 1950-80 period, makes this point: ''The advanced southern painter does not want to be a separatist, but he also does not want to lose his individuality. He wants to join the mainstream of modernist abstraction, but he does not want to give up his southernness in the process.''

Yet the contemporary Southern painter is somewhat shortchanged by the truncated version of this exhibition. It is unfortunate that limitations of space forced the National Academy to reduce the show's full complement of 174 paintings to 121, especially since some of the most notable exclusions are from the 1950-80 period. Contemporary Southern painting, as a result, comes across as considerably more conservative than it actually is. In this respect, the fully illustrated catalog gives a more accurate picture of what is gong on in the South today.

The first half of the 20th century comes off quite well, however, with Gari Melcher's ''The Hunters,'' Robert Gwathmey's ''Hoeing,'' Romare Bearden's ''The Prevalence of Ritual: Tidings'' (actually painted in 1973), and John Kelly Fitzpatrick's ''Negro Baptising'' heading the list.

After its closing at the National Academy on May 27, ''Painting in the South'' travels to the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, Miss. (June 24-Aug. 26); the J.B. Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky. (Sept. 16-Nov. 11); and the New Orleans Museum of Art (Dec. 9-Feb. 3, 1985).

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