The first time Paul Lancaster went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, he stopped in front of a painting by the 19th century Post-Impressionist master Henri Rousseau and remarked, "This fellow paints kind of like I do."
He was right. At that point, Lancaster had been making paintings for most of his life. Like Rousseau, he tended to focus on naive impressions of exotic, flourishing scenes — not particularly childlike in execution, but intent on a wide-eyed view of the world as a magical playground filled with wild animals and plain-clothed women.
But unlike Rousseau, Lancaster never received formal training. The 83-year-old artist taught himself to paint as a child in the 1930s and '40s, and he continues to work from his studio just outside Nashville — several of the paintings in A World of His Own, the current exhibition of his work at The Parthenon, were created within the past 10 years. A recent photograph of the artist at work shows him steadying his paintbrush by holding his right hand with his left. Even as his body ages, he remains determined to get every detail just right.
Lancaster's muted color palette could have been lifted from a mid-'80s issue of Country Living. Imagine the patterns and tones of William Morris wallpaper combined with Henri Matisse's forms, but with a certain Dr. Seuss whimsy thrown in. Perhaps Howard Finster, another self-taught Southern master, would have made similar work, had he access to Lancaster's subtle sense of color and harmonious view of the world.
In "Earth Mother," an oil painting from 1996, motifs of women rise from the landscape the way a similar painting might show angels forming directly from the sky. The painting's vertical composition allows Lancaster to include layers of landscape all at once — from tiny blades of grass to wild jungle flowers, thin chutes of trees, a flicker of fireflies and puffed-up cotton candy clouds. The bottom half of the canvas bisects the hill in the foreground, like a cartoon that zooms in on the secret life that exists just beneath the surface of a toadstool or a fairy mountain.
In this way, Lancaster creates a way to see what's on the other side of his grassy vista. The little girls playing along the path with their arms raised have nothing to fear — there are no sinister elements here. But like Henry Darger's famous depictions of his imaginary Vivian Girls, Lancaster's innocent perspective does not necessitate a sterile, whitewashed palate. There may not be danger, but make no mistake: These paintings are far from boring.
In "Still Life With Two Views," for example, Lancaster paints little more than a tablecloth, a scattering of fruit and a vase filled with flowers. And yet the resulting picture is as astoundingly intricate and buzzing with action as any of Darger's Vivian Girl adventures. Lancaster fills the tablecloth with rows of flowers, leaves and berries that pour off the tabletop like a waterfall. The two views of the painting's title come from the cropped windows at either side of the table, which open onto a world of Japanese cherry blossoms and a wandering couple far off in the distance. There's even a small nest of blue robin's eggs balanced on one of the branches.
These careful details ground the tumult of impressionistic patterns Lancaster embellishes so well, like a version of Van Gogh's "Starry Night" as seen from a cottage in a Thomas Kinkade painting. And Lancaster straddles both artists' worlds — the visionary and the decorative — extremely well.
"Dance of Spring" shows three young girls dancing around a maypole in the forest, their long sashes tied around princess dresses, a brightly colored ribbon in each hand. It immediately calls to mind Matisse's "Dance" paintings, but unlike Matisse's flat colorfield backgrounds, Lancaster's true genius lies in his ability to fill every surface with obsessive detail. Some paintings, like "Nature's Pattern II" and "Butterfly Tree II," forgo all realistic subject matter and allow the artist to embellish the surface with ripples of calligraphic patterns.
Perhaps most telling is the Parthenon's inclusion of the artist's meticulously rendered forest scene dioramas and construction-paper collages. Like a dreamy page from Where the Wild Things Are or a dollhouse version of your childhood home, Lancaster's fantasy is wrapped in the guise of nostalgia, so his viewers' imagination regains its potential to shape worldviews. If only every artist was playful enough to have a collection of such childlike elements in their oeuvre, Lancaster might not be seen as "naive," but instead as trailblazing.