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'Pearl': Art Grows on Trees

Friday, May 23, 2008

About 30 years ago, Pearl Fryar wanted to buy a house in Bishopville, S.C. Some locals were resistant: The son of sharecroppers, Fryar looked to them like the kind of guy who "wouldn't keep up his yard." He proved them wrong, the way Michelangelo proved he could paint a ceiling.

In "A Man Named Pearl," directors Scott Galloway and Brent Pierson paint -- no, "sculpt" would obviously be the better term -- a portrait of a man who is clearly a rustic genius. Call him the Picasso of the pruning shears. Self-taught at topiary, a.k.a., the barbering of trees and shrubbery into figurative art, he also has become the drawing card of his once-hesitant home town.

Great documentary film requires narrative the same way great fiction does. In "A Man Named Pearl," what we get is less of a story arc than a testimonial, albeit one with a good deal of insightful commentary about the likable and modest Fryar, and the town around him. (Putting his finger on the advantage of tourists over residents, one town father says, "You don't have to educate 'em, and you don't have to medicate 'em.")

Some of the better commentary in the 2006 film comes from Polly Laffitte, former curator of the South Carolina State Museum, which acquired a Fryar work for its collection. The museum had never acquired a living thing before, but then Fryar's work is not just about trimming yews into Mickey Mouse: His designs are often surreal, in the sense that they resemble the familiar-yet-twisted images in a Dali painting. What Fryar does with a shrub recalls what photographer Edward Weston did with something as mundane as a green pepper -- reinterpreting it, reimagining it and redefining it as a shape in space. That Fryar deserves a place among these innovative artists is the movie's boldest statement and -- given what we see around the Fryar house -- one it makes rather convincingly.

-- John Anderson

A Man Named Pearl G, 77 minutes Contains nothing offensive. At the Avalon. A Man Named Pearl G, 77 minutes Contains nothing offensive. At the Avalon.

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