Institute 193 is an intimate place; it is a small, one-room storefront gallery space that pulls viewers in from Lexington’s Limestone Street for a different kind of consumption than they might find in the neighboring bars, restaurants, and coffee shops. The intimacy makes this venue the perfect site to view painter Amy Pleasant’s work, now on view in the exhibition “Someone Before You.” The show is simply arranged, comprised of a handful of drawings and ceramic sculptures alongside a single painting. Yet the works allude to the highly prolific nature of Pleasant’s practice, which is further affirmed in the companion artist’s book, The Messenger’s Mouth was Heavy. The proximity to the work in both the space and in the book offer an opportunity for the viewer to deeply consider how and what each work communicates.
Amy Pleasant’s use of minimal and reduced forms in her paintings, drawings, and sculptural works evoke questions of symbolism and legibility. The flattened and monochromatic surfaces of the forms she creates remove many of the elements necessary for signification, yet the works remain legible as bodies due to the subtlest inclusion of the curve of a neck, the curve of a knee, or the point of a nipple. At the same time, just as these tiny hints suggest a body, the incompleteness of that form – due to the absence of heads, torsos, and a variety of appendages – decouples the notion of the body from any specific individual, rendering abstract a corpus that more frequently denotes a particular identity.
Installation view: Amy Pleasant: ‘Someone Before You’, Institute 193
The questions of legibility are clearly manifest in her drawings and paintings, four of which occupy the gallery walls in this show. Her serial Repose drawings consist of a monochromatic disembodied black torso on a faintly grey background. Yet because these forms are so heavily uniform in color and the various other bodily elements are either removed, such as the head and neck, or are completely obscured, like the hands, their reference to the human body must be inferred from the scantest of evidence. And yet, it is still remarkably clear from the way Pleasant outlines the curve of the chest, the shoulder, and the biceps, and from imperfect triangle formed by the bending of the elbow in these three works, that these are, unquestionably, bodies.
Amy Pleasant, ‘Repose X’, 2018, ink and gouache on paper
The abstraction of these forms – specifically the absence of shading, contours, and modeling so often used to render in two dimensions the curvature of our three-dimensional figures – connects them to a broader history of abstract painting in general. Pleasant uses the allusion of the body to explore the implications of color and the painterly gesture, aligning her work with a broader corpus of abstract painters, drawing on the legacy of artists like Willem and Elaine de Kooning. At the same time, the gestures of Pleasant’s figures, particularly the reclined feminine torsos that populate so much of her work, call to mind the canonical figuration of the female nude dating back to the Renaissance. As such, her works read as a part of two distinct yet interrelated traditions in painting, but she does not engage in either of them completely, since her pieces are not complete abstractions, nor are the completed nudes. The fragmentary nature of her forms, as well as their inclusion of minimal signifiers, thus raises the question: what is the minimum of information that we need as viewers to understand a work?
Installation view: Amy Pleasant: ‘Someone Before You’, Institute 193
This exploration of signification is also apparent in her sculptural pieces. Like her drawings and painting, these works are also comprised of monochromatic disembodied corporeal forms: torsos, necks, shoulders, and arms. And similar to her other body of work, these pieces play with both the history of figurative art as well as that of abstraction; their paired down geometry is reminiscent of the abstract sculptures of artists like Louise Nevelson, Louise Bourgeois, David Smith, and Anne Truitt, yet the allusion to the body calls to mind the longer history of sculpture from the curvature of Bernini and Michelangelo’s expressive marbles to the solidity of Greek bronzes.
Yet the sculptural work, more so than the paintings and drawings, engages with the organic nature of these shapes due to the materiality. Sculpted from clay and resting atop custom wood plinths, these works remind us that the materiality of the human body is not so distinct from the environment around us. Moreover, the malleability of clay and its eventual coalescence into a single shape parallels the journey of the human body as it transforms over time into an eventual final body, one that will eventually return to dust. This rumination on the body is made possible because of Pleasant’s fragmentation thereof. In focusing in and abstracting specific elements of the human form, we are able to consider in greater depth what a body is and how it ultimately exists within the world. As such, these works demand the kind of intimacy that Institute 193 provides for them. Arranged in this close space, we as audience members can approach each piece and consider Pleasant’s fixation on each form.
Installation view: Amy Pleasant: ‘Someone Before You’, Institute 193
Amy Pleasant, ‘The Messenger’s Mouth was Heavy’, 2018
An intimate engagement with Pleasant’s rumination on the body is further facilitated through the book The Messenger’s Mouth was Heavy, published by Institute 193 to accompany this show. Whereas the exhibition invites the viewer to consider the main ideas of Pleasant’s practice by closely reading a few pieces, the book provides a more intimate understanding of the prolific volume of Pleasant’s works. Page after page of this volume is littered with images of monochromatic body parts. Whereas the works in the exhibition largely focus on a single form, many of the images replicated in the book involve numerous iterations of the body on a single page, illustrating the hyper-focused nature of Pleasant’s practice, both literally and figuratively. Moreover, the medium of the book facilitates a closer reading of Pleasant’s work, as we are provided innumerable opportunities to view and return to each work, not to mention the physical proximity that books, as objects, allow in a way that painting, drawing, and sculpture do not.
Issues of legibility are also present in the book and are made even more apparent through the translation of her figures into an actual font, used to title essays and transcribe specific quotes throughout the volume. As such, this volume demonstrates another level of Pleasant’s engagement with the question of signification; not only are her forms both abstract and bodily, they are also representational and verbal, challenging us as viewers to read them in several distinct yet interrelated ways.
On the whole, in both the exhibition “Someone Before You” and the book, His Messenger’s Mouth was Heavy, we are provided an opportunity to ruminate on simple forms, and in so doing consider the significance and symbolism therein.
Food and art are ubiquitous entities within any culture. Both incite the senses and provide nourishment for the body and mind. Both are derived from particular traditions, passed down from various generations with successive additions and alterations made with each iteration. Both involve creativity and mastery at the highest levels, and yet both are common within our homes and our daily lives. Considering the prevalence of food and art and the status of each as markers of culture, it is no wonder that artists throughout the ages have ruminated on food in their practices.
This contemplation of the form and function of food provides the basis of the exhibition “Off the Menu: Looking at Food,” currently on view at the UK Art Museum. In particular, this show gathers together a variety of different works by artists from across the country and spanning a wide range of ages and abilities—from school children to world-famous masters—to explore the complex issues that arise when we consider deeply the role of food in our world today. While we consume food on a daily basis by necessity, we may not often consider how the food we prepare and eat exists within larger systems; by looking at food practices in art, we can attend to the more subtle aspects of food as an expression of our identities.
“Off the Menu: Looking at Food “(installation view), UK Art Museum, June 1 – August 11, 2019.
While the show is organized around the idea of how food and art are generally intertwined, the exhibition offers a particular snapshot of 20th and 21st century notions of food and food practices within the United States. In particular, the exhibition focuses on the politics of preparation, commodification, and consumption within our lives today. Bringing together artists from across the country – including a considerable number of local artists of a variety of ages – this exhibition highlights the ways in which food is central to who we are as humans, while also demonstrating how what we eat shapes and is shaped by the culture in which we exist.
Desire is central to how and what we eat. While we need food to sustain our lives, we crave food to nourish and comfort ourselves. It is this process of desire that is central to Julia Jacquette’s paintings. In particular, Jacquette explores the force of explicitly capitalist desire in her series “If I Could Only,” an 8-panel polyptych in which she juxtaposes the phrase “If I could only touch your perfect body” with aestheticized images of mid-century American dishes, like meatloaf and ice cream sundaes. These dishes, sourced from vintage publications including Life, Ladies Home Journal, and The Saturday Evening Post, are clearly designed for presentation—trimmed with an excessive amount of garnish and decoration and cleanly arranged on particular serving dishes—and appear visually perfect, and thus desirable. The words thus highlight the subtext of these mass cultural images of food, stating clearly how they are meant to stoke our desire as consumers, both literally and figuratively. In so doing, she makes apparent the way that advertisements and other works of mass culture conflate sexual desire with consumption, highlighting the coercive forces that make us want food.
Julia Jacquette, “If I Could Only”, 1997, enamel on wood panels. Courtesy of the artist.
Lori Larusso’s painting “Imminent Danger” also involves the tension of a single moment to call attention to particular elements of food culture, specifically its relation to gendered labor and bodies. In the painting, Larusso depicts a three-layer yellow cake with a slice removed, decorated with white frosting, lines of piped red icing, and four miniature American flags, precariously perched on the edge of a kitchen counter, teetering over a garbage can. Yet, like Jacquette’s piece, there’s an ambiguity about what might be the actual danger suggested in the title. The fall of the cake is one perceived imminent danger, further underscored by Larusso’s use of foreshortening to create a steep angle to the countertop. In this case the danger would be the ruination of a considerable amount of effort, most likely that of a woman, since baking is, by and large, a gendered practice. Alternatively, the over-consumption of the cake is the possible danger, a danger more acutely felt by women given the societal expectations on women’s figures. Either way, by ruminating on this single instance of a cake on a counter, Larusso raises several issues around gender by looking at food.
While Jacquette’s and Larusso’s paintings focus on meticulously crafted individual dishes, several of the works in this exhibition explore the mass production of fast food. The ubiquity of American fast food is central to Steve Aishman’s 2007 photo series “Throwing Fast Food”. In this series, Aishman purchases and then tosses a recognizable menu item from a variety of fast food restaurants —a Nathan’s hotdog, sandwiches from Subways and Arby’s, a filet-o-fish from McDonalds, and a Frosty from Wendy’s—capturing the ensuing flight in a single still frame. There is humor in the precariousness in which these items appear; they fly through the air about to cause a mess that has not yet happened, spilling their contents as they go as if they are engaged in some kind of slapstick pratfall. At the same time, seeing these items separate into component parts midair makes these foods rather unappetizing and even inedible, and yet these items comprise a large portion of the American diet.
Steve Aishman, “Throwing Fast Food”, 2007, archival digital prints. Courtesy of the artist.
Sally Davies’ “Happy Meal Project” takes this rumination further, ultimately challenging the notion that these items are even food to begin with. For this on-going project, Davies purchased a Happy Meal from her local McDonalds on April 10, 2010, and has continued to photograph said Happy Meal daily for the last 9 years. Over that time, the meal has neither degraded nor decayed, as is natural for all foodstuffs. Instead, it has continued to look the same, day after day, year after year. Davies project of documenting the progress of this single burger and kid-sized fries, has drawn considerable media attention overtime, and an assortment of stills of the omnipresent meal are presented below a row of media clippings about Davies’ project. That the burger remains the same and media attention keeps returning to Davies’ documentation of it speaks to the staying power—both literal and figurative—of fast food within the American diet; even though it is clear from the documentation that this Happy Meal is, at the very least, full of preservatives, and, at worst, not food at all, McDonalds still persists as a mainstay of food culture in the U.S.
Sally Davies, “Happy Meal Project”, begun April 10, 2010, and ongoing, digital prints. Courtesy of the artist.
In addition to exploring shifting diets in the form of historical and present dishes (or in the case of Davies’, past meals persisting in the present), “Off the Menu” also considers how tastes change over the life of an individual by focusing on the preferences of children. For instance, Jennifer Coates’ painting “PBJ” focuses on the ubiquitous childhood staple of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Coates enlarges the form of the sandwich and depicts it open face—or more likely in mid-construction—highlighting the smearing together of the two viscous substrates that form the basis of the dish. In so doing, she renders the sandwich as a painterly and almost abstract image, making the tactility of the process of spreading peanut butter and jelly on a slice of bread almost palpable. The shift in scale and the attention therefore afforded to it, provides the audience with the opportunity to consider this simple and commonplace meal, allowing us to consider all the ways in which we have engaged with PB&J as cooks and eaters, adults and children.
This attention to the eating patterns of children is further explored in the section of the gallery dubbed “Kid’s Table,” which brings together work by local children under the guidance of Jarah Jones at ArtPlay and Georgia Henkel at Sayre School. These projects include drawings, paintings, and sculptures of particular foods done either individually or collaboratively, as well as a project wherein students constructed their own imagined restaurants out of boxes and other craft supplies. For the latter project, students also created menus for their restaurants, often including mainstays of childhood like pizza, pasta, and ice cream. Taken together, these projects serve as a reminder of the origins of our tastes as eaters and highlight the fact that food consumption is a learned process.
Kids Table (installation view), UK Art Museum, June 1 – August 11, 2019.
Moreover, the collaborative nature of these projects prompts us to remember the social and shared aspects of food practices in general. From the very beginning, we are dependent on others in order to eat and what and how we eat is deeply tied to the practices of our caretakers. While children are acutely aware of the power of food as a form of caretaking, as we get older we tend to forget that we began eating as a social exchange between ourselves and those who fed us. As such, this section allows us to consider more than simply what a chili pepper or a strawberry looks like when rendered by a child, but also to contemplate the multifaceted ways in which we have engaged with food over our lifetimes.
These are just a few of the myriad issues raised in “Off the Menu: Looking at Food.” Food’s position in our culture is so ubiquitous and our relationships to food practices are so complex and multifaceted that it is impossible to fully ascertain all of them in a single exhibition. That said, this show makes a clear effort to incite deeper thought and reflection on the subject of foodways than we typically allow in our daily interactions. By stopping to look at food, and literally regarding what we eat, we can see how the substances that nourish us reflect our broader social and cultural identities. Through this exhibition, we get a glimpse at the various forces that shape our consumption, be they historical antecedents, the ubiquity of fast food, or the process of learning to eat in the first place.
By nature, a palimpsest is a document that collapses time, bringing together two disparate moments juxtaposed one over the other. It is this temporal slippage that is at the center of Martin Beck’s current exhibition on view at MS Rezny in Lexington. Beck’s works function as the titular palimpsest (or Palimpsest 2 in this particular case) by drawing on the historicity associated with the nude in Western art history—both with regard to the long tradition of the nude dating back to antiquity and in terms of its usage in order to create a sense of the past by removing the sartorial markers of a present moment—while simultaneously imbuing the works with an undeniable sense of the here and now.
Taken from life, Beck’s figures contain a certain phenomenological quality that makes them undeniably present, particularly through the tactility of his chosen medium. Moreover, his drawings engage with the present through the inclusion of subtle and simple symbolic objects—including guns and even the hammer and sickle—that remind us of the highly contentious and politicized climate of our current moment. In so doing, Beck draws the viewer into a moment of deep contemplation of the conditions of their present state, both in front of the work and in our society on the whole.
Martin Beck, “Tuesday”, 2019, Mixed media on prepared paper, 29 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches
For all of the works in Palimpsest 2, Beck manages to blur the line between eternal and ephemeral. On the one hand, works like Tuesday engage with the long tradition of the nudes within the western canon. In this work, a young woman appears seated, legs stretched out in front of her as centuries of reclining female nudes have done before. Beck further gives her a sense of timelessness by rendering the setting completely illegible. Abstract coloration has taken the place of any scenery, including whatever implement she is seated upon, providing the viewer with no historical content to understand this appearance. With no such temporal signifiers, we are left with an eternal nude.
At the same time, this eternal quality is undercut by the tactility of the work and the fact that it is drawn from life. While Beck uses a variety of media in creating his drawings, the works are all clearly marked by the hand of the artist in the present moment rendering them not only visually compelling, but also imbuing them with a haptic quality. The gradations in texture and color as well as the clear imprints of the hand used to contour and shade all provide the work with a sense of immediacy and the momentary.
While the subject matter may feel eternal, the works are undeniably the result of an instantaneous and particular interaction. This momentary quality is furthered by the fact that all of the works are drawn directly from life. According to Beck, “working from life, the model and artist reveal the truth of a specific time, place and act. […] Rather than think of these as pictures of people, for me these are authentic depictions of selective experiences.” As such, Beck’s nudes are given an ephemerality and a temporality of the present, despite the lack of signifiers that would tie them to a time or place.
Martin Beck, “Ties That Bind”, 2019, Mixed media on prepared paper, 29 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches
Yet not all of Beck’s works involve the complete disavowal of present-day objects in order to create this collapsing of time within each one. Some works, like the piece Ties that Bind, include clear references to our current moment in the form of specific items, while still maintaining a sense of temporal ambiguity. In this piece, Beck depicts a woman lying on the ground, with her head at the bottom of the composition and her legs propped up on some unknown, wrapped object, holding an assault rifle next to her right hip. Beck unsettles the woman from time and space, not only through her nudity, but again through his abstraction of the background; Beck denies the viewer a concrete horizon line and thus she appears floating and timeless.
At the same time, Beck’s inclusion of the gun works to draw us immediately back to the present. Given the prevalence of gun violence—especially that carried out with assault-style weapons—it is impossible to view the rifle by her side and not consider both the carnage and the contention surrounding these objects in our current moment. As such, Beck uses these objects to further the sense of the present within each work.
Martin Beck, “Material Girl”, 2019 Mixed media on prepared paper 29 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches
Martin Beck, “Home Grown #4”, 2018, mixed media on prepared paper, 29 1/2 x 42 inches
While some of the items included in Beck’s images are unabashed signifiers of our present moment, others have a subtler allusion to temporal “now.” For instance, several of the works, including Material Girl,Lurid Red, andHome Grown #4, all involve nude figures—a singular woman in the cases of Material Girl and Lurid Red and a man for Home Grown #4—holding a hammer and sickle. Unlike the assault rifle, the signification of these objects is less immediate; in the almost three decades since the decline of the Soviet Union, the hammer and sickle have become more historic signifiers than anything else.
Yet Beck’s inclusion of these object in works that—which through their tactility involve a sense of immediacy and the present—functions to dust off the historical characteristic of the hammer and sickle and force us to examine their role in the present. Given the current contentious geopolitical situation between the United States and Russia, and the outspoken desire of Russia’s president to return to the glory days of the U.S.S.R., these seemingly outdated objects do have a clear bearing on our contemporary existence.
Furthermore, the continued debates over “Socialism” and its place within the United States is also evoked, albeit not answered, through Beck’s inclusion of these items. In considering his works with regard to the palimpsest, this inclusion lays bare the fact that the same object or text can participate in different discussions at separate moments overtime, wherein traces of the past engage in dialogue withnew iterations in the present.
Moreover, in addition to the multiple temporalities at play in each work, the show evokes the sense of the palimpsest for which it is named when viewing the works in a conglomeration. As documents, palimpsests are multifaceted and often layered works, with newer text interspersed amongst the older. The result is a document that requires both close reading and a sense of distance in order to fully ascertain its full meaning. This oscillation between proximal and detached viewing is underscored in the way the exhibition is curated. Beck’s works adorn not only the surrounding walls of the gallery, but also a smaller, four-sided pilaster and both sides of a false wall.
These two structures divide the gallery so that only some of the works can be viewed from a single, distanced vantage point. Moreover, the placement of the pilaster requires us to get close to the images, and to even be surrounded by them. In so doing, we engage each image, phenomenologically speaking, with a close intimacy of the present while simultaneously being made aware of a larger continuum within the body of work, much as we would while actually reading a palimpsest.
On the whole, Martin Beck’s latest works call our attention to the present and its position within a larger temporal trajectory. The tactility of his medium and his use of live drawing bring us, the audience, into a particular ephemeral and instantaneous moment, while his subject matter—the nude—calls our attention to a longer tradition of history. Similarly, Beck’s use of abstract backgrounds works to remove us from a specific temporality, while the objects he often presents alongside his figures draw us back into our contemporary settings. Beck’s work thus demands both proximity and distance, presence and detachment, from his viewers, creating a layered and multifaceted experience.
The problem with binary thinking is that by reducing the world to a simple either/or proposition, we neglect to see a third option. In most cases, our experiences, identities, and worldviews cannot be simply categorized as one thing or another; more frequently these entities are mutually inclusive, existing on a continuum or in a dialectic, rather than a dichotomy. This third option—wherein two things not only coexist but are interrelated—is at the heart of Melissa Vandenberg’s work as an artist. Vandenberg’s practice brings together elements of right and left; historical and contemporary; North and South; masculinity and femininity; and ephemerality and permanence in such a way that highlights how these polarities reveal a third, interconnected option. Working in a wide array of media and subjects throughout her career, Vandenberg explores the borders of our thinking and makes us aware of the processes therein.
Melissa Vandenberg’s interest in the interconnection of various seemingly polar entities is rooted in her own identity as an artist. When asked if she considers herself a Southern artist, for instance, Vandenberg opts for a more ambiguous identification than offered in a simple yes or no. Rather, she demonstrates both an interest in embracing the moniker and a reluctance to truly identify as such, given her status as a transplant. Born in Michigan and having migrated slowly more southward through her education and work—completing her MFA at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale and having worked in Indiana and Tennessee before settling into a faculty position at Eastern Kentucky University in 2009—Vandenberg is acutely aware of her status as a Northern native living in Appalachia. At the same time, having spent a decade in Eastern Kentucky, she recognizes the influence of the region on her identity as an artist, readily embracing the environment as a consideration in her work. Hers is thus a perspective of both insider and outsider, one who knows the area from having lived here, but whose native identity is tied up somewhere else.
“Homewrecker”, sewing machine, knives, deer hide, chair, brick & mixed media, 42 X 60 X 55 inches (dimensions variable), 2019. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.
Similarly, Vandenberg’s work cannot be defined by a particular medium. Her practice involves sculpture, installation, performance, drawing, and photography, and she readily embraces working in all of these forms. Not identifying with a particular medium, however, has made her feel alienated in many American art contexts until relatively recently. As she notes: “I’ll use video and photography [and I’ll] also draw. I’ll do performance. I’ll do installation. And I didn’t feel like I had a niche or home for a long time and I think that [lack of a particular medium] was frowned upon, not just from commercial venues, but just in general, as if I was indecisive. And I’m like ‘no, I’m equally serious about all these things and it should be my concept that’s leading the material choices anyhow. […] Isn’t that where we went after the 60s?’” Vandenberg’s identity as an artist could be defined as “mixed media” or “intermedia”, but she will also readily admit that there are clear connections between these seemingly disparate entities of her own practice. In particular, she regularly embraces fiber as the basis for her work, making large scale, soft sculpture from sewn textiles, using sewing machines in her performances, and even using cotton rag paper as the basis for her drawings. As such, her practice similarly defies the binary that an artist must either be understood as a medium-specific or multimedia practitioner, offering a third option comprised of both.
“Doublespeak”, match burn on Arches paper, 22.5 X 30 inches, 2018. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.
“Double-talk”, match burn on Arches paper, 22.5 X 30 inches, 2018. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.
Looking at her work, it is readily apparent how her practice similarly engages with the dialectic between seemingly binary entities. In her most recent body of work, Vandenberg has created a series of triptychs comprised of “burn drawings,” which she has created by burning matches directly into Arches paper. In particular, her set of skull drawings, entitled Doublespeak, Double-Talk, and Red Vanitas, examine how two entities that are apparently diametrically opposed can actually merge to become one in the same, or an inclusive third. In each of these three works, two skulls look out in opposing directions, their metaphorical gazes fixed on something the other clearly cannot see. At the same time, their cranial structures overlap, merging them into a singular entity, one that is equally dependent on the form of the other in order to exist.
“Red Vanitas”, match burn and ink on Arches paper, 22.5 X 30 inches, 2018. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.
For Vandenberg, this overlap and the dichotomy it undermines function to critique the extreme prevalence of binary thinking within our contemporary culture, both locally and world-wide. She notes: “I’ve been using conjoined metaphors for a while. I think [of the motif as reflecting] this political climate, the general divisiveness, [and] realizing, you know, the supposed right and left—and this is even a global situation, not just here.” Vandenberg’s skulls do look left and right and, yet, the two are ultimately part of the same entity. These works, therefore, call attention to the fact that the ideological and, even, the physical delineation of left and right are interdependent parts of a single whole. Just as a physical object cannot have solely a left or a right side—as there will always be a boundary on the opposite side—neither can a political ideology exist solely in one camp or another; the limitations of the polar opposite are, therefore, essential to create a cogent definition. By conjoining the two entities as such, Vandenberg highlights the fact these distinctions in our culture are truly interdependent.
Vandenberg’s skulls not only ruminate on ideological dichotomies, but they also undermine the duality between past and present, or the (art) historical and the contemporary. For Vandenberg, this series of burn drawings offers an opportunity to consider the legacy of historical motifs and objects. The use of the skull makes a clear reference to the Dutch still life tradition of the “vanitas,” wherein the still life painter would include a material reference to death among the sumptuous painted display. At the same time, both materially and temporally, Vandenberg’s skulls convey a particular sense of the present. As previously noted, the conjoined nature of them calls attention to our contemporary historical conditions. Furthermore, the materiality of the burn drawing itself has a clearly instantaneous quality to it, one that is created with a meticulous precision in terms of timing, which imbues the work with a clear sense of the now. Combining the historical references with this notion of the present, Vandenberg’s work thus calls attention to the falseness of the dichotomy between past and present, revealing the continuum upon which both entities exist.
Vandenberg’s interest in combining seemingly dichotomous entities is not solely a recent venture. For years now, she has explored the limits of these distinctions throughout her practice, both literally and metaphorically. Geographic delineations, in particular, have been a consistent theme throughout much of her work. Just as her own identity as an artist has been shaped by time spent in both the North and the South, she has used her practice to explore the differentiation between these two regions. In 2010, for instance, she carried out her Middleland Project, wherein she spent several weeks traveling along the boundary between the Northern and Southern United States. The project offered a reimagining of American borders, highlighting the various identities that emerge within and across these two regions. As Vandenberg notes: “[t]hese are not your usual border states; semantically they are an amalgamation of the Heartland, the Midwest, the Bible Belt, just south of the Rust Belt and flanking the Mason Dixon Divide. They provide a rich yet fractured history as ideologies are constantly challenged from the surrounding North and South.”
‘Middleland Project’, 10X14 digital photographs, 2010
Vandenberg documented her journey in a variety of media, including photographs and a blog that she maintained during her travels. The resulting project is a series of images and texts illuminating the complicated and multifaceted expressions of regional identities that exist along the borderlands, demonstrating the ways in which people North of the divide share values and lived experiences with those South of it, while also noting the moments in which real differences are apparent. In exploring the line between North and South through this project, Vandenberg highlights the existence of a third possible identity, one that transcends and transgresses the division of the border itself.
“Monument”, US flags, polyester, wood, nylon & hardware, 66 X 26 X 26 inches, 2016. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.
Her practice not only considers the interwoven nature of geographic boundaries, but also the interrelatedness that characterizes gender binaries. In particular, her sculpture practice has, for years, juxtaposed elements of masculinity and femininity in a way that calls attention to the limits of these two categories. For instance, in her work Monument, Vandenberg combines the masculinity associated with militarism and patriotic service with the femininity of textile work. In this work, Vandenberg constructs a portable, stuffed obelisk out of the fabric of several deconstructed flags. As such, the work calls attention to the particularly masculine traits of patriotic duty and military sacrifice, alluding to the cemetery memorials that mark the graves of countless American soldiers. (While women have, for centuries, served in military roles, the vast majority of service members killed in the line of duty have been men, due largely to the exclusion of women from combat roles until 2016.)
At the same time, Vandenberg incorporates clearly feminine signifiers into her monument through her choice of materials. Sewing, and textile work more generally, is unquestionably feminine, having been one of the primary forms of craft practices that have characterized women’s art for centuries. Broadly speaking, within flag culture, women’s roles have historically been as makers, using our talents with needle and thread to construct symbolic objects, the most iconic example of such being the Revolutionary War seamstress Betsy Ross. Therefore, by incorporating this textile tradition and rendering her monument visibly soft—a characteristic often attributed to women both in physical form and in temperament— Vandenberg complicates the masculinity associated with the obelisk and the militaristic culture it represents.
In bringing together two sides of this binary, Vandenberg again demonstrates how these notions are, indeed, interconnected. The softness of the stuffed fabric combined with the rigidity of the form of the obelisk proposes a reconceptualization of gender wherein the dichotomy between manliness and womanhood is replaced with a more nuanced and dialectic understanding. Because this form is neither completely masculine nor completely feminine, it posits the existence of some hybridity between the two, thus illustrating that the binary is false and that some combination thereof is likely more common.
In her practice, Vandenberg has challenged the apparent duality of gender on multiple occasions, including in more recent work like the piece Homewrecker. In this work, Vandenberg has constructed a sewing station precariously propped up on a variety of knives, all of which sit on a flattened deer hide, while a brick placed on the pedal keeps the machine running. Like with her monument, the sewing machine itself is a synecdoche for womanhood. The metaphorical reference to womanhood is made more apparent through the fact that it is a “homemaker” brand machine, calling to mind one of the central elements of women’s labor and identities for centuries. At the same time, the knives—bowie knives along the base of the machine and throwing knives extending down the legs of the chair—coupled with the skinned deer hide allude to hunting, one of the most traditional and archetypal roles for men going back to hunter/gatherer societies.
And yet even with the clear gender distinctions that are apparent on the surface of the work, the piece highlights the complicated and intertwined nature of gender. For instance, as Vandenberg notes, the deer hide itself can be understood as a feminine form, particularly as deer have held “a lot of symbolism in every religion, […]usually related to purity and fertility.” The masculinity of hunting is therefore undercut by the femininity associated with the deer in various spiritual practices. Through this juxtaposition, Vandenberg continues to complicate binary gender distinctions in her work, highlighting the capacity of objects and individuals to perform both roles simultaneously.
“Homewrecker”, sewing machine, knives, deer hide, chair, brick & mixed media, 42 X 60 X 55 inches (dimensions variable), 2019. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.
The gender dichotomy is only one of the multiple binaries challenged in Homewrecker; the piece also ruminates of the duality of ephemerality and permanence. In particular, the physical construction of the work is both temporary and enduring. On the one hand, the assembled items that comprise the sculpture—the sewing machine, the seat, the knives, the hide, and the brick—are all sturdy and long-lasting items. On the other hand, the permanence of these objects is undercut by the dynamic and mechanical nature of the work. By strategically placing a brick on the foot pedal of the sewing machine, Vandenberg has created an object that will continue to vibrate so long as it is on display, ultimately causing the knives to cut into the deer hide and thus destroy the work as it once existed. In creating a work that appears static but is, in fact, always changing, Vandenberg highlights the interrelatedness between the ephemeral and the permanent. That the deer hide appears permanently whole but is actually being altered moment by moment illustrates how things may appear eternal, but they are never quite that. At the same time, that the fleeting and momentary vibrations of the sewing machine are causing the knives to damage the hide instant by instant also illustrates the impact of ephemerality on more permanent conditions.
Throughout her career, Melissa Vandenberg has used her practice to critically examine multifaceted and complex issues, layering meaning into the various elements of each work to create a totality rife with bold statements and nuanced assertions. Despite working in a wide variety of media, there are clearly remarkable through lines that create wholeness out of what could be understood as disunity. Similarly, though her work addresses a considerable number of disparate ideas, the distinctions among them frequently function to unite her practice and the issues she addresses. Her work challenges us to think in more complicated ways, abandoning reductive logic that seeks to delineate the world in binary forms, offering us instead a way to see a possible interconnected third.
Portrait of the artist by the artist, Melissa Vandenberg
Melissa Vandenberg to Middleland: Artwork and commentary focused on the landscape flanking the Mason-Dixon Divide. , February 26, 2010, http://middleland2010.blogspot.com/?view=magazine.
The Great Meadows Foundation is a grant giving foundation whose mission is to critically strengthen and support visual art in Kentucky by empowering our community’s artists and other visual arts professionals to research, connect, and participate more actively in the broader contemporary art world.
Stephen Varble is best known for his loud, disruptive, and public performances. During the 1970s and early 1980s, Varble staged several guerilla performances across New York City, all of which were notable for their garish, over-the-top displays of defiance and their provocative agitation, such as in his 1976 Chemical Bank Protest, wherein in protest of a fraudulent withdrawal from his bank account, Varble wearing “condoms filled with fake blood as breasts under a gown of fishing net adorned with sequins and fake dollar bills” handed a check for “none million dollars” to the tellers at his branch, signing the check in the fake blood that adorned his chest.
Unknown photographer, Stephen Varble during the Chemical Bank Protest, 1976. Collection of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art (Gift of Geoffrey Hendricks in memory of Stephen Varble).
This performance, like many others of Varble’s, involved garish gestures and over-the-top costuming that challenged the construction of gender, the obscuring of (queer) sexuality, and the social fear of the bodily, issues that remained central to his art practice throughout his entire short life.
Yet while attention has been placed upon Varble’s public performances, these large scale displays were only part of his entire art practice. Now on view at Institue 193 in Lexington, the exhibition “Stephen Varble: An Antidote to Nature’s Ruin on this Heavenly Globe” — curated by David Getsy in conjunction with an exhibition at theLeslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art — offers a more intimate view into Varble’s life and work. Comprised of 26 Xerox drawings, one etching, and his “epic and operatic video titled Journey to the Sun,” this exhibition offers a more static and subdued vantage into Varble’s practice, inviting the viewer to engage personally and individually in a way his performances never really could.
Varble’s drawings explore several of the same themes as his performance works, including issues of gender, sexuality, and the body, but they do so in a softer, more personal way. Like the gender non-conforming costumes he dons in his performances, Varble’s drawings — all of which focus on individual or groups of human figures — construct ambiguously gendered figures, highlighting a possibility of alternatives to the binary construction of man and woman. Several of his figures have feminine features — like defined breasts, hips, and legs — coupled with typically masculine broad and muscular shoulders, strong jaws, and facial hair. As such, these forms are neither exactly man nor woman, and thus call attention to the limits of such categorical distinctions.
Not only does Varble explore the issues of gender in his drawings, but he also examines the limits of the body in these works. The visceral processes of a living body emerge over and over in several of the works. In one drawing, Varble presents another ambiguously gendered figure sitting on a toilet, pulling a long line of toilet paper over their head. We can see solid forms floating freely in the bowl, as if the figure is in the process of or has just completed a bowel movement, although the white, circular forms look more like eggs than feces. The inclusion of the toilet is thus a reminder of the liminal nature of human bodies; on the one hand, we often walk around feeling like solid, impermeable entities, but several times a day, we viscerally spill over our physical boundaries and produce something external to ourselves. Like his depictions of gender, Varble’s inclusion of references to the process of excretion along with other visceral processes highlights how our conception of the body is defined by arbitrary distinctions, ones that are easily and readily crossed all the time.
Varble’s work also examines the liminal nature of the body through his portrayals of sexuality in his drawings. Several of the pieces focus on pairs or groups of lovers engaged in various states of embrace. These displays of lust and affection highlight the limits of the body, as sexual expression often involves the convergence of two bodies within liminal spaces, lips, genitals, and orifices.
Moreover, Varble’s exploration of sexuality in these drawings is a further rumination on the relationship between gender and queer identity. For instance, in one work, Varble has constructed two simple and yet amorphous figures in profile, both with the strong jawlines and broad shoulders of men, although the ambiguities of the rest of their bodies make their gender impossible to discern. Their eyes have been replaced by the profile image of two other individuals, who gaze at each other. The two figures face each other, with their noses almost touching, lips pursed as if about to kiss. Between their mouths, Varble has made the outline of a heart and he has added a line connecting their brow ridges so that their noses form an upside down triangle, likely a reference to the Pink Triangle that was originally sewn on to the clothes of Nazi prisoners who were interned and executed for their homosexuality. Varble’s inclusion of the triangle is most likely a nod to queer liberation in his own time, since the symbol was reclaimed as a symbol of pride in the years following the Stonewall Uprising and especially in the early years of the A.I.D.S. crisis by the LGBTQIA community.
The symbolism of the downward pointing triangle is only further underscored by the band of pink that lines the gallery walls behind each of these works, offering a solemn reminder throughout the show of Varble’s life and death as a gay man in America in the 1980s. This pink line stands out against both the white of the walls and the black and white drawings, providing both a counterbalance to the curatorial convention of the white cube while also connecting the work to the longer history of LGBTQIA arts activism. As such, this simple band ties Varble’s work to the longer history of A.I.D.S. activist groups like Gran Fury and ACT UP and serves as a reminder that Varble, like so many queer men of his generation, was senselessly lost to what has become a manageable chronic disease. It should be noted that while medical advancements have made management of the virus possible, differential access to healthcare and resources both in the US and outside of it means that many people still live with and die from HIV and AIDS-related complications.
The somberness that this pale pink line brings to the exhibition is echoed in the color content of Varble’s works. Each drawing is rendered solely in black and white, providing them with a sense of seriousness and solemnity. Their subdued nature then provides the viewer the opportunity to engage quietly and contemplatively, an experience directly opposed to the over the top and vibrant displays of his performance practice, facilitating a more intimate view into Varble’s life and work.
Not only does the color palette create this intimacy, but the simplicity of their compositions makes them feel as if Varble is merely doodling these imagined images into creation, allowing a process akin to the Surrealist practice of “automatic drawing” to take over his hand. As such, these works feel personal and private, like they comprise the familiar world of Varble’s mind.
Moreover, the fact that these drawings were reproduced through Xerox copying and freely distributed further underscores their abilities to facilitate a personal connection to the work. Instead of being singular works seen only from a distance, Varble wanted them to be widely disseminated, allowing the viewer to engage with each work in their own time and in their own space; that Varble wanted these drawings to be held and owned by individuals offers the viewer — at least originally — the opportunity to have a more intimate relationship with his art objects.
The intimacy of these works is further underscored by the curation of the show. Arranged in a single line in the small single room gallery of Institute 193, the exhibition invites us to look closely at each individual work. There is no vantage point from which we can see the features of each work except for by slowly and meticulously walking along and beholding them one by one, requiring us, as viewers, to get “up close and personal.”
This sense of familiarity and closeness also resonates in how the show explores elements of Varble’s own history. While Varble is best known for performance works he created in New York City, he is, at heart, a Kentucky native. Born in Owensboro, Varble studied at the University of Kentucky and was a fixture of the Lexington queer community, returning often until his untimely death in January 1984. His performance work in New York was largely influenced by his time in Kentucky, and he even included close friends and relations from the area in his operatic video Journey to the Sun, which is also featured in this exhibition. In focusing on Varble’s Kentucky connection, the exhibition makes the work feel more relatable and at home to a Lexington audience. We know the streets he once walked and the culture he is drawing upon in his work, imbuing the work with a sense of familiarity and comfort.
On the whole, “Stephen Varble: An Antidote to Nature’s Ruin on this Heavenly Globe,” facilitates a personal engagement and intimate understanding of the life and work of Stephen Varble’s short life and prolific career. Both the works and the space they are in invite the viewer to look closely and consider each piece and the messages embedded within.
The line between childhood and adulthood is muddy and complicated. When we are children, we are constantly looking forward, seeking to emulate the adults that surround us through our schoolwork, our daydreams, and our play. As adults, we frequently gaze backwards, thinking nostalgically of times when our lives were simpler and when we had not yet made the choices that would come to define our lived existences, where regret seemed impractical because the world was filled with endless opportunities. Moreover, childhood and adulthood are diametrically opposed, with childhood being defined by the inexperience of adulthood and adulthood being determined by maturity not found in childhood, all of which comprises the complicated processes of “growing up.”
This push and pull between the conception of each life stage is at the core of the new exhibition OFF-SPRING: New Generations, now on view at 21C Museum Hotel in downtown Lexington. On the whole, the exhibition poses many complex questions about the limits of childhood, the definition of adulthood, and the processes that come to determine the passage between the two, presenting a multifaceted exploration of how the self is constructed through the internal passage of time we all experience.
One of the primary ways we transition from childhood to adulthood is through our education. Theoretically, the practice of attending school is designed to transform children into mature adults, capable of thinking deliberately and acting rationally on their own in the world. While this process could—and some might argue, should—entreat the development of individualism on behalf of the pupil, the result of this education is far more often a condition of universality, with students demonstrating similar knowledge and an understanding of the world at their point of culmination.
Li Hongbo (Chinese), “Absorption No. 5”, 2015, Books, desk, chair
This uniformity through education is explicitly at the heart of Li Hongbo’s sculpture Absorption No. 5, which consists of a bust of a child, carved from Chinese government issued text books sitting on a school desk. The figure is therefore formed out of the same educational materials that every child receives in China, thus highlighting how on a fundamental level, all Chinese children are taught to be the same.
While Li Hongbo is skeptical of the sameness that is produced through education, Sofie Muller’s sculpture Clarysse highlights the attachment we feel towards education as a fundamental component of childhood. The work, which is the first one we encounter, consists of a patinated bronze sculpture of a young schoolgirl sitting at a wooden desk, but the head of the child has been removed, “leaving only an oval shadow burned into the desktop.” The removal of her face renders her anonymous, making her a synecdoche for any schoolgirl, and thus reminding the viewer of the uniformity of education across all children.
Yet, at the same time, the implicit violence of her decapitation, further underscored by the burnt shadow, entreats us to feel great empathy at the loss of opportunity for her, since it is a near universal belief that all children should have the right to an education and that the interruption thereof is a marked tragedy. Viewed so closely together, these two works offer a complicated consideration of how education works to transition children to adulthood, existing as a potentially positive opportunity for maturation while simultaneously being a system of formal indoctrination.
Although formal education is central to the maturation from childhood, informal development through play is also essential for children, and the enactment of that play is prominent throughout OFF-SPRING. In several cases, issues of play are used to illustrate how children seek to emulate adults in their own actions, often distorting the reality of adulthood in so doing.
For instance, Gerhard Demetz’s sculpture Keep My Own Dreams “depicts a frowning child, standing in a protective stance; he holds a baseball bat in one hand and a hairbrush out in front of the other, as if warding off danger.” The child is purposefully misusing these objects to help him emulate the bravery enacted by parents as they protect their children from unknown harms. This desire to replicate the parent on behalf of the child is further underscored by the fact that he is wearing the shoes of a grown adult, his small ankles pressed against the leather tongues revealing a substantial gap, an action that many children do as a part of their play.
Similarly, Carrie Mae Weems’ photographs Untitled (Mother, Daughter, and Make Up) from The Kitchen Table series and May Flowers unpack how play acts as a pretense of maturity. In both works, young black girls adorn themselves—with a crown of flowers in May Flowers and with make-up in Untitled—in a way that makes them appear more “womanly,” therefore practicing the grooming behaviors that will likely characterize their adult lives. By capturing the gestures of children’s play, both Demetz and Weems consider how these actions informally teach children the practices that will comprise their daily lives when they have fully matured.
In addition to considering the gestures of play, many of the works in OFF-SPRING also examine the objects thereof. Chris Roberts-Antieau, for example, explores the form of the doll house in her work Murder House. Employing the conventions of the dollhouse as a child’s toy—using appropriately sized figures and furnishings placed in a realistic setting—Roberts-Antieau subverts this kind of play by replicating one of the most shocking scenes of violence in the 20th century: the murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959, a story that was memorialized in Truman Capote’s landmark work In Cold Blood. In depicting the murder scene in a doll house, Roberts-Antieau conveys a mature subject matter through an immature medium. In so doing, not only has Roberts-Antieau complicated the notion of a child’s toy through meticulously recreating the violent crime scene, but she also brings to light the ways in which the victims of this real-world horror, specifically the two teenaged Clutter children, were rendered mature by the violence they experienced.
Frances Goodman (South African), “The Dream” (detail), 2010-2016, Silk, lace, organza, satin, beads, embroidery thread, wedding dresses, sound installation.
The intersection of playing at maturity and the lived experience thereof is also present in the way the show considers the ritual of marriage as a marker for the transition from childhood to adulthood, especially for women. In Frances Goodman’s installation The Dream, which “is comprised of satin, silk, and organza wedding dresses flowing from the ceiling to the floor in waves of pinks and whites,” the piling of the gowns, coupled with the soft organic nature of the sculptural form rising above them makes the space feel like a child’s playroom, with plenty of wedding gowns to play dress up in. This juvenile fantasy of marriage as something you can pretend to attain clashes starkly with the sound components of the piece and the quotes embroidered on the sculptural forms of the work, all of which derive from the “candid emotions of hope, envy, angst, uncertainty, and desire about the tradition of marriage” expressed by “dozens of women ages 20 to 60 ” that Goodman interviewed for the project. As such, Goodman illustrates the transition to womanhood that is actually experienced by many when they move from bachelorette to bride to wife, a reality that is often far from the dreamed experience of young girls as they play.
While many of the works in OFF-SPRING focus on the differentiation between childhood and adulthood, still others consider the ways in which those relationships are intertwined, specifically within the context of the family unit. For instance, Daniel Magnusson’s serial portraits of fathers and daughters attending “Purity Balls” in Arizona examine the way that the practice of childrearing impacts the maturity of both the parent and child. In the photographs, the fathers hold their daughters close in an effort to support and protect them; while the idea of a “Purity Ball” might seem to be a sign of overbearing parenting, Magnusson notes that while he had a similar impression of the practice, “as [he] learned more, [he] understood that the fathers, like all parents simply wanted to protect the ones that they love—in the best way they know how.” The portraits thus function as an illustration of the maturation both of the daughters and of the fathers; while the Purity balls in many ways mark the transition from girlhood to young women, the participation of the fathers in them illustrates their complete acceptance of the role of parent as caretaker, recognizing that they are not only responsible for their own lives but the well-being of others, an act that by its very nature matures them.
Other works similarly tackle the issue of maturation through the depiction of inter-generational family relationships. Deanna Lawson’s Coulson Family, for example, explores the influence of familial legacies on the upbringing of her subjects, Black families that she meets “in grocery stores, on the subway, on road trips, during international travel, and on the busy streets of her Brooklyn neighborhood.” The images then take on the form of a family portrait, objects that by their very nature are meant to document the present for future generations. As such, these photographs not only illustrate how the family structure of today influences the upbringing, and therefore the identity, of a particular individual, but also calls to mind the complicated experiences of many previous generations. For Lawson, these photographs help to map the larger system of the experiences of black families living in the African diaspora and help personalize the experiences of various individuals within the context of a greater global black history.
Race and gender are two of the many themes that re-emerge throughout the show, further blurring the focus of OFF-SPRING: New Generations, and making it clear that this is not simply an exhibition about childhood and maturation. The show is, in fact, so full of thought provoking work that it would be nearly impossible to characterize it as examining simply one entity. Rather, the narrative it weaves reveals the complexities that really underlie the process of self-discovery we all embark on as we grow. Moreover, the show demonstrates that the designations between life stages and identities are not hard and fast, but rather exist in a continuum and the acknowledgement of the fluidity between them helps breed a greater understanding of the diverse human experience.
The exhibition Pangaea — now on view at City Gallery at the Downtown Arts Center in Lexington — brings together the disparate practices of Patrick Smith and Robert Morgan in a way that illuminates how the same ideas and impulses can permeate in different ways across both generations and media. Juxtaposed closely in this exhibition, the similarities ring out, making clear elements of both artists’ work that would likely be overlooked in the context of a solo show. As a show, Pangaea, therefore, functions in opposition to the supercontinent from which it gets its name; while the landmass dissipated creating cultural and ecological divisions that have marked humanity since our emergence as a species, the exhibition ultimately unites distinct individuals and shows the shared nature of their art and lives in so doing.
Detail of Bob Morgan’s sculptural assemblages
One of the starkest distinctions between Morgan and Smith is how each man approaches art making. Morgan, a sculptor now in his 60s, has always identified as an artist. He has been making art out of found objects for as long as he can remember. Morgan’s practice has been consistent for decades, making assemblages that are complicated and congested amalgams of various items, ranging from goat horns and religious figurines to rubber snakes and car parts, all of which he covers with bright colored paint and patches of glitter.
Smith, on the other hand, is a painter who came to art making relatively later in life, around the time he was an undergraduate at Transylvania University. Now in his 30s, his practice is still evolving, and he conceives of his practice as a direct reaction to his surroundings. For instance, his recent works — which consist ofsmall, intimate and hyperrealist portraits —simultaneously reflect the regional tradition of intimate craft practices with regard to their scale, while also working against the abstract tendencies that dominate both the painting practices taught in art schools in the area and the looser styles that characterize folk and outsider art in Appalachia more generally. As such, Smith’s practice is more informed by the particulars of time and space than Morgan’s, a notion that is further underscored by the generational differences between them.
Various self portraits by Patick Smith
Yet despite these differences, Morgan and Smith’s works share a considerable amount in common. For example, both artists explore issues of queerness and sexual difference in their works. Patrick Smith’s work deals with elements of visible queerness and difference through his engagement with gender and sexuality as performance. His self-portraits, for instance, often play with elements of drag, with Smith appearing heavily made up and, at times, dressed in women’s clothing from various (sub) cultures.
Self Portrait in black top, Patrick Smith
In these images, Smith never appears to be passing as a woman, per se, but rather complicates elements of masculinity by adopting women’s dress. For instance in one Self-Portrait, he appears in a sheet black top, with heavy black eyeliner, and pink lipstick, with his mouth pursed to a kiss. His face gazes directly out but his torso is slightly turned with one arm bent at the elbow and raised behind him and the other wrapping around his belly, adopting a pose often used by women models in fashion magazines. Though Smith has adopted feminine elements of dress and gesture, his gender performance is somewhat incomplete. His shaved head, muscular arms, and hint of a five o’clock shadow remind us that Smith is a man. As such, he is queering the conventions of gender performance, embracing elements of both masculinity and femininity in a way that celebrates deviation from heteronormative and patriarchal conventions of sex and gender.
Moreover, for Smith, all of his portraits are performances. He often describes his sitters as “getting into character” and for his self-portraits Smith allows his appearance to be styled by various friends who collaborate with him. As such, these works are not emblematic of the subject’s lived experience, but rather illustrate how conventions of gender and sexuality are performed moment by moment.
Installation shot, “Pangaea” at the Downtown Arts Center
The performative nature of Smith’s work stand in contrast to Morgan’s practice, which is largely derived from his personal history. Morgan, a gay man himself, has been a prominent figure within the LBGTQ community in Lexington for decades. He is widely known for his role as a caretaker having tended the sick and dying here during the A.I.D.S. epidemic in the 1980s and 90s and caring for the legacy of queer folk through his role as the founder of the Faulkner-Morgan Pagan Babies Archive. His art practice has been, as such, largely informed by both his lived experience in and his research of LGBTQ history; he notes that most of his works examine themes of “A.I.D.S., Insanity, Alcoholism, and Drug Addiction,” afflictions that have commonly plagued the queer community and further marginalized LGBTQ folk.
Bob Morgan with sculptures
Morgan’s affinity for the marginalized manifests in the work he creates. His assemblages are made from piles of junk, objects whose intrinsic value has been lost or was never fully appreciated. Morgan collects these items and transforms them into something new, something with an aesthetic quality that is elevated and is meant to be seen, rather than to hide. That many of these assemblages of people whose experiences were similarly marginalized — like the teenaged drug addict that Morgan cared for and whose nightmare forms the basis of The Island of Lost Souls — and that Morgan himself has felt marginalized in similar ways imbues the sculptures with a particular kind of powerful resonance.
Religion, like queerness, is a theme that is explored in both Morgan’s and Smith’s work. As with his explorations of LGBTQ struggles, Morgan draws from his own religious upbringing in Catholic school as the basis of his work. Each of the seven works on display in this exhibition features an oversized vintage doll, which Morgan has posed and covered with various objects — often including devotional items like figurines of Jesus or religiously symbolic items like swords and snakes. To Morgan, decorating these figuresis reminiscent of the way that The Infant of Prague is dressed and put on display in the chapels of countless Catholic churches and schools, like the one Morgan attended as a child. Yet these sculptures aren’t simply Catholic in character. Some appear to have a more clearly Hindu iconography, like the allusion to Shiva in The Horned Toad, and others involve the hybridization of multiple religious traditions like in Pangaea. Morgan asserts that the appropriation of religious iconography is central to his practices, noting “I steal from every major culture,” and citing a particular predilection for Byzantine, Egyptian, Mayan, and Hindu traditions.
The religious character of Smith’s work is more subtle. Some of his portraits employ elements of dress and gesture that are reminiscent of the long history of religious icons. For instance, the first painting of Armani, depicts the sitter with their head draped with a pale pink cloth, much like the veiling of the Virgin Mary in many Renaissance portraits of the Madonna.
“Skull on Red”, Patrick Smith
Smith has also called upon religious symbolism in his depictions of skulls, both in portraits, like the one held by Pablo and on their own. Within Catholic imagery, skulls have often appeared at the base of crucifixion scenes to depict the connection between Adam, the first man created by God, and Jesus, his son. Similarly, skulls are prominent in Protestant imagery, specifically in the form of the Vanitas, a genre of still life that was popular in the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries, in which the skull serves as a reminder that material objects cannot transcend the mortal plane and thus faith and good works are essential for transitioning into the afterlife.
Placed side by side, Smith’s and Morgan’s works balance each other out to create a fuller picture of each artists’ respective practice. The overt role of religion in Morgan’s work, for instance, helps to clearly draw out those elements at play within Smith’s. Conversely, the highly legible engagement with performative queerness in Smith’s hyper-realist portraits primes the viewer to read Morgan’s very symbolic assemblages more deeply. The result of this compilation of two different artists with two very distinct practices is ultimately a greater understanding of both artists’ work and the issues they explore. As such, Pangaea, on the whole, illuminates how the differences among artists and their work can ultimately reveal their overall similarities.
The central gallery of the the International Museum of the Horse, situated in the Kentucky Horse Park, is comprised of a single corridor that snakes its way along two floors depicting the historical relationships between horses and humans from the ancient Assyrian chariot horses and jousting steeds of medieval Europe, to the horses that helped move Conestoga wagons westward during the era of Manifest Destiny and the Thoroughbreds that draw millions to the races at Churchill Downs and Keeneland today.
At first glance, this equine inspired institution might not seem like a place to find a deep exploration of the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and systemic white supremacy in the American South, yet punctuating the middle of this sprawling timeline is a new permanent exhibition entitled “Black Horsemen of the Kentucky Turf” that complicates the narrative history on display.
“Black Horsemen of the Kentucky Turf”, installation view, Courtesy The Kentucky Horse Park.
This new installation, which opened April 20, 2018, makes a clear attempt to convey the overlooked contribution of black men and women, both enslaved and free, to the rich horse racing culture of Kentucky and the United States more broadly. Using person-centered language, including multiple narratives, and incorporating strong explanatory notes to help fully contextualize the experiences of the men and women who worked in all elements of this industry, the show addresses the horrific realities of slavery and segregation head on, analyzing the relationship of these practices to the development of horse and racing cultures in Kentucky. As such, the exhibition neither equivocates nor exculpates these institutions and demands viewers to consider the legacy of oppression with regard to contemporary equestrian practices.
One of the ways in which the exhibition faces down the hard history of slavery and segregation in the United States—and specifically in Kentucky horse racing culture—is the emphatic use of “person centered language” throughout the exhibition. More recent scholarship has involved a re-evaluation of the terminology we use to describe the practices of slavery; as Lucy Ferriss notes in a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education: “There’s been a debate about the language of slavery—or slaving, as some writers prefer to call the institution—for several years. The changes that many have proposed […] put the emphasis on the humanity of people who were brought to this continent against their will and forced to work in bondage for generations.”
“Black Horsemen of the Kentucky Turf”, installation view, Courtesy The Kentucky Horse Park.
The curators have embraced this practice in their extensive didactic text, using the term “enslaved persons” instead of “slaves” and emphasizing fullness of the lives of each individual featured; the narrative texts, like those discussing Charles Stewart—who is described as “Farm Manager, Jockey, Horseman, Enslaved”—include the fact of enslavement, as opposed to solely focusing on that element of his lived experience, highlighting the whole human life that Stewart lived, for which slavery was only a single part. While such a gesture could run the risk of minimizing the drastic extent to which enslavement impacted Stewart’s life, the didactic text unabashedly acknowledges that Stewart’s role as a horseman was definitively linked to his experience of enslavement, and includes excerpts from his own biographical narrative from an 1884 edition of Harper’s magazine, a facsimile of which is reproduced below it.
Moreover, Stewart’s narrative is one of many that are included in this exhibition, providing multiple accounts of black men and women’s lived experiences in the Kentucky racing industry during the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. The viewer is immediately presented with the variations of experience in the form of trading cards highlighting eight different figures—Ansel Williamson, Charles Stewart, Harry Lewis, Shelby Pike Barnes, Jimmy Winkfield, Isaac Burns Murphy, Marshall Lilly, and Edward Dudley Brown—that the audience is invited to take upon entering and is entreated to find the corresponding didactic text within the space of the installation.
“Black Horsemen of the Kentucky Turf”, installation view, Courtesy The Kentucky Horse Park.
In addition to these narratives, the exhibition highlights the experiences of several individuals who contributed significantly to black horse culture more generally, including Dudley Allen, who served as the Quartermaster Sargent in the “Colored Cavalry” of the Union Army during the Civil War, and Eliza Carpenter, a formerly enslaved woman who participated in the Oklahoma Land Run of 1893 and expanded the horse and racing industries out West. By presenting various experiences and perspectives, the exhibition avoids the pitfall of tokenism and expands the understanding of the variations that existed within the lives of black men and women living and working during the eras of enslavement and segregation.
Beyond simply presenting multiple personal narratives, the installation contrasts those stories with a considerable amount of historical explication in the form of signs marked “History 101” scattered throughout. These texts directly confront the complicated legacy of white supremacy both in the practice of slavery and the systematic dismantling thereof. For instance, the placard “About the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution,” discusses the reluctance of Kentucky to ratify the 13th Amendment—which ended slavery nationally on December 18, 1865—until 1976, noting that “With the end of the Civil War, increased raids, beatings, and lynchings by vigilante groups made the Bluegrass countryside a dangerous place for the newly freed.” This text, therefore, challenges the common misapprehension that the transition from enslavement to freedom was smooth and beneficial for all, and that Kentucky, as a border state, was only passively invested in maintaining the practice of slavery.
The harsh reality of life for black men and women in enslavement and under Jim Crow is also documented through ephemeral objects and images around the exhibition. Photographs of enslaved people engaged in arduous labor appear alongside many of the tools they used. Images that show the clear dichotomy between the white spectators and the black horsemen who trained and rode the animals during segregation accompany journalistic accounts of the hardships and exploitation that these men faced in an effort to earn a living. Combined with the multiple narratives and the historical explication throughout the installation, these images offer a stark contrast to the celebratory history that exudes from the rest of the museum’s exhibitions.
“Black Horsemen of the Kentucky Turf”, installation view, Courtesy The Kentucky Horse Park.
Yet the curators have clearly gone through great effort to help the viewer experience this confrontation thoughtfully and introspectively. Within the exhibition space itself there are two points where the viewer is asked to reflect upon the information presented. At the “Conversation Station,” for example, the curators have posed the question “Based on the lives of Charles Stewart, Ansel Williamson, and Harry Lewis, do you think black horsemen were as highly revered as the horses they groomed and trained? Why or why not?” and provided the audience with post-it notes and pens to write their responses. The question itself incites the audience to deeply consider the ways in which the practices of slavery worked to dehumanize those in enslavement and how rhetorically and practically a slippage existed between enslaved persons and beasts of burden and the interactive nature of the activity allows the viewer to participate in the conversation that the exhibition is seeking to incite.
Moreover, being the only site in the museum to focus more on the history of humans than the history of horses and focusing solely on the experience of black people, this exhibition does run the risk of reinforcing the aforementioned conflation of African Americans and animals. Yet it is abundantly apparent that the curators were aware of such an historical linkage and thus have carefully provided physical room for reflection helps to unpack the problematic elements of that linkage. This effort, in turn, works to combat that particular issue.
The curators have gone through great lengths to confront the long history of racism in racing culture, providing the audience with a considerable amount of explanatory texts, ephemeral images and documents, and opportunities for reflection to help the audience process the thorough history presented in the space. This exhibition very clearly unearths the hidden history of black men and women within Kentucky horse culture and does so in a way that seeks to valorize their achievements and lived experiences while also confronting the challenges they faced and the legacy of white supremacy that we are still grappling with today.
Spread over three distinct locations, in three different municipalities, the retrospective of Daniel Ludwig’s practice—currently on view at Heike Pickett Galleries in both Versailles and Lexington and at the Georgetown College Art Galleries—presents a multidimensional perspective on the artist’s work over the last 35 years. Working primarily in painting, with a handful of works of sculpture, Ludwig has developed a clear aesthetic that combines elements of “the great art of Europe” with that of American vernacular painting; presented in this distributed fashion, this retrospective offers the viewer the opportunity to ruminate on specific elements of his practice in relation to the totality.
Nestled in a 1792 Federal House just off of Main street, Heike Pickett gallery is a small, independent gallery, open to the public on Friday and Saturday from 11 am to 4 pm or by appointment. Ludwig’s retrospective dominates the main gallery space, comprised of one large room with various alcoves that serve to further divide up the area. The age of the space, which exudes with the creak of every step along the hardwood, stands in stark contrast to the body of work on display, focusing exclusively on Ludwig’s work in the last several years.
Daniel Ludwig, “Graces”, Oil painting, 60″ x 46″, 2017
From this exhibition, it becomes readily apparent how much Ludwig’s recent practice has been informed by a reimagining of canonical themes and motifs. For instance, one of the first images that you encounter is his work Graces, in which Ludwig presents three nude forms—only one of which is identifiably a woman—standing in interconnected poses, with free floating drapery dashed around and between their bodies, clearly alluding to the “three graces” of Greek Mythology and the myriad representations of these figures. Yet Ludwig subverts the conventional depiction of these figures by imbuing the work with a heavy use of arbitrary color, rendering two of the figures in a pale purple, as well as invoking the visual rhetoric of Surrealism by portraying the figures as somewhat translucent, revealing elements of the background landscape through the outlined form of their bodies.
This juxtaposition of many different painting traditions thus offers something altogether new, an illustration of the spectral presence that these historical depictions maintain within the current art world. They make clear to us as viewers the long legacy of art history that the artist must engage with in the name of innovation and provide one indication of the implications of that gesture. Other works in the space similarly engage with this long, Euro-centric art historical convention, making clear that as Ludwig looks back on his own art practice, he is both acutely aware of his personal history and his position as inheritor of the legacy of the European canon. This balancing between old and new, canonical and avant-garde is thus further affirmed by the relationship between the works and the architecture of the gallery.
Heike Pickett: Lexington
Whereas the Versailles gallery is an historic setting, the satellite space at CMW Architects — which is open Monday through Friday from 8 am to 4 pm — is a new, more industrial space. Located in the active offices of an architectural firm, the gallery space comprises of a long corridor, adorned with work on both sides, culminating with a large piece on the wall opposite the hallway at the far end. It is a unique sort of aesthetic experience, one in which the viewer may expect to have their experience interrupted by the sounds of typing or the faint smell of one of the employee’s perfume, all of which, undoubtedly will have some form of impact on their engagement with the work.
Daniel Ludwig, “Figure and Clouds IV”, Oil, 40″ x 30″, 1989
Proceeding through the space you get a greater sense of previous elements of Ludwig’s practice, revealing a different tradition that is prominent throughout his body of work from the middle of his career, specifically the rhetoric of American Realist painting. While Ludwig frequently cites the influence of seeing European Masterpieces during his time abroad in college, it is also abundantly clear in works like Bathers (1989)—which features three nude swimmers wading out in the ocean—the debt that Ludwig’s practice owes to the traditions of artists like Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, and, especially, Edward Hopper. Ludwig’s attention to the light and shadow, and the volume to which he gives his figures combined with a clear painterly quality of his brushwork and the high concentration of color all give the image this sense of a uniquely American experience within a singularly American landscape.
The particularly pastoral character of this work plays off the industrial nature of the space in a way that parallels the viewing experience in Versailles. Yet again the visual elements of the artwork diverge from the setting in which they are immediately found, allowing the viewer to experience the stark character of these scenes through the distinctions and contradictions that emerge in their presentation in this particular site.
Georgetown College Art Gallery:
Whereas the two previous sites have a clearer focus on a particular era of Ludwig’s practice, the exhibition at Georgetown college fits more in line with the traditional retrospective, a fitting gesture given the conventional nature of the gallery space itself. A well-lit white cube in the art building, walking into the Georgetown College Art Gallery, the viewer can expect to engage with the work in a more conventional and academic way. It is only fitting then that this space offers a more comprehensive survey of Ludwig’s practice, highlighting his early career, starting in the mid 1980s and extending to his most recent work.
Daniel Ludwig, “Anne with Necklace”, Oil on Board, 24″ x 16″, 1982,
In this space the viewer can see clearly how elements of European and American painting have always been present in Ludwig’s career, but that the extent to which he engages with one tradition over the other varies at any given moment. For instance, during the 1980s he made very clear references to German Expressionist traditions, such as the almost uncanny parallels between Paula Modersohn-Becker’s 1906 Self-Portrait and Ludwig’s Anne with a Necklace (1982) with regard to color, texture, and composition. At the same time, his more recent works, such as the painting Disfruta, maintain a clear reference to early 20th Century American art, evoking the social realist elements of works by artists like Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and Kentucky’s own Edward Melcarth through the clear depiction of industrial labor and American manufacturing in a manner reminiscent of WPA muralism.
The context of a university gallery thus affords a more academic and historical consideration for his work, preparing the viewer to engage with the full range of his practices through the site specific cues that prime the viewer to approach the art in a particular museological manner.
A Complete Retrospective
Taken as an aggregate, these three galleries do ultimately form a cohesive retrospective and offer the viewer a unique way to consider the life and career of a particular artist. Because it is impossible to see all three shows simultaneously or even within quick succession, the viewer is given a chance to pause and reflect between sites and to consider elements the various narratives surrounding Ludwig’s practice constructed in each space. It is, therefore, a unique viewing experience to construct an understanding of an artist’s work through deliberately stepping away and then back towards his work.
In addition to offering the viewer an opportunity to see concentrated pockets of work and take time to consider the show in each of the three spaces, the distribution of the exhibition across three different gallery sites also means that, more so than in other exhibitions, the experience of the viewer is heavily informed by the order in which they see it. Recognizing this to be the case, my experiences reflect only one possible permutation with which the audience can engage with this exhibition and should be noted as such. Moreover, what is unique about this model of a retrospective is that it presents multiple angles from which one can consider Ludwig’s work, effectively creating a more open curatorial experience through dispersed viewing.
Reference Note: Fowler, Harriet, “Essay,” Daniel Ludwig Retrospective (Georgetown, KY: Georgetown College Art Galleries, 2018) 8.
Nudity and nakedness are complicated and often overlapping concepts in the history of art; while historically, nudity has been associated with heroism, virility, divinity, and confidence, and nakedness considered a state of vulnerability, shame, and lasciviousness, contemporary artists have continually blurred the boundaries between these two concepts, leading to new understandings of the bare human form.
In the Lexington Art League’s exhibition, The Nude: Brutal Beauty, now on view at Loudon House, the connotations of both nudity and nakedness—as well as their points of intersection—are on full display, creating a show that questions the historical provenance of nudity in art, as well as our own understanding of nakedness today. Furthermore, building on the dialectic between nudity and nakedness, the works in this exhibition challenge us to consider other diametrically positioned notions, specifically the distinctions of past/present, West/East, human/animal, internal/external, or dead/alive. The result of the exhibition, which spans two floors and contains work by over 20 artists from around the world, is a thorough survey of many of the complex issues that arise when considering the stripped down human form.
One of the prevalent issues the exhibition examines is how our contemporary understanding of nudity is not only informed by but also challenges that of previous moments. Two artists in particular, James Volkert and Kiana Honarmand, appropriate canonical, art historical portrayals of nudity in order to make comments on the state of the body in art and society more broadly in our current time. For instance, in his piece la beaute, comme la verite: After Courbet, Volkert has appropriated two (in)famous images by 19th century French realist Gustave Courbet, Sleep and L’Origine du Monde, both of which brought scandal upon Parisian society for their frank depiction of women’s sexuality and the sexualized female body. Volkert has placed the works on rotating slats, the handles of which employ another historical nude—the Venus de Milo—and which can be turned to create one of 2048 possible combinations, pointing to the shifting and ever changing conceptions of nudity and nakedness from antiquity to the Victorian era to the present day, a notion further underscored by Volkert’s inclusion of Courbet’s own words: “La beaute, come la verite, depend de l’epoque ou l’on vit” (“Beauty, like truth is relative to the time one lives”).
James Volkert, “la beaute, comme la verite: After Courbet”
Like Volkert, Honarmand also considers the implications of historical nudes on the present moment, but her appropriation of imagery—largely history paintings from the Italian and Northern Renaissance—involves a more direct intervention on the form in an effort to make an explicit comment on contemporary politics, specifically covering over the naked bodies with lines of Farsi poetry, blocks of color and pattern, and, occasionally, sculptural elements, all of which are derived from traditional Iranian art. The resulting covering of these bodies with this kind of imagery is a direct comment on the programs of censorship and modesty in Honarmand’s native Iran. This gesture also calls into question the role of nudity in both Western and Middle Eastern art and society, both historically and in the present.
Kiana Honarmand, “The Birth of Cupid 2”
In addition to attending to temporal and geographic dualities with regard to the nude, the exhibition also sheds light on how nakedness is a defining line between humans, the only species to clothe our bodies, and all other animals. For instance, Canadian artist Jessica Sallay-Carrington’s ceramic pieces, Self-Love, Preening, and her serial works Bits and Pieces 1 & 2, involve a hybridization of animal heads—often derived from more than one species, like the rabbit face and ears, lamb’s neck and goat horns in Bits and Pieces 1 & 2—that rest upon a naked human body. Similarly, in his photolithographs, Bathers and Nora, Lexington-based artist Todd Herzberg also juxtaposes bird heads on human bodies, but in these cases, Herzberg makes clear that the hybridity is merely masquerade, as we can see the eyes of each of the humans peering out through a slit in the bird’s neck. In both artists’ works, however, Herzberg and Sallay-Carrington call attention to the limits of associating human nakedness with animal nudity.
Jessica Sallay-Carrington, “Preening”
Todd Herzberg, “Bathers”
At the same time, other artists explore the very human nature of nakedness, looking at nudity and exposure as a fundamental aspect of our shared experience as a species and as a community. In his photographs The Head and The Body I, Jim Allen juxtaposes anatomical imagery—a diagram of the intracranial structures and of the muscles of the torso, respectively—onto the body of an older man. The result is an exposure not just of the nude body, but of the naked structures that lie beneath it, revealing the viscera that is common to all humans. This gesture thus uncovers that nakedness does not stop at the surface level, highlighting the vulnerability that is implicit in both exposing our bodies internally and externally.
Finally, while Allen’s work calls into question the duality between the internal and external forms of the human anatomy, Vinhay Keo’s work Surge from his series Sanctuary/Purgatory considers the dichotomy between the living body and that of the dead. In this image, Keo, whose body has been painted white, appears splayed out in a white cave partially buried within a mound of shredded paper; his head, arms, and one leg emerge from the pile, giving the appearance of a dismembered corpse in the process of decay. The whiteness of his skin evokes the image of bodies covered in lime that have been found in mass graves at the site of numerous atrocities, further underscoring the idea that this body is, in fact, deceased. Yet the position of the body, the tilt of his head and the haphazard placement of the arms, might also suggest that he is not quite dead, but rather has endured “la petite-mort”—a French euphemism for orgasm—and has fallen back into the embrace of the pile as a result of this ecstasy. This ambiguity thus reveals how nakedness has a connotation of both life and death, especially in considering the body during moments of temporary or complete surrender.
Vinay Keo, “Self-Purgation”
Many other complicated distinctions arise throughout the work within the exhibition, especially when considering the sheer volume of art that it contains. As a survey of the nude in contemporary art, and one that aimed to allow the artists to “present depictions and investigations of their own perspective on the human figure in all its rawness and wonder,” it has certainly succeeded to capture a breadth of different interpretations thereof. The exhibition therefore builds on the long tradition of nudity and nakedness within art history and does so in a way that shows that there are still further avenues to explore even within the most conventional areas of artistic portrayal.