Kevin Nance is a freelance arts journalist, photographer and poet in Lexington whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, Poets & Writers Magazine and other publications. He's also the host of "Out & About in Kentucky," an LGBTQ newsmagazine show on RadioLex. You can see more of his work at kevinnance.tumblr.com.
Reading Tina Parker’s eerie, shudder-inducing poetry collection Lock Her Up is a bit like walking into a haunted house – not of the kitschy Halloween variety but a real-life chamber of horrors. Based on Parker’s extensive research into the lives of women involuntarily committed to Southwestern State Hospital in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia from 1887 to 1948, Lock Her Up is a brilliant sequence of poems based on patient records from the hospital. (It began life as Southwestern Lunatic Asylum and operates to this day as Southwestern Virginia Mental Health Institute in Marion, Va., not far from the Kentucky state line.) In the book’s timeframe, it’s a dark place of half-stifled cries, thousand-yard stares, grief so inconsolable that it’s taken for madness, and madness that’s both more and less than the inability to recover from trauma. The halls fairly thrum with the whispering voices of the dead, but these are as much remembered as imagined; if the inmates are mad, they came by it honestly. Fundamentalist Christianity, accusations of witchcraft, and sexual jealousy lurk as complicating factors. And the women’s treatment, such as it is, is so misguided – so mired in misogyny and 19th-century notions of “lunacy,” “hysteria” and their purported connection with female anatomy and the menstrual cycle – as to have more in common with torture than benign neglect.
Part bravura historical excavation, part feminist cri de coeur, part Southern Gothic detective story, Lock Her Up – just out from Lexington’s Accents Publishing – is perhaps most unusual for its dramatic cohesion and narrative momentum. Parker, a native of Bristol, Virginia, and now a resident of Berea, is first and foremost a gifted poet, but of how many other books of poetry can you say that it reads like a suspense thriller? Along with rich poetic language and layers of literary texture, there are at least three serious crimes to be pieced together here, in and between the lines, and culprits to be deduced. And so it is that you devour this engrossing book in a single sitting, turning the pages to find out how it ends. It ends with devastation, for the characters and for you.
Most of the poems are spoken by three central characters who, in a postscript, Parker emphasizes as fictitious “in the end,” although it’s fairly obvious that they’re composites of actual people who existed neither long ago nor far away. There is Mattie, a 19-year-old committed by her wealthy father for being “wild, incoherent, frolicsome, and restless.” There’s Rachel, 32, brought in for treatment by her husband and the father of her four young children, including a girl who died, most curiously, from “drinking whiskey and turpentine.” And there’s Emma, an impoverished 55-year-old widow and former seamstress institutionalized by her son, who reports that she “chaws tobacco” and “does nothing but sit with a looking glass in one hand & a brush in the other primping and powdering her face”; later, at the hospital, she spends a good part of her time calling for her shears and sewing needles. (Those and other sharp objects, to which she is “much addicted,” make a shocking reappearance later in the tale.)
There are surprises everywhere, including antique legalisms and medical jargon, as well as a few persona poems narrated not by the women but by the hospital staff in something like the manner of Greek choruses; in two other memorable cases, the speakers are a set of knives and the hospital itself. In the latter poem, “Southwestern Lunatic Asylum,” the building complains bitterly about its inhabitants as if they were giving it a headache:
They walk too heavy Their voices swell my rooms Disturbed Leprous Sick They should know to tiptoe They should know to speak in whispers
Like a mystery novelist busy foreshadowing and laying down clues, Parker seeds the rapidly accruing story (organized in three distinct chapters titled Admission, Treatment, and Release) with a series of small, troubling details that function like poison pills in the narrative’s bloodstream. If you’re paying close attention, you notice, for example, that Mattie’s history involves a “bloodied sheet” and that she was “betrayed by one who ought to have protected me.” You’re disconcerted by the notation on a reconstructed admission form, entered without comment, that Rachel arrived at the hospital not only “filthy” and “covered with vermin” but with her “right jaw swollen.” And it’s startling to learn, late in the book, that not only was Emma widowed at the age of forty “and lost everything,” but that her husband was murdered.
The uncomprehendingly boorish, possibly criminal or at least complicit male relatives of the three women thoroughly indict themselves early on in a poem called “Pleas for Admission”:
Will you take my wife She complains a great deal, but most of her suffering is imaginary Will you take my daughter She is a constant aberration Will you take my mother She has done nothing for the past 10 or 15 years but sit and deplore her condition.
Elsewhere the hospital staff and some of its practices are portrayed in equally damning fashion. Their focus on female genitalia is invasive and unrelenting (“I Measure Time”):
I measure time by the click Of the speculum that shiny Pretty thing (the click click) I count the click As it opens me
In another poem, “One clamped down on his fingers / Another sputtered blood in his face / He swore he’d cure us all with a salt douche” (“Doctor Visits”). In “All the Ones I Do Not See,” the book’s single most horrifying poem, an unidentified speaker or series of speakers tabulates sights (swallowed dolls, leeches used as part of gynecological treatment) that would be perfectly at home in a play at Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol or a novel by the Marquis de Sade. And a poem called “Bath Rules” lists not only common-sense things like “In preparing a Bath the cold water is to be turned on first” but also:
Under no pretext is the Patient’s head to be put under water.
It’s harrowing stuff, intensely dramatic with occasional glints of black comedy, and an unqualified triumph for the author, whose two earlier poetry collections include Mother May I (Sibling Rivalry Press) and Another Offering (Finishing Line Press). I do have a quibble about the occasional unclarity of speakership in the persona poems, in which, especially in the book’s last third, it isn’t always clear from their content or context which of the main characters, if any, is narrating or being referred to by others. In most of these cases, the answers can be worked out, sometimes with considerable effort and conjecture; in others, the events described and attitudes expressed might apply to any or all three women, which is perhaps the point. Each woman represents a type, a narrative strand, a generation of sufferers like herself. But the reader’s sense of groundedness in the unspooling story of Lock Her Up, as the women glide like specters from their in-the-moment realities at the hospital to their memories and fantasies and back again, is one of the book’s chief assets. I wish Parker had taken more care to orient us a bit better here and there, perhaps simply by naming the speakers in each poem, as William Faulkner does in the successive chapters of As I Lay Dying (as opposed to his The Sound and the Fury, which remains an unnecessarily daunting read, I submit, because of its jamming together of multiple, unidentified voices).
Still. Lock Her Up – whose title has obvious contemporary resonance, although this is limited and may be largely coincidental – is a compact masterpiece, easily one of the finest works of Southern and Appalachian literature in any genre that I’ve ever read. Parker is to be saluted for this great achievement, as are the Kentucky Foundation for Women, which funded her research in Virginia, and the Workhouse Poetry Gauntlet, whether the project was nurtured. Get this book ($16 at www.accents-publishing.com). Prepare to be shaken.
The world of Lexington artist Lawrence Tarpey’s paintings is at once dark and macabre, funny and playful. In a typical scene, crowds of strange figures, humanoid or animalistic or both, congregate and chatter; if you were standing among them, you feel, there would be a cacophony of crosstalk, jibberjabber and bleak jokes. They occupy murky landscapes that might serve very well as expressionist stage sets – for the witches in Macbeth, say, or the forlorn clowns of Waiting for Godot – under crepuscular, sepia-toned skies. Some of the creatures seem to grow up out of the ground, bulbous and solid as boulders, while others float overhead, translucent and ethereal like angels or ghosts. They seem to bicker a fair amount, but are more like large extended families than warring clans. Theirs is a shared DNA, monstrous, certainly, but no more monstrous than you or I, and sometimes a good deal less.
In “Lawrence Tarpey: Subconscious States,” the artist’s new solo exhibit at Institute 193 showing works from the past two years, these odd beings are the dramatis personae in various dramas that are constantly afoot. The show, which continues through March 6, includes “Back Seat Driver,” in which a hulking fellow with the paws of a wolf seems to be preventing the passage of a wheeled carriage chauffeured by some near-relative of Daffy Duck. In “A Much Better View,” a host of creatures on land and in the air appears to be eavesdropping on a heated argument, presumably over nothing very important, that has broken out between a trio of hotheads. In “Tic Tac Joe,” the conflict seems more serious, with a bear-like beast squaring off against a man brandishing a knife worthy of Crocodile Dundee. But the high stakes are undercut by another scene playing out at their feet, in which another animal with the face of a reptile serenely chomps a different man’s entire head in the manner of a cow chewing its cud.
Lawrence Tarpey, A Much Better View, 2020, oil and graphite on gessobord, 8 x 10 inches.
Elsewhere the exhibit features at least three different apparent references to settings and elements associated with death, burial, and/or the afterlife. “The Excavators,” featuring a central figure holding a digging tool, is set in what might be an archaeological site or a graveyard. “Catacomb Central,” easily the most visually dark piece in the show, is a Dantesque vision of what could be an ancient underground crypt or, perhaps, a circle of the Inferno itself. On a lighter note, the denizens of “They All Worked Together” include what could be a floating mummy case and a wafting little fellow who could be Casper the Friendly Ghost’s helpful sidekick; if this is the underworld, life goes on here, nonetheless.
Lawrence Tarpey, Catacomb Central, 2021, oil on claybord, 7 x 5 inches.
The alert reader will have spotted a plethora of “seem,” “could be” and “might be” references in the above paragraphs, a mark of how Tarpey’s richly ambiguous paintings refuse to be pinned down. Certainly most if not all specific readings of his work are mostly unintended, at least consciously, by the artist, until well into the process of creating each piece. And even then – despite his suggestive, sometimes cheeky titles, which he describes as “mostly afterthoughts,” conceived quickly and after the fact – he largely leaves interpretation to the viewer, and is fully prepared for the fact that many viewers may interpret the work as darker and more foreboding than he intends.
“I don’t think my art is congruent with my mindset,” Tarpey – a genial, barrel-chested man of 63 who retains the head of dark thick hair and the physical vigor of the punk-rock band frontman he also still is – says in an interview at Institute 193. “A lot of art critics have talked about the mysterious, dark nature of my work, but when I’m making it, I’m not thinking of it that way. I’m just doing what comes naturally to me. Sure, it has a darker palette. But more than a foreboding vibe, I’m almost more interested in conveying humor. Maybe it’s a combination of the two.”
Photo Credit: Kevin Nance
In a tour of the show at the gallery and a subsequent, lengthy Zoom interview, during which we discussed his art, his artistic process and his life, Tarpey repeatedly emphasizes his art’s composition and other formal concerns over its thematic content. It emerges, he says, not from some intellectually pre-planned intention or creative vision but, rather, from his physical art-making process, which involves laying down blobs of dark oil paint and graphite, often with a sponge, on a pristine surface, usually clayboard or gessoed wood panel. He then works and reworks the paint – dabbing, mopping, scraping, scumbling, etching, sanding – until some evocative shapes emerge. At that point, and only then, he begins to develop and evolve those initially amorphous shapes into what have become his trademark human, semi-human, animal and hybrid figures, most of which eventually sprout limbs, heads, faces and, crucially, eyes and mouths.
It’s in that last step, of course, when the creative magic happens. The result is a weird and sometimes wacky dreamscape in which a vast cast of outlandish characters from the artist’s overpopulated subconscious romp, unfettered by reason, rules or anything else except the properties of paint and the typically tight confines of their frames.
But getting there is an intuitive process, not a cerebral one, into which Tarpey chooses not to inquire too closely.
“They just pour out of me,” he says of his frolicking figures and their shadowy stomping grounds. “I have no idea how it happens; I just know when it’s come together. Sometimes that happens right off the bat. Other times there’ll be maybe ten incarnations of a face. I work it and rework it until I go, hey, that’s pretty cool. And I leave that alone. And boom, there it is. There’s no explanation. And that’s what makes it exciting for me, frankly, because I have no idea what’s going to happen.”
Pressed, Tarpey likens his generative process to starting a fire in the woods. “You have to have wood, it has to be dry, and you have to understand friction,” he says. “It’s a process of putting all these elements together to create the fire, the fire being the painting.” Another analogy, he says, can be found in the once-popular childhood pastime of lying on your back looking up at the shape-shifting clouds: “Look, mom, an elephant!”
I suggest to Tarpey that this could be because he’s concerned that if he examined or interrogated the deepest origins of his art-making, it might disrupt his access to his subconscious, where all those little creatures live, waiting to be sprung.
“Exactly,” he says. “You’ve hit the nail on the head.”
Tarpey maintains a home studio in his small house in the west end of downtown Lexington, but he rarely paints there. That activity happens mostly in his living room, sitting comfortably on his sofa, almost always at night, often while watching TV, listening to podcasts or cranking up punk, rock and pop tunes, with occasional forays into the worlds of Frank Sinatra and Count Basie. (It’s a welcome respite from his other job, as a waiter. “When I’m waiting tables, I’m on my feet for eight hours. When I get home and want to work on a painting, I want to sit down,” he says with a laugh.) His favorite painting surface for more than twenty years has been clayboard. “It absorbs the oils, so your drying time is dramatically sped up, but not so sped up that everything sets prematurely,” he explains. “That gives you a nice little window of time where you can work the paint on the surface, scrape, etch, draw.”
In keeping with his free-associational, go-with-the-flow method of allowing his subject matter to materialize from the act of painting itself, Tarpey rarely makes studies. But once the imagery has bubbled up out of the paint, the artist dials in and begins to refine and sculpt the piece, often scratching and scumbling his surfaces with a utility razor of the type used in box-cutting tools. (“I’ve never cut myself,” he reports with a smile.) Generally monochromatic, most of the paintings feature foregrounds and backgrounds rendered in somber earth tones or shades of black and gray that recall the aquatints of Francisco Goya. “Subconscious States” does feature a few more colorful works, but these seem like the exceptions that prove the rule. The finished paintings are sealed in multiple coatings of varnish, giving them a pristine, polished quality that makes these hot-off-the-easel pieces feel like they might have been painted centuries ago.
The artist’s work sells well – he has several highly enthusiastic collectors who own many of his paintings – but that doesn’t seem high on his priority list. “I want people to like my work,” Tarpey says, “but it’s not for everybody, right? I’m not doing equestrian art, beautiful paintings of horses. I don’t have commercial concerns, really. It’s not part of the equation when I’m making art. I’m not thinking, how can I make this more marketable?”
He does make one commercial concession, in the area of size and scale. While he has occasionally painted large pieces, including murals, Tarpey is on balance a committed miniaturist, mostly for practical reasons.
“Large paintings are hard to sell,” he says matter-of-factly. “Sometimes people are intimidated by the size. Plus your material costs shoot up dramatically with large pieces, especially if you’re using good quality oil paint. And then, you know, it’s a matter of space. I live in an 1,100-square-foot house.” Accordingly, most of his paintings, including the ones in “Subconscious States,” are quite small, generally 5×7 inches (which currently sell for about $1,200), not including their bespoke frames, or 8×10 inches ($1,500). “The Excavators” was also included in notBIG(5), a 2019 group show at the M.S. Rezny Studio/Gallery that showcased works no bigger than 12×12 inches including the frame. Tarpey also creates limited editions of similar-sized digital prints, based on scanned bits and pieces of some of his paintings, that sell for $100 or less.
In a seemingly counterintuitive yet perhaps inevitable way, the constrained dimensions of Tarpey’s paintings might be a key factor in their being so heavily populated. In “Subconscious States,” for example, all but two of the works, “Gingus Kong” and “Profiles 2020,” are jam-packed with multiple figures and faces, as if in compensation for their small size.
Lawrence Tarpey, Gingus Kong, 2021, oil and graphite on claybord, 7 x 5 inches.
“The scale is important – he has more ideas per square inch than any artist I know,” says Lexington artist Ron Isaacs, who owns 25 paintings by his friend (“the largest collection of Tarpeys in captivity,” he says) and is, like Tarpey, represented by the Momentum Gallery in Asheville. “There’s so much going on in his work, and so much of it is surprising. I like the wit, the pure invention, the general nuttiness of it. I don’t try to think too hard about what his little figures are doing or feeling, or what the mood is. Of course, I have a high tolerance for ambiguity, and I think he does, too.”
Tarpey’s career as a mostly self-taught artist began when he was 11 or 12, doodling on his beige laminate desktop at Lansdowne Elementary School in Lexington. “That Formica surface was perfect for a No. 2 pencil,” he recalls. “I would sit in the back of class and start drawing on my desk. The bell would ring, and then I’d come back the next day and the drawing would still be there, and I’d keep working on it. Of course, I wasn’t paying attention to whatever the hell was going on in class.”
Over the years, Tarpey kept on doodling – “Sitting in a bar with my buddies drinking beer,” he says, “I’d always be drawing on a napkin” – and the paint application process he uses for his mature work can be seen as a natural evolution of those early desktop drawings. But the journey from there to here was a long and circuitous one, slowed but also shaped by his ADD (attention deficit disorder), which kept him from excelling scholastically, and, he says, by growing up in Lexington in the ’60s and ’70s. “Being in Kentucky, it can be somewhat of a disadvantage, culturally,” he says. “You’re not getting much encouragement, really, and you don’t have the cultural resources that you have in a larger city.”
Tarpey did take a few studio art classes at the University of Kentucky, which he attended briefly, but otherwise relied on subscriptions to Art in America and other art magazines to inform himself about the world of contemporary art. “At one time I thought about applying to the Art Institute of Chicago or the Pratt Institute, but I kind of dropped the ball on that,” he recalls in a wistful tone. “Then I got involved in music when I was in my early 20s, so that took up a lot of my creative time, writing and performing in punk and rock bands.” As a lead singer and lyricist, Tarpey has been a key figure in several bands over the years with names like Active Ingredients, The Resurrected Bloated Floaters, Born Joey and Rabby Feeber, whose music he describes as “aggressive, testosterone-fueled stuff.” His two current outfits, The Yellow Belts and The CRISPRS, have been sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic but hope to begin performing live again later this year. “Here I am, 63 years old,” he says, “and I still love it.”
“One of the reasons I gravitated to punk rock was that it was a democratic expression,” he explains. “A lot of the early punk rock bands, they didn’t even know how to play their instruments – they couldn’t put two chords together. But I just like the DIY, anti-establishment spirit of it. Anybody could start a band.” His process of writing song lyrics, he says, in some ways mirrors and perhaps even influenced his visual art. “The genesis of a lot of my song lyrics is kind of stream-of-consciousness, but then I sit down and actually write, which is where the hard work comes in. A lot of my lyrics are not real literal. They have one foot in reality and one foot in the stratosphere, which makes them a little bit ambiguous.” Just like his paintings, he might have said.
Back to those art magazines. It was in those pages, Tarpey says, where he first encountered many of the artists who influence him to this day. They include Philip Guston, whose oddly stylized figures and jowly faces, often staring balefully out from abstract backgrounds, seem genetically linked to some of Tarpey’s (a good example being “Gingus Kong” at Institute 193). Even more foundational for the artist was the Chicago Imagists painter Jim Nutt, whose antic, often testosterone-fueled work melds surrealism, Pop art and underground comic-book art in a way that made Tarpey feel as if he’d found an artistic forefather.
“I immediately gravitated toward Jim Nutt’s work because it’s hilarious and pristine,” Tarpey says in words that, it strikes me, could be used to describe his own work. “He was one of the first artists that I was really intrigued with, and have been ever since. First of all, I like the bizarre imagery. I kind of gravitate toward psychedelic weirdness, and he checks all the boxes. Plus, the meticulous nature of the way he works. His images are just crazy, but at the same time exquisite; you can tell he spends hundreds of hours on one piece. There’s definitely a cartoony, underground kind of vibe going on in his work, which is another thing that attracted me to it. He’s not a traditionalist at all; he’s made his own path in the art world.”
Today, in addition to Nutt and Guston, Tarpey cites a host of artists as influences, including Hieronymus Bosch, Goya, Picasso, Rothko, Franz Klein, Cy Twombly, Milton Avery, Wayne Thiebaud, Kim Dorland, Matthew Monahan, and Nicole Eisenman. (“She’s in my top 10.”) It’s a telling list, spanning styles and centuries, with all but Rothko bridging and joining the figure with some aspect of abstraction or dreamlike imagery. “My work is always planted in the real world – there’s always recognizable imagery, although it’s mostly expressionistic,” Tarpey says. “At times I’ve tried to go into the world of nonrepresentational, purely abstract painting, but I always have gravitated back toward figuration.”
It was the artist’s combination of expressionism and his interest in the figure that caught the eye of Heike Pickett and her husband, Irwin. Heike is the veteran Central Kentucky art dealer who represented Tarpey for many years at her now-closed galleries in Lexington and Versailles. “We’ve always been drawn to his figurative work,” she says in a recent interview. “It’s a fascinating and very original process that he’s come up with all on his own – the way he doesn’t come up with an idea and then try to express it. He just starts painting, and then things somehow evolve out of that. Subconsciously, I think, he has all this in his head, but it can’t come out until he starts working. It’s extraordinary, like a high form of doodling.”
It’s been a series of short hops, then, from that Formica desktop at Lansdowne Elementary to those napkins in smoky Lexington bars to the pristine white clayboards on Lawrence Tarpey’s sofa. A high form of doodling, out of which comes a universe.
Top Image: Lawrence Tarpey, The Excavators, 2019, oil and graphite on claybord, 5 x 7 inches.
“This is America*” at the University of Kentucky Art Museum makes its first and best move right at the start. As you walk into the gallery from the ticket counter, the first thing you see is a pairing of two artworks whose explosive juxtaposition becomes more and more highly charged as you look at it. On the left is Gilbert Stuart’s iconic portrait of George Washington (c. 1795), so central to the concept of American identity that you probably have a miniature copy of it – on a dollar bill – in your wallet right now. On the right is “George Floyd (Blackout Tuesday),” Michael Wong’s time-release recording of his iPad drawing of the black man killed on video by Minneapolis police this year, setting off social justice protests around the world.
This is America*, wall grouping. L to R, Gilbert Stuart, 1795 (after), ‘Portrait of George Washington (Atheneum Type C)’, oil on panel; and, Michael Wong, 2020, ‘George Floyd (Blackout Tuesday)’, iPad drawing time-lapse recording. Photo credit: Kevin Nance.
It’s impossible not to draw an invisible line between these two Georges. It’s a timeline of sorts, jagged like an EKG, on which we see both how far we’ve come as a nation – which is to say, not very far at all in key respects – and how much farther we have to go. For all its high-flown rhetoric, the American experiment was riddled with contradictions from its inception. The Father of Our Country, so benevolent and wise in Stuart’s portrait, enslaved other humans for over half a century, calling for the abolition of slavery in his later years but never in his lifetime practicing what he preached. (Unlike most of the other founders, he did make arrangements for the emancipation of some of his slaves after his death.) And can anyone doubt that the legacy of slavery includes, on that jagged timeline, what happened to Floyd? As his face – currently rivaling Washington’s in familiarity and symbolic potency – slowly coalesces over and over in Wong’s drawing, we see in it the nation itself stuck in a loop, still engaged in the Sisyphean act of realizing the Pledge of Allegiance’s vision of “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
These are the sort of thoughts you have while viewing “This is America*” (yes, the asterisk is intentional). Shrewdly curated by Museum Director Stuart Horodner, this exhibit packs a considerable aesthetic and political punch, with a mutually illuminating mix of works by nationally known and local artists. According to Horodner’s unsigned wall text, the exhibit was initially envisioned to coincide with the 2020 presidential election but took on additional layers of meaning in light of the protests that erupted worldwide in the wake of the Floyd killing. Dedicated to U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights leader who died in July, the show is a rare opportunity for a museum to respond to events in something like real time, using politically conscious artwork of the recent past to reflect the present and recontextualize the iconographies of earlier American art. This up-to-the-minute aspect of the show, by the way, is reflected in a gesture – the gallery walls have been roughly painted in a way that evokes urban streetscapes, painted-over graffiti and protest art – that may strike some viewers as too clever (or perhaps too half-hearted) for its own good. It’s subtle enough not to do any real harm, however, and effective enough to connect us, however subliminally, to the jarring events still unfolding just outside the pristine white walls of every museum and gallery in America.
Appropriately, much of the art – not all of it, more on that later – focuses on race, racism and the struggle for social justice. Just to the right of the Stuart/Wong pairing is Mike Howard’s massive acrylic painting, “Charlottesville A Crime Scene” (2017), a vivid depiction, almost in the style of graphic novels, of a white supremacist plowing his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of peaceful protesters. (This event, you’ll recall, was made doubly infamous by President Trump’s insistence on there being “very fine people on both sides” of an attempted, partly successful, massacre.) It hardly needs saying how relevant this event continues to be in this country, how long a shadow it still casts. Yes, this is America. Making your way along the gallery to the right, you find yourself confronting a magnificent trio of iconic pieces: Gordon Parks’ photograph “Invisible Man, Harlem, New York” (1952), Frank Weathers Long’s woodcut “John Henry” (1941), and David Alfaro Siqueiros’s lithograph “Dama negra” (“Black Woman,” 1935), all of which capture aspects, concrete and ineffable, of the black experience. These too are America, this and this and this.
This is America*, gallery wall view. Mike Howard, 2017, ‘Charlottesville A Crime Scene’, acrylic on canvas. Photo credit: Kevin Nance.
Across the gallery on the facing wall is another striking lineup of works that Horodner has placed together, like the host of a formal dinner with assigned seats at the table, in lively, fruitful, perhaps heated dialogue. To consider John Wesley’s eerily vacant “Portrait of Daniel Boone” (1962) in the same field of vision with Andy Warhol’s “Cowboys and Indians (Sitting Bull)” (1986) is to traverse an art-historical Trail of Tears, the myth of American exceptionalism colliding with the reality (to borrow another Trump phrase, uttered in a different context) of American carnage. Two smaller works that separate Boone from Sitting Bull – “Flag” (2003), Bulgarian-American artist Daniel Bozhkov’s video of an immigrant answering citizenship questions, and “I Pose Problems” (2010) by the writer-turned-painter Wayne Koestenbaum, known for his literary explorations of LGBTQ identity – reinforce the show’s overall conception of a national chorus of multiple voices crying out, meekly or angrily or stoically, to be heard.
This is America*, wall grouping. L to R, John Wesley, ‘Portrait of Daniel Boone’, oil on canvas; and, Daniel Bozhkov, 2003, ‘Flag’, single channel video; and, Wayne Koestenbaum, 2010, ‘I Pose Problems’, acrylic on canvas; and, Andy Warhol, 1986, ‘Cowboys and Indians (Sitting Bull)’, screenprint on Lenox Musuem Board. Photo Credit: Kevin Nance.
“This is America*,” like the country it seeks to define, is far from perfect, demographically speaking. Women’s voices are egregiously underrepresented in this chorus. Most galling is the fact that two of the best pieces in the show by artists of either gender – Barbara Kruger’s prophetic “We Will No Longer Be Seen And Not Heard” portfolio (1985) and Carolyn Young Hisel’s electrifying deathbed scene “Passage” (1987) – hang not in the main gallery but in an outer hallway next to the elevator. They deserved better. Then there’s the matter of the physical and thematic overstuffing of the show, which seems to want to include everything and the kitchen sink, too, including “Pieces of String Too Short to Save” (1998), Donald Lipski’s sledgehammer indictment of American wastefulness, and Joseph Peragine’s “Hand” (2010), a series of four oil paintings depicting hand-washing. The Peragine paintings now seem prescient in light of the coronavirus pandemic, among other things, but their cumulative effect is diluted by the puzzling decision to break them into two pairs hung on different walls.
On balance, however, “This is America*” (which continues through February 13) is a powerful dot-connecting mechanism, showing, as the best museum exhibits do, how works of art speak not only to us but to each other, and how we can benefit from eavesdropping on those conversations. We see Sheldon Tapley’s tranquil street scene “Midwestern Alley” (1987), for example, in a new way when it’s paired with Elliott Erwitt’s photograph “Segregated Water Fountains, North Carolina” (1950). There’s much to be gained, as well, from the non-hierarchical display of works by Kentucky artists – including Tapley, Hisel, John Lackey, Louis Zoellar Bickett, Frank X Walker and others – alongside some of the biggest names in American art, past and present. If the hairs on your forearms prickle at various points along the way as mine did, it’s a sign, I think, that (a) you’re alive and (b) this is an unusually fine art show. My advice is to go and see it.
Top Image: Sheldon Tapley, 1987, Midwestern Alley, pastel on Stonehenge paper. Courtesy of UK Art Museum.
“This is America*”, curated by Stuart Horodner at the University of Kentucky Art Museum, is on exhibit through February 13, 2021. More information is at https://finearts.uky.edu/art-museum.
Some poets spend most of their writing lives searching for the subject matter that is theirs alone. Others find it early on – or perhaps it finds them. There’s no guarantee, of course, that anything special will come of such a meeting. Recognizing your own material only takes you so far. What matters more, in the end, is what you do with it.
Photo by Kevin Nance
In Horsepower, her prize-winning debut poetry collection just out from the University of Pittsburgh Press, the Kentucky poet Joy Priest hasn’t just seen, perhaps earlier than most of her contemporaries, what is uniquely hers: the story of her life as a biracial child and young woman in racially divided Louisville and beyond. She has also seized and shaped it, revealing the ways in which her personal history, as specific as it is, dovetails and resonates with that of Kentucky’s horse culture and of America itself. Winner of the Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, given by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs and judged by former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, Horsepower is the harrowing yet luminous testament of a young woman whose life has unfolded smack on the very fault line of America’s racial divide. Restlessly she crosses it back and forth from both directions, absorbing its tectonic shifts and quakes, and lives to tell the tale.
Joy Priest at Churchill Downs, photo by Kevin Nance
She tells it with passion, ferocity and considerable skill. As we learn in the title poem that serves as prologue and prophecy in this collection that unspools with some of the ironic force of Greek tragedy, it begins with a little girl raised by a single white mother and grandfather in a working-class neighborhood across the street from the backside of Churchill Downs, “the twin steeples / & emerald roofs just past / our garage, // a horse practicing / its start out of the gate.” She grows up amid the scent of the stables and the distant gabbling of racing announcers, reeling in customers looking for yard parking on Derby Day. But
Beyond the spires
is a larger world I do not know
exists. A mile west, in my line
of vision, is a family
I do not know
That family is headed by her black father, whose existence, including his race, has been kept from the girl on the orders of her racist “pappaw” who, armed with a nightstick and “a many-chambered gun,” has turned her father away for years. In “Winning Colors, 1988” – the book’s thrilling high point, featuring the triumph of the filly who galloped away with the Kentucky Derby the year of the poet’s birth (an event memorialized, as I know from interviewing Priest for an article last year, in a tattoo on her forearm) – we learn the racially fraught backstory of the speaker’s birth. And in “My Father Teaches Me to Slip Away,” the volume’s dramatic centerpiece and turning point, father and daughter are reunited, all but accidentally, when her mother runs into her former lover in a Louisville video shop. That night, a black man she closely resembles knocks on the door. “Your father, this is your father,” her mother says, pushing her over the threshold onto the porch. “When I step into him & look back at my mother, she // Is on the other side.”
It’s a gripping story – the narrative spine, I suspect, of a bestselling memoir waiting to happen – but it hardly ends there. The reunion of daughter and father, and her transition into his extended family and their mostly black milieu in West Louisville, only begins the long, difficult process of her education in the ways and means of survival in a world she is now on the business end of. In poem after poem, the speaker reenacts the discovery and assembly of pieces of herself – her history and heritage, her ancestors living and dead – that had been hidden from her for the worst of reasons. (In the virtuosic “Abecedarian for Alzheimer’s,” she revisits her much-changed pappaw, who near the end of his life is “forgetting // to hate us, to put his white hood on every day” and taking a black girlfriend, a stripper named Angel who fascinates crowds of white men with her “kaleidoscope of color contacts & quick weave” and her “equine” legs, into his house.)
What follows, chronologically speaking, is a troubled adjustment period in which the speaker struggles to navigate through a world full of racial, sexual and economic pitfalls that she’s always getting caught up in, running away from and sometimes returning to. (This often happens behind the wheel of big American automobiles, muscle cars or junkers, mechanisms of shelter and escape whose names – Chevelle, Oldsmobile, Cutlass Supreme – have a kind of talismanic juice here that underlines the book title’s double meaning.) The dramatic situations in many of the resulting poems are hazy, shifting, fugitive, sometimes to a fault; the reader spends much of Horsepower stumbling about in an unstable landscape of memory that evokes something like the fog of war. What’s going on and when and where, in particular who’s doing what to whom and why, aren’t always easy to follow. The scorching clarity of the book’s central poems breaks down a bit here, although Priest does provide notes to many of the poems at the back of the book; consulting these in advance will save the reader some measure of head-scratching.
On the other hand, the poet’s sometimes skimpy scene-setting seems to be by design. Perhaps strategically, she preserves the fragmentary quality of her memories – which are often quite grim, with references to guns, sexual assault and drug use – even as she patches them together in lines that are by turns sinuous, elegant and gritty. (She consistently swaps out the word and with an ampersand, which can be interpreted as a declaration of membership in a lineage that includes, among others, one of her mentors, former Lexington-based poet Nikky Finney, who oversaw Priest’s work as a graduate student at the University of South Carolina.) In “The Payphone,” Priest provides something of an ars poetica: “I am obsessed with
What’s phantom: the younger self;
The angry & agile body, starved & able
To consume indiscriminately;
The gently-pumping vein.
The portrait that emerges powerfully from this welter of words, memory and imagery is of a fiercely questing poet who isn’t content to exhume the skeleton of her hardscrabble past at the mercy of historical forces that have little mercy to spare, especially for young black women. In Horsepower, Joy Priest breathes imaginative life into the bones of her past and leads it, like a prize filly, onto the sloppy track of American poetry, where it explodes from the gate.
It’s tempting to walk into Symmetry Breaking, a small but richly ambiguous exhibit of photo collages by the gifted Lexington photographer Melissa Watt at Institute 193, expecting it to be more about style than substance. Watt’s virtuosity with computer software and her apparently compulsive attention to detail in these heavily layered images might have called so much attention to themselves that we could have been forgiven for missing the forest for the digital trees.
It doesn’t, hasn’t, turned out that way. Although we’re aware that the show (in which Watt is continually sampling, inverting, repositioning, overlaying and otherwise obsessively manipulating her photography) is the product of an elaborate, no doubt intensely cerebral process, said process is not what the show is about. It has many things on its mind other than its own making.
What those things might be, viewers must determine on their own, not least because the artist herself offers nothing remotely like an explication. (Consistent with Institute 193’s practice, there are no wall labels – a mistake, I think, as Watt’s witty titles do sometimes contain small, valuable clues; nor does she offer an artist’s statement.) This is less problematic than it might seem, however, since there are so many possibilities to choose from.
One obvious place to start is telegraphed in the show’s title. The mirroring of duplicated and/or flipped elements in the pieces is saved from the status of a gimmick by the fact that Watt is always setting us up to expect the images to be perfectly symmetrical and then impishly, perhaps gleefully thwarting that expectation. The effect of having that optical rug pulled out from beneath us so regularly is to make us look harder at every element, searching for things that don’t face its twin across the median of the frame.
But this cat-and-mouse game that the artist is playing with us may be a bit of a feint. Watt is less interested in smoke and mirrors, it seems to me, than in setting up odd scenarios that feel like premises (or in some cases aftermaths) of eerie, dark, perhaps darkly comic fantasies that carry some of the dreamlike potency of fables and magic-realist folklore. She’s a storyteller, finally, or at least a suggester of stories – a fabulist who gets the tale started, then sends you off to finish it on your own.
In a collage called “After You” (2019), for example, two great blue herons – the same heron, fairly obviously, only cloned and flipped by Watt’s digital wizardry (though not entirely; notice, as the artist wants you to, the slightly different angle of the two heads, the two hungry, spearing beaks) – seem locked in a staring contest. The prize laid out between them, as if on a buffet table, is a small fish, not dull gold like the common koi underfoot but a delicate silver morsel, perfect for swallowing whole. After you, my ass. This is winner-take-all.
Or not. The above flight of fancy is just one possible interpretation of the piece. It might evoke, like Leonardo’s The Vitruvian Man, ancient notions of balance and, yes, symmetry. It might be an Orwellian allegory of nature’s cruel, sacred circle of life. It might be some form of self-dramatization by the artist, in something like the vein of Cindy Sherman, Anthony Goicolea, or that other Central Kentucky photo-collage artist named Melissa (Melissa Hall), except with animal avatars instead of human ones. It might be an oblique passion play – the crucified Christ (symbolized for centuries as a fish) lying on a slab, attended by winged angels – or an even more oblique reenactment of the Christian sacrament. Eat, this is my body.
If these interpretations sound far-fetched, they’re unmistakably reinforced – chillingly or amusingly (or perhaps both at once), depending on your perspective – in two other pieces in the show. “Spring Lamb” (2016) features another altar of sorts, upon which three lamb heads appear to have been flayed and arranged like delicacies on a plate in a fine-dining restaurant. Religious rites and symbols, including the burnt offerings of Abraham and the Lamb of God, come inexorably to mind.
Melissa Watt, “Meanwhile, the World Goes On”, 2019, composite photograph, 18.5 x 43.5 inches.
Then there’s my favorite piece in this group, “Meanwhile, the World Goes On” (2019), in which a dead opossum is ritualistically, perhaps ominously surrounded by a semicircle of chickens. The hens are doubled (plus one) in Watt’s usual symmetrical/asymmetrical manner, but that’s the least interesting thing about the picture. The mind – at least my mind – reels at the narrative and dramatic possibilities of the scene. Was the opossum shot as an intruder, and if so by whom? Was it murdered with malice aforethought? Was it sacrificed as an offering to the dark poultry gods? Is this a vigil of some sort, at the end of which the opossum will ascend to the heavens, leaving his flock astonished, awaiting a second coming?
You think these responses are over the top? I refer you back to the pictures.
In the end, of course, the artist’s intent is less important than what we make of what’s in front of us here, which is plenty. Certainly the works in Symmetry Breaking are not merely decorative pieces, despite the many ways they ravish the eye. They’re most assuredly not empty exercises in digitally manipulated photography. Their visual density and resonant webs of symbols invite not just interpretation – in something like the way objects in commissioned portraits from the Renaissance tell us about their human subjects – but multiple, sometimes simultaneous interpretations. That’s one of the overall show’s chief strengths, though not its only one.
Melissa Watt, “Monkey in the Pawpaws”, 2019, composite photograph, 18.5 x 47 inches.
Another pleasure the artist offers us here, for example, is the opportunity to register her echoes of various threads and periods of art history, from 17th-century Dutch and Flemish still-life paintings of dead game animals and fish waiting for the stew pot to the koi ponds and water lilies of ancient China and feudal Japan. The emphasis on the sky’s reflection on a pond’s surface in “After You” seems to locate us in a funhouse version of Monet’s home in Giverny. The grinning beast with bloody teeth in “Monkey in the Pawpaws” (2019) seems like a descendant of Henri Rousseau’s jungle critters. And the intricately cloned and mirrored borders that frame each piece in the show bring with them musty whiffs of fairytale book illustrations, which have a way of fostering the romantic and/or gothic atmospheres of the pictures, and of medieval illuminated manuscripts, which may nudge some viewers in ecclesiastical directions.
Watt has expanded and extended those ornate borders in vertical elements affixed to the wall behind most of the pictures at Institute 193. In a much larger exhibit space, this might have been a coup de théâtre, an amplification of the decorative aspect of these images in multiple dimensions. As it is, these secondary elements threaten to overwhelm the main events they’re meant to enhance, not to mention the small gallery itself. They overstate, unnecessarily so, what is already abundantly clear: that Symmetry Breaking is one of the best art shows Lexington has seen in quite a long time.
“Melissa Watt: Symmetry Breaking” continues through September 30 at Institute 193, 193 North Limestone Street in Lexington.