Kevin Nance

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.

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Studio Visit: Lakshmi Sriraman

For nearly two decades, Lakshmi Sriraman was known in Lexington primarily as a teacher and performer of the traditional Indian dance known as Bharatanatyam. This dance uses a strictly coded set of movements, postures, gestures, and eye-shifting facial expressions to tell the stories of ancient India, with themes and lessons still pertinent today. Growing up near Chennai, in southern India, Sriraman (pronounced Shree-RAH-men) had studied the intricate, highly structured style of dance since she was a little girl of 7 or 8, often performing in school programs. “I think I was naturally drawn to dance,” she recalls in an interview at her home near Masterson Station Park in west Lexington. “Anything you taught me, I would do it right then. So I picked it up very fast.” At some point, like most Bharatanatyam students, she was expected to perform a two-hour debut recital, called an arangetram, with a full orchestra. “It literally means ‘ascending the stage,’” she recalls. “But at that time my father said, ‘I don’t have money for this.’ So I quit learning at that time, but I never quit dancing.”

When Sriraman moved to the United States in 1994 to get an MBA at the University of Texas at El Paso, and from there to Atlanta to work as a business consultant, she resumed her dance training and gave her arangetram at the age of 33.

A decade later, after relocating to Lexington with her husband and son, she began performing at venues around town to enthusiastic audiences composed largely of the city’s burgeoning Indian American community, whose parents flocked to Sriraman, begging her to teach their daughters. And so, the Shree School of Dance was born. Suddenly Sriraman was giving weekly lessons in a rented space to as many as 40 girls, young women, and a few older adults from around Kentucky, passing along a 2,000-year-old art form that, although it predates Hinduism by more than a millennium, remains flexible enough to consider startlingly modern topics.

“The kind of subjects that I choose for my dance are anchored in things that I want to talk about – the topic of gender, for instance,” she says. “Gender traditionally is a binary, male or female, but there is an iconographic image in Hinduism that is half man, half woman – half Shakti, half Shiva. The left half is Shakti, the right half is Shiva. There are many layers of understanding and philosophy within that imagery. One of the things it says is that nobody is fully masculine or fully feminine. Whatever your body’s gender is, we all hold energies of both masculine and feminine – the one that’s nurturing, the one that’s doing. To me on a lot of levels it talks about gender fluidity, it talks about the ability of humans to bring forth what’s needed. It cannot be put in a box of masculine or feminine. I use that iconography, then, to frame it, in a way. I’m not proselytizing, I’m not saying this is what it is. I’m asking how do you talk about this? What does this mean to you? What does it awake in you?”

This went on for several years.   Then, about four years ago, two things happened.

The first was that Sriraman accepted, finally, that it was time to stop running a large dance school built around herself as the sole instructor. “The students were thriving, but I was not,” she admits. “For three years I wanted to close my school down, but I couldn’t because I thought I was abandoning all these children, right? I had to take a look at: What is my life’s purpose? Am I furthering my purpose? And I realized that so much of my energy was going into keeping the school running, and I was cutting off a lot of my own creative work. I was constantly tired. And I came to a point where I was resenting it. And I said no, I can’t resent this. This is a great gift in my life, to be able to teach. So I thought it was time to quit with the school, to not do it the way I was doing it.”

The second thing that happened was that Sriraman went to a rock-painting workshop, where she learned the dot painting techniques associated with Australian Aboriginal artists.

“I came home from that workshop,” she says, “and I just couldn’t stop painting.”

***

Sriraman threw herself into the work, quickly making dozens of paintings. Many were inspired by Indian mandalas, using the dotting technique, whose application she found unexpectedly meditative. “I found the practice of dotting a mandala so calming, grounding, balancing. At that time that I was going through a lot of inner changes, including some relationship stuff, and doing the mandalas helped me heal from a lot.”

She was entirely self-taught. “I’ve not had a single class,” she says now. “I’ve just taught myself a lot by watching, by practicing, by working on my own, making mistakes and learning from them. It’s just, How about this? How about that? It’s intuitive, and I’m not following any prescriptive method. And that is very liberating for me, in part because on the one hand, I’m practicing this traditional art of dance that takes years of training [she still has a few private dance students whom she taught, during the pandemic, on Zoom] and on the other hand, I’m totally experimenting with visual art, making it up as I go.”

As with her dance training as a child, her progress as a visual artist was swift. Before long, Sriraman was selected by a jury to participate in the annual Kentucky Crafted art show, “which opened a lot of doors for me,” she says. She began to exhibit her work in galleries. “When I first saw her work in 2018, I was immediately impressed by the beauty and the sincerity and the thought process behind it,” says Mark Johnson, president of Art Inc. Kentucky, a non-profit arts incubator that recently opened a retail gallery, ArtHouse Kentucky, in Lexington’s East End. “Almost from day one, we felt her work was ready to be displayed, in part because it’s so distinct. When you look at her work, you know it’s hers.”

Celeste Lewis, executive director of the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center, was also struck by the sheer velocity of Sriraman’s development. “Lakshmi’s come a long way in a short amount time,” Lewis says. “She’s soaked up so much information just by experimenting with different colors and different textures, and she’s not just experimenting and flailing and falling; she’s experimenting and hitting it hard. As someone who went to art school and spent years trying to hone my craft, it amazes me that she has picked this up and is running with it, like an athlete. No, she doesn’t have years and years of training, but she’s really good. And she has a depth to her work that, to be honest, really surprised me – not because I didn’t think she could do it, but because I thought it would take her longer to get there.”

Lakshmi Sriraman, L to R “Curiosity and Stillness”.

Now Sriraman is among the most-exhibited of Lexington artists, with large- and small-scale work, including paintings, prints, cards, jewelry, and coasters currently or recently on view at ArtHouse, Base249, the Downtown Arts Center’s City Gallery, ArtsPlace, the Kentucky Theatre, the Artique Gallery, and the Kentucky Artisan Center in Berea. The City Gallery plans to mount a solo show of her work in August and September of 2023.

Lakshmi Sriraman, coaster.

“I’m thrilled to death,” Lewis says, “to watch her becoming the visual artist that she is.”

***

Now in her early 50s, Sriraman paints in total silence, on canvases laid flat on the table in the dining room that she has converted into a home studio. “I don’t like to listen to anything when I’m painting,” she says. “I go into the silence and into the process. I have an intent to bring a certain energy to it, but it’s not a concept. I’m not thinking where to place the dots. It’s like tai chi, right? You know the movements so well that you are not in the movement anymore. You are in the space between the movements.”

The movements, in her case, are mainly of two sorts: first, the brushstrokes with which she lays down backgrounds (often black) and large shapes (often red, blue or yellow), and second, the small, delicate, precisely placed dots of acrylic paint extruded from a small tool with a metallic tip. None of this is planned, she says, and that, in turn, is by design. “I don’t think in terms of visual weight,” she says. “I don’t think in terms of balance. I don’t want to visually make those decisions up front. I don’t have a picture in my mind of what it will be. It just all happens as I’m doing it.”

Instead, Sriraman works in a state of mind that she describes as a kind of concentrated presence that is also, paradoxically, a form of absence. This manifests itself in her work as a performer – in which she always leaves room for improvisation, surprises, random discoveries – and as a painter. “I always want to be available to that,” she says. “As a photographer, you know if you go to photograph a wedding, say, and all of a sudden you see this child enjoying her cake. You are not there to photograph that, but that moment is so special, and if you are present, you will be able to photograph it. And to me, painting is like that. If I decide how this painting is going to look right now, I have cut out an immense capacity to create right in that moment, because this is how it’s going to be. I don’t know if this is how it’s going to be. Right now, this is a possibility. Right now, this is an opportunity. Right now, I know that this is a place where I can disengage so that I can engage. And so my work is a purely intuitive process. I go into it, and many times I don’t know what I’ve got until I come back to myself.”

Where do you go, I ask her, that you must come back from?

“I don’t know,” she says, and laughs merrily. “I’m in the dark, mainly. In the dark.”

***

Equally unplanned and mysterious is the matter of imagery in Sriraman’s paintings. The dots line up in serpentine rows like flowerbeds in a garden or, more often, in concentric circles like tree rings or ripples in a lake. They swirl and surge and accumulate, filling the spaces between the bulkier masses in the paintings. Sometimes the dots clump together so densely that they become masses of their own; sometimes they form great spinning whorl shapes like those in the starry night skies of Vincent van Gogh, or stack on top of each other in a way that evokes rock cairns or, as some of her titles suggest, Buddha. Other times they conjure landscapes, often with bodies of water flowing through them – an archipelago in the ocean here, a stream bridged with stepping stones there, or deserts, vaguely reminiscent of Georgia O’Keeffe’s southwestern landscapes. Still other times, they bring to mind fossils and geologic layers at an archaeological dig.

“They seem all very landscapey to me,” Lewis says. “She used to do things that were more spacey-looking, much more cosmic. I saw stars, the moon, the Milky Way. Now it’s gotten much more terra firma. I see a lot of boulders.”

To Sriraman’s eye, while she’s painting, there are almost never skies or galaxies or islands or oceans. “In my mind they are abstract,” she says. “I think the landscape idea is an interpretation of my abstraction. I do not seek to paint landscapes.” The large painting in progress in her studio on the day of our interview features several large red masses suspended in an expanse of black. It makes me think about blood cells passing through an artery, or a solar system of red planets glowing like Mars. It makes me think, too, about the color-field paintings of Mark Rothko, who is said to have had a complex system of meanings and feelings that he associated with different colors, in particular black and red, as dramatized in John Logan’s 2010 Broadway play “Red.”

The red masses in the painting, I say to her, are they stones in a dark lake?

No, she says.

Are they red planets in a night sky?

No.

What are they, then?

“They are red surrounded by black,” she says.

Once the paintings are completed, Sriraman does sometimes give them titles that suggest imagery. One of the most striking “landscapey” works recently on display at Base249, for example, is called “Oasis,” while two other very recent works find her applying the dotting technique to images of leaves.

Lakshmi Sriraman, “Oasis”.

And occasionally, imagery emerges unexpectedly and yet so clearly that even the artist cannot deny it. A large canvas painted in connection with a women’s festival at the Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center, for example, surprised her by manifesting not just communities of women represented by dots, as she had been thinking, but individual women: several of them. “After I painted it, I thought, I see a face looking down,” she recalls. “And then I started seeing a lot of other women’s faces. I did not make these faces, but they started popping up.”

She titled the painting Many Faces.

***

Sriraman’s predominant focus on abstract, non-representational work does not mean that it lacks content, however ineffable and difficult it may be to articulate, or that it’s without context. True, it has few conscious art-historical influences. When people tell her that a painting of hers reminds them of some famous artist’s work, she says, “Who’s that?” “And then I go and google that artist and see, oh yeah, there are a lot of similarities,” she says. “But my work is not intentional that way.” Asked whether the dots are in any way inspired by the work of the pointillist painter Georges Seurat, who employed dots of paint to create masterpieces such as Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-86), Sriraman shakes her head. “From what I’ve seen of his work, he uses dots to create not abstract paintings but landscapes, which is not my intention.”

Lakshmi Sriraman, “Champagne Time”.

So what is Sriraman’s work about? It’s no reduction to say that it’s about her – all that she was and is and is becoming, as an artist, a woman, a feminist, an environmentalist, an activist. “I believe that we’re all inspired by everything that we see and experience,” she says. “I have integrated a lot of the things I have seen.”

These include her increasing involvement with contemporary social issues, such as social justice for women, minorities, and the poor, and the push for diversity and inclusion in many parts of society, in America and her native India, particularly during the pandemic. “So, with COVID, when so many societal structures – structures that we have sort of grown numb to, like how healthcare works – started falling apart, it gave me so much to think about: the paradigm of racism, the paradigm of the haves and the have-nots, all these things on a large scale. How do we as a society deal with these things, how does the culture deal with it, humanity deal with it?”

For example, in southern India where her elderly parents and other relatives still live, she notes that the pandemic has been a disaster that has disproportionately affected migrant construction workers. “A lot of construction stopped during COVID, but the people who hired them made no provisions for them to go back home, so you had millions of people walking for months to reach their home. And many died on the way as well.” Locally, Sriraman recently served on the advisory committee for CivicLex’s new Civic Artist in Residence (CAIR) program, concentrating on ensuring diversity among the selected artists. (You can learn more about the CAIR program elsewhere on UnderMain.) Her Facebook page has many references to activism of several kinds, including social and racial justice and LGBTQ issues.

And if her art is informed by these outward observations of the world, “My work is also inward-looking,” she says. “I’m always looking at what it is that I’m creating, why I’m creating it. So many things made me think of my role in all this, and wondering how I can use my art to ask questions about all this. I don’t have all the answers, obviously. But I’m part of the problem, so I’m trying to be a part of the solution. For me, it starts with asking questions of myself and of others. And I believe that the world I create for myself and for those who I touch, will only be as vibrant as my questions are, is only going to be as deep and meaningful and love-filled and equitable as my questions are.”

Most of all, perhaps, Sriraman’s art expresses her desire for healing – for people, for the planet, for the universe. “When I apply the dots, I think about all the things that need healing, all the things that I’m grateful for,” she says. “For example, I’m grateful for the women in my life – my mother, my sister, my teachers. I think about that woman I met in the grocery store. Or I might think about women who are suffering from breast cancer, or who have lost their child, or whatever it is. I think of all those things and make them into a painting. So it becomes a prayer for healing the feminine. It becomes a prayer for women.”

Her website, https://lakshmisstudio.com/, has several of her early canvases listed in a variety of categories including “Prayer Dots,” “Buddha Dots,” “Frozen Fire Dots” and “Pebbled Dots.” “I need to update my website,” she says with a laugh. “I’ve come to understand that all my dotted paintings are prayer dots.” She compares the intention of her painting process to that of Reiki, a Japanese form of alternative medicine whose practitioners are said to heal their clients by channeling energy through their palms. “I’m not a practitioner of Reiki, so I don’t know,” she says. “But what I do know is that to me, these are prayers that are alive: prayers to God or whoever you recognize, something that’s beyond what we can see. They are my calls for healing to the universe.”

***

As if painting and dance weren’t enough for this multi-faceted artist to juggle, Sriraman spent much of the pandemic year finishing the creation of Neeri, a solo performance piece funded by a grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. Originally intended to be performed live at the University of Kentucky and Berea College, Neeri was instead recorded without an audience at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center’s Black Box Theater and broadcast on Zoom by Berea College in May.

In the part-scripted, part-improvised piece, created in collaboration with the Tamil theater director Srijith Sundaram and the Lexington writer and activist LeTonia Jones, Sriraman takes the stage as an Indian woman who begins by announcing, “I come bearing a river.” When, she wants to know, can she ever put it down, and where? “As long as I’m a woman,” she says, “I’ve been carrying this river.” Neeri – whose name is a version of the Tamil word neer, meaning both water and feminine energy – is at once a specific woman, an Everywoman, and the embodiment of rivers and, more broadly, of nature itself. All are threatened by decision-making processes dominated by men: an imbalance, among other things, of Shiva and Shakti.

Neeri is aware that some consider her ridiculous. “There are many that laugh at me,” she says. “They follow me just to mock me.” She turns on the unseen oppressors, fixes them with a stare. “Stop it!”

Sriraman says now:  “My theater work comes from the space of asking questions of patriarchy. The river is a metaphor for dreams, aspirations, joy, celebration, life itself—of the feminine in this world. It’s also eco-feminism, the literal rivers we are trying to safeguard. Humanity doesn’t take care of these natural resources very well. We take it for granted. So Neeri asks, Where is it safe for me to place this river? When can I just let go and say, okay, the river will flow fully from here on, and I don’t have to take care of it?” She frowns. “These are things that have been stewing in my mind and in my process for a very long time. Who safeguards the interests of those who don’t have a voice? Who stands up for them? Who speaks for them?”

The performance expands to include the Black Lives Matter movement and other social justice themes expressed in spoken-word pieces by Jones, who’s now collaborating with Sriraman on a second creative project for Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) women writers. “There was something magical about hearing my words on Black Lives Matter, for example, as part of a show about a South Asian woman,” Jones says. “It helped me see that the struggles of communities of color are universal. I can’t just pay attention to the oppression that’s happening here in America. I have to see it as global, as transcending boundaries, and it’s Lakshmi’s spirit that does that, connecting women’s voices across race.”

The most electrifying moment in Neeri, as I experienced the video, comes as the protagonist is musing, with mounting anger, about the objectification (and through it the belittling) of women.

“They say women are beautiful,” she says. “Sweet as honey, soft as silk.”

And here she laughs loudly, derisively, bitterly, chillingly.

“I’m beautiful, yes,” she tells us. “But I am so much more than that.”

All Photo Credits: Kevin Nance

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Arts

City Government as a Canvas: Lexington’s Civic Artists in Residence

Three Lexington artists are helping Lexington’s Urban County Government communicate with the public it serves. The Civic Artist in Residence program (CAIR), a yearlong project of CivicLex in partnership with the city and the Bluegrass Community Foundation, has selected their trio of artists. Standup comic and actress Debra F. Faulk, filmmaker Anthony Alex Gilmore, and quilter and textile artist Hannah Allen will work with three different city departments to conceive and execute artistic projects with an emphasis on problem-solving.

Each of the artists – selected by an advisory panel from 56 applicants – will spend the first three months embedded in their city departments, learning about its workings. That will be followed by three months of identifying problems and potential solutions, then by an additional six months to plan and create their artistic projects. “The idea is to use the creative processes that artists uniquely have to try and impact how our city functions, how it engages residents, how it looks at itself,” says Richard Young, executive director of CivicLex, a non-profit group that encourages civic engagement. “They’ll be working with those departments to identify issues and then come up with creative interventions that can address them.”

Faulk, 53, is a professional comedienne with a long history of using theater and comedy to address social issues including racism, gang violence, and drug addiction. She performs across the commonwealth in “Nancy Green: Being Aunt Jemima, the Pancake Queen” as part of Kentucky Humanities’ Chautauqua series. Faulk will be embedded at the Social Services Department’s Family Care Center, which serves teen mothers. Gilmore, 43, is a maker of documentary and fictional films about Asian-American issues and other topics that have been screened at film festivals around the world. He will be focusing his lens on the Department of Environmental Quality and Public Works, which handles waste management, traffic engineering, and other city functions. And Allen, 31, who contributed to the Rita’s Quilt project displayed in Paducah’s National Quilt Museum last year, will be attached to the city’s Finance Department, which manages the city budget.

Each of the artists will work about 15 hours a week and receive a stipend of $15,000, funded primarily by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Although they’re just at the beginning of their discovery period with the city departments, the artists already have ideas starting to percolate in their minds about possible approaches to their work.

Faulk, for example, is keeping her creative options open – her work will clearly involve performance of some kind, but it might be comic or dramatic (or both), scripted or improvised (or both), and may or may not end up on an actual stage – but she’s clear about her primary goals and messages while addressing the unique challenges of very young mothers. “I’m going to be working with these teen moms that have been written off,” she says. “I meet people where they are, and what I want these moms to know, what they end up walking away with after being with me, is that you are worth it, you are worthy, and now let’s come up with a plan. Sit down, Mommy, bring your baby in, and let’s all figure this out.” To that end, she says, she will work with the young women to discover their strengths, and then help them unify and gain greater strength for a common purpose – an approach that’s at the heart of an improv game she invented called Potluck. “I’m good at figuring out what people are good at and then bringing them together,” she says. “If I find that you’re really good at meats, and she’s good at desserts, and he’s good at vegetables, and she’s great with decorating, we can all come to the table and have a fabulous meal.”

For his part, Gilmore expects to make a film, but it could be either documentary or fiction, or possibly something else altogether. “Everyone would be expecting a documentary, but trying to script and shoot a fictional story that deals with real-world problems and things that the community could learn from – I think that would be fascinating,” he says. In the meantime, Gilmore is compiling a running list of creative possibilities, including an innovative approach to the workings of street lights. “I’d have to talk to the engineering team, but I assume that the lights have some sort of control, and one thing that I’ve done many times is projection mapping [a technique that transforms buildings and other objects into display surfaces for video projection]. It might be interesting to have a streetlight light show in different places around the city, maybe with music, with the lights beating to the rhythm of the music. Maybe we bring in some speakers and do a dance party, I don’t know. I think it could be really cool.”

Of the three artists, it’s Allen who’s been given the least obvious city department pairing. “My family and friends have been asking me:  What the hell are you going to do with quilts in the finance department?” she says with a laugh. “But actually a lot of quilting is math – which is hilarious, because I failed every math class I’ve ever taken – and quilting is very graphical in terms of that. I don’t want to be too literal in terms of what I’m trying to do, but remember in grade school you had Tangrams, little plastic shapes that helped you understand fractions? Maybe I could use quilting as a form of that.” Another possibility is a series of quilts that relates to the city budget. “No citizen is going to say, I’m going to go out and read all 1,000 pages of the city budget,” she says. “So how can I graphically and artistically represent the important aspects of that document in an approachable, very cozy, very loving, hospitable manner, rather than a 1,000-page PDF? The budget will be incorporated, somehow, but not the way you would think. I do a lot of fabric manipulation, natural dying, and sometimes include embroidery and traditional textile work. But it won’t be what you think it will be. I don’t even know if I know what it’ll be.”

Civic Artists in Residence, L to R: Hannah Allen, Debra F. Faulk, Tony Gilmore. Photo courtesy of CivicLex.

Lexington’s civic artist residency program is modeled after similar projects in cities and rural areas around the country over the past several years. Those programs have identified and addressed city functions such as the accessibility of public meetings in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the regional planning process in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Other artists have come up with creative responses to social issues such as homelessness. “In one case, the artist worked with folks inside city government to do theater where they put themselves in the position of someone who’s homeless, and actually worked with people in the community that don’t have a home, to deliver services in a better way,” Young says. “The goal is to find a creative way to communicate and connect that takes some of the contention and the formality out of how city government works, a way that’s much more human and more authentic than what our bureaucracy does.”

At this early stage, it’s unclear what form the artists’ works will take, what their messages and audiences might be, and how or whether they will be presented to the public. If the artists end up producing works in traditional formats – a play or an evening of standup comedy in Faulk’s case, a film in Gilmore’s, fabric art pieces in Allen’s – there might be a public performance, a screening, an exhibit. But the end result of the artists’ work could take different forms that might not lend themselves to the usual modes of sharing.

“What might come out of this is a piece of work that people can look at or participate in – that’s one way it could happen – but there are other things that could come out of it, instead,” Young says. “Maybe Hannah’s work with Finance doesn’t take the form of a piece of art. It could be something that is more systemic and throughout the department, maybe a new activity. Maybe Tony will make a film that we can show at the Kentucky Theatre, but maybe it’s not that. Maybe it’s a series of video monologues of different folks across different divisions within the department talking to each other about why they care about their work, or what they’re having trouble with. Maybe Debra will create an actual theater work at the end, or maybe it’s a series of workshops for young moms to help them process the things they’re going through. What we’re trying to do is provide a canvas for these three artists to do what it is they do. Fortunately, we have the kind of relationship with the city that they could accept such a radically open notion.”

Heather Lyons, director of arts and cultural affairs in Mayor Linda Gorton’s office, said she welcomes the artists and their exploratory process. “I don’t think any of us knows what the end result will be, but I’m really delighted by this opportunity for city employees…to benefit from some of the creative input they will get from the artists. I think it could be a deep look at social issues and how city government operates. It’s also a fantastic opportunity for city employees to make the work they do understandable to the community – to communicate what they do and how they do it.”

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Arts

Review: Lock Her Up

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.

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Arts

Studio Visit: Lawrence Tarpey

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.

Images of art courtesy of Institute 193.

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Review: “This is America*” at UK Art Museum

“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.

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Book Review

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

I have.  

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.

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Arts

Melissa Watt: Symmetry Breaking

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.

Melissa Watt, “After You”, 2019, composite photograph, 18.5 x 47.5 inches.

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.

Melissa Watt, “Spring Lamb”, 2016, composite photograph, 18.5 x 37 inches.

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.

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