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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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.

Arts

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.

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.