Peter Morrin is a former director of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville and the University of Louisville’s Center for Arts and Culture Partnerships. He is Co-Director of Afloat: An Ohio River Way of Life.
Kehinde Wiley, ‘Barack Obama’, 2018, Photo by author
In a 2005 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the artist and educator Laurie Fendrich argued that portraiture was dead in the 21st Century.Fendrich observed that in the western tradition the portrait was a pictorial means of trying to “get at and then hold onto the very soul of a person.” And certainly since late Roman sculpture the human head has been widely considered the supreme embodiment of psychic life. Fendrich notes the loss of faith in that notion, that a face could convey a profound sense of the sitter’s psychological being: “Sigmund Freud, of course, put the lie to that idea, and after him, it was pretty well killed and buried by Michel Foucault. The idea of portraiture as a mirror of the soul could survive neither Freud’s theory of repression (by which people hide who they really are even from themselves) nor Foucault’s later contention that a person’s identity is always historically contingent and continuously in flux.”
For Fendrich, “the faces in modern and contemporary portraits lean towards distortion because artists have peered at them through the fractured lens of modern anxiety and uncertainty about what can be known.” Similarly, Ezra Pound bemoaned the loss of classical equipoise: “The age demanded an image / of its accelerated grimace.” We have been served that brilliantly by Francis Bacon, Willem deKooning, Peter Saul, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank and many others.
But literally and figuratively, portraiture has now been revivified.A reappraisal of recent portraits would include giving due to the progenitor, Andy Warhol, the court painter to established and would-be reputations in the late 20th Century.Eliminating the quest for interiority provided profound insights into our age and its obsession with celebrity, and offered an acute awareness of the dichotomy between public and private selves. Ironically, Warhol’s best work negating inner psychological being led to a reaffirmation of the fragile human vulnerability of his subjects.
We live in an age in which coming to terms with issues of identity lead to extreme measures. Cary Grant remarked, “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant.Even I want to be Cary Grant.” Seeking to “rid himself of all hypocrisies,” Grant tried yoga, hypnotism and conventional therapies, before turning to LSD. One hundred acid trips later he was finally happy and “got to where I wanted to go.”
The renewed relevance of portraiture and its role in coming to terms with issues of identity is a repudiation of the abstract enterprise of the 20th Century, and a hallmark of the current urgent call for greater inclusivity in our national art.
Kehinde Wiley’s Barack Obama is a work that fulfills these new roles, and illuminates and is illuminated by its historical context. And, one might add, by its physical context in the National Portrait Gallery. I had a yearlong fellowship at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which shares the Old Patent Office building with the National Portrait Gallery. Every day I made it my habit to walk to lunch by way of the portrait galleries.I wanted to believe in the heroic stature of the subjects but mostly found it impossible. I did find credible and affecting Winold Reiss’s depiction of the educator and civil rights pioneer Mary Bethune. It is now off-view, a little too Aunt Jemima-ish for contemporary taste. Mary Bethune stood out for many reasons, not least because the Gallery pictures are mostly pale and male.
Wiley’s competition of the past 150 years is pretty thin.The only one who might remotely seem like someone to have a beer with is Grover Cleveland (1885-1889 and 1893-1897) by the great Anders Zorn, a Swedish rival to John Singer Sargent. President Cleveland is shown as a comfortably paunchy guy, seemingly open to an informal chat over a couple of PBRs. (Sargent’s great image of Teddy Roosevelt is in the White House, not with the other presidential likenesses.) Norman Rockwell’s Richard Nixon succeeds because it doesn’t aspire to be more than a TIME Magazine cover. He looks wise or devious, depending on your point of view. George H. W. Bush is shown in the White House, as if it were a stand-in for a Houston country club, denoting nothing so much as landed privilege. Bill Clinton, (1993-2001), in a mauvish-blue shirt, has a red Joe Palooka nose, so the artist, Nelson Shanks, gets credit for an honest likeness. That depiction is rotated with a more successful Chuck Close portrait. We see George W. Bush (2001-2009) in a room at Camp David with an odd assortment of furniture somewhat haphazardly shown behind his painfully painted-from-a-photograph, jacket-less, tie-less, good-guy dude smile. It rivals the Shanks Clinton portrait for goofiness.
Kehinde Wiley has mastered and reinvented the rhetoric of the presidential portrait. In doing so, he had a variety of problems to solve:
How do you know it is the past president?
Wiley sits Obama in a White House-ish antique chair (actually invented and not based on a real piece of furniture). The warm brown tones of the chair and its inlay rhyme with the color of the President’s skin, identifying him with the White House. And, duh, of course the painting is also in the American Presidents area of the National Portrait Gallery and was painted for that location. Intriguingly, were the picture not there and the sitter unknown, the authority of the office holder would not at all be apparent.
How does Wiley depict leadership?
Most presidential portraits have direct gazes towards the viewer (an exception – LBJ 1963-1969 peers off into the future). Gravitas and steely resolve have been the coin of the realm for most presidential portraits. In contrast, Wiley shows Obama leaning forward as if listening intently, fully present to his interlocutor. In Leadership in Perilous Times, Doris Kearns Goodwin asserts that the key presidential qualities are humility, acknowledging errors, shouldering blame, learning from mistakes, leadership in perilous times, empathy, resilience, collaboration, connecting with people and controlling unproductive emotions. These are predominantly listening and seeking-counsel practices, so Obama in the guise of someone listening hard signals a shift from older command and control versions of executive authority.
How does Wiley portray the public face of power?
The brilliance of Kehinde Wiley’s solution is to avoid that altogether and to also downplay the parts of the physiognomy that convey emotion, aside from a slight furrowing of Obama’s brow. Instead, we have a self-possessed man with crossed arms, sitting on the edge of a chair. The head and hands are slightly oversized to convey intellect and capacity for action. His body is turned subtly to the right, which helps the sense of projection forward of his full-on gaze. One looks up at the president, whose head is in the upper third of the seven-foot-tall painting. Public concern and private possession are held in balance.
How does Wiley overcome the insipid POTUS style?
No doubt the dullness of the modern business suit is a downer for contemporary portraitists, and presidential settings for portraits are often neutral or corporate boardroom bland.Obama does wear a standard issue, regulation black suit and an open-necked white shirt. Kehinde Wiley’s most brilliant invention is to embed Obama in a bower of flowers that provide a floral biography:African blue lilies reference Kenya, his father’s birthplace; jasmine stands for Hawaii, where Obama himself was born; the official flower of Chicago, chrysanthemums, denote the city where he met his wife and began his political career. The plants engulf him and the chair. Flowers have many symbolic meanings, but their season is spring, traditionally a time of hope and rebirth. The floral background thereby becomes analogous to Shepard Fairey’s 2008 Hope poster. Obama becomes a center of gravity in this insubstantial, floral field. Wiley’s Ingres-like linearity and precise realism lend credibility and a note of authenticity. Meticulous realism – every vein in every leaf – then becomes a stratagem to convey conviction and acuity of vision. In his 1976 book, Escape from Evil, Pulitzer Prize-winning anthropologist Ernest Becker claims that faces and heads “stick out” expressing and exposing individuality. In this painting the floral field has a mitigating effect, so that nature – and perhaps by extension the threat of global warming – share attention with the leader who, like the rest of us, is subject to circumstances beyond our control.In the end, our commonality in the human community is Wiley’s most potent message.
Centre College professor Steve Powell had an extraordinary range of devotions – to his family, to his art, to his students, to a wide circle of friends, to his craft, to his sense of fun and, perhaps, to a sheerly extravagant expenditure of energy for its own sake. One winter he planted 20,000 saplings around his hilltop home. On another occasion he trucked in 150 tons of sand to create a beach on a small Kentucky pond. It was way too small for jet-skis, but short-tracking around the pond happened anyway, and in one legendary instance, a jet-ski and rider departed from the water and careened across the ground. Friends recall that Powell read many books, but only the first 100 pages – impatience caught up with him. Powell transformed a sizable former Coca-Cola bottling plant into an office and studio, indoor basketball half-court, pool hall, archive of Coke memorabilia, a gallery and hot shop for glass art, a shower with nine hand-blown glass nozzles, and a setting for his nine-piece set of drums. His death on March 16th of this year deprives Kentucky of one of its most talented artists and most vivid and beloved personalities, a man with a genius for wholeheartedly giving of himself.
Display of Stephen Powell’s work titled ‘Echoes’ at the Visitor’s Center at Maker’s Mark, Loretto, Kentucky.
At a memorial service at Centre College on September 21st and in a video by Pam Powell, Steve’s sister, speaker after speaker attested to the sense of privilege felt by everyone around the sculptor – colleagues, students, friends, family and fellow tennis and poker players.
For Powell student and University of Louisville glass professor Ché Rhodes, Powell’s greatest contribution to his students’ development was “his inability to see impossibility,” and for Father Norman Fischer, “it was allowing his students to soar.” For Stephen Cox, “in the most basic form, we were family and we were friends, which in itself, being separated by more than three decades in age, is a testament to Steve’s ability to remain fresh in almost every aspect of the word.”
Stephen Powell was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on November 26, 1951. His mother, Anne Hettrick Powell, was active in cultural and civic organizations, a university administrator and a lifelong member of Birmingham’s Episcopalian Church of the Advent, a downtown parish in the forefront of support for civil rights in the 1960s. His father was Arnold Francis Powell, playwright, chair of the Speech and Drama Department at Birmingham Southern College for 31 years, and a powerful force in Southeastern theater. There are many parallels between father and son: both were dedicated to the avant-garde, both excelled at fostering creative ensembles, both were extremely industrious, both returned to their alma maters to teach, and both were adulated by their students. Arnold Powell, nicknamed “Dr. God” by drama majors, eventually ran afoul of his college’s administration, which admonished him to eschew the cutting edge plays he favored, and to place “less emphasis in future on violence, sex and gutter language.” A breaking point came to the traditionally Methodist liberal arts college when, in a production of Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers, an undergraduate actress appeared in her underwear. “I was called down for it,” retorted the senior Powell, “but in the original she’s supposed to be nude.” The college denied it had exercised censorship, but Arnold Francis Powell successfully sued the college for wrongful termination.
I wrote an essay for the catalogue of the 2012 retrospective exhibition of Powell’s art, “Psychedelic Mania: Stephen Rolfe Powell’s Dance with Glass” at the Montgomery Museum of Art. My essay was entitled Wittgenstein, the Allman Brothers and the Countercultural South: Reflections on the Art of Stephen Powell. I took off from philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’ very readable set of musings, “Remarks on Colour,” essentially making the point that color defies any ordered system of logic. Beyond an obsession with color, I described the musicality of Powell’s art, the athleticism and similarity to performance art in its making, its theatricality, dependence on chance, and its counterculture re-casting of Southern masculine identity. Steve was polite enough to not tell me I was full of it.
One of Stephen Powell’s series titled ‘Zoomers’ on view at the Visitor’s Center at Maker’s Mark, Loretto, Kentucky.
Stephen Powell displayed an Alabaman’s dedication to the Crimson Tide and to Southern traditions of gentlemanly courtesy and hospitality, and to restorative justice: in lieu of wedding presents, Steve and Shelly asked guests to make a donation to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Heritage, too, played a part in his musical tastes, which were widely eclectic, but favored “road scholars,” southern country rock practitioners like the Allman Brothers Band, whose music was deprecated as “swamp music” when it first came to public notice in the late 1960s. Fueled by dual drummers and twin lead guitars, the Allman Brothers’ hard-driving rock provided a sound track for many glass blowing sessions, but more particularly its percussive rhythms seem an apt metaphor for the pulsating rhythms Powell achieved with globules of vivid colors – yellow, orange, and violet, for example – playing against sub-units of blues and greens, with smaller dashes providing a syncopated counterpoint of mauve ovals, and sunbursts of purple: Powell played with variations of slow to fast tempos, a wide chromatic scale, and polyphonic harmonics across the spectrum.
Powell’s art was a continuous drive to discover heightened means to ever more enrapturing, effulgent experiences of color. His drive was to transform light into color, color into light, as if it his works were colored atmosphere and solid simultaneously. Color and form are inseparable in Powell’s very personal language of abstraction. His artistic evolution was a virtuous circle of invention and technical expertise feeding artistic expression, in turn fostering additional craftsmanly and technical exploration. His five major series of glass forms – Teasers, Whackos, Screamers, Echoes and Zoomers – all challenge the limits of their medium, and are genuinely innovative as glass, but perhaps have been mistakenly pigeon-holed solely as glass art. Powell was foremost an abstract sculptor concerned with color and movement: his delightfully individual and eccentric inventions of compelling formats for a rhapsodic experience of color may be his lasting contribution.
One of Stephen Powell’s “Zoomers” at the Visitor’s Center at Maker’s Mark, Loretto, Kentucky.
Powell’s last series were called Zoomers – panels of glass often curved to be free-standing. Described as an enlarged version of the murrini of colored glass in earlier work, the Zoomers are sheer chromatic energy, great bursts and spiral novae of color. The play of order versus chaos, so much a part of Powell’s process, is alive in these works. They evoke life at its most elemental, amoebic level.
A survey of Stephen Powell’s works is on view at Maker’s Mark Distillery. His pieces hold their own in the redolent, angel’s envy-rich environment of bourbon aging warehouses. But best of all is a Zoomer outdoors, mediating between the viewer and the landscape beyond.
Current exhibitions celebrating the life and work of Stephen Powell and his students are as follows:
“Stephen Rolfe Powell ’74: A Retrospective,” AEGON Gallery, Jones Visual Art Center, Centre College, Danville, Kentucky, through October 12th.
“Through the Eyes of the Maker: Stephen Rolfe Powell,” Maker’s Mark Distillery, Loretto, Kentucky, through November 30th.
“Legacy: The Assistants of Stephen Rolfe Powell,” Flame Run Gallery, 815 West Market Street, Louisville, Ky., through October 25th.
Bryan Warren wrote about Martin Rollins’s 2017 “Town and Country Exhibition” at the BDeemer Gallery that “for those of us who make the city of Louisville and fields of Kentucky our home, Rollins’ images are places we know. The artist uses this familiarity to explore them, revealing a passionate interest in what we know and how we feel socially and historically, while maintaining a strong sense of the present. They are more than frozen moments. Instead, they are like fleeting memories playing on a loop.” Ray Kleinhelter’s subject matter is the Ohio River, rather than urban and suburban settings, but, like Rollins, Kleinhelter has an preternatural ability to make the familiar unfamiliar and the local transcendent. Warren also extolled “the tension between image and process” in Rollins’s work, and Kleinhelter as well re-orders the immediacy of topographical notation with a rigorous painterly logic and a firm notion of color-space. Both artists provide the special pleasure of re-envisioning for their viewers the local and familiar.
Ray Kleinhelter has two shows on view through May 4th, at the Kleinhelter Gallery at 8thand Culbertson in New Albany, and at Galerie Hertz at 1253 Preston in Louisville.
Riverbank #20, 36×48, Oil
Kleinhelter’s recent evolution has been from a bejazzed jigsaw depiction of landscape with thickly-brushed saturated colors to a very open, bright palette of startling hue gradations depicting clouds, sky, hillsides, banks and water. The older work had a Stuart Davis-like density and dynamism. Kleinhelter’s 2017 show at Sotheby’s Lenihan Real Estate, (up at the same time as Rollins’s), depicted riverscapes with dissonant color chords and strong light-dark contrasts, for example in “Riverbank #20.” (oil on canvas, 48”x36”). Spare, concise pen and pencil drawings in that exhibition suggested a new direction.
Liveaboard 40×30 Oil
In his current work, Ray Kleinhelter still employs a geometricizing and generalizing translation of visual data into a language of interlocking trapezoids and rectangles, but at a very different tempo. Sometimes these geometries overlap, as in “Liveaboard,” (oil on canvas, 30”x40”) creating a measured illusion of recession into the distance. A compression of forms on the left contrasts with the expansive openness on the right. Colliding passages of yellow, orange, beige and mauve occupy the lower portion of this classically paced work and suggest not only the play of light and shade, and the reflection of clouds on the water, but also, the flow of the river’s current, and sun and sky as protagonists of this restrained, languid drama.
Mile 589 14×10 watercolor
The watercolor study for “Mile 589” (watercolor, 10”x14”) is absorbed in describing particularities of place: the delicate inflections of the profiles of ridgelines, the drama of the sky and very intense observation of a range of hues in the landscape. The oil version is bolder and more emphatic, more open and more spacious. (“Mile 589,” oil on canvas, 30”x40”). Although a depiction of nature, Kleinhelter’s vocabulary is very much of the moment: the sweep of the view is punctuated with right-angle geometries that evoke a machine part generated by a 3-D printer. Kleinhelter’s secondary and tertiary hues create a progression leading downriver in open water towards discoveries that lie beyond the next river bend.
Mile 589, 40×30, Oil
Ray Kleinhelter converted a cabin cruiser into a floating studio. He lives riverside and so his subject has a continual presence in his peripheral vision. There is ample art historical precedent for working from a boat: J.M.W. Turner often did views from an offshore perspective, the better to immerse the viewer in Romantic Era subject matter of storms or unusual light effects. The pre-Impressionist Charles Francois Daubigny converted a ferry to a floating studio from which he made etchings and paintings. Manet painted Monet and his wife in Monet’s floating studio, and Winslow Homer’s obsession with the power, cruelty and inconstancy of the Atlantic is one of the epic sustained narratives in American art.
What all of these artists’ practices have in common is an undermining of traditional perspective. The late Don Nice, who focused on the Hudson River in his art, noted, “The old or traditional approach of the Hudson River School painter was to break down the landscape in terms of foreground, middle ground and background. Painting from a boat eliminates the foreground, which minimizes the notion of Renaissance space.” The watery entry point at the lower edge of Kleinhelter’s compositions is both a field for abstract improvisation and a more accurate plein-airism: less explicit representation leads to a firmer and more complex concept of space, atmosphere and light. And what extraordinary light it is! Crystalline, lucid, a perfect match for a sense of freedom adrift. Planes of color glide together in different directions, sometimes off-kilter, being and un-being, forming and un-forming, like the motion of daylight itself. W. H. Auden, in his poem “A River Profile,” refers to “water, the selfless mother of all especials.”
Kleinhelter’s geometric generalizing yields, ultimately, an uncanny specificity.
Kleinhelter’s new manner evolved from his works on paper, especially his watercolors aboard his floating studio. His painting practice was to cover every square inch of canvas, whereas his watercolor practice was exactly the opposite: to leave as much white space as possible. The delicacy of tints in the new oils and their unfinicky, elongated dashes and blocks preserves much of the spontaneity of the works on paper.
Twelve Mile Island 40×30 Oil
Sense of place is a discredited notion in contemporary criticism. Late-stage capitalism seems to be much more about a cacophony of mass-market, standardized erasable nowheres than any particular place. But Kleinhelter gives his works exact locations: “Mile 588;” “Mile 581;” “Chute 18 Mile Island;” “12 Mile Island;” “Toward Westport.” (The mile titles are navigational references to locations on the 981-mile stretch of the Ohio River). Like the work of Martin Rollins, one of its pleasures is its re-definition of the local – but also its carefully crafted tension between artistic methods and ends, abstraction and representation, and the inevitable, deeply freighted, universal conversation about the state of our natural resources and their future.
“Ray Kleinhelter Paintings” is on view at the Kleinhelter Gallery, 701 East 8thStreet, New Albany, Indiana, through May 4th. “Ray Kleinhelter: Views from the River” is up until May 5th at Galerie Hertz, 1253 Preston Street, Louisville. The Kleinhelter exhibitions are participants in “Afloat: An Ohio River Way of Life.”
“Afloat: An Ohio River Way of Life” had its origins in the spring of 2018 with an email from Bill and Flo Caddell, guardians of the reputation and ideals of Harlan Hubbard (1900-1988), artist, writer and environmentalist. Inspired by Henry David Thoreau, Hubbard attempted to live a life as close to nature as possible, and he and his wife Anna subsisted mostly on what they were able to raise, catch or barter. They lived at Payne Hollow, on the banks of the Ohio River, a mile away from the nearest road, in a home without electricity or other modern conveniences.
Hubbard left his artistic legacy to the Caddells, who possess the largest collection of Hubbard’s oils, watercolors and woodblock prints. They asked if I would like to write a foreword to a book on Hubbard watercolors, scheduled for publication in 2020 by the University Press of Kentucky. The Caddells, with Hubbard scholar Jessica Whitehead, were to be the principal authors.
They had originally asked Charles Venable, director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, to write the foreword; he declined but suggested me as a substitute. I told the Caddells that I would like to visit, and asked permission to bring John Begley with me. John had been director of Louisville Visual Art (LVA) and I had been director of the Speed Art Museum; after leaving our executive positions, we both taught in the Critical & Curatorial Master of Arts Degree program at the University of Louisville, often as a two-person team.
John thought he was simply going along to look at some pictures, and I went to make up my mind as to whether I liked the work well enough to want to write about it. We were both strongly smitten with Hubbard’s fresh, improvisatory and spontaneous watercolors, the visual equivalents of the lively, brief descriptions of the natural world in his journals.
Fortuitously, while doing research at the Filson Historical Society, I had overheard that it was planning a show based on Mark Wetherington’s studies of the shantyboat community that had thrived at “The Point” on the banks of the Ohio in Louisville in the 19th and 20th centuries, until mostly wiped out in the 1937 flood. Hubbard is best known for his book Shantyboat: A River Way of Life (1954) chronicling his trip down the Ohio and Mississippi with his wife Anna, so the Filson show would be relevant to Hubbard manifestations elsewhere.
I then went to the Department of Archives and Special Collections at the University of Louisville, which has the largest holding of Hubbard’s manuscripts. Would they consider doing a Hubbard show simultaneously with the Filson’s? The librarians agreed.
Angie Reed Garner, “Shantyboat #7”, oil on canvas, 2018
Shortly thereafter I saw a painting by Angie Reed Garner depicting a shantyboat. She had developed an iconography of shantyboats, Asian carp, mules and other imagery inspired by Hubbard to call attention to recent efforts to destroy the camps of homeless people living outside of the flood wall in the Butchertown neighborhood, close to where shantyboaters had lived a marginal existence in their homemade houseboats at The Point.
With three committed Ohio River/Hubbard-centric collaborators, we held an initial meeting on board the Belle of Louisville in August, 2018, drawing an enthusiastic group of staff from a variety of museums, volunteers, enviromentalists, gallerists and others. From there, the project mushroomed: the Caddells graciously agreed to lend their watercolors to the Frazier for a show that John Begley and I would co-curate.
The Swanson Contemporary Art Gallery agreed to mount “Currents: Contemporary Art on the Banks of the Ohio”, a brilliant show of 14 artists contending with the river, or with the Hubbards as muses. The Commonwealth Center for the Humanities and Society signed on to provide professors to lecture about Ohio River history and culture. We were under way!
We now have nearly 20 academic organizations, galleries, history museums, art museums, outdoors and environmental groups united in focusing on the Ohio River in 2019 and we will continue to add partners throughout the year. We refer to ourselves as a consortium, or a collaboration, but have studiously avoided creating a 501(c3) or having a board. Donations are processed through the Community Foundation of Louisville to ensure deductibility. Our model is deliberately open-ended and fluid.
Over time, a larger purpose emerged: to call attention, as our elevator speech puts it, to the Ohio River, its beauty, its needs, and its unmet potential. This new consortium has the ambition of providing a platform for environmental groups in renewing and recasting attention to the Ohio River, and creating dialogue among sectors that do not often come together.
– The Ohio River’s beauty: Hubbard wrote frequently of his prolonged contemplation of the river, and decried those who would ignore the beauty of the everyday.
– Its needs: there are 25 active coal-fired power plants on the Ohio, a source of toxic mercury, and new revelations suggest the precipitous danger of coal ash impoundments and landfills.
– Its unmet potential: the closure of the Jeffboat shipyard on the banks of the Ohio in Jeffersonville, Indiana, will open a mile of shoreline for development or, ideally, park lands. The Ohio River Recreational Trail proposes a Blue Trailfrom Portsmouth, Ohio to Louisville. The trail would be a means of promoting ecotourism and increasing opportunities for fishing, boating, paddling and cycling, as well as retail, lodging and food sales.
What are possible impacts? First, Kentucky is second only to Alaska in the number of miles of navigable waterways. Our consortium could be replicated elsewhere in the Commonwealth or “Afloat” could extend its reach.
The second issue has to do with artistic practice. Subjects in art have been viewed with suspicion for at least 75 years. I grew up in an age in which the best works of art were often titled, “Untitled” or simply numbered, in an attempt to let the work speak directly to the viewer and permit a universality of expression and meaning, leaving the art unbesmirched with words. Implicit in this attitude is ‘art for art’s sake”, a 19th Century notion rejecting art’s utility. In their provocative book, Art as Therapy (2013) Alain de Botton and John Armstrong argue:
The saying ‘art for art’s sake’ specifically rejects the idea that art might be for the sake of anything in particular, and therefore leaves the high status of art mysterious – and vulnerable. Despite the esteem art enjoys, its importance is too often assumed rather than explained. Its value is a matter of common sense. This is highly regrettable, as much for the viewers of art as for its guardians. What if art had a purpose that can be defined and discussed in plain terms? Art can be a tool, and we need to focus more on what kind of tool it is – and what good it can do for us.
Our multiple exhibitions, events and lectures are not going to soon lead to steps that will increase oxygen levels in the Ohio. But it may test whether cultural manifestations can influence the collective narrative and spur thought leaders to confront the fraught issue of the water those of us living on the banks of the river drink. Rallying around a single subject does not have to be about a specific meaning in order to be meaningful. Meaning is provided by the context of all of the manifestations of attention to the Ohio River in the “Afloat: An Ohio River Way of Life” consortium. In the interim, openings and lectures in the early months of this year have been met with record audiences.
Harlan Hubbard believed in the eventual impact of his fierce determination to live in harmony with nature and in opposition to commercial and industrial forces. In 1942 he wrote:
Against what I thought wrong and false, I have long been conducting a one-man revolution, faint and under cover but growing stronger, and sooner or later it will be revealed. It may as well be now. My case should be presented and stood for, even if by such a small minority. It is a strain of Americanism almost lost. It is the hope of the future.
Thoroughly Modern: Women in 20th Century Art and Design was conceived as a sequel to the Speed Art Museum’s blockbuster exhibition, Women in the Age of Impressionism. But this small, elegant display of women’s work stands on its own merits as one of the Speed’s best recent installations. The exhibition consists of only 35 objects or dinner ware sets but is mostly pottery. The show is on view until July 1st at the Speed in Louisville.
The artists are given momentous status with blown-up portraits of each on tall wall graphics placed between cases and wall works.As a display strategy, it works brilliantly. Modestly scaled decorative arts gain in interest through the borrowed glory of their makers’ heroization.
The artists are by birth American, Austrian, British, French, German, Hungarian, and Russian, and their media include woodwork, paintings, prints, textile, silver and ceramics.This is a homegrown endeavor organized by the Speed’s curators, drawing on the strengths of the Speed’s own holdings, local collections, and the University of Louisville’s Hite Art Center.The artists range from Susie Cooper and Eva Zeisel, towering figures in the history of 20th century decorative arts, to a gifted amateur china painter, Althea Moore Smith.None of the women have been given proper recognition for the magnitude of their artistic achievements, and the fact that most are relatively unknown piques heightened interest.
Anne-Marie Fontaine French, (birth and death dates unknown) “Vase Fontaine #2”, 1934, Porcelain
Two vases by Anne-Marie Fontaine, (birth and death dates unknown), a designer for Sèvres porcelain in the 1920s and 1930s, are a case in point.To my knowledge, there has never been a museum exhibition in the United States dedicated to 20th century Sèvres. Fontaine’s supernal decoration of a three-part cylindrical vase is ethereal: overlapping gold and blue clouds rise in curved bands, interspersed with a sun, rain, feathers and stars. One can imagine Fontaine’s vase set off against rectilinear white walls in a LeCorbusier house of the period.The pot’s restrained elegance, cosmological whimsy, simple geometry, and integral relationship of its motifs to the vessel’s form mark it as an Art Deco masterpiece.
Eva Zeisel American, born in Hungary (1906-2011) Century Platter and Bowls, designed 1950 Whiteware
Not all the works in the exhibition are luxury goods. Eva Zeisel (1906-2011) designed for a mass market, working for manufacturers like Hall China in Ohio, Shenango Pottery in Pennsylvania, and Red Wing Pottery in Minnesota, and towards the end of her life, Crate and Barrel. Eva Zeisel’s 1955 Century platter and bowls anticipate Aero Saarinen’s TWA terminal: Their extended undulant curves made the set easy to stack for storage and easy to retrieve.Zeisel’s pottery is often characterized by a covert anthropomorphism: the handles of the Century dishes rise in hallelujah exultancy. In 2004 Zeisel wrote, “I have rarely designed objects that were meant to stand alone.My designs have family relationships.They are mother and child, siblings, or cousins.They may not have identical lines, but there is always a family relationship.”
Eva Zeisel American, born in Hungary (1906-2011) Town and Country Salt and Pepper Shakers and Teapot, designed 1946 Earthenware
Zeisel’s biomorphic salt and pepper shakers for her 1946 Town and Country china precede by two years cartoonist Al Capp’s cartoon invention, “shmoos” which had comparable shapes.Zeisel’s implements intertwine and seem inseparably affectionate.Pertinently in a 1987 New Yorker interview, Zeisel asserted, “I think with my hands.I design things to be touched – not for a museum.A piece is ready when it has the shape of something to cherish.”Wit is a continual factor in Zeisel’s art: the lid of the Town and Country teapot is off-center, giving it the comical air of a jaunty beret.
Zeisel worked in Germany in the late 1920s, and then traveled to Russia where she rose to the position of art director for the Soviet glass and china industries.Imprisoned for plotting against Stalin, she eventually was released and made her way to the United States.She was given a one-person show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946, and is credited with designing the first all-white modernist dinnerware. She continued her protean creativity until shortly before her death at the age of 105 in 2011.
Susie Cooper, (1902-1995), is also profiled with wonderful examples.An English artist born in the Staffordshire town of Burslem, Cooper’s most characteristic product is the trio, a cup, saucer and cake plate suitable for Britain’s ritual breaks at elevenses or at afternoon tea.In contrast to Zeisel’s functionalism, the diction of ceramics in Cooper’s work seems more about convening, contemporaneity, and the contract of hospitality between host and guest. Her customers were the emerging British suburban middle class, who embraced 20th Century values of informality, enjoyment of color and innovative form. The patchwork enamel hues in Cooper’s earlier works are be-jazzed cousins of Sonia Delaunay’s Orphism.
Susie Cooper British, (1902-1995) Vase, about 1925, Earthenware
A lusterware vase depicting a leaping antelope in front of an orange tree has a jubilant rhythmic composition characterized by unexpected intervals between figure and ground.The antelope was a favorite motif of Cooper’s, and was used in one of her pottery marks. Cooper could be more restrained in her designs. In a 1931 trio on view, the decoration shifts to delicate patterns of scrolls, circles, dots, and plant forms.
Susie Cooper British, (1902-1995), Cup and Saucer for Coffee Service, 1933, Earthenware
Of the paintings in the exhibition my favorite is the 1930 Two Cats on Stairs (Tooky, 10th Street by Marguerite Zorach, (1887-1968), whose reputation until recently has been overshadowed by that of her sculptor husband, William Zorach, the apostle of the ideology of direct carving. Marguerite Zorach was one of the first Americans to embrace the Fauve palette; a textile artist as well as a painter and printmaker, her painting in the exhibition is an exercise in Cezannesque pictorial tension, with its reverse perspective (the bannister recedes towards the viewer rather than into the distance, a red sill in the foreground is bound together with the wall of a brick building in the distance, the view of the roof through the window is angled up, the stairway tilted to the right). There are six interlocking rectangles in the painting giving the radiant backlit cats a supercharged stage set.
Marguerite Zorach American, (1887-1968,) “Two Cats on Stairs”, ca. 1930, Oil on canvas
Blanche Lazzell American, (1878-1956), “Abstract Petunias”, 1946, Color woodcut on laid Japan paper
Morgantown, West Virginia native Blanche Lazzell (1878-1956), is represented by a painting and a print.Like Zorach, Lazzell domesticized European innovations: her 1917 loosely pointillist painting of Woodstock, New York, is constructed of large patches of overlapping complementary colors.It was done at Byrdcliffe, an arts and crafts school well-known for their costumed revels.Lazzell subsequently worked in Provincetown, Massachusetts – like Louisvillians Fayette Barnum, Maude Ainslie, and Mary Spencer Nay, who also worked there and found opportunities in the less sexist, more relaxed environment of summer art colonies.Lazzell’s 1946 woodcut, Abstract Petunias, is a cubist arrangement of spiraling flat planes of color: Lazzell was one of many Provincetown woodcut artists, like Cincinnatians Maud Hunt Squires, Ethel Mars and Edna Boies Hopkins, who used Japanese ‘white-line’ woodcut technique.Many of Hopkins’s most memorable prints depict Appalachians in Eastern Kentucky.
Thoroughly Modern succeeds because it is an exhibition of unfairly overlooked artists: it provides new visual information for all but specialists in 20th Century painting and decorative arts.It obliterates conventional distinctions between ornament and abstraction, undermines the primacy of painting and sculpture, and subverts the canonical hierarchy of male artists working in familiar styles.Most of all, it is an affirmation of the rich and still only partially discovered pathways of modernism.
“Thoroughly Modern: Women in 20th Century Art and Design” on view at the Speed Art Museum through July 1st, is being promoted as a sequel to the Speed’s next blockbuster, “Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism.” The achievements of female painters of the 1920s and 1930s are shown to consist of easel-sized, modestly-scaled works often accomplished in artists’ colonies -freer and less sexist environments than prominent art academies, which had only just begun to admit women.
Female artists also achieved prominence as designers of table wares in glass, silver and ceramics. Biomorphic and geometric ornament was vibrant and fully in touch with contemporary art in the period. It anticipated current concerns with the linkage between color abstraction and materiality, or ornament as an intrinsic element in visual language rather than an extraneous add-on.
“Thoroughly Modern” is also a pertinent prequel to the shows at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft (KMAC) of the work of Nathan Hayden, “What Was Magic of Numbers, Hypnotic and Wonders” and Amanda Ross-Ho, “Contents and Index.”
Amanda Ross-Ho, “Blue Glove Left #3” and “Blue Glove Right #3”, 2015, Dyed stretch cotton sateen, acrylic paint, cotton piping, armature wire, Courtesy of the artist and Shane Campbell Gallery. Viewer: Ted Wathen
Craft at the Speed show remains in the traditional domestic sphere, one realm in which early 20th century women could gain professional recognition. The twin exhibitions at KMAC reference and subvert traditional notions of craft and gender roles. Both Ross-Ho and Hayden employ craft techniques but move decisively from the dining table to the sculpture pedestal, from the living room to the art gallery. Abandoning utility is to assert their artworks’ independent authority and hospitableness to multiple meanings. The hand is the instrument of mystical automatist transmission for Hayden, and for Ross-Ho it is the touchstone of surreal engagement with the studio environment as an extension of consciousness.
Hayden – like a hip-hop/electronic music version of a Sufi whirling dervish – dances for an hour a day to induce otherworldly visions. A former Louisvillian, Hayden’s works from his period in Kentucky (2004-2006) are miniature works in ink and acrylic wash with delicate stippling. Subsequently, Hayden made ‘cards,’ small drawings that are the source of his larger works. The print curator Carl Zigrosser wrote about ‘multum in parvo’ (a lot in a little) works of art in which “a multiplicity of detail is concentrated into a unified principle, the particular is transformed into the universal, and a largeness of meaning is conveyed with the utmost economy of means.” Hayden’s drawing is a practice of faith and the cards are mounted on small earthenware lecterns like a medieval book of hours intended for private devotions.
Nathan Hayden, “Unfalconable”, 2015-2016, ink/found pigment on paper, ceramic sculpture, Collection of Aaron Pietrykowski
There is an intriguing tension between the imagery and its spiritual content. In “Unfalconable” accessibility and transcendence are in opposition. The paper is divided into quadrants, each depicting a Manichean contrast between black forms made up of rectangles and triangles, a yellow-orange ground, and hieroglyphs suggesting mountains, vegetation, celestial objects or adobe structures.
The imagery is vaguely southwestern, filtered through popular colors and motifs of the 1970s, in turn based on 1930s art deco, ultimately deriving from Mexican and Native American symbolic languages. Hayden turns the regional sense of place inside out, making a someplace a conceptual no place or an any place, ironically re-capturing the original cosmological implications of his forms. His method is more devolution than deconstruction.
Nathan Hayden, “Shapes for Shadows”, 2014-2016, Table of ceramics, Dimensions variable, Courtesy of the artist and CB1 Gallery
Hayden’s larger works are earthenware forms in adobe pink clay and dyed wall hangings in industrial felt. The clay works are repetitive explorations of quadrilateral plinths with bisymmetrical curved or zigzag shapes. They provide a self-referential vocabulary lesson echoing the meta-language in the drawings and in their disciplined repetition of limited variations on winged flanges, harken back to 1950s and 1960s writers like M.C. Richards, whose book “Centering in Poetry, Pottery and the Person” captured the attitudes of ceramists like Shoji Hamada, Bernard Leach and William and Mary Scheier, who conceived of their potting as a form of meditation.
Nathan Hayden, “what was meant to be here was no longer”, 2014, ink on industrial felt, Courtesy of the artist and CB1 Gallery
Hayden’s large industrial felt hangings either adhere to the visual vocabulary promulgated in the small drawings and ceramics or expand into otherworldly Mandalas of radiating chevrons, bristling nodes, bursting suns, seedpods and spiraling vortices. Segmented and bisected but asymmetrical, the largest hangings, for example, “what was meant to be here was no longer” evokes cosmic visions and assert the universality of root systems and natural structures.
Hayden acknowledges the influence of the Swedish visionary Hilda Af Klint, who shared with Kandinsky, Jawlensky and other pioneering abstract artists the influence of theosophical speculations on alternate states of being. In his use of clay and industrial felt, Hayden extends abstract modes of presentation and the resurgence of the handmade.
Amanda Ross-Ho,”White Goddess #16 (LA COTE)”, 2008, Acrylic on canvas drop cloth, 114″ x 118″, Courtesy of the artist and Shane Campbell Gallery
Amanda Ross-Ho also references craft traditions, especially traditionally feminine realms of weaving and needlework. She does so in a way in which female subservience or do-it-yourself amateurism associated with those arts is undermined. The fifteen-foot tall “White Goddess #16 (LA COTE) is a simulacrum of macramé in acrylic on canvas drop cloth. The one at KMAC is derived from a 1970s craft magazine and copied from a projection. Gargantuan imitation gloves are transformed from rubber to cotton and like the macramé, serve as emblems of labor, but also as stage props in a theater of the absurd or surreal artifacts from a liminal state between dreaming and pre-awareness.
Amanda Ross-Ho, “Untitled T-shirt (World Map)”, 2015, Jersey, rib, thread, acrylic, mascara, 58”x84”x4″, Courtesy of the artist and Shane Campbell Gallery
The artist’s frame of reference is the studio and workplace. Shirts and gloves show accidental spills and offer a metonym for the creative process. “T-Shirt (World Map)”has an apparent sweat-stained collar. On the bottom of the shirt and on the sleeves are dashes and splotches of yellow, green, red and purple, like an abstract expressionist vocabulary lesson from a late painting by Hans Hofmann. “Untitled Smock (Accident)” is a retro purple smock with slash pockets and round snap buttons. It is stained with red paint, connoting a mishap, as the title indicates, or the feigned residue of the oeuvre of an artist using a poured paint technique, not unlike Helen Frankenthaler.
Amanda Ross-Ho, “Untitled Textile Arrangement (Towel Rack XL #2)”, 2015, Chrome towel rack, acrylic and dye on washcloths, hand towels and bath towels, Courtesy of the artist and Shane Campbell Gallery
Work and the conditions of artistic operations are also covert protagonists in the implied drama of “Untitled Textile Arrangement (Towel Rack #6).” Undermining the sanitary sterility of hotel rooms, the viewer is left to speculate whether the black stained, neatly folded towels are the revenge of an irate chambermaid outraged by the oppressive conditions of her servitude, the side effects of an oil spill, or an expression of creativity in tie-dying. The clothes and towel racks broach the charged subject of employment. Art is work and the artist’s studio is the workshop in Ross-Ho’s imagery, parallel to other emotionally redolent work places that resonate with the hidden drama of diurnal activities.
Amanda Ross-Ho, “Untitled Still Life (Real Archive/I Know What To Do)”, 2011, Hand-drilled sheetrock, latex paint on folded paper, pushpin, found images, linen tape, map tacks, power bar foil backing, construction paper glare device, laser print, acrylic on plastic thumbtack, graphite and wine on Bristol paper, aluminum thumbtack, boot tape, Courtesy of the artist and Shane Campbell Gallery
The studio is also a model of consciousness in Ross-Ho’s work and self-reflexively represents the cerebral conditions of art-making. “Untitled Still Life (Real Archive/I Know What to do” offers a model. The artist utilizes a pegboard format drilled by hand in slightly unconventional dimensions but with the standard one-inch interval between holes. Continuing the labor theme of the over-sized garments, pegboard connotes a utility area, like a garage, storage shed or workshop. It is a hallmark of the well-organized craftsperson or home improvement enthusiast, who uses peg hooks to hang peggable products or tools. The hooks are supported by gravity alone, and the well-installed pegboard has an even weight distribution along several mounting points.
There are no tools on Ross-Ho’s pegboards and instead they function as a quasi- bulletin board: the comparison to Leo Steinberg’s description of Robert Rauschenberg’s “flatbed picture plane” – a receptor surface – has already been made in discussions of Ross-Ho’s work. Steinberg anticipated parallels between Rauschenberg and Ross-Ho in noting “it seemed at times that Rauschenberg’s work surface stood for the mind itself – dump, reservoir, switching center, abundant with concrete references freely associated as in an internal monologue – the outward symbol of the mind as a running transformer of the external world, constantly ingesting incoming unprocessed data to be mapped in an overcharged field.”
There are 12 additions to “Untitled Still Life: Real Archive/I Know What To Do” ranging from identical squiggles on a folded piece of paper to a color photo of a lioness sleeping in the crotch of a tree with one paw and two legs dangling. Ross-Ho also draws directly on the pegboard, circling a nail hole, marking a right angle and writing in pencil, “I know what to do.” She uses a variety of means to attach her images, including white linen tape, map tacks, book tape, aluminum thumb tacks and push pins. In one instance linen tape is simply attached to the pegboard itself with nothing held.
The images are at once mundane and intriguing: a manipulated photo of two men looking at scrawls on a wall with a teddy bear in the corner; a piece of black paper with an opening showing a pegboard hole partially overlapping a photo of two men in shirts printed with electric guitar images, one squeezing a remote photo bulb; a bearded man in a hat under a rock overhang, the rectangle cut out and revealing nine holes underneath. There is also a picture of macramé; a page of scribbles and wine stains on Bristol board labeled “real archive, digital archive, copy machine;” and a vertical sequence of a gloved hand sponging color onto a wall. Some photographs seem to reference Ross-Ho’s father’s profession of commercial photographer: an advertising photograph of four wine glasses and an image from an interior design ad with the words “Excellent Quality” appearing upside down.
Ross-Ho’s stream-of-conscious is more measured and less crowded than Hayden’s (or for that matter, Rauschenberg’s), and the pegboard support indicates that the accumulation of images and the associations they prompt are the work in the work of art as well as a departure point for other art production. Ross-Ho’s variety of adhesives may stand for the varying stickiness of memory, the place of the image in a hierarchy of the imagination, or a system of indexing. Like the holes in a sponge, the pegboard’s perforations reinforce the illusion of the flatbed picture plane as an absorptive surface. Contradicting the traditional role of the pegboard, and making it into an ersatz bulletin board – but a bulletin board without overtly pertinent or useful information – comments as well on everyone’s contemporary task of deciphering and sorting the daily welter of information and misinformation. Linkages between the textiles and the pegboards establish an allusive environment and protracted meditation on the creative process.
KMAC’S current mission statement proclaims “Art is the Big Idea, Craft is the Process.” Hayden and Ross-Ho fit neatly within that expansive rubric.
On August 21st, 2017, I was at Armour’s Hotel in Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee to witness the eclipse. We hotel guests were an eclectic group: a professor of Latin from Notre Dame University; an extended family from Gainesville, Georgia; a gang of young engineers from Baltimore – one of whom wore a superhero cape; Mary Ann from a few counties distant who drank her Zinfandel in a sippy cup to keep out bugs; Frank from Houston who drove a Tesla, my wife – a bourbon historian, and our friends who had chosen this location, a crochet artist and her husband, an oral historian/poet/re-enactor from Springfield, Missouri.
Happily the engineers brought along a high school physics teacher who told us what to look for: the crescent-shaped shadows on the ground that looked like ripples in a stream, sunset on all sides of the horizon, the grayish light akin to looking through a gray camera filter, the ‘diamond effect’ (a gold ring with a brilliant white light at the top), the eerie night light at totality, the sudden appearance of stars and the incredible beauty and precise contours of the waxing and waning sequences, like a celestial Ellsworth Kelly painting in motion. Finally there was the palpable drop in temperature and the uncanny silence of birds as if night had fallen.
Victory Over the Sun: The Poetics and Politics of Eclipse is a riff on some implications of this cosmological event and plays with some of the broader possible meanings of darkness, shadow and light.
Curator Joey Yates defined the parameters of the show:
Artists, who engage in acts of silencing, erasing, covering or masking, as well as conceptual gestures related to eclipsed narratives in American art and culture, will examine themes of blindness, censorship, obscurity and suppression.
The exhibition therefore was mostly tangential to astronomy and more about the subjective ambiguity of perception, erasure and re-inscription, and the uncoupling of common symbols from their traditional signification.
Lita Albuquerque, Fibonnaci Lunar Activation 2017, Polyvinyl acetate, pigment on panel, pigment on resin, 42” x 42” Courtesy of the Artist and Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles
Fibonacci Lunar Activation by Lita Albuquerque is the only work in the exhibition to actually use an image of an eclipse – the black orb hovers above a white perimeter, against a charcoal gray background of an embossed Fibonacci number sequence. Her image has a startling sense of inner light as if the square were internally lit with neon. In her installations in locations as remote as the Antarctic, Albuquerque has interrogated light as the link between earth-bound order and the cosmological order, as well as exploring the tension between the limits of human understanding and the expanse of the universe.
Letitia Quesenberry, Hyperspace Installation 2015, Wood, lacquer, acrylic, film, LED 11” diameter Courtesy of the Artist
Comparably, Letitia Quesenberry provokes a meditation on the limits of reasoned observation with her wall of five disks asymmetrically placed and internally lit with LED lights that morph across the spectrum (the sequence from blue-violet to violet to red-violet is especially compelling).
The smallest ‘porthole’ is 11 inches in diameter, a medium sized one is 25 inches across and there are three large ones around 39 inches in width but vary as much as four inches. The pulsation of the disks makes it difficult to distinguish between the three large ones because of the compelling illusionism of the concentric bands of color. What in psychophysics is called the JND or “just noticeable difference” is at play: the stimulus magnitudes appear to be the same.
Suggestions that Quesenberry is following in the train of Josef Albers is false: there are no templates and no norms in her art. There are, however, parallels with Eastern European and Latin American art of the 1960s and 1970s. Like the kinetic and op artists of that era, Quesenberry’s use of engineering, science and machined imagery – that is, rational and objective means –are put at the service of a new subjectivity.
Marijke van Warmerdam, Light, 2010, 35mm film video, Duration: 1’30” Courtesy of the Artist
Marijke van Warmerdam does a simulacrum of the passage of day and night in Light, her one minute, thirty second video of herself strumming window blinds as if they were a stringed instrument. Sometimes her hand is visible, sometimes not; sometimes she uses her finger, sometimes an open palm; the speed varies. The pleasure of this work lies in the sublime simplicity of her performance with its flashes of light, intimations of concentrated time, and domestic exploration of sensory modalities.
Another group of works in the exhibition focus on processes of removal, just as the eclipse removes sunlight from the day. Censorship as striking out was the subject of several works.
Mel Bochner, Eradicate, 2017, Monoprint with collage, engraving and embossment on hand-dyed, Twinrocker handmade paper 90 ¼” x 58 ½” Courtesy of the Artist and Two Palms Gallery
In his monoprint Mel Bochner lists the words ‘eradicate, cancel, void, censor, delete, obliterate, purge,’ and ‘clear history’ in block letters. The mottled and cracked typography conveys a sense of aged materials. The highly tactile letters evoke an urban context, in part because of suggested underpaintings of yellow, orange, green or red beneath the different inscriptions, as if the words themselves covered other, more volatile messages.
Titus Kaphar, Moonlight, 2011, oil on canvas 96”x46 5/8”x2 7/8” Courtesy of the Artist
Titus Kaphar’s painting Moonlight cuts out the profile of a Victorian woman in the center of the canvas. Her hand rests on a green cloth as if she had just disrobed. She stands in front of a kitschy landscape, a rocky shore bordering a moonlit sea, beneath an overcast sky. The cut out denies the male gaze its ogle. The empty figure achieves, ironically, a kind of individuality and presence, in part because shifting shadows animate the vacated form against the white wall as one walks past.
Steve Irwin, Untitled, 2008, Altered vintage photograph, 11 ½” x 8 ½” Courtesy of Norm and Chris Radtke
Equally subversive of tradition but more poignant are three drawings by the late Steve Irwin. A hand, two arms embracing an invisible figure, and fragments of a face, shoulder and foot are the subjects. Irwin’s “rubouts” are abraded pages from vintage adult magazines: like the self-taught artist Bill Traylor, Irwin took compositional clues from the condition and edges of the papers he used.
Irwin’s anatomical fragments masterfully transform raw to tender. While most discussion of his work focuses on what he took out from the illustrations using solvents and abrasives, the delicate modeling and colored pencil modulations added to his found material mark Irwin as an extraordinary draftsman.
Bigert & Bergström, Moments of Silence, 2014 ,Sampled archival material, 14 minutes, color, stereo Courtesy of the artists
The popular favorite in the exhibition is Bigert’s and Bergström’s Moments of Silence a fourteen minute assemblage of vintage film and video footage showing a wide cross-section of people from around the globe observing a moment of shared grief. The moment of silence –commemorating and re-communicating with tragedy –is seen in over 20 vignettes.
Men in felt hats from Kyrgyzstan, Kenyan Muslims remembering in sorrow the Nairobi shopping center massacre by Al Shabaab in 2013, Japanese workers in hazmat suits, police and soldiers ceremonially removing hats or helmets, factory workers paused on assembly lines, pedestrians standing in silence at an intersection, taxi drivers stopping and getting out of their cars: the universality of this observation as secular ritual is a confirmation of our commonality. The cuts often provide close-ups of the faces of participants.
Then life goes on: pedestrians cross the street, cars start up again, road workers remount their heavy equipment, soccer players take to the field, and officials sit down again. Small details take on significance, like a green emergency exit sign with a running stick figure above a still, silent group of office workers, or a no-smoking sign beneath a clock.
A second eclipse-inspired exhibition, on view too briefly at UofL’s Cressman Center, was Overshadowed, an intriguing collaboration between Mary Carothers and Brian McClave that utilized slow scan photography to composite thousands of images into a single digital file. Photographers were recruited across the path of totality to record the momentary lack of light: it translated into streaks like the black lines that appeared on leader in old films.
Victory Over the Sun makes as much coherent sense as many other assemblages of diverse work. It brings to a local audience a stellar collection of international artists juxtaposed with work by local and regional practitioners.
KMAC provides an excellent free take-away pamphlet which re-prints the extensive wall texts and illustrates at least one work by each artist. I might have preferred a more narrow focus, but then I would have missed some works in this excellent selection. Bigert and Bergström’s Moment of Silence comes closest to my memory of sharing awe at a transcendent celestial event.
On view now through December 3rd at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, 715 West Main Street, Louisville, KY, 40202, KMACmuseum.org, free admission.
In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that everything you see through that car window is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.
On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.
Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Sarah Lyon’s show of thirty-two photographs at the University of Louisville Photographic Archives Gallery illustrates a motorcyclian world view: the work uncannily puts the viewer into the pictorial realm, in a relationship to the subject that transcends the vicarious. Travel photographs but in no way a travelogue, Lyon opens her experience to the viewer while ironically remaining very much the creative personality occupying these images. Spanning fourteen years of the artist’s work, Lyon describes the work as a “personal investigation of what happens with artistic process as life evolves and changes, while embracing the inevitable ebb and flow of inspiration and motivation.”
In that pursuit, Lyon subverts normative orthodoxies, revives the rebel ethos of the motorcycle rider, celebrates alternative lifestyles and serves as a road-wise guide, especially to “areas in the American west that draw and intrigue me emotionally, spiritually and aesthetically.”
Sarah Lyon, Consider Bonneville Salt Flats (Utah Phone), 2011
Consider Bonneville Salt Flats (Utah Phone), 2011. An open phone booth is centered in the photograph: below is a band of asphalt and a culvert, and beyond, a band of dirt, the luminescent salt flats, far off mountains, and cumulus clouds above. The phone booth enclosure is a chamber opera of light, shade and reflection: the reflections against the front plate and keypad, the mottled light through the side of the booth enclosure, sunlight falling across the front of the booth, and the curved wire cord to the handset, provide a frontispiece to the vast expanse beyond.
USWEST is the name of the telephone company and the implication is that this is indeed the true American west – vast, desolate, solitary, and silent. Sky takes up half of the 30 by 30 inch image. A series of color and shape rhymes reiterate the sense that human communication by phone is irrelevant or futile in this context: the pavement gray echoes the gray of the distant mountains, the blue of the phone sign is a washed out version of the sky beyond and the reflections on the front plate are pearlescent like the clouds. The shadow of the phone booth is suggestive of a squat phalanx warrior holding a shield, a shape repeated in the irregular concrete and drain on the left.
All are belittled and left defenseless by the scale of the landscape. At first a minimalist composition with its deadpan centering and regular bands of topography dropping back into the distance, Bonneville Salt Flats (Utah Phone) is convincingly not simply a place recorded by Lyon but a complex meditation on the folly of the manmade and mechanical in the face of the grandeur of nature.
Sarah Lyon, First Storm, Minnesota Self-Portrait, 2003
Two self-portraits are comparable in the use of deep perspective to draw the viewer in. First Storm, Minnesota Self-Portrait, 2003 shows Lyon with her back to the camera braving an approaching storm. On the horizon is a farm and distant band of trees. Rowland Barthes described the salient detail in a photograph as the punctum: “a photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me but also bruises me.” A red X at the perspectival endpoint (apparently headlights reflected in wet pavement) is the punctum in this image – as far forward in Lyon’s journey that the photograph records. In effect we are told, “this is the photographer, this is her motorcycle, this is her direction, this is the country she is traversing.”
Sarah Lyon, Salt Evaporation Plan Road, 2017
Salt Evaporation Plan Road, 2017 is comparable in showing the photographer from behind, this time with a cord trailing in the foreground to the unseen camera. Sky, again, is half the image. Lyon is deeper into the foreground than in the Minnesota photograph, suggesting an appropriation of the wide open desert scrub land as part of her consciousness and identity. Lyon juxtaposes herself with the distant end of a gravel road.
“Vanishing point” in Swedish is “flyktpunkt” – which may carry implications of flight or escape: ominous foreboding, intimations of mortality or future passage of time is implicit in this portrayal, an altogether different kind of punctum. (It may also be pertinent that “vanishing point” is a recurring theme in motorcycle safety courses, indicating the limits of the rider’s knowledge. By focusing on the point where the asphalt meets the horizon, the driver has the maximum time and maximum distance to react to hazards or surprises). The shutter cord is the viewer’s point of entry here as if we were collaborators in the making of the photograph. Again, Sarah Lyon brings us inside the frame.
A third self-portrait is a recreation of Danny Lyons famous 1966 shot of a member of the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club, “Crossing the Ohio.” Picturing herself (by collaborating John Nation and Maggie Huber) on the Kennedy Bridge in Louisville is a declaration of affiliation with older norms of bikeriders’ free spirits.
Sarah Lyon, Jessica Dulong, Fireboat Engineer, Hudson River, NYC, 2009.
Lyon may be best known for her series of photographs of women mechanics, a feminist response to the pin-up calendars that still appear in car repair shops. Jessica Dulong, Fireboat Engineer, Hudson River, NYC, 2009 portrays the engineer and author at work in command of the rich complexity of the engine room. If one includes the self-portraits, over a third of the 32 pictures in the exhibition are portraits of people acting in their professional setting: fireboat mechanic, conceptual artist, visual artist and chainsaw mechanic, blacksmith, performance artist , musician, D.J., and motorcycle parts dealer. Lyon works in the tradition of the “portrait d’apparat,” a baroque practice of depicting people exercising their profession.
Early American portraits, such as John Singleton Copley’s 1768 rendering of Paul Revere holding a teapot is notable for showing the artist in his shirtsleeves, his engraving tools in front of him. The silversmith appears with none of the trappings of power and respectability characteristic of 18th Century portraiture. Even more dramatic in its democratic implications is John Neagle’s 1827 full length painting of “Pat Lyon at the Forge.” (No relation to the artist).
A successful businessman and inventor, Pat Lyon began his career as a blacksmith, and commissioned a depiction of himself in that profession, mallet in hand. Lyon insisted that his portrait include a view of the prison in which he was wrongly incarcerated in his youth. Sarah Lyon continues that tradition and evades the voyeurism and class consciousness that sometimes afflicts documentary practice. She does so by either totally evading the formality of the traditional artificiality of posing, or in contrast, heightening it with improbable settings – for example, D. J. ‘Jumbo Shrimp’ in a sailor suit standing in a derelict boat, or performance artist ‘Narcissister’ upside down on a kitchen cabinet disporting masks. Again, borders disappear.
Sarah Lyon, Narcissister.
Sarah Lyon, Traveling with Bill Burke, 2012.
Traveling with Bill Burke, 2012, is a portrait by synecdoche of the veteran photographer and the character of his company on a road trip – lens, wallet, cameras, pistol, magazine, beer bottles, glasses, paper cup, radio and telephone on a motel bedside table, sum up the experience with inventorial aplomb.
Sarah Lyon, Badwater Road, Death Valley, CA, 2017
Motels also feature in a diptych Atomic Inn, Beatty, NV and Badwater Road, Death Valley, CA, 2017. Again Lyon stands in the road and brings the viewer inside the frame. The yellow brown rock formation on the left of a curved road in Death Valley has its color match in the knotty pine paneling and Navaho-Deco headboard in the motel. The distant white jet contrail above the landscape is paralleled by the white of the pillows on the bed. The crepuscular light of sunset has an echo in the twin bedside lamps: the white plug on the left is the punctum, emphasizing the artificiality of the interior illumination.
What is remarkable about Lyon’s work is not what she has seen but how she has shared it. The trip provides the overall narrative. Lyon makes it participatory, providing access to her forceful and independent vision.
Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive.
Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Drive: Photographs of Sarah Lyon is one of fifty-three exhibits in this year’s Louisville Photo Biennial. Lyon’s work may also be seen as part of Open Studio Weekend, 12 to 6, November 4th and 5th, at Quadrant, 380 Missouri Avenue, Jeffersonville, IN 47130.
Lyon is a member of the Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project.
Kathryn Keller’s landscapes at the Moremen-Maloney Contemporary Gallery in Louisville, Kentucky succeed on three scores: they are authentic in conveying a particular geography, they evoke reverie and they bespeak an eloquent silence.
Kathryn Keller, A Live Oak Growing, Oil on Paper
Keller lives near Alexandria, Louisiana, close to the center of the state. This varied sub-tropical flat land, agriculturally a mix of crops and livestock, is Keller’s subject. She succeeds in what poet William Carlos William termed “the achievement of a locus:” her vision is fresh, largely free of clichés, and works a taut balance between observation and the dictates of the oil and watercolor mediums that she employs.
Open fields, groves of trees, and the vagaries of climate and weather share the focus of attention with the flow and drag of a loaded brush against paper or canvas. Mottled passages of black-blue-green foliage fulfill the needs of description as well as calling attention to the moment when pictorial order supersedes realism, balancing abstraction and representation. Despite heavy impasto and forceful application, the paintings are well ventilated with an envelope of atmosphere and transparency of light. This part of the world comes across as Keller’s spiritual turf: she would seem to be of this place, not merely from it.
Of particular note in this exhibition are five studies of the side of a house, the artist’s home. These modest easel paintings (the largest of which is 26″ x 22″), read at first like the everyday moments in the deadpan photography of William Eggleston and William Christenberry. The side-long glancing views, the simplified architectural geometries of windows, chimneys, and rooflines, and the casually foreshortened perspectives connote an easy familiarity with the subject. But on further examination the house is invested with flat built-up surfaces of long continuous paint passages. Shadows that seem more substantial than the building and Rorschach blots of plant life provide psychological comment on life within the inner sanctum. In only one of these studies is an entry to the home depicted.
Kathryn Keller, Bleakhouse Cedars, Oil on Paper
Prolonged meditation on the subject of house is also suggested by the palette: Bleakhouse Cedars – possibly the most successful of the series – depicts an overcast sky, the building in desaturated tints of gray and yellow, flanked behind by Keller’s black-green foliage, and at the side by an acidic greenish hedge and lawn, painting in elusive variation of olive-algae hues. Overall the muted color chords of faded yellow and gray played against the varied greens convey an intense concentration on excluding everything extraneous to the artist’s narrative.
The result of Keller’s focus in all of her works in this exhibition is a sense of reverie, of something half-remembered, a predigested memory as if the viewer had already been to this home and had rich associations with the place. Keller gives us the first paragraph, and no more, of imaginary short stories echoing William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, or Alice Walker.
Kathryn Keller, Front Porch, Oil on Paper
Quietude and melancholic introspection also come across in works in which two houses are included in similarly reduced views. In Front Porch, a saw-toothed shadow and black windows on the near side of a house lead perspectively to a dwelling in the middle distance beneath a bare tree. Which is the home place? We are not told. Part of the fascination of these works lies in their evasiveness: the density and weight of the bare walls, the status of light, and the air of stillness spark curiosity about the calculated privacy and secrets withheld.
They are elegiac paintings, wrestling with how past informs the present and future (their closest photographic analogy is with the cemetery scenes of Clarence John Laughlin, not the snapshot sensibility of Eggleston and Christenberry). Locked down and contemplative, these are silent pictures: silence as a moment of stopping, as a condition of consciousness, as a cultivated inwardness. Close values and a subdued timbre characterize some other painters of silence: Hammersoi, Morandi, Balthus, Hopper, Reinhardt and Rothko, for example. All share a monastic relinquishing of immediacy and spontaneity in favor or an extended awareness of presence and place.
To return to William Carlos Williams: “It is because we confuse the narrow sense of parochialism in its limiting implication, that we fail to see the complement of the same: that the local in a full sense is the freeing agency to all thought, in that it is everywhere accessible to all…every place where men have eyes, brains, vigor and the desire to partake with others of that same variant in other place which unites us all.”
Three current exhibitions in Louisville, Kentucky offer an opportunity to assess a southern aesthetic in the visual arts. Two of the three shows define their topics narrowly, providing a specific critical viewpoint. The third invites something altogether different.
“Provoking the Uncanny: Ralph Eugene Meatyard” (Schneider Hall Galleries, University of Louisville, through August 14th), curated by Hunter Kissel, zeroes in on Freudian implications of the Lexington photographer’s use of blurred and prolonged exposures while photographing masks, dolls, as well as child and adolescent models. Meatyard’s inventive Southern Gothic conveys the combination of fright and anxiety Freud believed arose from recognition of imagery associated with traumatic memories of a childhood long suppressed in the subconscious. The psychoanalytic concept of the uncanny provides a fresh critical view of Meatyard’s ability to tap into a hallucinatory merging of reality and fantasy.
Comparably focused is “Southern Elegy: Photographs from the Stephen Reily Collection” (Speed Art Museum through October 14th). Reily assembled a connoisseur’s selection of Louisiana-centric images starting from the premise that “southern photography is often inspired by its own sense of captured memory, self-aware of the losses that underlie the landscape before us as well as target the losses that will transform it once again.” Staving off oblivion is a risky endeavor, but the collection evades the obvious risk of mawkishness, first through the extraordinary quality of the work, and secondly through the selection of photographs which are broadly poetic representations of the South rather than documents. The most affecting photograph in the collection is Sally Mann’s sun-struck shot of the bank of the Tallahatchie River where the murdered body of Emmett Till was heaved into the water. Mann has written that she finds the South “death-haunted, pain-haunted, just haunted, period…I was looking for images of the dead as they are revealed in the land and in its adamant renewal.” “Provoking the Uncanny” and “Southern Elegy” are both tightly conceived, coherent bodies of work that provide excellent complements to their larger counterpart.
In contrast, “Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art” (also at the Speed Art Museum through October 14th) is a grandly multifarious affair, an exhibition that leads in multiple directions. It promulgates, in its various threads, the argument that the South is in the throes of revolutionary evolution. Yet, the exhibition’s ambitions go beyond simply tracking that rapid change: the mind, the culture, the zeitgeist, the possible personal meanings of “the South,” are addressed through the works of art, the accompanying audio library of southern music, and the 275-page catalogue, which variously includes scholarly essays, artists’ statements, poetry, anecdote, a cultural chronology, a music library, and a reading list. The show broaches “the complex and contested concept of the American South through the lens of contemporary art” in this sweeping (and ultimately affectionate) effort at “enacting and interrogating southern identity.”
The title “Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art” is therefore not about a distinguishing twang, but accentuation on a trenchant and consequential moment in American art played out in a particular region of the United States. Time is not a continuum in this show, but a mechanism for looping back to the past – not as the object of a long, fond, lingering look, but as a departure point that posits a more benign future. And unlike earlier regionalisms, the art seldom aims to find the universal in the local, but rather to demarcate and hail its particularities.
The co-curators, Miranda Lash of the Speed Art Museum and Trevor Schoonmaker of the Nasher Art Museum at Duke University, subvert the magisterial authority of the curatorial voice in resetting the parameters of inquiry into American regionalism, and reformulating traditional imagery of southern identity. There is no acoustic guide sequence for touring this exhibition, allowing for individual pathways of discovery. To me, it prompted a train of musings about nature and sense of place, cool and anti-cool, art as witness, speaking truth to power, and finally, the possibility of prototypes for a new sectional iconography.
The introductory work in the exhibition sets the tone for much of what follows: Thornton Dial’s “Monument to the Minds of the Little Negro Steelworkers” is a screen relief as rigorous and formally elegant as any by the late Sir Anthony Caro. A self-taught (or indigenous) artist, Dial arranged wrought iron floral plumes on the screen, adding to this scavenged assemblage plastic flowers, an ax blade, animal bones, glass bottles, tin cans, paint can lids, enamel paint and scraps of cloth. Some of these additions are associated with traditional African-American burial practices and are believed to have protective powers. Dial’s sculpture performs a sacerdotal memorial to the creativity as well as the dangerous lives of African-American steel workers. At Sloss Furnace National Historic Landmark in Birmingham, Alabama, where Dial lived, one learns that black workers had the hottest, most arduous and most dangerous tasks in the foundry. Sloss Furnace is locally believed to be haunted because of the many workers’ deaths during its years of operation (1882-1971).
“Monument to the Minds of the Little Negro Steelworkers,” in aesthetic disguise, conjures up a propitiatory tribute to marginalized mill hands. In the broader context of southern icons, Dial turns on its head the clichéd views of New Orleans’ French Quarter balconies and transforms associations with the conventionally picturesque into a potent argument for the moral intelligence and pertinence of a disparate group of repurposed objects.
Sense of place is not directly addressed in this exhibit but it is continually manifest in the imagery of climate and vegetation. The searing, unforgiving intensity of summer sun and heat is conveyed in Benny Andrews’ fabric collage of a stalwart woman passing a row of workers’ cabins, her black obelisk-shaped shadow competing for attention with the figure herself. Like heat, vegetation is a place marker but there are no grand allées of live oaks festooned with Spanish moss and no genteel borders of azalea. Plant life is mystically profuse in the wonderful pairing of watercolors by Walter Anderson and crayon drawings by Minnie Evans. Jim Roche’s photographs with text and Howard Finster’s tree of life “vision of the angels feed on the fruit of a farren [sic] land” share a vitalist sense of a benevolent plant world. These stand in contrast to the malevolent, inexorable advance of kudzu in photographs by William Christenberry or the eerie algae scum in Jessica Ingram’s forbidding photo of a cypress swamp.
Southern Accents: Seeking The American South in Contemporary Art, Speed Art Museum, FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Henry Harrrison Mayes, Untitled, n.d.; Howard Finster, Vision of the Angels – Honey Without Bees; William Christenberry, Building with False Brick Siding, Warsaw, Alabama, 4 photographs, 1974-1994; Benny Andrews, Down the Road, 1971; Romare Bearden, Profile, Part 1, The Twenties: Mecklenburg County, Sunset Limited, 1978; Romare Bearden, Watching the Good Trains Go By, 1964, FOREGROUND (Left) Beverly Buchanan, 1940-2015, Family Tree House, 2009, cedar and acrylic, 2009, 17x10x14.5 inches, Courtesy of the Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York, New York (right), Moonshine Man’s House, wood, 12×16.75×18.5 inches, Courtesy of the Andrew, Edlin Gallery, New York, New York Installation View Photo Credit: TL Dickman
The uses and moods of a pressing natural world find little concordance with depictions of the built environment. Over 50 of the 125 works in the exhibition feature structures of some sort, but outdoor views vastly outnumber interiors. Neighborhood, family and street life vanished: boarded up after Katrina, obstructed by segregation, wealth or ethnic distinctions, or abandoned because of economic shifts, misplaced governmental policies, or migration away from the South.
Beverly Buchanan’s miniature cabins made of scrap wood are cenotaphs – tomblike monuments- for generations dispersed from farmland but poignantly and equivocally are also loci of longing for a fixed and familiar home place, however impoverished. Douglas Bourgeois’ ironic interiors-without-walls, as in “American Address,” depict in hallucinogenic detail the unreality of that pining. Curator Trevor Schoonmaker observes “the acts of leaving and coming home seem an integral and commonplace part of southern life.”
Douglas Bourgeois, b. 1951, American Address, 2006, oil on panel, 20 x 16.75 inches, Private Collection
I perceive another sub-theme in the expression of cool and anti-cool. First used by jazz musician Lester Young in the 1940s, “cool” denotes a defiant assertion of individuality, independence, and rebellion. Cool is sartorially resplendent in Barkley Hendricks’s 1971 painting, “Downhome Taste”, and echoes the theme of black masculine empowerment in Blaxploitation films of the same era – downward tilted hat, sunglasses, cigarette, leather jacket and woven belt – costumed as if in a film still. Cool exists on a continual gradient. In Fahamu Pecou’s self-portrait as a high-stepping vaudeville performer, the words CHIT’LIN CIRCUIT celebrate the show people of that segregated tour while an Outkast lyric sprayed across the top of the canvas offers an ironic comment on the circumstances of those performers’ lives. Pecou’s engagement with an obsolete version of cool induces a searching dialogue with historical versions of black male identity.
Cool as a personal style, a way of being in relation to a particular time and place, is deeply interwoven and intrinsic to Southern identities. Hats, headdresses, and hair-dos proclaim the with-it-ness of those depicted as in Willie Birch’s monumental and joyous drawings of the Storyville Stompers Brass Band and Second Line and the Big Nine Social Aid and Pleasure Club. Anti-cool is signaled again and again in the exhibition by hats: helmets, snap-brims, police caps and Klan hoods. Although the concept of cool is historically African-American, the inextricable mix of southern identity and cool go beyond the black-white binary. Diego Camposeco’s portrait of a fifteen-year-old Mexican-American North Carolinian in a flouncy blue gown is one example of how “southerner” now has multiple modifiers beyond African-American or Caucasian. Other ethnicities and sexual orientations manifested in the exhibition include Native American southerner, Afro-Native American southerner, Vietnamese-American southerner and lesbian southerner. Multiple cool southern identities are conjoined in Jeff Whetstone’s portrait of “Caitlin,” a teenage hunter, posed in the woods wearing camouflage, shotgun across her lap, made up with polished fingernails, lipstick, eyeliner and pearl earrings.
Art as witness and speaking truth to power parallel different concepts of self outlined above: there is an implicit revolutionary bias in many of the guises adopted in “Southern Accents” portraits. Of all the adversarial forces to be overcome – hurricanes, economic hardships, prejudices, or, for some, godlessness – racism takes center stage. In terms of visual imagery the archetype is the Civil Rights protests of the last half of the 20th century. Two contrasting marches, seen in Michael Galinsky’s chilling edit of 1987 video footage, “The Day the KKK Came to Town,” and Hank William Thomas’ installation of sixteen photographs on mirrored surfaces of the Bloody Sunday march in 1965, encapsulate curator Lash’s description of “the region’s layered history of racism and oppression.” Speaking truth to power underlies William Cordova’s “Silent Parade: Or the Soul Rebels Band Vs. Robert E. Lee,” a video depicting the jazz troupe’s musical jeer at the New Orleans monument to the Confederate general. (The monument has since been removed).
Finally, there are works in the exhibition that invite (at least theoretically) performance and decoding: set as stage sets, like good drama, they offer if not a healing catharsis, then the extended reflection that follows adept provocation. The struggle against privileged legacies takes many forms. Theaster Gates’ “Soul Food Rickshaw for Collard Greens and Whiskey,” a beautifully crafted pushcart made in part from recycled desk drawers, is a rolling tabernacle for a ritual African-American meal. It is accompanied by two stools implying shared sustenance.
Sonya Clark, b. 1967, Unraveling, 2015-present, Cotton Confederate battle flag and unraveled threads, edition 2/10, 70 x 36 x 7 inches, Courtesy of the Artist
Sonya Clark’s “Unraveling’ is a Confederate flag, the threads of which have been picked asunder to straggling tatters. Part of the magic of Clark’s invention is that we are accustomed to seeing ragged and worn flags in history museums. Clark signals that a new battle has been enjoined and new purposes may be found for the salvaged threads. In his interactive video projection, Hank Willis Thomas recolors the Confederate battle flag into the colors of pan-African liberation, black, red and green. There is a microphone placed before the screen. The video morphs into kaleidoscopic star bursts when the viewer sings along with Thomas’ playlist of R&B classics, thereby enlisting the viewer as part of the implied call to action.
Hank Willis Thomas, b. 1976, Black Righteous Space (Southern Edition) 2012, DVD (Play list and video installation), microphone and Mac Mini, runtime continuous, Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, New York
More complicated metaphors provide syntax for a subtly inflected diction of psychological emancipation. “Southern Comfort” by Sam Durant juxtaposes a gray army blanket, an ax handle and a pint of the sickly sweet liquor, Southern Comfort. A symbol of staunch segregationism, ax handles were given away by Georgia Governor Lester Maddox at his fried chicken restaurant. The Confederate gray of the blanket and the Currier and Ives steamboat on the Southern Comfort label collude to cast into doubt the universality of the concepts of southern hospitality and comfort to strangers.
Radcliffe Bailey, b. 1968, Up From, 2015, Canvas tarpaulin, velvet, Georgia clay, wood, rock, thread, rum and tobacco, 132×72 inches, canvas tarpaulin, velvet, Georgia clay, wood, rock, metal, thread, rum, and tobacco; 132 x 72 inches Courtesy of the artist and the Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, New York
Radcliffe Bailey, Up From, 2015. Detail Photo Credit: TL Dickman
Radcliffe Bailey’s “Up From” is a canvas tarp rubbed with Georgia red clay dirt, Caribbean rum and tobacco, like African sculptures encrusted with sanctifying liquids, but also substances associated with the history of slave labor. An iridescent black head wearing a battered top hat sits on a rock in the upper half, like an intercessor or divine guide for the tracks or ladders stenciled on the tarp. Miranda Lash associates the diverse array of symbols stitched on the tarp with signs from the “Underground Railroad, Yoruba and Kongo cosmology, Haitian Veve and black Southern artists and craftsmen.” The title may reference Booker T. Washington’s 1901 autobiography “Up From Slavery,” which advocated black advancement through skilled trades. The ladder and snake imagery on the tarp may also reference the ancient board game, Snakes and Ladders, in which players endure the perils of continual reversals and slipping backwards from the start (bottom square) to the finish (top square) – a potent metaphor for the uncertainties of black American lives in the 20th and 21st centuries.
On May 17, 2017, the statue of Robert E. Lee was removed from its pedestal in New Orleans. On that occasion, Mayor Mitch Landrieu remarked, “I want to try to gently peel from your hands the grip on a false narrative of our history that I think weakens us…Centuries-old wounds are still raw because they never healed right in the first place…We justify our silence by manufacturing noble causes that marinate in historical denial.” Surely his statements go a long way to explaining the reasons for and the power of this show.
In effect, the slate is clean and cleared for a new iconography of the South. Does “Southern Accent” offer a proto-history of that stylistic evolution? Think of Eastern Europe after Glasnost, South Africa in the Mandela Era, or Ireland in the years leading to and after their Civil War with the revival of the Gaelic language, popular song, the Abbey Theater, the paintings of Jack Yeats. If the American South were a foreign country (and it some ways it is), it might be easier to recognize the pivotal character of the present moment.
“Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art” is foundational, essential viewing for anyone with an interest in regional American art and culture.
Gordon W. Bailey has given thirty-five works of art to the Speed Art Museum. A World in My View: Gifts from Gordon W. Bailey includes art by twenty-one artists.
An introductory selection of twenty-six pieces is on view at the Speed until February 5th. All of the artists are African-American and are predominantly from the rural south. The selection is extraordinary on many counts – for the authenticity and depth of emotion in many works, for the range and brilliance of invention, for the improvisatory response to a welter of non-traditional scavenged materials, and not least, for the boldness and freshness of color.
Testimony to religious faith is a recurring theme. Herbert Singleton’s Danieal in the Lion’s Den depicts a stalwart Daniel with a shepherd’s crook standing very upright, looking straight ahead, seemingly unfazed by the lion and lioness confronting him. A hole in the red painted board which provides the support for this sculpture in low relief reinforces the witness to faith: conviction outweighs correct spelling or traditional artistic finish. A jagged broken edge of the board is echoed in the lion’s bared fangs.
Nellie Mae Rowe American, 1900-1982 Peace with Blue Hand, 1980 Crayon and graphite on paper 14 x 14 in. (35.6 x 35.6 cm.) sheet Gift of Judith Alexander
Nellie Mae Rowe is represented by Peace with Blue Hand. Rowe frequently traced her own hand in her art as a way of bearing witness and asserting her presence in the world. The hand points to the word “peace” and a bicolored red sun with green and brown rays. The curve formed by the artist’s thumb and wrist provides a contour for the silhouette of a bird: Rowe was a master at using one line to serve divergent forms. The hand/bird is flanked on the right by the back of a mauve cow and on the left by a pink-leaved flower crowned with a bud in the form of turbaned blue woman’s head. In Rowe’s art blue was often code for black. Race, mysticism, prayer, free association and a profound identification with nature come together in Rowe’s vision.
Purvis Young American, 1943 – 2010 Christ Watching Over Dudes, 1990s Mixed media on wood 68 × 24 in. (172.7 × 61 cm.) Gift of Gordon W. Bailey in honor of Chuck Pittenger
Purvis Young’s Christ Watching over Dudes shows the divine head loped over diagonally above three figures who are defined by an open weave of shimmering horizontal and diagonal strokes in green, carmine, black, blue and yellow. Christ’s eyes are closed and his mouth is open, as if in prayer. The three “dudes” are afloat, spectral presences, perhaps already entered into a redemptive afterlife.
J. B. Murray American, 1908 – 1988 Untitled, 1970s Mixed media on wood 25 1/4 × 25 in. (64.1 × 63.5 cm.) Gift of Gordon W. Bailey
J.B. Murry’s work extends the spiritual theme. Murry was convinced that he was scribe for a divinely inspired “language of the holy spirit.” The example at the Speed holds its own as a color abstraction of the highest order: translucent horizontal and vertical squiggles form a rose, blue and yellow bar hovering over vertical trails of green, yellow, black, blue and purple, partially surrounded by an orange border. The indeterminacy and richness of markings are seemingly offhand but deft in their intuitive sense of economy, providing just enough for a work of art so inbred with transcendence that Murry’s belief that he was amanuensis to divine dictation has its own fictive plausibility.
Not all of the exhibition sticks to spiritual themes: Henry Spiller’s exuberantly bawdy women display their most intimate attractions with bravado, and Spiller’s extraordinarily well endowed donkey is depicted with echoing curves to provide maximum emphasis to this equine’s outsized masculine attributes.
James “Son” Thomas American, 1926 – 1993 Untitled, 1980s Unfired clay sculpture 8 × 10 × 8 in. (20.3 × 25.4 × 20.3 cm.) Gift of Gordon W. Bailey
Jimmy Lee Sudduth and Son House offer disorienting, unsettling experiences with their portraits of women. The body of Sudduth’s woman is defined by a brown circle seen against a yellow ground. The asymmetrical face addresses the viewer with a commanding, arresting stare. Comparably, Son House’s unfired clay head sports a wig, gold eyes and gold teeth, and her head is tilted to one side as if in animated conversation. In both works there is an uncanny sense of the unfamiliar familiar, artworks that seem very real without the traditional trappings of realism.
Equally haunting are Welmon Sharlhorne’s precisely delineated fanciful architecture, evoking funhouse or carnival buildings. Drawn on what appears to be the backs of yellow manila envelopes, the artist’s studied designs take their coordinates from folds in the paper. One of his drawings features a clown figure wearing a beanie with a clock on his nose. (Sharlhorne spent many years incarcerated and clocks and closed doors in his drawings may have autobiographical significance). The beanie demarcates the roofline of the building and flips in and out of three dimensionality, becoming a dome in Sharlhorne’s Escheresque perspective.
New York Times critic Roberta Smith has remarked that looking at the work of self-taught artists has made her “more open, less tolerant of rules and orthodoxies, more understanding of the human urgency to make art and how widespread it is.” The indigenous artists’ works on view at the Speed offer precisely that aesthetic liberation.
Gaela Erwin: Reframing the Past is on view at the Speed Art Museum through October 30th. It complements an earlier art exhibition, Gaela Erwin: Mother that was on view at the University of Louisville’s Cressman Center for the Visual Arts this past summer.
In each show Erwin explores her genealogy, both familial and artistic. The German Expressionist Max Beckmann wrote in 1939, “the self is the greatest mystery in the world.” Like Beckmann’s pursuit of “the mystery of being,” Erwin’s art may be seen as a continual effort to be ever more specific about the psychology of identity, household relationships and art historical heritage. The family portraits are less about lineage and more about penetrating self-discovery. The artist is not leaning on art historical models for legitimation or prestige, but to delve deeply into the nature of portraiture in past and present practice.
Gaela Erwin (American), Portrait of my Mother in her Wedding Dress, 2013, chalk pastel, Collection of Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, 21c Museum Hotels
Erwin’s greatest invention in the Cressman show was to depict her nonagenarian mother asleep, reclining full length, attired in her wedding dress. Erwin’s mother (now deceased) suffered from dementia and Erwin’s use of her mother as a subject ironically presents a gifted physiognomist contemplating a loved one subtly expressionless. The bridal gown unfamiliarizes the sitter: dress-up is a way of losing touch with time, and heightening, in this case, the struggle of age versus beauty.
In her affecting portrayals of the last years of her mother’s life, Erwin conveys a telling inventory of the symptoms of dementia evoked in John Bayley’s phrases describing his wife, Iris Murdoch: “behindhand;” “unreassured;” “wonder on the edge of fear;” “the daily pucker of blank anxiety.” Erwin charts her mother’s mien, the dropping lower lip, the sagging flesh, and the bulging carotid artery, yet also intimates empathy for a striking woman seemingly accustomed to being beautiful, the chalk uncannily taking on the substance of rouge and lipstick. The pastel is handled very directly in this work and left unblended as in the bold red and black marks defining the arthritic fingers of the sitter’s right hand.
Several double portraits of Erwin and her sister Shelley were in both exhibitions. Especially in the costumed double portraits in the Speed show, the artist intimates the complexity of sibling relationships and the numbing exhaustion of negotiating the care of a dying parent. In The Erwin Sisters as Artist and Poet compressing the figures against the frontal plane signals both closeness and discomfort. Nonetheless, the recurring portraits in 18th and 19th Century costume create an air of politesse, courtly manners and courtesies, as if these traditions offered a pathway to an authentically civil society.
Gaela Erwin, Self-Portrait as Twins Separated at Birth, 2016, pastel on paper, Courtesy of the Artist
An extension of the portraits with her sister is Erwin’s Self Portrait as Twins Separated at Birth. The backdrop of trees adapted from Francis Cotes in four works is here rendered a trompe l’oeil picture within a picture held on the wall behind the double portrait with push pins and masking tape. The finesse with which the sheen of blue satin is rendered in the 18th Century Erwin, on the left, contrasts with the abstract expressionist gestural drawing describing the faded Union Jack t-shirt in the contemporary Erwin on the right.
The gaze of the informal, t-shirted and blue-jeaned self is direct and confrontational, while the historicized figure averts from looking at the viewer. A traditional symbol of vanity, a peacock feather, adorns the shawl draped over the arms of the costumed version. The constricted period gown and blonde wig gives the fictional character an air of hauteur, dominating the sister two centuries her junior. A literal depiction of the idiom denoting worry and anxiety, “ I am beside myself,” is given a narrative cast. As in many other works in the exhibition, there is a sense of incipient action – the moment before the moment something momentous will happen, perhaps when artifice is revealed and the real Gaela Erwin steps forward.
In the catalogue to the exhibition, Eileen Yanoviak, Exhibition Coordinator at the Speed Art Museum, places Erwin’s portraits firmly in the tradition of the fantasy portrait, with its openings to associations and fictions about the past: “They are a sort of ‘self-fashioning’ through history, a way to select those attributes and narratives that define an individual. Removed from contemporary reality, these portraits seem to reveal the paradoxes and complexities of the present through the past.”
Erwin pays homage to pastel practice with riffs on studies by 18th Century masters in the Speed’s collection by Jean-Baptiste Perroneau (1715-1783), and Francis Cotes ( 1726-1770), as well as the 20th Century artist, Winold Reiss (1786-1953).
Gaela Erwin (American), Licia and Neema, 2016, Pastel on paper, Courtesy of the artist
The exhibition’s tour-de-force is a double portrait of Licia Priest and Neema Tambo modeled on the Francis Cotes depiction of two young women. The African-American subjects are resplendent in 18th Century costume: Erwin’s pastel is more finished in these likenesses than in other works in the show and Priest and Tambo occupy a more ample field. Erwin deploys her technical skills to provide a convincing case for the dignity and self-possession of the sitters. Yanoviak notes, accurately, that they are “aggressively present.” The fantasy of elegant, aristocratic black women in 18th Century high fashion garb engenders a back-and-forth meditation on sexual and racial politics in the 18th Century and today. Staging does not constrict the figures or indulge an inveigling flattery but instead re-doubles ironic reverberations between person and persona, actor and role. Like a great evening of theater, the performers seem totally believable, the artificiality and glitz of setting and costume enhancing rather than detracting from the illusion.
The Speed needs to be applauded for a very full presentation of a Kentucky artist with an excellent illustrated catalogue. Also notable is the juxtaposition of historical works from the permanent collection and contemporary responses. For all art museums, the holy grails of relevance and accessibility are elusive – Gaela Erwin: Reframing the Past sets a high and imitable standard.