Category Archives: Arts


Tasteful Nudes: Little To Provoke At Lexington Art League Show

As a tempestuous year comes to its close amidst bluster of impeachment trials and Brexit votes, threats to reproductive rights and struggles for minority rights, the ongoing opioid crisis and the progressing climate crisis, not to mention those stalwart nuisances of racism, classism and sexism, inside the sunlit halls of the Lexington Art League’s (LAL) Loudoun House home, all is calm, all is bright.

“Kentucky Nude,” this year’s iteration of the venerable organization’s once-annual-now-biennial nude show, runs December 6, 2019, to January 5, 2020, and features works by more than 50 Kentucky artists, juried by LAL studio artists Don Ament and Helene Steene. While previous years’ shows have been organized around tighter conceptual themes, such as self-portraiture or the rawness of human desire and physical form, “Kentucky Nude” presents more like a procession of classical figure studies, a mostly two-dimensional gathering of nubile white women reposing on sheets, sofas and other studio furnishings.

Not that there’s anything wrong with pursuing beauty for beauty’s sake. In fact, we should probably do a lot more of it, given the aforementioned political and cultural maelstrom that’s currently thrashing us about. To spend time with beauty and pleasure is, in some sense, to transcend the political, to affirm that there is more to life than the insidious crawl of the 24-hour news cycle, that we as human beings are far more complex and nuanced and expansive than any binary party system or policy debate would have us believe.

The difficulty is that the particular beauty on display in “Kentucky Nude” feels overwhelmingly overfamiliar, a sort of visual schmaltz on par with a dozen red roses, a batch of chocolate chip cookies, a kiss on the cheek from grandma. Perhaps more troubling is the show’s narrow range of flesh tones and dearth of minority perspectives – and of male physiques, much to this reviewer’s disappointment – which, while surely unintentional, comes across as slightly tone-deaf.  

Megan Martin, ‘Abuttment Blue’, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 48″ x 48″ (left) and Sarah Vaughn, ‘Am I OK?’, 2019, oil and spray paint, 48″ x 32″

At least we still have laughter! “A birthday suit,” we call this too too floppy flesh, and some of the best works in the show take a more lighthearted look at a well-worn (so to speak) subject. Sarah Vaughn uses hot pink backlighting to frame her painting of a naked woman arching her back in a dramatic gesture of surrender rendered in melancholy blues. Titled Am I OK?, the red-orange spray-painted sad face looking down on the figure suggests that she is not.

On the neighboring wall, Megan Martin’s Abuttment Blue features ten joyfully colorful imprints where ten correspondingly colorful bums have abutted with her black canvas. It’s less like Yves Klein’s use of naked women as human paintbrushes, more like a happily erotic game of Twister, or the fine art equivalent of Xeroxing your butt as the office holiday party descends into debauchery.

Aaron Lubrick, ‘Dan With His Cat’, 2018, acrylic, 60″ x 72″

Equally delightful is Aaron Lubrick’s Dan With His Cat and its playful nod to the afternoon luncheon: his companions in classical repose, formed in dark tones that quiet their nakedness; Dan’s cat a black silhouette that slinks in between the two; the landscape electric with acid-green grass, a periwinkle sea and a tiny red sailboat like a toy in the distance. Short, crude brushstrokes suggest an immediacy, a desire to capture this happiness lest it prove fleeting. (Milan Kundera, with a slight edit: “To sit with a cat on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring – it was peace.”)

Todd Fife, ‘Gabrielle d’Estrees Redux’, 2019, oil, graphite and resin, 19″ x 23″ (foreground) and Todd Fife, ‘The Pity’, 2019, oil, graphite, ink and resin, 14″ x 21″ (background)

Not to be left out of the riffing-on-the-classics party, Todd Fife takes aim with Gabrielle d’Estrees Redux, replacing the two sixteenth-century French noblewomen with a corpulent pair of white-haired female friends, one delicately pinching the sagging nipple of the other as a ribboned speech bubble coaxes a quote from the Marquis de Sade from her puckered red lips: On n’est jamais aussi dangereux quand on n’a pas honte que quand on est devenu trop vieux pour rougir. (One is never as dangerous when one is not ashamed as when one has become too old to blush.) The mind reels in speculative delight trying to imagine the act lewd enough to elicit a blush from the salacious Marquis. 

Maria Risner, ‘Melancholy Form’, 2017, mixed media, 18″ x 48″ (left), Rosemary Harney, ‘Pretty in Pearls’, 2019, mixed media, 27″ x 11″ (center) Sid Webb, ‘The Word Only He Can Say Publicly’, 2018, mixed media, 48″ x 24″ (right)

Sid Webb takes on the comedy-turned-horror-story that is the American presidency in the mixed media work The Word Only He Can Say Publicly, in which a starlet of the silent movie era gazes up helplessly as an orange-y, toupéed man in a black suit grabs at the word in question. It’s a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in the op-ed section, both because of its accuracy but also because it doesn’t seem to offer any new ideas to the current conversation. Curiously, the work is placed alongside two sculpted pieces – Maria Risner’s Melancholy Form and Rosemary Harney’s Pretty in Pearls – that, while respectfully depicted, nevertheless treat the naked female as mere object, leaving the viewer with the uneasy feeling that the sexist past is now more present than ever – or worse, that it’s become normalized.

Daja, ‘No’, 2019, mixed media, 36″ x 24″

Perhaps the more compelling response to the #metoo movement is Daja’s No. Her naked white subject walks away from us into a cerulean and sky blue color field, turning her head and shoulders to look at someone off to our right. Daja’s flat treatment of the figure creates a sense of affectlessness, as if distancing itself from the victim. The woman’s stare is equal parts pleading and withering – an emotional response that feels suitably discordant for a movement that empowered female victims at the same time it left a sense of despondence in its wake as we realized just how pervasive – and accepted – sexual violence had become. 

David Harover, ‘Alla Prima Nude #1’, 2018, oil paint, 12″ x 9″

Still, the show offers moments of honesty and gentleness, such as the two oil paintings by David Harover, their smallness (each less than 12 inches square) inviting a quiet intimacy. Harover seems to reveal his figures more than paint them, as if his brushstrokes were simply sweeping away the soft brown and goldenrod pigments that had settled on top of them. His Alla Prima Nude #1 is an ample woman, modestly concealing herself with her arm as she turns her torso away from us, her expression one of detached contentment. Of all the works in the show, it perhaps most fully embodies the idea of nakedness, that raw and primal state in which we are stripped bare of armor and artifice. Harover’s subject is neither ugly nor erotic, only human – vulnerable, tender, adored. In a word, beautiful. 


Grabbing a Drink with James Lyons

I met up with artist James Lyons at Bar Ona located on Church Street in downtown Lexington for our studio visit. This was the first place I’d met James and just one of the several bars where he works. It’s a gray and rainy Sunday evening. I knock on the front door and peer through the window into the dark bar. James sees me from behind the bar and lets me in. It’s an hour before opening. James is blaring music and the bar is filled with a distinct perfume. I ask him if he’s burning incense, “It’s sage” he replies; perhaps he is trying to fend off any bad omens in anticipation of my visit. Beers lie in crates on the floor waiting to replenish the coolers beneath the bar. The bar has been recently decorated for the holiday season, Christmas lights are strung above and adorn various plants. I start with a simple “How are you?” to which James replies “Tired.”

When approaching James about a studio visit he insisted we meet at Bar Ona. “I don’t really have a studio right now,” James admitted. As a young working artist myself, I really related to this statement, and knowing James through bartending at an adjacent bar myself it felt only appropriate that we meet at Bar Ona. 

In our text exchange prior to the visit, James had confessed to me that he was very nervous. “I can be pretty quiet about my art.”

“Bring a shovel and DIG” he said. 

So, with both of us exhausted from our weekend shifts, I began digging. 

Photos from James Lyons’ studio

James is a Lexington native who hails from the Cardinal Valley neighborhood, a predominately black and Hispanic neighborhood tucked away near Red Mile. James describes himself as a “mean kid” and expressed to me struggles he had growing up with peers, the administration and most importantly his faith-based community. Growing up as a queer person of color within the Seventh-Day Adventist faith was not easy for James but would prove to be an incredibly formative experience, leading him to pursue art.

“It’s fucking crazy this bitch gets hit in the head in third grade, with a rock, she passes out…and then the next thing you know she writes 127 fucking very well written books about her visions…her real slapper was called the Great Controversy and there’s a passage that’s very, very close to September 11th.” James was referring to one of the instrumental figures in Seventh Day Adventism, Ellen G. White, whose visions inspired her writings  – still held in high regard in the church to this day.

It was James’ upbringing as a Seventh-Day Adventist that would land him at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Andrews University, the first higher-learning institution founded by Seventh-Day Adventists, would provide struggles as well as opportunities for James. “It was so frustrating, here I am trying to find myself and there are all of these new rules. I had to sign a contract that basically signed my life away, I wasn’t even allowed to smoke.” However, Andrews also provided James with an underground network of young queer men, which allowed him freedoms he had yet been able to experience; more importantly, the university provided their photo department. Although James had been pursuing photography since high school, it was his time spent and the resources provided by Andrews that allowed him to hone his craft and provided him with the environment in which to develop his practice. 

Photo from James’ ‘Bus Tub’ series

Following his graduation from Andrews University, James spent time in Chicago before returning to Lexington. Upon his return to Lexington James expressed to me both a frustration and passion. “I wanted to find the artistic community here and connect.” James began by publishing a photo portfolio, a book that was met with backlash and attempted censorship. “The company had a policy against printing nude pictures…there was this lady that worked there who was so helpful, I feel bad because she probably got fired for helping me print that book.”

Photos from James Lyons’ studio

The complexities of societal relations with the nude image are nothing new to James or his work, and in fact are central to his best known body of work Frank. Frank, a show consisting of a collection of Instax photographs of flaccid penises, debuted at Parachute Factory in 2018. The show was met with equal parts praise and disdain. James once relayed to me a story about a group of teenage boys who came in and after spending a few moments with the show loudly proclaimed with disgust “Ugh, it’s just dicks.” When I got the offer to interview and write about James, I was most excited to discuss Frank with him.

Photo from James’ ‘Frank’ series

On Frank, James had to say,

 “I started reading the Male Nude in Contemporary Photography by Melody D. Davis on the same day I got my Instax mini in the mail, so I went downstairs to a house party and started taking pictures of people’s dicks.” James said. 

Davis’ critique of the representation of the phallus in photo inspired James to produce this body of work.

“I wanted to create the antithesis of a big hard cock.”

In our current political climate and the age of #metoo, Frank asks questions about consent, anonymity and celebration versus exploitation of the body. I was curious about James’ process and how he went about approaching the subjects of his photographs. 

“I started the project as a way to learn to be a ‘good boy’ and meet new people.” James says when I asked him about his motivation for the project.

The subjects of James’ photographs came from all walks of life (bar patrons, friends, and lovers) and many were complete strangers. “It’s easy, guys are really proud of their dicks.”

Photos of local drag performers from James Lyons’ studio

James attributes a bulk of the photographs to nights spent at Crossings, a local gay dive bar. Many of the photos were taken outside of the bar and in the bar’s restrooms. “The bouncer got mad at me and tried to kick me out but once they realized we were just taking pictures and not, like, doing coke, they left us alone.”

Frank is both intimate and anonymous. The close cropped images draw the viewer in close only to provide them with very limited information about the subject beyond what lies within the 46x62mm frame. The series brings to mind Andy Warhol’s Polaroids, his glamorous subjects exposed and vulnerable, frozen for eternity within the frame and elevated to superstar status by Warhol’s hand. Lyon’s subjects are stripped of their identifying features but presented in a way which elevates them beyond just a phallus.

At this point in the interview the bar began to fill up, many passers by stopping to speak to James. James’ position as a bartender allots him a front row seat to the personal lives of so many, and through his career he has woven a web of subjects, muses, and companions who serve as constant encouragement, support and inspiration. 

We step outside to have a cigarette.

“I love that you insisted on meeting at Ona,” I tell James. 

“This IS my studio,” James replies. 

“These people have taken care of me. They took me to Spain and paid for my trip. I ate at one of the top restaurants in the world and translated for one of the top chefs in the world.”

I bring up the magic of bars, especially gay bars, to James. We discuss the openness and vulnerability that can exist within these spaces. “I always feel this presence when I am at certain gay bars, especially places like Crossings and Bar Ona that have alot of history. They feel alive or haunted in this really unique way.” I say to James.

Photo from James Lyons’ studio

James’ work provides us with a peephole into his world but more broadly the rich and varied queer culture within Lexington, Kentucky. We discuss how many young people are unaware of Lexington’s long gay past and its position as a gay mecca for the region. As we speak, artist Bob Morgan walks past; Bob dressed to the nines in his usual patterned attire stops to say hi and we talk briefly. James and I laugh about it, what are the odds of three gay artists all being in the same place at the same time in Lexington? 

James is working to continue a legacy of queer art making in Lexington. Henry Faulkner, Stephen Varble, Edward Melcarth, Mike Goodlett, Bob Morgan and Louis Zoellar Bickett (a close friend of James’) and many more are joined in their efforts by James as he creates in his own way, documenting and preserving his experiences as a queer man of color in Lexington. James is paving a way for himself and others to follow if they choose to do so.

“I can’t even tell you how nervous I’ve been about this,” James confesses to me towards the end of the interview. I assure James he’s in good hands to which he replies “Alright, then I’m getting you a beer.”



Studio Visit with Robert Beatty

Floating approximately halfway between California and Hawaii, spanning more than half a million square miles, is an “island” made up of mostly microscopic plastic. “Island” is in quotes here because the mass is mostly imperceivable to the naked eye and rarely impedes marine traffic but is nevertheless deeply impactful to both human and animal life. The waste that makes up this invisible island, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes primarily from the populations of three continents (Asia, North America, and South America) and is held in place by what’s known as a gyre, a relatively fixed system of ocean currents that collectively create a vortex of force that is difficult to escape. Across the globe, there are five such gyres. In each one, a similar whirlwind of trash swirls without end.

Studio Shot with Robert Beatty, photo by author

The phenomenon is relatively new. Most of the garbage patches were first observed in the ’70s and ’80s, about a half century after plastic was originally invented, and have continued to expand since. Although methods are being devised to clear them, little headway has been made to stymie their source: largely single-use consumer plastics and packaging materials, of which somewhere between about 1 and 3 million metric tons enter the ocean each year. The tiny bits of waste are the remnants of our water bottles, plastic bags, and other detritus worn by the sun, wind, and the waves but still permanent and active in our planet’s ecosystem. The bits are found ingested by marine and avian life in increasing concentrations as you move up the food chain. The chemicals that are byproducts of their decomposition affect the makeup of the ocean and its life. The comparatively uncommon but still present large pieces can choke or otherwise constrict body parts of those same animals. 

It may be an odd way to consider it, but I think of these massive, dispersed, nearly intangible islands as uniquely contemporary monuments to – and a record of – our way of life. If a population is measured and understood by what it leaves behind and seeks (consciously or not) to make permanent, then this is our Stonehenge, Great Wall, Chichén Itzá, or Great Pyramid. If those places held significance because of their function as sites of ritual or as indicators of state power, then the Great Garbage Patches reveal the altar at which we worship and the offices we are subject to. They are invisible, collectively and unconsciously made, more a stain than a mark, and more permanent than we could hope to be. They are a wonder of the world, maybe a terrible wonder, but a wonder nonetheless. 

Studio Shot with Robert Beatty, photo by author

These hulking and ghostly masses came to mind after a recent conversation with artist, illustrator, and musician Robert Beatty in his apartment and studio, both located in downtown Lexington, about his work across mediums. His apartment, upstairs in a 19th century building near Gratz Park, is a kind of gyre of its own. In his office, books on esoteric practices, ancient archaeology, and electronic music are stacked high on TVs and soundboards. A large computer monitor displays a commercial project he’s working on, surrounded by records, more books, a few coffee cups, and print projects published in the New York Times, the Oxford American, and elsewhere. Robert’s chihuahua, Blue Velvet, rests delicately on a cushion nearby, and follows us into the kitchen for tea.

Robert’s chihuahua, Blue Velvet, photo by author

Robert Beatty, ‘Place Holder’, 2019, a multimedia installation at 21c, Lexington, photo credit: 21c Museum Hotel

We start our conversation with a discussion of Robert’s most recent exhibition, Place Holder, which remains on view at 21C Lexington through January 2020. The exhibition spans one room on the first floor of the main street hotel, and is comprised of a large central plinth with closed circuit camera footage of the same room projected on the surrounding walls. On the plinth are small cement sculptures arranged in a city-type grid. Some of them are brick-like. Others are more organic. All of them are rendered in a medium, industrial gray. Security cameras surveil the scene from above and feed the footage directly to the walls around them. Although some of the cameras are broadcasting in color, the projections read as nearly monochrome. The small sculptures are reminiscent of architectural models. If rendered to full scale, they might bring to mind the blocky, imposing Brutalist style of the mid-century. Another look and they feel a bit like gravestones. Two of them are pyramids, so perhaps this is the scale model for a mausoleum, or a place for spirits to inhabit after they leave their bodies behind. From above, they seem like the brainchild of a dystopian city planner. The scene is devoid of human life. It could be a ruin or a scene from a future of which we are not a part. When seen through the lens of the security cameras around them, the structures become somewhat uncanny, rendered inhabitable by the confusion of scale until you as a viewer intrude on the frame to provide reference. 

Studio Shot with plastics and cement, photo by author

Studio Shot with plastics and cement molds, photo by author

Robert tells me his process for making the sculptures, of which I was totally unaware despite seeing a few iterations of this body of work in the last year, first at the Parachute Factory in an exhibition organized by Alex Brooks, and then at the Atlanta Biennial held at the Atlanta Contemporary curated by Daniel Fuller and Phillip March Jones. The monolithic pyramids, three-dimensional trapezoids, and somewhat colonic tube structures are not, as I thought, cast from artist-made molds, but instead are created from plastic blister packaging. Even if you don’t know what blister packaging is (I didn’t), you’ve certainly dealt with it before. It’s the close-but-not-exact-fitting, often clear, interior packaging element encasing things like batteries, headphones, appliances, speaker cables, toys, and so on. The resulting shapes are remarkably abstracted and unrecognizable, a negative image of the byproducts of our culture’s consumption. Robert notes that what initially drove him towards these forms is their availability. As an artist who works regularly with technology both new and old, he has a lot of gear, and all of it comes wrapped in this stuff. When we move to his studio later in the conversation, he pulls out two large containers brimming with them, big, small, and everywhere in between. 

I mention to Robert that I recall seeing he had recently taken trips to the Great Serpent Mound in Adams County, Ohio, and to Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. Both of these landmarks have potential astronomical and ritual significance and somewhat indeterminate origin stories. It’s not clear how or, ultimately, why they were built. Also up in the air is who is responsible for building them in the first place. Much of Robert’s work, including what’s on view at 21C, is similarly enigmatic and esoteric. He mentions that both places also served as inspiration for that work, and that the forms and their arrangement are meant to mirror archaeological sites somewhat, though the forms are of course derived from contemporary objects. 

Robert Beatty, Atlanta Biennial, 2019

Robert Beatty, Atlanta Biennial, 2019

A related body of work displayed at the Atlanta Contemporary is made up of small stone-like objects also cast in concrete. On the surface of the stones in low relief are squared, pixel-like arrangements that are reminiscent of written language but completely illegible. In the exhibition, they were arranged on a bright orange background meant to echo the way artifacts are commonly presented in museums. Similarly suggestive and inscrutable are a pair of flat plates with metallic etching. The language-like elements are replicated, along with linework making them appear as oversized computer chips or, as Robert mentions, Lakhovsky plates used in radionics (a form of alternative therapy that uses electromagnetic waves to diagnose and treat disease). Those plates are just one of a number of pseudoscientific or quasi-spiritual practices that interest Beatty, though not because he believes in them per se. In fact, at one point in the conversation he posits that perhaps he is drawn to the strange and arcane because he feels jealous of the ability that some have to commit so deeply to something so unobservable.

As I get up to leave, we discuss how we think our time might be remembered through an archaeological lens. What judgements would be made about us and what conclusions would be drawn from the things we leave behind?

“And that’s the thing– most of what’s going to be left when we’re not here anymore is going to be plastic. That’s what people are going to find, all this trash. It’s weird that that’s what will outlast us. And that’s part of it, a kind of tongue in cheek thing of taking that stuff and filling it with concrete, giving some weight to it… I really love the way artifacts are shown in a museum. The way that they’re presented. They’re mounted on the wall in these plexiglass cases, this stuff that was probably just trash. But it’s old trash, so it’s… important for some reason?”


Arts Tasting Menu

Hand-cut cultural delicacies from the Bluegrass region and beyond.

This week, some not-to-miss tasty museum exhibitions in early 2020.


Vhils: Haze. Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati. February 21st thru July 6th, 2020.

Vhils, 2014, Lisbon, Portugal. Photo Credit: Alexander Silva.

The Portuguese street artist, Vhils, has his first large-scale solo exhibition at the CAC. Renowned for modifying the surfaces of large urban walls and creating layered work, the artist uses anonymous urban citizens as his portrait subjects. He also works in other media, such as screen prints, paper, wood, and more.


Body Language: Hunter Stamps and Mike Goodlett. University of Kentucky Art Museum, Lexington. January 25th thru April 19th, 2020.

Hunter Stamps, Vicissitude, 2016, glazed stoneware. Photo credit: Mary Rezny.

Two central Kentucky sculptors, both alluding to the human form in their work, are featured in this two-person exhibition at UK Art Museum. A subject of one of UnderMain’s studio visit pieces, Mike Goodlett uses molds he fabricates out of spandex to create his abstract work in liquid plaster or cement. Hunter Stamps, a faculty member at UK, creates ceramic work, paying particular attention to the treatment of the surfaces of his pieces. An interesting exhibition from two of the more innovative sculptors in the region.


Andy Warhol: Revelation. The Speed Art Museum, Louisville. April 3rd thru August 21st, 2020.

Andy Warhol, The Last Supper, 1986. Screen print and colored graphic art paper collage on HMP paper Overall: 23 1/2 × 31 3/4 in. (59.7 × 80.6 cm.) Framed: 31 × 41 in. (78.7 × 104.1 cm.) The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. 1998.

An exhibition that has new things to say about one of the most well-known and iconic artists of the 20th century is an exhibition definitely worth going to see. Curated by the curator of the Andy Warhol Museum, and displaying objects from its permanent collection, the exhibition explores the influence of Warhol’s Byzantine Catholic upbringing on his art and his emergence as the celebrity high priest of Pop Art.


It Just Kinda Dawned on Us

..and the sun keeps comin’ up…

This venture has been a long and healthy haul – and now our future is even more robust. When we (my Co-Publishers Tom Martin, Art Shechet and I) first launched UnderMain in 2014, we were simply having fun. We enjoyed uncovering what we thought was hidden in the shadows or living under the main thoroughfares of the then-present consciousness of art and culture in our region.

That was the way this all started: With caffeine and laughter, many morning meetings turned to their adjacent afternoons full of new ideas. Sitting at the same table at Le Matin Bakery, one Wednesday after the next, we came up with the title of our ad-free, visually rich digital magazine: UnderMain. We decided then that its primary mission would be to shine a light on artists, writers, gallerists, creative spaces and ideas, collectors, curators, and critics who work hard everyday and struggle to be heard and seen.

I am not sure why we were searching the darkened spaces or if we just felt there was not enough visibility in print publications, but no matter – because now we’ve flipped the switch in this little digital space. Whether it was passion, fatigue, frustration, ideation, or the simply act of creating, we had it and found enough of it mirrored in you to thrive all these years.

So, as your UMPrez, I am delighted to announce that UnderMain has received a three-year commitment from the Great Meadows Foundation (GMF) to continue our programming.

It should be noted that the generosity of the Great Meadows Foundation is supported by a near equal match of anonymous donations and in-kind contributions from so many. The writing, management, coordination, editing, curation of our content is brought to you by an undying commitment from our contributors and editors, many of whom work in an entirely philanthropic manner. Together we have remained consistent and fresh over the last five years and, with this three-year commitment, all that we have done means all the more there is to do.

As I elaborated in our proposal to the Great Meadows Foundation, UnderMain must now move beyond our light-and-shadows naiveté into a more prominent place of advancing the level of discourse in Kentucky about visual art and culture. These three programs are at the heart of that effort:

Studio Visit Series 

In 2014, we ventured out and into area artists’ studios. I was privileged to write and publish a few of those first visits  (“Ron Isaacs: Shelf Life”and “Dark Dualities: David Kenton Kring”) and now I spend more time connecting writers with artists and publishing their stories. There comes with that a certain reward, a specific joy in connecting two individuals who learn from one another as these writers and artists did: Keith Banner visits Michael Goodlett and Jim Fields visits Skylar Smith. Jim’s own words might say it best:

I began writing exclusively for UnderMain three years ago with a primary focus on artists, their work and what inspires them. For me, ‘the blank page is both exhilarating and intimidating and, like creating a work of art, writing is a process that requires both vision and revision. It is about making certain choices, being aware of various connections, and synthesizing information in order to give my ideas shape and meaning. Working with artists in their studio settings requires implicit mutual confidence and trust, with equal vulnerability, and being ever mindful to not be blinded by the obvious. I am honored to have been selected as one of the writers to participate in Under-Main’s Studio Visits Series under the auspices of The Great Meadows Foundation. While I am grateful for the stipend I received, my real reward for writing ‘A Studio Visit with Skylar Smith: Her Story’ came from the artist herself when she emailed me shortly after the article was published: “You gave voice to things I have not been able to articulate, yet resonate for me—thank you for this.”

In 2019, with our first funding commitment from the GMF, our focus has narrowed to Kentucky artists and we have thus far published eight studio visits, those above and the following: Miles Turner visits Mia Cinelli, Emily Elizabeth Goodman visits Melissa Vandenberg, Hunter Kissel visits Harry Sanchez, Jr. , Miriam Keinle visits Lori Larusso, Sso-Rha Kang visits Carlos Gamez De Francisco, and Natalie Weis visits Vian Sora.

Upcoming is a visit by the Speed Museum’s Miranda Lash with Louisville artist John Brooks, Paul Michael Brown’s visit with Lexington artist Robert Beatty, and Cooper Gibson’s visit with James Lyons.

In 2020, UnderMain will organize thirteen studio visits with Kentucky artists and our writers will not only be paid a stipend for their work, but – at the request of Sso-Rha Kang – I have included a small amount for travel expenses as I have always tried to connect artist and writer from different areas of this region.

Critical Mass Symposium

In 2016, we launched the Critical Mass Series, a symposium intended to advance critical thinking in the arts and promote further discussion about Kentucky’s position as it relates to the broader art community.

Critical Mass I  took place in 2016 at the University of Kentucky Art Museum and was moderated by Stuart Horodner. Then in 2018, we followed that with Critical Mass II at KMAC with Joey Yates moderating – fully intending the symposium as a biennial. The discussions however, generated such enthusiasm that it led us to rethink that idea – and in 2019 Matt Distel of The Carnegie in Covington held Critical Mass III.

Critical Mass IV is being planned for March of 202o and will feature the GMF Critic-in-Residence Koan Jeff Baysa.  So, please watch our site for upcoming details.

Critical Reviews of Local Exhibitions 

Since inception, we have held this as one of our highest priorities and, at year end, we are encouraged by the impact these reviews have had. They have exposed the curatorial work of many institutions in Kentucky and the Central Kentucky region, including: The Moreman Gallery and KMAC in Louisville; 21c Museum Hotel, Mary Rezny Gallery, Institute 193, and the University of Kentucky Art Museum in Lexington; the Solway Gallery in Cincinnati, Ohio; and the Kleinhelter Gallery in New Albany, Indiana.

Engaging critical writing from both within and outside of our state has helped to advance the level of critical discourse about contemporary art and its role in defining our regional identity. With the support of the Great Meadows Foundation, UnderMain will increase the publication of these reviews to twenty per year with an increase in pay to our writers.

Thanks to all who support our endeavor. The UnderMain concept is growing, and with new programming like UMRadio – a recurring feature of the weekly program Eastern Standard on WEKU, a local NPR station, and UMDingers, a surprise treat coming in 2020 – we continue to aim higher. And, when that big ball hits the top, we’ll move into the dawn of the dusk knowing full well how to light the way.


Intimately Legible: A Review of Amy Pleasant at Institute 193

Institute 193 is an intimate place; it is a small, one-room storefront gallery space that pulls viewers in from Lexington’s Limestone Street for a different kind of consumption than they might find in the neighboring bars, restaurants, and coffee shops. The intimacy makes this venue the perfect site to view painter Amy Pleasant’s work, now on view in the exhibition “Someone Before You.” The show is simply arranged, comprised of a handful of drawings and ceramic sculptures alongside a single painting. Yet the works allude to the highly prolific nature of Pleasant’s practice, which is further affirmed in the companion artist’s book, The Messenger’s Mouth was Heavy. The proximity to the work in both the space and in the book offer an opportunity for the viewer to deeply consider how and what each work communicates. 

Amy Pleasant’s use of minimal and reduced forms in her paintings, drawings, and sculptural works evoke questions of symbolism and legibility. The flattened and monochromatic surfaces of the forms she creates remove many of the elements necessary for signification, yet the works remain legible as bodies due to the subtlest inclusion of the curve of a neck, the curve of a knee, or the point of a nipple. At the same time, just as these tiny hints suggest a body, the incompleteness of that form – due to the absence of heads, torsos, and a variety of appendages – decouples the notion of the body from any specific individual, rendering abstract a corpus that more frequently denotes a particular identity. 

Installation view: Amy Pleasant: ‘Someone Before You’, Institute 193

The questions of legibility are clearly manifest in her drawings and paintings, four of which occupy the gallery walls in this show. Her serial Repose drawings consist of a monochromatic disembodied black torso on a faintly grey background. Yet because these forms are so heavily uniform in color and the various other bodily elements are either removed, such as the head and neck, or are completely obscured, like the hands, their reference to the human body must be inferred from the scantest of evidence. And yet, it is still remarkably clear from the way Pleasant outlines the curve of the chest, the shoulder, and the biceps, and from imperfect triangle formed by the bending of the elbow in these three works, that these are, unquestionably, bodies. 

Amy Pleasant, ‘Repose X’, 2018, ink and gouache on paper

The abstraction of these forms – specifically the absence of shading, contours, and modeling so often used to render in two dimensions the curvature of our three-dimensional figures – connects them to a broader history of abstract painting in general. Pleasant uses the allusion of the body to explore the implications of color and the painterly gesture, aligning her work with a broader corpus of abstract painters, drawing on the legacy of artists like Willem and Elaine de Kooning. At the same time, the gestures of Pleasant’s figures, particularly the reclined feminine torsos that populate so much of her work, call to mind the canonical figuration of the female nude dating back to the Renaissance. As such, her works read as a part of two distinct yet interrelated traditions in painting, but she does not engage in either of them completely, since her pieces are not complete abstractions, nor are the completed nudes. The fragmentary nature of her forms, as well as their inclusion of minimal signifiers, thus raises the question: what is the minimum of information that we need as viewers to understand a work? 

Installation view: Amy Pleasant: ‘Someone Before You’, Institute 193

This exploration of signification is also apparent in her sculptural pieces. Like her drawings and painting, these works are also comprised of monochromatic disembodied corporeal forms: torsos, necks, shoulders, and arms. And similar to her other body of work, these pieces play with both the history of figurative art as well as that of abstraction; their paired down geometry is reminiscent of the abstract sculptures of artists like Louise Nevelson, Louise Bourgeois, David Smith, and Anne Truitt, yet the allusion to the body calls to mind the longer history of sculpture from the curvature of Bernini and Michelangelo’s expressive marbles to the solidity of Greek bronzes. 

Yet the sculptural work, more so than the paintings and drawings, engages with the organic nature of these shapes due to the materiality. Sculpted from clay and resting atop custom wood plinths, these works remind us that the materiality of the human body is not so distinct from the environment around us. Moreover, the malleability of clay and its eventual coalescence into a single shape parallels the journey of the human body as it transforms over time into an eventual final body, one that will eventually return to dust. This rumination on the body is made possible because of Pleasant’s fragmentation thereof. In focusing in and abstracting specific elements of the human form, we are able to consider in greater depth what a body is and how it ultimately exists within the world. As such, these works demand the kind of intimacy that Institute 193 provides for them. Arranged in this close space, we as audience members can approach each piece and consider Pleasant’s fixation on each form. 

Installation view: Amy Pleasant: ‘Someone Before You’, Institute 193

Amy Pleasant, ‘The Messenger’s Mouth was Heavy’, 2018

An intimate engagement with Pleasant’s rumination on the body is further facilitated through the book The Messenger’s Mouth was Heavy, published by Institute 193 to accompany this show. Whereas the exhibition invites the viewer to consider the main ideas of Pleasant’s practice by closely reading a few pieces, the book provides a more intimate understanding of the prolific volume of Pleasant’s works. Page after page of this volume is littered with images of monochromatic body parts. Whereas the works in the exhibition largely focus on a single form, many of the images replicated in the book involve numerous iterations of the body on a single page, illustrating the hyper-focused nature of Pleasant’s practice, both literally and figuratively. Moreover, the medium of the book facilitates a closer reading of Pleasant’s work, as we are provided innumerable opportunities to view and return to each work, not to mention the physical proximity that books, as objects, allow in a way that painting, drawing, and sculpture do not.  

Issues of legibility are also present in the book and are made even more apparent through the translation of her figures into an actual font, used to title essays and transcribe specific quotes throughout the volume. As such, this volume demonstrates another level of Pleasant’s engagement with the question of signification; not only are her forms both abstract and bodily, they are also representational and verbal, challenging us as viewers to read them in several distinct yet interrelated ways. 

On the whole, in both the exhibition “Someone Before You” and the book, His Messenger’s Mouth was Heavy, we are provided an opportunity to ruminate on simple forms, and in so doing consider the significance and symbolism therein.  


Garden Breakdown, Again

To commit to writing about Ebony G. Patterson’s exhibition at the Speed Museum requires acknowledging my professional relationship and friendship with the artist, and these facts:

1. I met Ebony at the University of Kentucky in the summer of 2014, and asked her if anyone had contextualized her among the artists of the 1970s Pattern and Decoration movement, including Cynthia Carlson, Joyce Kozloff, Robert Kushner, Miriam Schapiro, and others. She said no. Since then, several curators have linked her work to this historical period, while clarifying that her opulent constructions using beads, glitter, and brooches refer to her native Jamaica and festivals like Mardi Gras and Carnival, rather than the mining of supply stores on Canal Street in Manhattan.

2. A year later, curator Janie Welker and I included Patterson in Bottoms Up: A Sculpture Survey show at the UK Art Museum, locating her installation of five elevated coffins covered in fabric and tassels from her performance, Invisible Presence: Bling Memories, near a John Ahearn portrait bust and a Felix Gonzalez-Torres stack of posters showing a bird in flight and gray clouds, among other 20th and 21st century works.

3. I contributed an essay* to the online publication that accompanied her fourth solo show at Monique Meloche Gallery in 2019, titled …for those who bear/bare witness…. Patterson’s installation strategy for that exhibition carries over to the survey that originated at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, her largest to date, and made even bigger with the addition of several works at the Speed Museum, where it is on view until January 5, 2020. My thoughts on that exhibition follow.

…while the dew is still on the roses… starts at the museum’s title wall with a deep purple background color and shimmering vinyl, clusters of silk leaves, flowers, and vines emerging from the walls and ceiling. This effectively telegraphs what will follow, as we are led down a path into a “night garden” that frames works featuring defiant and dismembered bodies of men and women that the artist has used as protagonists for the past several years.

We begin with a gallery filled with the projection of a three-channel video from 2012, titled The Observation: The Bush Cockerel Project, A Fictitious Historical Narrative. Two male figures are covered in floral patterned clothing that situates and masks them in a dense tropical garden. Their faces are covered by elaborate plumage, and they pose and preen while passing the small body of a baby between them. “Bush cockerels” are wild roosters, and these two – one black and one white – are silent and purposeful. They blend into their surroundings and their actions are not easily decoded.

In the following sequence of galleries we are treated to numerous works installed against fabric wallpaper showing details of a garden at night: a gridded pattern of moist dormant flowers in a palette of purples, gray, and white. Like other artists who have designed wallpaper to serve as backdrop for singular works (think Andy Warhol’s cows and Maos, and Robert Gober’s torsos and genitals), there is the risk of erring too much on the side of mise-en-scène and sacrificing the viewing of individual paintings and sculptures. Add to Patterson’s use of this wallpaper, her staging of abundant artificial flowers that cascade in and around her photographs, tapestries, drawings, and sculptures throughout the exhibition. I could not help but wonder, “How much is too much?”

Installation view: Ebony G. Patterson …while the dew is still on the roses…, Speed Art Museum.

Dead Tree in a Forest… from 2013, is a large mixed media work featuring checkerboard and leopard-patterned figures and a visible rooster, situated in a shifting green floral field. Its thick black frame fares well against the wallpaper, protecting the lively action at the paper’s edges from being absorbed into the larger wall treatment.

Ebony G. Patterson, Dead Tree in a Forest . . . , 2013. Mixed media on paper, 87 x 83 inches.

I’m convinced that other 2018 works from the …for those who bear/bare witness… series are compromised by the ubiquitous background and fake flowers. These carefully assembled tapestries, with their precise cuts and layering of printed, cast, and found elements, are hard enough to sort out when presented against a white ground. The anonymous victims memorialized by these works demand to be seen, and that seeing takes time and focus. The artist insists that we don’t look away, and yet her desire to make a unified environment made me do just that.

Ebony G. Patterson.  . . . they stood in a time of unknowing . . . for those who bear/bare witness… , 2018. Hand-cut jacquard photo tapestry with glitter, appliques, pins, embellishments, fabric, tassels, brooches, acrylic, glass, pearls, beads, and hand-cast heliconias, 108 x 132 inches.

Patterson’s strength is orchestrating a complex realness and fakeness in dense pictorial fields within specific works. Bodies abound, undone by acts of dismemberment and overwhelming adornment. Headless matriarchs search for missing children, their own bodies festooned with strands of ribbon and glass pearls. We have come late to these crimes, and our viewing is an attempt to reconcile our fear and mourning. When her work is focused on feelings, it has a gravitas that is often missing in the similarly decked out work of her peers, including Radcliffe Bailey, Sanford Biggers, and Mickalene Thomas. When it is not, she runs the risk of creating likeable displays one glances at rather than examining closely.

The installation of …stars… provides a resting place. In this 2018 sculpture, hundreds of women’s shoes and slippers form a glistening black cloud hovering overhead. Patterson is referencing the tossing of sneakers whose laces have been tied together over electrical wires in urban areas to declare gang territory or safe drug dens. In some neighborhoods, hanging shoes signify someone has died. These readings fit right into the artist’s marking of potentially ominous territory and lost bodies. …stars… could be the night sky or it could be a description of the people whose souls have departed the earthly plane.

In …moments we cannot bury… , also from 2018, five large red forms are held aloft by wooden armatures. They seem like big clumps of earth covered in silk plants and flowers, projecting visceral qualities that are both bodily and ceremonial. These mounds invite inspection, and reveal tucked away cast glass objects including hands, toys, baseball caps, sneakers, backpacks, and butterflies. Topping each are translucent flowers of the poisonous variety, including bird-of-paradise, lilies of the valley, and daffodils. We find ourselves in what appears at first to be a welcoming and fertile Eden, only to realize that there is past and possibly present death and danger everywhere.

Installation view at the Speed Art Museum: Ebony G. Patterson …while the dew is still on the roses… with …moments we cannot bury… in the foreground.

Last and most poignantly positioned is a small chapel-like room where the video …three kings weep… is playing. Three black men are framed as if in a religious triptych. They are bare-chested and exposed characters who look straight ahead, catching our gaze. They slowly dress themselves, in colorful patterned shirts and vests, jewelry, and other adornments. Their movements are powerfully hypnotic, as much because they are the most vividly alive humans we’ve encountered in the exhibition, as well as the fact that the costumed action is playing in reverse. By the end, each man will be silently crying. At times during the eight-minute video, we hear a man reciting lines from the 1919 poem “If We Must Die” by Jamaican poet Claude McKay. It is a testament to dignity and bravery, and the power and vulnerability of black bodies.

Installation view at the Speed Art Museum: Ebony G. Patterson. …three kings weep…, 2018. Three-channel digital color video with sound, 8 min., 34 sec.

A final comment about Patterson’s use of ellipses in her titles. We know that this grammatical mark is used to designate an omission in a sentence. In many of her works, this serves as a reminder that things have been left out, or are unknown to us, or might be revealed later. It is our job to sift through what is here, carefully accumulating clues, whether we are surrounded by lush foliage or sitting quietly in a spare room.

*The title of my essay for Patterson’s exhibition at Monique Meloche was Garden Breakdown. I’ve altered it slightly for use here.


Tunis: Dining with Justin

There is a word, one almost unavoidably attached to events of the season, that Justin Wells would rather you eject from your vocabulary when he comes home to play The Burl this month.

It’s difficult to omit because the Lexington songsmith’s annual December outing embodies so much of the spirit tagged to the word. The Burl show, dubbed Wine and Dine (slated for Dec. 14) is really two concerts in one. The first is an intimate, acoustic-based, singer-songwriter performance designed as a dinner show. True to the billing, the set differs from almost any other program presented at the venue during the rest of the year as it has the audience seated with a full dinner brought in. Later, after digestion commences, Wells and his band take the stage for business as usual, which in this case translates into an evening of articulate Americana and country-rooted music that is as eclectic as it is electric.

In short, the food is more than a novelty addition. It offers a sense of fellowship – specifically, the sit-down kind that surfaces when family and friends, as the old saying goes, break bread together. And for those who like the old school, rock ‘n’ roll kind of fellowship, there is that, too, to cap off the evening.

So what’s the word Wells would prefer not be pinned to Wine and Dine? Take a wild guess.


Though Wine and Dine, now in its fifth year, comes less than two weeks before Christmas and possesses a sentiment one would like to think seasonal celebrations are supposed to reflect, it is not a holiday-themed evening in any literal sense.

“I try to avoid that word ‘holiday’ as much as I can,” Wells said by phone recently after finishing an opening set for the Texas band Shane Smith and the Saints at the Basement East in Nashville. “I do talk about fellowship because it is about getting everybody together, but there are certainly no holiday overtones.

Photo Credit: Farrah Gardner

“To my knowledge, nobody has ever played a Christmas song at these Wine and Dine shows. No offense to anyone who’s doing that kind of thing. That’s just not what we’re trying to do. We’re bombarded with that already, man. We just came through what seems like two or three weeks of Black Friday. Now we’ve launched straight into non-stop Grinch. So, yeah, I’d like to counter all of that.”

Supper’s ready
Wells makes no secret of what he modeled Wine and Dine after. He borrowed (well, his exact words were “ripped off”) an overlooked aspect of The Band’s famed finale concert The Last Waltz – namely, how the all-star performance, held on Thanksgiving night of 1976, began with a fully catered banquet. Wells was after something a little simpler. In its first year, the meal was a barbeque dinner arranged by his friend Justin Taylor, who now operates the Roll ‘n’ Smoke food truck. Bourbon n’ Toulouse will supply the eats this year.

“I don’t know if feeding everybody was included in the ticket price for The Last Waltz or if it was some sort of additional thing, but I remember liking that idea of fellowship, especially around the holidays. We always try to have that towards the end of the year, just having everybody together. That can be a risky thing to do as a show, though. To do this near the holidays, you’re competing with a lot of things. But that’s where it started, just the idea of sitting everybody down and feeding them, having more of a dinner type show and afterwards having more of what I do.”

The second Wine and Dine outing in 2016 (and the first one to be held at The Burl) had Wells doing double duty – playing the acoustic show as well as the full band headlining performance. That, along with all the production demands of the event, proved a bit weighty.

“I did that for the second year. That was more of a budgetary thing. That night, I swore I wouldn’t do it again because it’s all a little much as it is.”

Then again, Wells may have felt the need to personally uphold what was already a high bar set by the dinner show at the inaugural Wine and Dine. Performing that year was a little known Lawrence County songwriter named Tyler Childers.

But much was in flux when Wine and Dine debuted in 2015. First was Wells’ own professional situation. His band at the time, the Southern soaked electric troupe Fifth on the Floor, was coming unglued after nearly a decade together.

“That first year fell in the midst of many other things, like my band breaking up,” Wells said. “It was already happening, really. In fact, a lot of people mistakenly point to that Wine and Dine as our last show because, in the interim – between those tickets being on sale and the show itself – we announced we were breaking up. We did a couple of final shows a few months later, so Wine and Dine wasn’t our last time playing together, but it was one of the last.”

Then there was the matter of a venue. Wells had planned on introducing Wine and Dine at the Manchester Street venue that had been home to Buster’s Billiards and Backroom prior to its closing in late 2014. But the facility’s new incarnation as Manchester Music Hall was just starting to open on a gradual basis in December 2015. That called for a move to the original Cosmic Charlie’s on Woodland Avenue, which itself would shut down and relocate the following summer. It wouldn’t be until Wine and Dine settled in at its now stable home at The Burl in 2016 that the event became a seasonal happening.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Newsome

“If you remember, the layout of the original Cosmic Charlie’s was a little odd. We got sequestered a little bit in the back. That might have been the vibe, but The Burl is absolutely the perfect place to do this. Certainly we’ve run into date issues there, making my schedule work with their schedule along with other artists’ schedules, but it’s always worked out. If I couldn’t do Wine and Dine at The Burl, I don’t know that I’d be interested in doing it anywhere else – at least not in Lexington.”

The finality of the year thing
With its fifth year at hand and a stable sense of organizational flow in place, Wine and Dine has become an anticipated December event, one Wells feels is a comfortable fit for Lexington this time of year.

“That’s the thing about a town like Lexington where people sometimes move on. It’s not a small town by any means, but it is a college town. People are maybe there for school and then they’re gone. Then again, they may come home this time of year or just have people visiting. Schedule-wise, it would certainly be easier to do something like this at other times in the year. But there’s this whole finality of the year thing.

“I don’t know, to me, the vibe of having people together is what this is about. There are people who tell me, ‘Well, I’ve been every year’ or ‘I’ve been coming since the second year.’ Sometimes, that can be almost more fun than the performance. It’s having people together and getting some good food and hopefully making it a memorable show.

“I mean, I don’t play in Lexington more than a couple of times a year anyway. I don’t want any show to be just another show, much less this one.”

Photo Credit: Tim Shawen

Wells says he also gets a charge out of presenting artists at Wine and Dine that might be somewhat new to Lexington audiences. Kansas City-turned-Kentucky songwriter Adam Lee will handle duties for the dinner show while one of the city’s more remarkable young country stylists, Abby Hamilton, will be featured in the evening. In fact, Wells is so keen on the visibility of other artists at Wine and Dine that he has contemplated bowing out of the event altogether as a performer.

“We built Wine and Dine on the back on my old band’s fanbase and my solo career fanbase. But I would like to keep it going regardless of me. If I’m not in town, if I’m on the road or doing something where I simply can’t be there when I need to be, I wouldn’t want that to keep the event from happening.

“My goal was to be part of this for the first five years. Once the second year was locked in, I was kind of committed to five. I definitely want to keep it going. Will I always be there to play the show? Maybe not. I don’t even know if it’s really necessary that I am. I think the spirit of this event is what it is.”

Justin Wells’ Fifth Annual Wine and Dine will be held Dec. 14 at The Burl, 375 Thompson Road. Dinner show featuring Adam Lee with food from Bourbon n’ Toulouse is at 7 p.m. Justin Wells with special guest Abby Hamilton will perform at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 for the entire program and $15 for the evening show only. For tickets, go to

Top Image Photo Credit: Joshua Smith


Great Meadows Foundation Funds Four Artists to Attend the 58th Venice Biennale through “Bully” Grant

Great Meadows Foundation, a grant-giving foundation launched in 2016 by contemporary art collector and philanthropist Al Shands, has steadily been upholding its commitments to contemporary art and artists in the state of Kentucky. The mission of the foundation is to “critically strengthen and support visual art in Kentucky by empowering our community’s artists and other visual arts professionals to research, connect, and participate more actively in the broader contemporary art world.”

Left to right: Great Meadows Foundation Director Julien Robson with “Bully” Grant recipients Lucy Azubuike, Ramona Dallum Lindsey, Toya Northington, and Sandra Charles. Image by the author.

In service of that mission, Great Meadows recently funded four artists to travel to Italy for the 58th Venice Biennale. Lucy Azubuike (Frankfort, KY), Sandra Charles, Ramona Dallum Lindsey, and Toya Northington (all Louisville, KY), traveled together to Venice on September 14, 2019, and spent six days visiting the Venice Biennale and satellite events and exhibitions. Great Meadows Foundation also provided a curatorial guide, Cecilia Holden, to help orient the artists in navigating the Biennale and its collateral events.

The trip was funded through a Great Meadows Foundation “bully” grant, an occasional, unsolicited grant awarded to artists who have not previously received support from the foundation. In the press release for the grant announcement, Julien Robson, Director of Great Meadows Foundation, described the “bully” grant, stating, “It allows the foundation to reach out to selected artists who have not yet received a grant and provide them with resources to visit significant exhibitions and events of the foundation’s choosing, where they can directly experience the works and ideas of important artists in the international contemporary art world.”

Upon their return from Venice, Azubuike, Charles, Lindsey, and Northington submitted reports to the foundation detailing their experiences and perspectives, portions of which are reproduced below. Supplemental questions were also provided to the artists by UnderMain in an effort to glean a holistic vision of how the trip has impacted their engagement with contemporary art in both the studio, and within the larger community. Their responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Lucy Azubuike inside Plastique Fantastique’s Blurry Venice. Image courtesy of Lucy Azubuike.

Lucy Azubuike:

This was a beautiful experience, even though in a city of water I could not find any water to dip my feet in, nor to swim! I tried but couldn’t, they were all blocked. Thank God for the Venice Pavilion and the Blurry Venice experience, even though I was only able to swim in barricaded water. Talk about having something you cannot reach. It was quite an experience.

I felt at home in Venice, considering that I am close to three artists that were showing at the Biennale; I have shown work with Zanele Muholi in the 2008 exhibit Like a Virgin, Njideka Crosby is literally my sister as we are both Igbos, while El Anatsui is my mentor.

What I saw was familiar to what I know about art: art is life, and the same artist can express art in different forms. The theme of the Biennale was “May You Live in Interesting Times.” This title in itself is an art. Ralph Rogoff, the 2019 Venice Biennale curator, opened our eyes to realize that every era is an interesting time from a different perspective.

Artists are able to ask open-ended questions, which force viewers to reexamine their views and positions about current issues. That was the strong aspect of this Biennale. They showcased what is happening in this era uniquely. For instance, this era’s interesting time is the Internet and globalization at its peak, so the question of boundaries toughens. What is a boundary? Is it virtual or real? Can a physical wall be real protection? Basically artists reveal the truth, which might not be pleasant, in unique ways.

This era has environmental dangers at its edge. The artists of the Lithuanian Pavilion highlighted that in their brilliant performance Sun & Sea (Marina). The French and Malaysian pavilions explored environmental degradation by man’s action and technology. I am a nature-art advocate, A.K.A. The Jungle Ambassador, representing the unrepresented. This trip availed me the opportunity to experience and document some tree-arts in Venice, especially in the Giardini. I am already writing a book exploring this regard of the trip.

The works at the Biennale are a testimony that art is more relevant in the world than ever and that people are beginning to appreciate and pay more attention to the prophesies of the artists. I am more energized to keep my art alive knowing that art is indispensable in our world.

Sandra Charles with work by Zanele Muholi. Image courtesy of Sandra Charles.

Sandra Charles:

I am extremely grateful to Great Meadows Foundation for affording me the opportunity to visit the 2019 Venice Biennale and to have shared this experience with three exceptional African American female artists. This visit was enlightening and lifechanging to me both personally and professionally.

All the articles about the Biennale do not come close to the actual experience. My overall impression was amazement. I was overwhelmed by the enormity of the exhibit and the trip exceeded my expectations. The intensity, passion, and freedom that I found in each artwork was refreshing. I was impressed by the diversity of the cultures, mediums, and subjects. Each piece was unique and the artists’ responses to the theme “May You Live in Interesting Times” were just as unique and varied.

It was very meaningful for me to see an exhibit that included so many cultures. Even with the artwork I questioned, I was able to appreciate the passion behind the pieces. This to me was a challenge that I gratefully accepted. Art should make you think, should make you take another look at how you see the world and challenge your own point of view. Not only is the Biennale interesting, the city of Venice contains numerous exhibits and museums. You can view pieces from the Gothic and Renaissance periods at St. Marks, or Cubism and contemporary art at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. The Biennale also had collateral exhibits. I was able to visit AFRICOBRA: Nation Time, an exhibit close to my heart. These were the artists that influenced my generation and helped shape the civil rights movement through their art.

Without a doubt the experience of visiting the Biennale and Venice had a profound impact on me as an artist. Even before the trip was over I found myself wanting to get back in my studio and push my art past the boundaries that I had set for myself. The art I viewed at the Biennale had a sense of freedom and confidence that I felt was lacking in my work. I was so impressed with the experience that I am rethinking my current series of paintings. This trip changed that perspective. If I had not agreed to attend the Biennale I would have missed my opportunity for inspiration. This was truly a life-changing trip. I am so grateful and so happy I chose to go outside my comfort zone. After visiting the Biennale I feel I am more aware of how art is approached internationally. The trip gave me a better understanding of how local art mirrors a larger art community. This visit made me more aware of the common thread that connects each artist, and that connection intensifies on a local basis. I am hoping that this opportunity will also be extended to other emerging African American artists. Such an experience is invaluable.

Ramona Dallum Lindsey inside Plastique Fantastique’s Blurry Venice. Image courtesy of Sandra Charles.

Ramona Dallum Lindsey:

My funding for the 2019 Venice Biennale experience did not come in the traditional way. It happened because a series of people stepped out of their comfort zone to try something different. Various paths lead to privilege. Wealth buys privilege. Race regulates privilege. Knowledge acquires privilege. Networks access privilege. Privilege brought me to my Biennale experience. It was the result of several people with privilege recognizing social, cultural, and economic inequity and consciously choosing to use their privilege to address it.

Cecilia Holden was one of the best additions to our experience. Our three-plus days with her allowed us to truly understand Italian culture. She introduced us to her friends and family and showed us what it was like to live in Venice. We learned the rationale behind a cash-only economy. She showed us the locals-only restaurant, accessible only by boat. And helped us understand why you don’t drink coffee in a to-go cup.

Vian Sora told me I would discover art as I wandered the streets of Venice. She told me not to be afraid to step inside open gallery doors and to anticipate art surprises around unsuspecting corners. I’m drawn to art that connects with my heart and mind. Art should make me feel something. There were several works at the Biennale that did nothing for me, but I saw my travel companions deeply engaged in discussion about the same works. They were drawn by technique, construction, or composition. Something in the work challenged their practice. Their example opened me up to looking at art and people from multiple perspectives and purposes.

In the Venice Pavilion lacemaking was immortalized in plaster and canvas. I was inspired to explore the endless possibilities of textiles and women’s work to stand on its own as contemporary art. Artists representing historically overlooked, misunderstood, or forgotten populations must boldly take every opportunity to transform majority controlled, privileged spaces into our spaces. Artists must be unflinching and daring to challenge the status quo. I traveled all the way to Venice to be reminded, “Say it loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud!” The AFRICOBRA: Nation Time exhibit brought me to tears. I traveled to Venice to reconnect with the power of the Black American experience. Gerald Williams’ Take It (1974), reminded me of my complexity, vibrancy, and textured reality. I am not African. I am not African American. I am a Black American.

Americans embrace a microwave mindset. We desire to obtain things quickly, succinctly, and easily. For Americans, obtaining knowledge and wisdom should be effortless. The ancient Venetian architecture, the melodic rhythm of the canals, and two-hour meals reminded me that history takes time. The Biennale art was abundant and complex. A cursory glance was insufficient for understanding. You had to linger with it, converse about it, and deeply reflect on it. This is a universal truth for understanding the complexities of this world.

Left to right: Charles, Northington, Lindsey, and Azubuike. Image courtesy of Sandra Charles.

Toya Northington:

I felt at home in Venice almost immediately. I never felt a sense of being othered or made to feel different. People were impressed to see African Americans there. The expectation was for Black tourists to be from Europe or another close country. Being from the United States was a sign of status. I also expected Venice to feel like an exotic, foreign place, but it looked a lot like home to me. I could see reminders of Old Louisville throughout the city with the cracked plastered walls, old fireplaces, decorative metalwork on the doors and windows, and stained glass. The more I explored the historic beauty of Venice, the more I appreciated my neighborhood at home.

Prior to the trip, I felt that I was on the side of the marginalized or less fortunate artist. In Atlanta I was an emerging artist, but in Louisville my work is mostly unknown. I questioned whether I was still a professional artist since I had not shown my work publicly in a few years. I was seeking validation and acceptance from the local art community.

All that changed once I arrived in Venice. Suddenly I was someone significant simply because I was African American and I was there. I walked a little taller and blended into the culture. Soon I realized some of the barriers that I had experienced were imagined or minute in comparison to my ability. Not only was I able to recognize my privilege, but I was also reminded of my responsibility to share my knowledge with other up-and-coming artists in my community.

This grant was a chance to see some of the most dynamic art being created today by African American artists and other people of color. I don’t see enough representation of this type of work being created and exhibited locally. Seeing the works in person fueled my confidence in my vision and ability as an artist. I came back to Louisville with a burning desire to create with an unrestricted freedom. All the questions that I had been asking about where to take my work were answered for me in Venice.

There is a formula for reaching your infinite potential as an artist that includes exposure to national and international art, resources, and time and space to create. Those luxuries are rare for African American women artists. If you aren’t connected to certain social circles you miss out on those opportunities. If you are invited to those spaces you must be prepared to be the only African American/Black person in the room. That means walking into a space where you are largely ignored or unseen. That’s why this grant and trip were so important. It was a movement or disruption of the status quo present in our art community. We are here to make space for other artists of color.

Additional information on the artists can be found on their websites:


Arts Tasting Menu

Hand-cut cultural delicacies from around the region.

This week, a Lexington-centric menu.


Kentucky Nude. Lexington Art League. Opening reception December 6, 5-9pm. Exhibition runs through January 5th, 2020.

The Art League’s The Nude exhibition has been a Lexington favorite for over thirty years. This year’s iteration, in keeping with the organization’s recent realignment of its mission, features work by more than fifty Kentucky artists. Curated by Lexington artists Don Ament and Helene Steene.


Robert C. May Photography Lecture Series: Sarah Lewis. University of Kentucky College of Fine Arts/UK Art Museum, Gatton Student Center Worsham Theater. Friday, December 6th, 4-5pm.

UK’s excellent ongoing lecture series brings Sarah Lewis to town. Lewis explores issues of racial bias in photography and the visual arts and the role they play in how we discuss issues related to justice and bias. She is the author of the best-selling The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery (2014).


Amy Pleasant, Repose XIII, 2018, ink and gouache on paper, 22.5 x 30.25 inches

Amy Pleasant: Someone Before You. Institute 193, Lexington. Through December 20th.

Pleasant’s fragmented figures suggest both movement and stillness. The paintings in this small show utilize solid black against white backgrounds, and are non-idealized figures. The ceramic sculptures rest atop pedestals integral to the work. Another interesting show at one of the region’s smallest but most adventurous galleries.



The Brilliance of Kehinde Wiley’s Obama Portrait

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.


Remembering “Not to Forget”

Filmed on location in Central Kentucky, Not to Forget features Lexington actor Kevin Hardesty in the lead role along with Tatum O’Neal, Lou Gossett, Jr., Karen Grassle, Cloris Leachman and Olympia Dukakis.

The story:  a judge sentences a self-centered millennial to take care of his grandmother, who’s affected by Alzheimer’s. As he realizes the extent of the elderly woman’s wealth and becomes her caregiver, the young protagonist gets ever-closer to Grandma and the treasure he’s been looking for.

Kevin visited WEKU’s Eastern Standard for a chat with host Tom Martin about the making of Not to Forget. To listen, click on this image of Kevin on set with Tatum O’Neal:

More images from the making of Not to Forget


Tom Martin is a co-publisher of UnderMain, as well as producer and host of the weekly radio magazine Eastern Standard on 88.9 WEKU.


Tunis: Ben Monder’s Guitar Solo Work Comes to Lexington

Like any great magician, Ben Monder saves his wildest trick as a parting shot.

The setting is the New York guitarist’s current album, “Day After Day,” a double-disc offering that shakes up the well-utilized concept of the standards record. The first disc is just Monder on his own offering a set of generations-old gems by Henry Mancini, Johnny Mandel and Burt Bacharach that might suggest – on paper, at least – that Monder is an immovable traditionalist. One listen to his distinctive phrasing and lyrical twists quickly dispels that notion.

The second disc is a more personally curated collection of trio takes on vintage pop works by Bob Dylan, George Harrison and early Fleetwood Mac guitarist Danny Kirwan, among others. On first listen, the collar grabber of the bunch is a version of the “Goldfinger” theme that pares down John Barry’s orchestral might to a tough-knuckled but melodically faithful brawl that is very much rock ‘n’ roll. You can almost see James Bond and Odd Job going at each other as the groove grows.

Then the last word oozes in – a version of the album’s title tune, a 1972 radio hit by the British pop band Badfinger that completely departs from any musical strategy the album had previously followed.

The sounds enter like distant sirens – echoing at first before gathering into an orchestral ambience that is alternately ominous and warm. The music continues to move in a circular pattern, growing more spacious and intense the closer it gets. Once it formally arrives, the wash of guitar chimes with a thundering intent that surrounds you. Then, as the cyclone passes, tossing one last sonic cry at us in its wake, the tune and the album fade to black.

Somewhere, in that rich, layered fascination, the chorus melody of the Pete Ham-composed tune is offered, but it exists only as a brief wisp of a soundscape that quickly sheds its form before leaping into the squall.

“I had no intention of actually covering that tune,” said a slightly jet-lagged Monder by phone the day after arriving back in New York, following a few weeks of concerts and master classes in Europe. “I was at the end of this session and just wanted to play some random ambient music.

“My guitar broke right at the end of the session. This was during one of the trio sessions for the album. It was no longer functional by the end of the day, so I borrowed what was almost like a toy guitar in the studio. It was like a miniature Les Paul. But I was just determined to do some ambient music as a counterbalance to all the trio tracks we had recorded. I did that thing of turning all my equipment up to ten and then just kind of went for it.

“In the spur of the moment, that melody occurred to me. I’ve played that tune before in a trio setting, so I knew it. But I never thought I would do it like this. I just figured if I could include the melody, it would justify all this being on the record. It would be another cover tune. Technically.”

Photo Credit: Ben Monder by John Rogers

Second fiddle
Monder, who is heading to Lexington for a solo concert that will serve as the November presentation of the Origins Jazz Series, has been a highly prolific and respected member of the vast New York City jazz community for over three decades as both a leader and sideman. He has recorded with scores of jazz luminaries, including Grammy-winning orchestrator Maria Schneider (with whom he still collaborates), saxophonist Donny McCaslin and the profoundly influential drummer and bandleader Paul Motian.

While guitar was not Monder’s first instrument, it was the first one that truly spoke to him.

“I took up violin after my dad,” Monder said. “He was an amateur player. I never really enjoyed violin very much, though. It was like a duty. Then I found a classical guitar, an inexpensive classical guitar, in my parent’s closet. It was much less uncomfortable to play than the violin, so I gravitated to the guitar more and more. I only found out recently that the reason my parents even had a guitar was that my mother was taking classical lessons while she was pregnant with me. I must have been hearing that music even then.”

Jazz records by guitarists like Barney Kessel (especially “Soaring,” a briskly paced 1976 trio album devoted primarily to standards) and Jim Hall (the exquisite trio record “Live!” from 1975) helped establish a musical vocabulary. But it was a vanguard work from the preceding decade, John Coltrane’s immortal “A Love Supreme,” that got Monder digging past the groove.

“That was a big one,” he said. “‘A Love Supreme’ really made me decide that I needed to dive into the mystery of jazz. I may have come to jazz anyway. When I decided to formally start taking guitar lessons, I was studying from a jazz teacher because that was the teacher that was available. It wasn’t like I necessarily wanted to take jazz lessons. But I grew to love the music itself. I enjoyed the challenge of it.”

Few artists, though, had greater impact in the development of Monder’s musical voice than the great Motian. Infatuated with records by the drummer’s famed trio (with guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano) and his equally lauded quintet (which added a second saxophonist, Billy Drewes, along with bassist Ed Schuller to the trio roster), Monder would eventually join one of Motian’s numerous bands to record three albums between 2001 and 2006.

“Paul Motian started helping my voice long before I ever met him. His first quintet record, ‘Psalm’ (from 1982), was just a total sound world that was unprecedented. If you listen, all of his records have that personal element to it. It’s hard to pin down, but they all sound like Paul Motian records. Even with completely different personnel, everyone is in tune with the sound he has and works towards realizing it.”

Photo Credit: Ben Monder by Jesse Chun

Bowie and Blackstar
While New York has always been a jazz metropolis, it also became a land of self-imposed exile for one of rock music’s most daring journeymen. In 2015, with no interest in living the rock daydream any further, David Bowie scoured the city’s music haunts with the idea of making a new recording aided by jazz musicians. The songs he had composed for the album were still largely pop in design, but were executed with more of a hybrid sound. Bowie had just come off recording a single with Maria Schneider’s orchestra that led to the enlistment of Donny McCaslin. That, in turn, brought Monder to the recording sessions that gave us “Blackstar.” And that, unbeknownst to all parties involved with its making, would be Bowie’s final studio album. The rock titan died on January 10, 2016 – two days after the release of “Blackstar.”

“The tunes David wrote were very specific with a very clear vision of what he wanted,” Monder said. “At the same time, they were easy to adapt to. It never felt like I had to step into somebody’s else ideas. “When I say ‘specific,’ I guess I meant there weren’t that many ways to interpret the parts, but I still had a lot of freedom in how I was able to add things. Also, Tony Visconti (Bowie’s longtime producer) had lots of ideas.

“There was one day where I went in the studio without the other studio musicians and we came up with parts for almost all of the tunes I was involved with. I had free reign to add layer upon layer. If it worked, great. If it didn’t, we would just throw it out.”

So for a full day, it was just Visconti in the studio with Monder?

“Yes. And David.”

A studio day alongside David Bowie and Tony Visconti? Seriously? How enviable a work environment was that?

“It was a lot of fun.”

What stands as a colossal understatement is indicative of the earnest soft sell Monder gives his music. From the far-ranging stylistic reach of “Day After Day” to the career victory lap that was “Blackstar,” his playing speaks for itself in a manner that welcomes anyone mindful of musical tradition but with ears open enough to not be anchored to it.

“You know, I have no idea how many people have heard my music or what they think of it. I get enough feedback to feel like I’m reaching a few people and that’s fine. If nobody responded, that would be a problem. But if I can reach just a few people where the music really means something to them, then that’s very gratifying.”

Ben Monder performs at 7:30 p.m. on November 22 at the Lexington Friends Meeting House (Quakers), 649 Price Ave. Tickets are $20 at

Title Image Photo Credit: Ben Monder by John Rogers


Scattered Seeds: the First KMAC Triennial

The inaugural KMAC Triennial features twenty artists who live or have roots in the state of Kentucky. Selected by jury from a pool of over 200 applicants, the variety of work attests to the vitality of creative practice currently happening in or loosely stemming from the state, but stops short of defining or locating any thematic or conceptual lenses through which to understand the state of contemporary Kentucky art. 

The show uses the title Crown of Rays, referring to a particular genus of the Goldenrod, the state flower of Kentucky. The gallery text makes allusions to ceremonial headwear and deifying haloes tied to the flower as well as pollination and ecology, using the flower’s botanical and symbolic properties as what curator Joey Yates sees as an elastic concept for grouping such a diverse array of artists and practices. Sadly, an image of the flower appears nowhere in the galleries, either as a visual reference point or botanical metaphor, severing any coalescing work the title could perform and leaving the disparate selection of artworks to each stand on their own with little conceptual or formal connections between them. 

Philis Alvic, ‘City Windows’, woven collage, 72″ x 42″ x 3″, 2012

Philis Alvic, ‘Vienna Window’, woven collage, 69″ x 42″ x 7″, 2012

Fortunately, there are a number of strong pieces in the show, particularly those that engage with the museum’s historical engagement in craft, but with the contemporary art sensibility KMAC currently pursues. Philis Alvic’s handwoven panels evoke windows from all over the world, creating a tension between the accumulation of pattern and fabrics on a rich, tactile surface and the illusionistic picture plane. Hunter Stamps’ ceramic pieces, which hug columns, seep out from walls, sink into the floor, or plop down as undignified specimens on a hospital gurney, similarly make process and craft evident through their surfaces and biomorphic forms, while at the same time viscerally alluding to open wounds and sores on the body. 

Hunter Stamps, ‘Utterance’, 2019, Ceramic sculpture

Installation View, KMAC Triennial with floor sculptures by Melissa Vandenberg (foreground) and Mary Carothers (middle ground). Multiple works by Rachel Frank (background). Photo credit: Ted Wathen

On another floor, different craft traditions coalesce into compelling installations. Rachel Frank’s tabletop display of stoneware, video, and plant assemblages against the backdrop of her hanging fiber and beadwork Pattern for a Yurt III (2016) makes the most explicit reference to Kentucky ecologies in the show (albeit sans Goldenrod) through new and old media. Melissa Vandenberg’s Shed (2019) alludes to the animal world through multiple genealogies of craft, featuring two sets of intertwined, snakelike legs reminiscent of Sarah Lucas’ work. These forms appear to be molting an aging and deteriorating quilt as they sprawl across the second-floor gallery space, capped with boot-shaped glass components completed during the artist’s residency at the Corning Museum of Glass. 

Vinhay Keo, ‘Kissing Kissinger’ (Portrait of a Nobel Peace Prize Winner), 2019, Acrylic paint, photograph. Photo credit: Ted Wathen.

Not wanting to be limited by an at-times parochializing focus on traditional craft forms, the jury chose a selection of artists spanning a number of different media. Two conceptual works that traverse the stairwell of the vertically-oriented museum’s three gallery floors best realize the potential of KMAC’s space, though perhaps at the expense of working formally or conceptually with the other works in the show. Vinhay Keo’s Kissing Kissinger (Portrait of a Nobel Peace Prize Winner) (2019) entails a photographic portrait of Kissinger from 1973 surrounded by a sea of individual red body prints of the artist’s lips. Running down a wall that cuts through the gallery’s main floors and fading just before hitting the floor, the sea of lip stains produce a performative, punning, and queer re-reading of Kissinger’s name while also darkly alluding to the millions of Cambodian lives lost or displaced due to the former Secretary of State’s policies. Complementing Keo’s installation is a site-specific sound piece by Aaron Rosenblum, High, Low, and In Between (2019). Merging pure tones with urban and rural field recordings, these sounds move up and down speakers set throughout the open stairwells and resonate throughout the gallery spaces. 

The geographic push and pull generated by the two site-specific works in the stairwell carries throughout most of the show, but without much rhyme or reason. On the second floor, dizzyingly complex conceptual black and white photography of the KMAC gallery spaces by Casey James Wilson lies between Sean Satrowitze’s somewhat ideologically muddy installation of a proposed funerary ritual for the decapitation or removal of Confederate monuments in the region and Vian Sora’s Max Ernst-inspired abstract paintings responding to the artist’s traumatic experiences in her native Baghdad. From the hyper-local to the geopolitical, and the coldly conceptual to the intensely internal, these works benefit little from proximity to each other, and possibly need more conceptual room to breathe (particularly Starowitz’s, which would benefit from further research and a socially-engaged public component).

In the following room, Elizabeth Mesa-Gaido’s assemblages and prints juxtapose the playful forms and textures of piñatas with images from revolutionary Cuba and toiletries and essentials commonly unavailable on the island, where her family has roots. Complementing Mesa-Gaido’s meditation on need and abundance through mass-produced commodities are Lori Larusso’s sign-painted still-life installation Pastiche of Good Intentions (2019) and Kristin Richards’s Donald Judd-inspired vats of a rainbow of Dawn dishwashing soap that sit oddly atop a paneled wood staircase, a work that similarly needs some air, possibly as two components in a larger installation.

Next to this gallery are perhaps the show’s two biggest misses: a horizontal installation of Jimmy Angelina’s pop culture-inspired black and white drawings, which work much better in the coloring book form available in the KMAC gift shop, and the only primarily moving image-based work in the show, Sarah Lasley’s Totality (2019), a kitschy panorama of dramatic National Park scenery overlaid with individual karaoke singers belting different songs in street clothes. Lost in the shuffle are Andrew Cozzens’ interactive and conceptual meditation on art consumption and forms of biological and cultural extinction, which is unfortunately tucked away in a rear gallery and was not functioning when I visited, and Harry Sanchez, Jr.’s compelling prints of families torn apart at the U.S.-Mexico border, a work whose urgent tone and direct politics are effective but feel out of place with the other works in the show.

Biennials (and by extension triennials) are tricky, but they have come to dominate the contemporary art world in the past three decades, for better or for worse. Spreading out from former art world centers in order to keep pace with an increasingly globalized world and afford smaller cities—like many in this region—the chance to elevate their artists or local creative economies onto a higher and more visible platform, these recurring exhibitions ideally function as barometers of the contemporary art world. More often than not, however, they merely add to the noise. The KMAC Triennial, with its small size and (somewhat) regional roster, departs from the sprawling city-wide scale and superstar artist list of Front in Cleveland or FotoFocus in Cincinnati, smartly focusing on artists who the curator and jury feel deserve a broader platform. Once raised on this platform, however, the artists seem to be each belting their own tune, echoing the confusing soundscape of Lasley’s video and retreating to the dangerously forgettable form of the open call, juried group show. 

Lacking a thematic consistency or coherent dialogue among the works, I wonder about the show’s ability to present these artists to new audiences, which, in the end should be the goal of evoking the biennial format. As an inaugural event, the 2019 KMAC Triennial shows great promise in its ability to attract and showcase important work by artists with ties to Kentucky, though those ties are at times weak. With a clearer concept and focus, either through the selection of work or roster of artists, hopefully future versions will advance beyond merely shedding light on important practices in the region. My hope is that future iterations of the triennial will not only showcase artists but ignite important discussions and generate lenses through which to understand their work, or—ideally—prompt us to re-imagine the broader contemporary art landscape entirely.

About the Author: Annie Dell’Aria is Assistant Professor of Art History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Her research concerns the intersection of contemporary art, moving image media, and public space. Her writings have appeared in Afterimage: Journal of Media Arts and Cultural CriticismInternational Journal of Performing Arts and Digital MediaPublic Art DialogueMoving Image Review and Art Journal (MIRAJ)Millennium Film Journal, and other venues. She is currently working on her book, The Moving Image as Public Art: Sidewalk Spectators and City Screens.


BLINK Cincinnati

My son and I were walking through Berlin, Germany, a couple of years ago. It was rainy and cold, but what an amazing place. We took the electric trams to make our walks more efficient, but we still walked more than eight hours every day. One night we explored Potsdamer Platz where we were delighted by the lighting in this hyper-modern place. After a while we walked toward Museum Island. Wandering into the more classical Bebelplatz we were utterly stunned to find ourselves in the midst of the most extraordinary phenomenon:  the Festival of Lights Berlin.

Somehow our research for this visit had missed any mention of this extravaganza. As it turns out, the festival has been an annual event since 2005, and now attracts over 2.5 million visitors yearly. Among the visual delights were 3-D videos projected onto buildings, each of them customized to fit the building and adding color, movement, graphics and manipulations of architectural features for gorgeous effects. Columns that grow, walls that crumble and rebuild, windows that breath, people seeming to move from window to window, each projection telling a story in color and light. If you’ve not seen this art form – projection mapping on city buildings – you owe that pleasure to yourself.  And you don’t have to travel to Berlin to see it. It’s now as close as Cincinnati.

BLINK Cincinnati was a four-day art and music festival emphasizing nighttime light effects (October 10-13). BLINK 2019, expanded from the first event in 2017, spanned 30 city blocks, ranging 2.6 miles from north to south. Most of the streets were closed to traffic, so walkers and bikers enjoyed free rein. At the north end, 25 works activated the Findlay Market neighborhood and they continued down through Over the Rhine, Downtown, The Banks, and across the Ohio River on the iconic Roebling Suspension Bridge (the bridge itself being the subject of one of the wonderful lighting installations) into historic Covington. All told there were 96 distinct locations including 42 projections,17 murals, and 37 art installations, many of them interactive.

We spent one night and the following morning at BLINK Cincinnati, walking the full length of the festival, enjoying the works as they presented themselves. Navigating was made easy by signs with maps, handouts and, most impressively, by an interactive phone app. A free download, this app provided a coded map with GPS tracking. It located every feature, and with a click allowed users to read about each installation and artist, providing easy walking directions if needed.

The most striking aspect of BLINK Cincinnati was how democratic it felt, with thousands of people (over a million attended in 2017) of all ages, races, and ethnicities mingling on the streets, enjoying the festival. It was a free event with the exception of very few installations requiring a modest admission fee. Special provisions were made to assist with transit when needed, and 43,000 people took advantage of the streetcar service. There were six sound stages with live music (of varying quality), but it was easy to escape to areas where the sounds of the crowds dominated. The best accompaniment to the visual show were the sounds of laughter, children playing, oohs and aahs and conversation as we all responded to ever shifting visual delights. (At the Berlin Light Festival one of the most enjoyable features was how quiet it was).

Another unexpected benefit was that we were introduced to parts of the city we didn’t really know. With most roads closed to vehicles it was easy to walk and explore. We were particularly taken with the scale, breadth and quality of Findlay Market, Over the Rhine, and Covington. We’ve visited these areas before, but it’s entirely different when you can wander on foot, without concern for vehicles, and with the primary objective of looking and seeing. What a brilliant way to experience a city!

One could easily spend eight hours over two evenings enjoying BLINK, taking advantage of the excellent food scene, drinking in the extraordinary visual stimulation, and participating in the vibrant energy of diverse and upbeat crowds. One comes away knowing that it would be well worth the effort to carve out several hours on any given day to explore any of these remarkable neighborhoods. This imaginative investment in entertainment will surely reap immediate and long-lived benefits for Cincinnati.

LexPhil’s Maestro Marathon: Kelly Corcoran

Kelly Corcoran is Music Director and Conductor of Intersection Contemporary Music Ensemble in Nashville, and Former Associate Conductor and Choral Director of the Nashville Symphony. Kelly attended the Boston Conservatory and Indiana University and is currently the conductor for a world tour of National Geographic’s Symphony for our World. Her guest conductor credits include The Cleveland Orchestra, and the Atlanta, Detroit, Houston, Milwaukee, and National Symphonies. UnderMain’s Tom Martin talked with Kelly for WEKU’s Eastern Standard program as she prepares for a marathon weeklong audition for the position of music director and conductor of the Lexington Philharmonic. Click on the image to listen.

Kelly Corcoran. Portrait by Bill Steber and Pat Casey Daley


Navigating Experience and Longing in the Art and Design of Mia Cinelli

It’s an overcast Monday afternoon when Mia Cinelli opens the front door to her home with a welcoming smile. Situated on a tree-lined side street a few miles from the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Cinelli’s home provides a space to work away from her on-campus studio, which she concedes is presently serving more as an office than a creative space. Cinelli came to Lexington in 2017 when she accepted a position as Assistant Professor of Art Studio and Digital Design at UK’s School of Art & Visual Studies. Prior to her current position, she was appointed by Defiance College (Defiance, OH) to launch a new design program while concurrently serving as the college’s gallery director, positions she was offered directly following the completion of her MFA at the Penny Stamp School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI).

Cinelli is an artist, designer, educator, and a proud “Yooper,” a native of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She pulls her hands up to her face to mimic the mitten-like geography of her home state, pointing out with a grin that Yoopers come from the left hand, the sliver of state connected to Wisconsin that is separated from the rest of Michigan by the Straits of Mackinac. Speaking about her connection with the region, Cinelli is almost wistful, “The Midwest, I think, is more like a deep personality trait, as opposed to a place, and the U. P. is especially weird. It’s really an esoteric culture of flannel and mining and logging. Something I miss kind of deeply…in the winter everyone says ‘stay warm,’ that’s the sendoff everywhere, but I always liked that as a Midwestern thing, like the Midwest is warm, it’s cold in terms of its climate but it’s warm in terms of its people.” It’s obvious that Cinelli is concerned with people, especially within her creative pursuits. In her studio work as an artist, Cinelli’s output asks us to consider, reflect, attune. As a typographer and a designer, she’s working toward clearer forms of communication and deeper methods of expression.

Artist/Designer Mia Cinelli in her home studio, Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by C.M. Turner.

For Cinelli, aspects of function, intention, and context are intricately interwoven, which can blur the line between art and design. She sums it up in this way:

When I was in school I remember reading, “design is art with function,” which was the boiled down version of the saying, and as I got older I was like, “I think that’s kind of a bullshit answer,” because art has function, too. I don’t think that’s the delineating kind of thing…clearly it all has a function, they just have different functions and they have different kinds of context…but it has to be intentional, it has to be thought out. A function can be a totally emotional experience, it can be a function on behalf of the person making it, or it can be on behalf of the people who are seeing it.

There is an atmosphere of awareness that surrounds Cinelli, with attentiveness informing process and practice. She acknowledges that she’s striving for awareness, and that having a background in design aids in the endeavor, relating, “So much of what you do in client work, or in the process of design, the making, the figuring out, the failing, all the good stuff that gets to the thing that gets made, all that process, so much of it is about being able to clearly figure out what it is you’re trying to do and how it is you’re going to do it, and then communicating it to someone else…so that, I think, is about explaining intention and trying to kind of match intention to what it is you’re trying to do.”

This carries over into her approach to exhibiting contemporary art as well, understanding that exhibitions function as designed experiences. Cinelli posits:

How does someone move through this [exhibition] space? How does someone learn about something in this space? How do you scaffold information or format the art in a way…how do I frame an experience intentionally so that what I want to happen happens, or that there’s at least a chance for that to happen? Because you can never control how the work is received, that’s never going to happen, but you can kind of set up the parameters you want and you can use space effectively to say “okay, what information do we have, how does someone absorb it, or not, and then how do they leave this room different from how they walked in?”

This desire to impact audience members and elicit change is palpable in Cinelli’s practice. Her work can be divided into three broad categories of inquiry, which often overlap: Language and communication, memory and history, and corporeality, or the body itself. Speaking toward the overlap, Cinelli pinpoints an overarching unifier, “I think a lot of my work is about longing; even the work not about memory, I think is still about longing, either a longing for something to exist in the world that doesn’t, or a longing for something else…it’s something I have a hard time articulating for myself, except that those seem to be the experiences that stay with you, they seem to be the things you carry around….”

As an artist and a designer, Cinelli is seeking to solve problems, so a certain sense of longing is absolutely vital in her work. No one sets out wanting to change the status quo, whether in a practical or ambitious way, without first identifying a specific problem or set of circumstances to initially address. There are always changes that need to be made, paradigms that need to shift. And if catalyzing change is what your work is about, then a sense of longing belongs there.

Mia Cinelli, Speculative Series, 2019, Courtesy of the artist.

Mia Cinelli, Speculative Series, 2019, Courtesy of the artist.

Take her Speculative Characters (2019) series, for example. On her website, Cinelli offers the following explanation for the works:

In the age of emojis, type and image work in tandem to bolster our typographic voices, conveying our wide range of emotions. What if, in lieu of relying on smiley-faces and eggplants to make our point, new punctuation could formally articulate meaning through gesture and expression? Much like [how] written music relies on specific symbols to designate key, volume, pacing and pauses, I believe new letterforms—inspired by facial expressions, hand gestures, and metaphors—could better inform our visual inflection. These new characters are proposed to supplement our existing typefaces, attempting to make the rich complexities of verbal (and nonverbal) conversation visible.

Here, Cinelli has outlined a reason for her longing, a desire to more closely align verbal, physical, and textual communication. And it’s not just a longing on the artist/designer’s behalf. People often ask Cinelli where they can get the characters, if they can download them, if they’re available for mobile phones, underscoring that there is a larger desire for these kinds of expressive marks.

Mia Cinelli, Speculative Series, “Awkward Pause” 2019, Courtesy of the artist.

Mia Cinelli, Speculative Series, “Anticipation Point”, 2019, Courtesy of the artist.

The series is concerned with clarity of expression and ability to convey emotion, but also with the future of ideas. It’s speaking both to language, and design itself, in terms of what the future of designed expression might look like. Cinelli genuinely enjoys this. She uses the term “visual inflection” to describe the performative nature of typefaces, fonts, and symbols, textual signifiers that communicate voice and emotion. Some of her Speculative Characters are indeed visual puns based on accepted punctuation marks, such as Awkward Pause (a horizontally elongated comma) and Anticipation Point (an exclamation point with a long, curvilinear lead-up), while others are clearly influenced by physical expressions, such as Angry Quotes (tilted quotation marks approximating a furrowed brow) and Shrug Sign (a kind of warped W representing raised shoulders). She acknowledges that the physicality of these forms is especially significant to her personally, relating, “I love the way we’re dealing with language, the fact that we’ve brought corporeality into what is now a digital space because we all understand…we can have a pretty clear communication based solely on facial expressions and gesture, we can have this communication and it’s in-person, which is really different if we call, and even more different if we text…physicality and tactile experiences, for me, are just huge and really important.”

The importance of physicality in Cinelli’s output is evident when her larger portfolio is explored. Her Penance series (2019), investigates the identity of apology through hand-starched and hand-sewn pennants. The custom typography is also hand-drawn, before being digitally refined. Cinelli revels in the handmade process as a performative act, tedious, laborious, which she describes as its own kind of apology. To her, process imbues output with its own kind of layered message, and in this series the challenges of producing the work reflect the challenges faced when working up to an apology, or in parsing out which individuals, groups, or institutions should issue or receive them. Like crafting a meaningful apology, Cinelli relates the labor of working with intention, “They were difficult to make and really tedious, and they took all of this time, and I had to hand-dye this because I didn’t have the right color…[But] I like the act of making the work as well as the work itself, and I like the play of them, they feel really playful but they also feel really sad, which I really enjoy in my work.”

Artist/Designer Mia Cinelli with Penance series, “Mea Culpa”, 2019, custom typography hand-cut and stitched, stiffened wool and acrylic felt, cotton/acrylic thread. Approx. 10” x 24”. Photo by C.M. Turner.

Cinelli likes to take the recognizable and subvert what we think we know, taking the familiar and undercutting expectations. She brings forth tongue-in-cheek observations that also hold authenticity, speaking a common language with a foreign tongue, sparking interest. The Penance pennants speak the language of universities and athletic clubs, generic identifiers for specific groups. Cinelli takes these signifiers and undercuts the tribalism inherent in their visual language, pointing to the universal truth that everyone needs to ask forgiveness for something at some point. If we can get better at acknowledging our mistakes and asking for forgiveness, then perhaps our mistakes will stop feeling so monumental. This all plays to Cinelli’s penchant for speculative projects that work toward the way she wants the world to function, which is tied to the longing she sees running throughout her creative endeavors.

That longing is starkly front and center in Cinelli’s Insatiable Spaces series (2018), which includes facsimiles of parade candy, popsicles, and breakfast cereal. Her website states: “Engaging with the archetypal form of a house as a metaphor for the familiar, I aim to explore the physical manifestations of yearning through emotionally functional objects—addressing, alleviating, or activating our longing. Here, nostalgia and homesickness are similar as insatiable desires. These tiny spaces are sardonic faux-confections—simultaneously delightful and disappointing.”

Mia Cinelli, Insatiable Spaces Series,” Parade Candy”, 2018, printed waxed paper, clay, acrylic paint, wood, cellophane, dimensions variable. Photo by C.M. Turner.

Insatiable Spaces also puts the artist’s subversive streak in focus. At first glance, the miniature clay and wood sculptures are convincing confectionary stand-ins, especially when they’re wrapped in intricately approximated waxed paper or cellophane. Cinelli describes the experience of observing viewers’ reactions to the work, noting that people often walk past the pieces or up to them expecting genuine treats, then reinvestigate, and then confront their upset expectations. “I like that kind of recognizable weirdness to these, that you know what they are and you know what they aren’t. So by the time you see them it’s like, ‘I thought this was going to be something else’.”

While she cites nostalgia as a strong element within Insatiable Spaces, Cinelli leans into something harder to pin down and ultimately more productive in the majority of her work. Nostalgia is an easy target, especially in the current sociopolitical climate. Cinelli sees that people are yearning for “the good old days,” even though those days really weren’t so good. For her, it’s not about recapturing a feeling, but about finding a way forward, stating, “You want to go back and you can’t. You picture this other time and it’s totally gone. So for me, I think the work is more about navigating that experience.” This form of confrontation and memorializing is about re-inhabiting physical and mental spaces in another way. Cinelli affirms:

I think I’ve always been interested in memory and fleeting experiences and things that are and then are not…and so for me a lot of it was manifested in the ideas of home or places that you can’t return to, which I always find really strange. Those seem to be really salient moments in my life, when I leave apartments and I give the key to someone else…so there is that level of physicality. You can’t place yourself there anymore, you can’t physically go somewhere anymore, and the past, I think, is the same way.

This focus on fleeting experiences ties back to Cinelli’s sense of awareness, of being in tune with what is outside of herself as well as what’s in. If artists are cultural producers, they are as much cultural synthesizers, pulling things out of the ether to filter through a lens of subjectivity, in an effort to open people up to further possibilities. Cinelli’s personal philosophy is succinctly stated on her website, “It’s more about experience and less about aesthetic.” Her work is forthcoming, embodying perspectives gained from lived experiences. She attests, “In living, you pick things up and you hang onto them and you find yourself just carrying things around, and sometimes you’re just like, ‘well, I’ve got to put some of this down,’ and sometimes you just make the art about it, and then you can put it down, and it’s done, and it’s outside of yourself again, and you’re okay with it.”

Mia Cinelli, Insatiable Spaces, “Milk Prototype”, 2018, Photo by C.M. Turner.

This is how she feels about the houses from Insatiable Spaces. Cinelli is stepping back from work in a similar vein after producing that series, then reproducing the work for concurrent exhibitions, and reflecting on the two shows. She frames these pieces as artifacts of experience, what she describes as “emotionally functional objects,” catalysts for understanding and acceptance. One of the more poignant and performative works in Insatiable Spaces is a model of the artist’s grandmother’s home, cast in soap. The casting is washed away until it disappears, tying in the physicality so often present in Cinelli’s work. Ultimately, this piece is about knowing the moment when a thing is gone, knowing when a thing is no longer the thing that it was, understanding it, and accepting it. When a colleague points this out to Cinelli, she acknowledges that this is exactly what she’s trying to pin down in this reflexive work, what she’s working through. Moving through life, picking things up and putting them down, and hoping it does some good for other people. When she discusses putting herself into the work, Cinelli confesses, “I care a lot about what I do, I don’t think I could do this work if I were half-assing it, because I want it to be good and I want it to be earnest…you can try really hard to make something that feels like it matters to you, it’s really earnest, you really want it to be something that comes from a place of honesty and of a kind of labor of love that comes from making stuff.”

The earnestness comes through in Cinelli’s work, imbued by the artist’s genuine intent. In the world of contemporary art, there seems to be no separating the work from its maker. The artist’s name is their brand, and who they are is tied to the reading of their work. Cinelli concedes that this is somewhat of a struggle for her personally, “A lot of this comes back to identity, and who you are, artist or designer…or typographer, or all or none or both, and so much of my practice has been trying to figure out what that footing is and who you are when you’re with other people, because sometimes it’s both and sometimes it’s neither, and then what does it mean to be more than one thing, because it’s not like I make the same work all time….” While she maintains conceptual linkage of her output through themes of longing and speculation, it’s true that the media and aesthetics shift from project to project. Cinelli acknowledges, “Sometimes I’m casting silicone, sometimes I’m sewing some weird objects, sometimes I’m printing weird type, and there’s consistency of idea, there’s consistency of intent, but there’s not always consistency of medium, which I think can be really hard because you can probably look at my work and go ‘what does this person do?’ which is different from ‘what do they make?’”

For certain artists, each work must be the thing it is meant to be, meaning the message is inherently tied to the medium. This requires learning new processes and experimenting with new materials in ongoing trials of error. For Cinelli, these moments of labor are also points of great excitement:  “All of it’s labor, all of it’s work, and you can’t devalue the work you do, but I think you can frame it in such a way for yourself where you have to remember that it’s a privilege to be able to design, it’s a privilege to make art. I feel really unbelievably fortunate that I get to teach for a living and make art for a living.”

While the look and feel of her work may vary, critical attention to her practice reveals a deep connective thread between Cinelli’s diverse output, which is—ultimately—an investigation of what it is to be. This kind of ontological approach to art and design necessitates the medium carrying the message. What unifies Cinelli’s practice is an awareness of the ways things are, a desire to change what she can, and an understanding that fostering earnest relationships among artists, designers, clients, and audiences means that sometimes the work must be more about the experience than it is about the aesthetic.

Mia Cinelli is an artist, designer, and educator based in Lexington, Kentucky. For more information, please visit her website at


Arts Tasting Menu

Hand cut cultural treats from the Bluegrass region and beyond to fill your plate. This week the horse takes center stage.


Tales from the Turf: The Kentucky Horse, 1825 – 1950. The Speed Art Museum, Louisville. November 15, 2019 – March 1, 2020.

Edward Troye, Kentucky, 1866. Oil on canvas. Loan to the Speed Art Museum courtesy of a private collection.

No other animal is as uniquely identified with the history and culture of Kentucky as the horse. The exhibition of equine and sporting art illuminates the many ways that the horse has become part of our understanding of the identity of Kentucky into the modern era.


Andre Pater: An American Journey. The Headley-Whitney Museum, Lexington. Through November 17th.

Acclaimed sporting artist, Lexington’s Andre Pater, has been finding fresh and dynamic approaches to his subject matter for over 40 years. This retrospective exhibition of Pater’s work includes more than 90 works from private collections. His vivid and nuanced paintings are much sought after around the world. The exhibition captures the evolution of the Polish-American artist’s journey in art and America.


The Sporting Art Auction. Keeneland, Lexington. November 17, 4PM.

Henry Faulkner, Keeneland. Oil on board.

A joint effort between the Keeneland Association and Cross Gate Gallery in Lexington, the auction will bid out almost 200 sporting art and related works.The catalogue is available online and you can also register to bid. Giddyup!


Beyond Pretty Pictures

In Trees, an exhibition at Christ Church Cathedral featuring photographs by Tom Kimmerer and Guy Mendes, a simple conceit illuminates pressing issues of contemporary culture. Visitors to the cathedral are presented with an abundance of images showcasing the grandeur of Kentucky’s terrain and landscapes. On one hand, this exhibition is an opportunity to bask in the beauty of local plains, hillsides, and mountains. On the other, Kimmerer and Mendes draw upon their critical aptitude to reinforce environmental concerns around the globe, as well as photography’s temporal nature.

Guy Mendes, “Monk’s Pond”, 2015, pigment print. Courtesy of the artist.

Guided by light and color, the compositions Kimmerer and Mendes generate are dynamic and arresting. In Monks’ Pond (2015), Mendes offers a viewpoint from a small body of water surrounded by towering limbs and foliage that recede into the scene. The ground the photographer must be standing on, however, creeps into the frame from the top edge, instilling a dream-like sense of place as the tall grass protrudes like a canopy. Utilizing the water’s reflection and expert cropping, Mendes fabricates a disillusioning image. Even photographs with more conventional presentation styles in the exhibit—such as one by Kimmerer of a silhouetted oak against a rural backdrop in Bur Oak Named Eilean—are striking given their emphasis on dramatic lighting and vivid hues.

Tom Kimmerer, Bur Oak Named Eilean, undated, print on satin lustre paper. Courtesy of the artist.

Several of Kimmerer’s photographs are documentary, in that they take stock of the seasons and time, monitoring the cyclical tendencies of various plant life, observing trees and their surroundings. Boy in Snow with Trees, for example, records a wintry trek across a relatively barren expanse. The trees here are witness to all that is around them:  the boy and his journey, the harsh weather, as well as their own process of death and rebirth. Similar to the trees, viewers are likewise able to focus and scrutinize the field of snow.

Tom Kimmerer, Boy in Snow with Tree, undated, print on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

These types of photographs are visually quite stunning, as their settings seem almost too grand or painterly to be real. Kimmerer’s most conceptual output, though, are those that take a position of environmentalism.

A mammoth oak looms over a blue highway sign containing local food and gas options in Bur Oak at McDonald’s. Extruding from behind the tree, a pair of bright yellow arches beckon to hungry travelers. Kimmerer places his audience at an interstate exit, denoted by automobiles, a street light, and the advertising placard. On the sign are logos and trademarks of corporations that, to varying degrees, increase carbon emissions and damage our atmosphere.

Tom Kimmerer, Bur Oak at McDonald’s, undated, print on satin lustre paper. Courtesy of the artist.

The artist may be juxtaposing the scale of the tree against the comparatively microscopic business icons to emphasize the importance of keeping the planet clean. Even if this is not his explicit objective, the conceptual weight of the pairing holds.

This reading of Kimmerer’s photographs is linked to the idea that, with the acceleration of climate change, many of Earth’s landscapes, wildlife, and waterways are assuredly doomed. In a way, photography possesses the ability to prevent destruction from happening. Photographs freeze time, as it were, and present a version of the world that is specific to an exact moment, regardless of what may happen to erode its contents in the future. Theorist Roland Barthes recognized this feature of photography during the mid-twentieth century, going so far as to connect photographing to death, even when done as an act of preservation. By the end of his influential Camera Lucida (1980), he describes how the camera, in an attempt to keep something the way it is, initiates a phenomenon in which the resulting photograph indicates eventual death. Barthes states that, “Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.”

For a composition that places oil industry emblems side-by-side with the physical natural world, Kimmerer’s Bur Oak at McDonald’s would stand as an ominous, if not inevitable, foreshadowing for the tree.

Guy Mendes, “Buzzards’ Roost”‘, 1980, pigment print. Courtesy of the artist.

Within Trees, there are other works that also demonstrate photography’s relationship to death as Barthes describes. Mendes’ Buzzards’ Roost (1980) has served as a kind of insignia for the exhibition—the photograph is featured heavily on promotional materials and is by far the largest work. The framed print hones in on a tree looking over the Kentucky River and small canyon in Woodford County. Light beams through the tree’s leaves and stems so that their crisp shadows fall on the trunk, mirroring the direction and movement of the objects from which they are cast. The shadows and light combined with the immensity of the view make for a rather compelling image. According to Mendes, however, erosion and invasive species caused the tree to die, and such a scene can no longer be admired.

So, too, does Buzzards’ Roost fall under the guidelines laid out by Barthes. Mendes likely did not think that the tree would be entirely gone in less than fifty years, but by photographing it he especially designated it to ultimately die. Yet a photograph has that quality of recording things in a permanent state, only for its contents to continue to develop and grow outside of it. This anecdote makes one contemplate if or when other trees and plants in the exhibition will be eliminated from the areas viewers find them in.

The photographs in Trees populate the lobby area, main hallways, and multipurpose space of Christ Church Cathedral. Indeed, they beautify the cathedral in a way many other objects could not, though their social and environmental implications run much deeper than simply nice images to walk by. In addition to functioning as a testament to the splendor of our world, these works call each onlooker to think, act, and inspire on the planet’s behalf, before elements of nature are gone for good.

“Trees – Photographs by Guy Mendes and Tom Kimmerer” runs through October 27th at Christ Church Cathedral in Lexington.


Arts Tasting Menu

This week, a Lexington-centric menu filled with unique tastes.


9th Annual PRHBTN Gallery. Lexington Art League, Loudoun House, Lexington. October 18th thru November 18th.

Lexington’s annual October outdoor mural festival has an accompanying indoor gallery show at the Art League’s Loudoun House. Over 130 Kentucky artists show their work, hung salon style throughout the house. A fun, opening party kicks off the exhibition.


Arts Connect Lexington Open Studios Weekend. Multiple Lexington locations. October 19th and 20th.

Lexington artists will open their studios to the public. Many of the artists will be offering studio sales of their work. Visitors can watch many of the artists at work and will have an opportunity to discuss that work. A unique opportunity to see the visual arts community in their natural habitat and to appreciate the diversity of work being produced in Lexington.


Lost Souls Project Presentation and Book Signing. Lucille Caudill Little Fine Arts Library, University of Kentucky. October 17th, 6-7:30PM.

A graphic novel depicting the history of the Holocaust in Poland, the text of Lost Souls was written by Maciej Świerkocki, and was illustrated by Mariusz Sołtysik. Polish society has been struggling with the history of the Holocaust and the roles played by many Poles in its perpetration. Illustrator Soltysik is presenting his work based on the project in the lobby of the library and will also be signing copies of the graphic novel.


Tunis: Ickes and Hensley Ride An On-Ramp to the Blues

On a Wednesday evening, having just crossed the state border from Tennessee into Kentucky with a final destination of Fort Wayne, Indiana, still hours ahead of them, Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley found it only natural to talk about traveling – or more specifically, where their travels have taken them this fall.

Just a few days earlier, Ickes was back on home turf. He was playing one of his native San Francisco’s most prestigious music festivals, the gathering known as Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. There, the artist who the International Bluegrass Music Association has named Dobro Player of the Year no fewer than 15 times (making him the IBMA’s most awarded musician to date) and his current musical compadre, guitarist and rock solid country vocal stylist Hensley, rubbed performance elbows with the likes of Americana giant Buddy Miller, country songwriting veteran Bobby Braddock, rock icon Robert Plant, and pop/blues vocal mainstay Maria Muldaur.

“It was,” said Ickes in an instance of jovial understatement, “a pretty fun day.”

A few weeks prior to that, Ickes and Hensley were right next door in Versailles, sweating it out with fans in the 90-degree swelter of a performance at the Kentucky Castle. It was a preparatory appearance ahead of their third album, an immensely spirited record titled “World Full of Blues.”

It’s a curious title for a duo whose music was born out of bluegrass and country. It might also cause some head scratching from blues enthusiasts, as well, as the record hardly adheres to time honored traditions of the blues. But, it’s a big world out there and the mission of “World Full of Blues” was to explore the sounds sitting within it in ways that only a dobro, a guitar and a voice can. Well, that, and with the help of some high-profile pals.

“We’re thrilled with it,” Hensley admitted. “I guess we started on it last October, but finished it up pretty quickly. We’re thrilled to finally get it out there. It’s a pretty exciting time, for sure.”

Off the Highway
First, some history. If you know bluegrass, you know the name Rob Ickes, the Tennesseean transplant from the West Coast who joined the prestigious string band Blue Highway in 1992. Over the course of 21 years, he took a love of the dobro that began with a listen to a Mike Auldridge record to a level of innovation that has made Ickes the most recognized modern day ambassador of the instrument after Jerry Douglas.

But after two decades, he was ready for a change. An alliance with Hensley, a guitarist with a solid-as-oak vocal command of country tradition, began in 2014 as one in a series of side projects for Ickes. But this endeavor took root. Following his departure from Blue Highway in 2015, work with Hensley became top priority. Now with their third album together out and another Lexington stop slated for October 28 at the Lyric Theatre for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, Ickes is enjoying life off the Highway just fine.

Left to Right: Rob Ickes, Trey Hensley

“A couple of years ago, Trey and I had a little time off in the fall where we got together. I’ve got a buddy who has a nice cabin outside of Leiper’s Fork near Nashville, so we went up there with pieces of songs and ideas for songs. We wrote a bunch of stuff that ended up on the record.

“One of the goals was just to write more. Our first two records had a few originals, but on this one, nine of the eleven songs were written by one of us or both of us. That was kind of a goal for sure.”

First to join to the party was songwriter/producer/engineer Brent Maher. As a record producer, his client list includes albums by Kathy Mattea, Dottie West and Kenny Rogers. Of perhaps greater interest to the Kentucky country contingency, Maher also produced every studio record by The Judds.

But Maher also had an ear for sounds made outside of Nashville. As a recording engineer he had a hand in creating records by everyone from Gladys Knight and Diana Ross to Merle Haggard and Glen Campbell. Among his most notable engineering credits: the hit crossover cover of “Proud Mary” fashioned by Ike and Tina Turner in 1971.

“Brent is a super cool guy,” Ickes said. “We got together at his studio in Nashville. We recorded, just Trey and I, about 23 songs. Then the next day, Brent had the top 11 that he felt would fit together. Those were the ones he liked the most, so that’s what we recorded.

“He wanted to focus on Trey and I and not have any other instruments on the record as far as strings went – no fiddle, no mandolin, no banjo. But he said he could really hear a B3 organ on some songs as well as percussion. Those were all his ideas. We thought they worked just great. We felt it would make for kind of a funkier sound, something a little more R&B almost. But it all began with Brent just focusing on our acoustic instruments and Trey’s voice. He wanted to work from that sound. We thought, ‘Fine with us, man.’”

Then the guests arrived.

The Blue World
The elemental duo sound that sits at the heart of the music Ickes and Hensley make is best reflected on “World Full of Blues” by a solemn country lament called “There’s Always Something to Remind Me of You.” It’s a sterling bit of heartbreak led by the understated clarity of Hensley’s singing, which sounds like the neo-traditionalism of Randy Travis’ early records matched with the stoic storytelling command of vintage Merle Haggard. That Ickes’ dobro work follows the forlorn singing around like a ghost adds to the tune’s timelessness.

“It’s funny,” Ickes said. “Trey and I were thinking about having drums and stuff on that to make it something that really would sound more like a Randy Travis song. But when it was finished with just the two of us, it went to this Jimmie Rodgers kind of a sound. When we heard that, we wanted to go in that direction. It’s just bass, guitar, dobro and organ on that. It was pretty sparse, but I think that really fit the lyrics great.”

“But there were also songs where we really tried for a bigger sound,” Hensley added.

“We were looking at adding the B3 and the percussion, but it also extended to the style of the songs. On our other records, we leaned on the bluesier side of country and bluegrass, but I think there is a natural progression on this record.”

How far did that progression extend? Well, let’s start with a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Brown-Eyed Women” and a cameo by the country artist least likely to become a Dead Head – Vince Gill.

“We had Vince on our last record, too,” Hensley said. “He’s been a good friend of this project from the very beginning.”

“I don’t think he knew the song or was very familiar with the Grateful Dead’s material,” Ickes added “But he sounded great on there. Now he loves the song.”

Then there was the title tune to “World Full of Blues,” a work that cried out for the accent of a blues stalwart. Enter the great Taj Mahal, whose gritty vocal grind offers a fun contrast to the unsettling reserve of Hensley’s singing.

“We knew we wanted a guest on the third verse,” Hensley said. “Rob and I made lists of who we would want as vocalist on the song and at the top of both of our lists was Taj Mahal. We played him the track, he loved it and he flew to Nashville. That day in the studio with him, that was a highlight for sure.”

“It’s just fun to work with great artists like that,” Ickes said. “It’s a thrill for us. It’s nice to get a pat on the back from those guys. There’s kind of a mutual admiration thing going on, you know?”

Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley, along with Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, will perform at 6:45 pm on October 28 at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 East Third, for a taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Tickets are $10. Call 859-280-2218 or go to

Walter Tunis writes about music for UnderMain. He is a music columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader.


LexPhil’s Maestro Marathon: Candidate Akiko Fujimoto

In a series for Eastern Standard on WEKU, UnderMain’s Tom Martin is interviewing each of the six finalist candidates for the positions of Music Director and Conductor of the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra. Akiko Fujimoto currently serves as Associate Conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra and is former Associate Conductor of the San Antonio Symphony. She will be in Lexington next week for a whirlwind of interviews, rehearsals, meet-and-greets and performance. A transcript of the interview appears below.

Tom: Greetings, Akiko.

Akiko: Greetings!

Tom: Are you ready for this intense week ahead?

Akiko: I am. I am so excited to be on the ground and start rehearsing with the musicians of the Lexington Philharmonic and make great music and share it with the audience.

Tom: Tell us how music came into your life and how it became your life’s work.

Akiko: Well, apparently, my mother was playing a lot of classical music while I was in her womb. I think that counts for something, but it took until about five years after I came out of her womb for me to actually start playing an instrument and that was the piano. She put me in a group piano lesson because we had just moved to a new city and she wanted me to meet other kids. I played the trombone after starting on the trumpet. And I always sang in choirs. And then once I got to college, the trombone sort of took a backseat, but I started to do more singing and actually start conducting.

Tom: If you were pressed to describe your musical personality, what would you say?

Akiko: I think my conducting personality has a lot of intensity, integrity, and passion. I’m a very, very passionate person who feels a lot, but maybe because of my Japanese background, you know, I might not express it when we’re just talking to each other in a way that you would describe as passionate. But once I’m on the podium, conducting is my instrument. It’s my medium of expression. It’s the instrument that I feel most comfortable expressing myself musically and somehow all of the passion inside of me gets unleashed. And it’s the greatest feeling I have when I’m making music and sharing that passion with the musicians on stage and then with the audience.

Tom: When you’re in Lexington, you’re going to be conducting a program entitled Deep Music. What is most exciting to you about the program that you’ll be conducting?

Akiko: Well, it’s the fact that they chose the program for us, but it’s the perfect program for me. That was a great coincidence. The first piece, Deep Summer Music, is by a Minnesotan composer Libby Larsen. And I had already met her when that piece was assigned to me by the Lexington Philharmonic and I had already performed a couple of her pieces. I immediately was like “Wow, how lucky am I that I already met the composer.” I haven’t done this piece in particular, but I feel very, you know, familiar with her and her style. And I had to read her biography in addition to meeting her in person because I was studying other music by her. So, I feel very lucky about that. And then the Ginastera or the harp concerto I feel very lucky about because I have spent five years before coming to Minnesota in San Antonio, Texas where the population is 65 percent Latino. And so, part of my job was to do Latin-influenced or Latin American music — a lot. It was our way of connecting with the community and it was a genre that I had not really explored before because all of us who go to music schools and conservatories, our core repertoire, the meat and potatoes tend to be the Central European and maybe, you know, Russian. You know, those two are sort of the bread and butter of what we do when we’re growing up as musicians. So, I haven’t really done a lot of Latin and then I have to do it and I feel very comfortable even though that harp concerto itself is not overtly folk influenced. I feel a lot of affinity for music of the Americas especially Southern and Central America. And Beethoven, I mean, how much luckier can a girl get? Beethoven #7 is one of the greatest miracles of the western civilization. First of all, Beethoven, his symphonies are a conductor’s Bible. That’s what we start studying and that’s what we die studying. They’re our life’s work. And #7 in particular is a piece that we all love performing. It’s exciting. It’s rhythmic. It gets quite intense and crazy towards the end. But then of course, there’s a slower second movement that is very famous and has been used in movie soundtracks and very iconic music. So popular that, you know, when Beethoven premiered it, he had to encore that movement. So, you know, I just feel very lucky that I was given this wonderful program.

Tom: I mentioned that you’ll be conducting the Lexington Philharmonic on the 25th. But on the evening before that, you will also lead LexPhil’s annual Music Builds Discovery Concert, which is a field trip for Central Kentucky students. Do you enjoy taking the music to young listeners?

Akiko: Yes. Absolutely. I have been doing young people’s concerts for the past ten years of my life with various organizations. And I have a ton of experience with education concerts both programming and presenting.

And every orchestra does it a little bit differently. The one thing that’s new about this Discovery concert is it is meant to target the widest range of age groups that I’ve ever encountered. Apparently, there will be anybody from third graders to high school students. I’m used to breaking things up a little bit more by age group, but this is a new challenge for me and I’m up for it.

Tom: Thinking about the audience in broader terms, what’s your philosophy about community engagement?

Akiko: Well, first of all, the role of the orchestra in any community is extremely important. I think it should be the center of the fine arts community, performing arts community. It tends to be the largest arts organization in any community just because of the sheer force and the resources that it takes to mount a professional orchestra concert, but I think it needs to be the central figure that is a resource for everybody that plays the most important — and I don’t want to put a value on different genres of music and types or formats. Everybody is important, but an orchestra has the ability to be the incubator, you know, at the highest level and also be the connector of all the different arts groups in the community whether it be dance groups, ballet, or opera, or children’s chorus, school music ensembles, youth orchestra, and college ensembles. But an orchestra needs to be the central clearing house for all things artistic and I’m sure many of the musicians in the Philharmonic teach in the area and their presence is enormously important, that these talented folks are actually living in the area. I know many people commute from elsewhere into Lexington for these concerts. But the ones that do live there, you know, they serve the community on a weekly basis by teaching lessons and being part of community and just living and breathing there. So, I think having a professional orchestra like that in the community, it just enriches everything. We should also reach out and go into the community playing different venues and not just play but also talk to the audience, mingle with the audience before and after performances because without the audience and the community’s support and understanding, we don’t exist. So, we need to constantly show our appreciation and most importantly relevance. The Philharmonic needs to be indispensable to people’s lives in a way that they can’t imagine living in Lexington without the orchestra being there.

Tom: You mentioned living here, living in Lexington. And obviously, you are open to the prospect because you’re a finalist conductor. But can you tell me a little bit more about that, about what excites you…

Akiko: Of course.

Tom: …about the possibility of living in Lexington, Kentucky?

Akiko: Well, to be honest with you, I’m not too familiar with that part of the country yet. I’ve lived in California and in Northeast and then the South for the past ten years. And now, I’m in Upper Midwest, but very, very cold. So, I will be looking forward to—

Tom: We get all four seasons to the hilt here. Let me just warn you.

Akiko: Well, that’s exactly what I was going to say, that I’m going to enjoy the four different temperaments. But hopefully, you don’t have the -28 degree weather—

Tom: We don’t have that.

Akiko: …in January or February.

Tom: Okay. Good. I was hoping that was not the case. I’m looking forward to beautiful seasons. I know there’s a lot of great nature. Obviously, you’re the horse capital. And the bourbon capital of the United States. So, these are sort of like the fun things and obvious things about Lexington, but the reason I will be excited to live in Lexington is because I would like to be part of a community, as I mentioned before, you know, the people in the Philharmonic that live there and teach and go grocery shopping there. You know, I actually just started music directorship of an orchestra in Texas that is just five weeks a year, but it’s a non-residential job. It’s called in the Mid-Texas Symphony. And I commute there from wherever I am and they did not require residence. It’s a, you know, smaller scope of an organization. Much smaller than Lexington Philharmonic. And as much as I enjoy that, I really am looking forward to having my first residential music directorship and I’m hoping that’s the Lexington Philharmonic because to be a music director I think really means that you…to have the greatest impact on the organization, you need to be part of the community. And it’s fun to be a fly-by conductor, too, but I think for the scope of the Lexington Philharmonic you do need to keep a residence there and be available for meetings and events and not cram everything into the concert weeks and just let your life there breeze so that the organization and I can do the planning, and brainstorming, and all that, you know, and not to stress about doing everything the week of the visit or something like that.

So, I’m excited about that and I’m excited about making music with this great orchestra. I know your former music director, Scott Terrell, used to be in my position years ago at the Minnesota Orchestra. And some of the musicians and staff are still friends with him. They keep in touch. So, they know about the Lexington Philharmonic and they’re all excited about it for me. And as amazing as the Minnesota Orchestra is, of course, being a staff conductor is a different story than being a music director and that’s something I’m ready, you know, looking forward to developing into, is having kind of a curatorial position, not just being a conductor of a certain specific concert, but being able to curate the overall experience and kind of like a chef, you know, designing a meal. If you could compare an orchestra season to a meal, I would love to design a great season, you know, with everybody in the organization, but be the driver of the process and give everybody a great experience.

Tom: Well, Akiko, you’re going to have a very intense and very busy week here ahead. But of course, it’s also an opportunity to discover those things that you’re looking for and I think you’ll find them.

Akiko: I think I will. I’m supposed to take a tour of the area on my first day. So, I’m excited about that.

Tom: Akiko Fujimoto, associate conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra and a candidate for music director and conductor of the Lexington Philharmonic. Thanks so much, Akiko.

Akiko: Thank you.


Listen to Tom’s conversations with the first candidate to come to town, Thomas Heuser of Idaho Falls, Idaho, as well as LexPhil Executive Director Allison Kaiser.


Too Much Information: KMAC Museum’s Inaugural Triennial

One of the showcase pieces in KMAC Museum’s inaugural triennial survey of contemporary art in Kentucky (up through December 1, 2019) is a trio of sumptuous, pretty, scary paintings by Vian Sora, an artist currently living and working in Louisville, and originally from Baghdad, Iraq. According to the wall-text, in the three paintings Sora “employs expressive painterly abstraction as a means to convey the emotional and psychological trauma brought on by her time living in and fleeing from her home in war-torn Baghdad.”

Installation view, KMAC’s Triennial “Contemporary Art of the Commonwealth: Crown of Rays”; pictured on right wall is Vian Sora’s “Last Sound”, 2018, Mixed media on canvas, 60″ x 85″

All that’s true, I’m sure, but witnessing the gorgeousness of the three paintings on site is an altogether aesthetic experience, not exactly free from trauma, but stubbornly transcendent, referencing what art can do when it’s not tethered to actuality, even though it is made in response to what has actually happened.

The wall-text helps you navigate the reasons why Sora has created what’s on the wall, but it can’t explain the moment when you first see Sora’s work and have your own thoughts woven into its blasts of color and form, its Matisse-on-fire urgency and just plain corrosive prettiness. The meaning, in other words, is a negotiation outside of biography and intention: it’s the meeting of memories and ghosts on both sides, the viewed and viewer.

Installation view, KMAC’s Triennial “Contemporary Art of the Commonwealth: Crown of Rays”; pictured in center on the column is Hunter Stamps, “Engulf”, 2019, Ceramic, 96” x 18” x 24”

To me, that’s what makes visual art so necessary now in a world where every cultural idea/pose/construct/narrative seems to be explained ad nauseum, thanks to social-media posts and pundits, the saturation of explanation becoming the way we not only take in but respond to “the world around us,” even our own biographies and struggles. Visual art, like Sora’s paintings, need to exist outside of information for them to truly register, to foment meaning beyond intention, that moment when you as the viewer see what’s been made, disconnected from root causes, and make the match in your own head.

The wall-text, in other words, just becomes gravy, biography a beautiful afterglow.

“Nothing exists until or unless it is observed. An artist is making something exist by observing it. And his/her hope for other people is that they will also make it exist by observing it. I call it ‘creative observation.’ Creative viewing,” William Burroughs wrote.

I’ve been reading Burroughs’ fiction and non-fiction lately, as his teeming, satirical, scatological takedowns of addiction and language and America all speak directly to our current times. He was vitally interested in how all forms of art try to get at experience while also dislocating it, finding meaning outside of actualities, so that what we see and read and hear blur reality to the point of it escaping and learning from the escape.

What Burroughs seems to be pointing out in the above quote is that merger of making and observing, creating and taking, an ongoing metaphorical and ontological pollination that gives art its main function, to uncover routes of escape, that impulse to make meaning once the art is outside of the artist’s control, even the artist’s resolve.

Installation view, KMAC’s Triennial “Contemporary Art of the Commonwealth: Crown of Rays”. Pictured here is a series by Bette Levy.

“Pollination” is at the center of KMAC Museum’s triennial, subtitled “Crown of Rays,” according to more wall-text introducing the whole gig: “In 1926, Kentucky lawmakers adopted the Goldenrod as the official state flower. From meadows and prairies to polluted city environments, it flourishes, heartily, among wide ranging conditions and soil types.” It turns out “the Crown of Rays is one of over a hundred cultivated plants within the Goldenrod genus, distinctive for its spears of clustered tiny yellow flowers that jut out like sunrays and that recall the halos of saintly iconography.”

“Iconography” is at the core of another triennial artist’s work, in direct contrast to Sora’s abstract-expressionist forms. Jimmy Angelina pulls out cinematic images and poses and places them outside of themselves in a series of itchy, R.Crumb-like drawings all done in black ink and installed horizontally on a banner of black paint. The fractured dramatic moments Angelina depicts erase the meaning of their origins, and transform into a parade of ghosts without progenitors, floating through space like celluloid in search of a projector.

Lori Larusso’s wall-haiku, “A Pastiche of Good Intentions,” is an amazing assortment of food and other iconographies stolen from billboards and magazines and other media. The materials she uses (ribbons and flat acrylics on polymetal panels) lend the whole piece hilarious authenticity while also providing sweet little moments of total smart-ass side-eye. It’s a tour-de-force of meaninglessness finding meaning, kind of like an e. e. cummings poem turned into a Barney’s window display.

Kristin Richard’s installation right across the way from Larusso’s piece, titled “gentle platinum antibacterial essential botanical escapes” is made up of Dawn dish soap, water, glass, laminate, wood, lighting, and form, and pushes forward a sort of laboratory elaboration on the strangeness of what is already there, always there: cabinets, Mason jars, Formica, shelves, all crystallized into a sci-fi moment, an altarpiece to boredom churning into worship. The colors of cleansers become the aesthetic impulse that pulls us through. You can attach all kinds of meanings to Richard’s gorgeous constellation, but at the end of the day it all seems to be orbiting Burroughs’ idea of existence created by observation. Taking banality and transforming it into otherness by simply displaying it outside of its purpose and premise.

“Narrator”, 2019 Oil, acrylic, sand on canvas 30” x 42”

John Harlan Norris’ series of phosphorescent portraits (done in oil, acrylic and sometimes sand on canvas) take banality and dance it into surrealism, abandoning seriousness in favor of play and ingenuity and punchlines that don’t have jokes to go with them. They are basically pictures of ghosts made up of fashion fragments and plastic doodads, all completed in those cold glow-in-the-dark colors that encapsulate pop-culture and pop-art memories of the early 1980s. Each painting is a fever-dream album-cover for synth-pop masterpieces that never got made, and yet still linger in the collective unconscious. “I want my MTV” becomes beautiful oblivion.

Another sort of playfulness, completely serious, comes to fruition in Harry Sanchez, Jr.’s two portraits, both acrylic on Styrofoam, from a series of prints in which he appropriates media images of deported immigrants. The images are distorted somehow into clarity and create meaning without being embedded in it. Sanchez chisels those pictures into Styrofoam, pulling mundane portraiture into a game of insight and integrity. His work in the show provides a witty moment of silence, while also forming the best kind of protest: saying something very clearly without contributing to the overall noise.

“Hiss”, 2019, Match burn on Arches paper (96” x 24” x 33”) and “Shed”, 2019, Vintage quilt, polyester, glass (12′ x 3′ x 28″).  Special thanks to the Rockwell Museum and Corning Museum of Glass for making the sculptural glass components possible while Melissa Vendenberg was artist-in-residence at CMoG.

Two snakes intertwined in the middle of the second floor is what I want to end with. Melissa Vandenberg’s “Shed” is a sculpture produced from an old stuffed quilt with what look like glass booties on each end. Snakes of course are so symbolic they almost short-circuit their own symbolism; they can signify associations with all kinds of institutions, religions, nations, myths. What Vandenberg’s piece gets at is a moment of poetry outside of all that chuffah: the symbol is the thing, and the thing is almost terrifying enough to make you want to retreat into symbol. However, the piece has an inherent innocence about it, a Holly-Hobbie texture and context that slides the intertwined reptiles into glassmuzzle dream.

“Dream” is a loaded word and term of course. Historically visual art has often retreated into “dream” during turbulent and insane times, but many of the artists in KMAC Museum’s first triennial take the concept of “dream” and find a way to both comment on and satirize how “meaning” in our meaning-saturated times can sometimes become a way out of literalness and into something entirely outside of a news-feed.

TOPMOST IMAGE: Installation view, KMAC Triennial. Work by Philis Alvic in the foreground.

About the Author


Teasers, Whackos, Screamers, Echoes and Zoomers: In Memory of Stephen Powell

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.


Patrick Adams: “Traces” at New Editions Gallery

Patrick Adams begins the artist statement for his new body of work with definitions of the noun and verb forms of the word trace. This may seem a little odd at first, but these connotations strike at the heart of the show and hit the target by not aiming at the bull’s eye. So if you expect a distinct horizon that appears in almost all his previous work to orient you and guide your eye through a window-framed landscape, brace yourself.

Patrick Adams,”Navigator”, Acrylic on Canvas, 64″ x 48″, 2019

With his foray into new territory, Adams has dared to put you, the viewer, squarely in the navigator’s seat, and the direction you take when you look at these paintings and where you end up is anybody’s guess.  Without the unexpected there can be no surprise and there is no shortage of either in this exhibit, Traces, at New Editions Gallery in Lexington, Kentucky.

The works on display are inspired by Adams’ recent travels through the Vaucluse region in southeastern France, a place that has captured his imagination for almost twenty years. He points out that Navigator is the breakthrough piece that guided him through the rest of this series. “It is raw and loose. And it taught me the value of getting lost in the landscape, of not having to fix the horizon or know where I was going.”

A few of the paintings, such as Heading West, show traces of his earlier work that contained single and sometimes multiple horizons. However, these transformative pieces are clear indicators of the “unbound” direction his new work is taking.

Patrick Adams, “Heading West”, Oil on Canvas, 20″ x 20″, 2019

Adams explains that his current path is in part an extension of what he has always been doing, but is also a departure because he is now allowing the vocabulary to widen a little and learning to be freer and more expressive, and to move things around because he feels a need to say more:

The first thing I decided was to not be bound to a single horizon, so the new work is more on the surface and the space is more complicated with a less identifiable light source. It is not so much a picture as it is a composite. A building or a landscape is stationary, geographically, yet it is still moving through time which means it changes as does the light. We can never perceive it in the same way regardless of how many times we look at it.

Keeping this in mind, View from the Terrace indeed denotes a landscape unlike any other Adams has produced before.

Patrick Adams, “View from the Terrace”, Acrylic and Canvas Collage on Canvas, 42″ x 54″, 2019

Apart from geometrics, there is no recognizable form here. It is not a single canvas, but a collage of other canvases removed and superimposed with vertical, horizontal, and angular splashes of color. It begs to be touched (not allowed) because the palimpsest layering creates a tremendous texture of harmony and tension, and its irregularity lends it a ragged and compelling rhythm. View from the Terrace, beautifully compressed and highly energetic, typifies all of the artistic elements at play in this series.

Tower of the Marquis and Roussillon demonstrate Adams’ approach and understanding that he cannot separate himself from his experience with the landscape and that he must explore the essential nature of this relationship—a process he calls heuristic.

Patrick Adams, “Tower of the Marquis”, Acrylic on Canvas Collage on Canvas, 64″ x 48″, 2019

You might say his experience in the Vaucluse is solidly imbedded in his psyche as well as his art.  Tower of the Marquis is part of the chateau built by Marquis de Sade and sits at the highest point of Lacoste, one of the many “perched villages” in the region. Adams declares that these villages “look like they literally popped up out of the ground because they are so seamless with the landscape, made out of the same rock, the same color.”  The city of Roussillon made no less of an impression on him. He stresses that the city is where they used to mine the clay for artist pigments and still sell them there today.

Patrick Adams, “Roussillon”, Collage on Canvas Collage on Canvas, 64″ x 56″, 2019

“The whole city is done in shades of red, yellow, and ochre that come right out of the ground beneath them. It’s organic, layer upon layer of time itself. This and the walls of historic structures and the human interaction with the landscape are what interest me. It’s what I want to paint.” The question is, how do you paint the unpaintable? In the abstract and heuristically, of course. By rolling up one’s sleeves and fully experiencing the presence of the past. Wondering and Wandering symbolizes the crux of this process.

Patrick Adams, “Wondering and Wandering”, Acrylic on Canvas Collage on Canvas, 58″ x 46″, 2019

Adams admits there’s a bit of a mapness in most of the work but it frees him to explore and push boundaries, to let the landscapes evolve organically without concern for traditional perspectives and literal references. While this approach may be disorienting at first for some viewers, he hopes they, too, will be less literal and invites them to see it as metaphor and understand it as the visual language he intends it to be, a language of discovery. The beauty and the mystery of the abstract is in not having it spelled out for you.

The star of the show is undoubtedly De Stael, the last to be completed and hung, and the first to be sold almost before the paint dried.

Patrick Adams, “De Stael”, Acrylic on Canvas Collage on Canvas, 36″ x 42″, 2019

De Stael was a mid-century modernist who lived in a hilltop village in Ménerbes and whose art became known for its distinctive impasto style. Adams asserts De Stael has always been an influence on his work and this painting is dedicated to that influence. As happenstance would have it, there was a retrospective at a nearby hotel in the Vaucluse area where Adams was staying. The highlight of the evening was getting to meet and speak with De Stael’s son.

“That exhibit changed my whole mindset. The light in his paintings was very Provençal with very thick blocks of color.” This was the “aha moment” that precipitated Adams’ dramatic change of direction. Although he is not emulating De Stael, Adams layers his canvases and uses vivid colors and minimal detail that convey the essence of his vistas and landscapes from an arresting improvisational and intuitive vantage point.

Patrick Adams at New Editions Gallery /Photo by Jim Fields

The philosophical, theoretical, and ideological played a large role in Adams’ earlier work. In this show, they do not. Traces, in every sense of the word, relies on the experimental, the empirical, and the visceral for its impact. It is, in short, thoroughly heuristic.

Adams knows that not everybody will like his new work. Even a couple of galleries that have long represented him have already expressed reluctance to display the paintings. He was their “landscape guy” and these don’t quite fill the bill or meet their expectations. If that remains the case, he will move on without them.

When I asked him where he goes from here, he replied, “I’m on a journey and I can’t go backwards. The real challenge for me is to stick with my guns, not get off my path, stay here because I’m very happy here, even if it makes some people not happy.”

Traces remains on exhibit through November 2, 2019, at New Editions Gallery at 500 W. Short St., Lexington, KY. Phone: (859) 266-2766. Gallery hours are: Tuesday thru Saturday from noon to 6pm.


All images of artwork were provided by the artist.


Arts Tasting Menu

Curated, handcut delicacies from around the Bluegrass region and beyond.

This week’s menu offers tastes from not-for-profit, community-oriented galleries in Lexington, Louisville, and Cincinnati.


Ali: Beyond the World’s Stage. Art Sanctuary, Louisville. October 4th – October 27th.

Art Sanctuary is a community-oriented arts collective that supports local visual, literary, and performing arts in Louisville. This exhibition features photographs, many never published, of Muhammad Ali taken by photographers of the Louisville Courier-Journal. The exhibition is part of the Louisville Photo Biennial.


Bluegrass Transplants, Adrienne Dixon: Common Spaces of the Commonwealth, Dana Rogers: Phosphenes. Lexington Art League, thru October 4th.

The Loudoun House hosts one group and two solo exhibitions in this iteration of the Lexington Art League’s new programming and scheduling cycle. Reflecting the Art League’s refocusing of its mission as a community art center, all three shows exhibit the work of artists living and working in Kentucky, most in the Bluegrass region. The group exhibition, Bluegrass Transplants, curated by Joanna Skiles Couch and Samantha Jean Moore, features the work of artists who have moved to Kentucky. Dixon presents work based on iconic local buildings, and Rogers’ meditative photographic work partly intends to induce calming and reflective effects on the viewer.


Painted 2019: 4th Biennial Survey of Contemporary Painting. Manifest Gallery, Cincinnati. Thru October 25th.

Manifest is a multi-pronged community-oriented organization that presents exhibitions in its gallery, supports artists through residency programs, produces visual arts publications, and offers art education at its Drawing Center. Paintings by 26 artists selected through a blind jury process are presented in this year’s biennial survey, which kicks off Manifest’s exhibition cycle.

Dganit Zauberman, Eventide, oil on board, 10″ x 10″, 2019


Louisville artist Skylar Smith, featured in one of our recent studio visit pieces, is spearheading a project focusing on Voting Rights, to be highlighted in a contemporary art exhibition in 2020. Ballot Box is supported by a grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. An open call for artistic submissions has been issued and closes on October 28, 2019. The exhibition at Louisville’s Metro Hall will open in March of 2020.


Critical Mass: From III to IV

In March of this year, UnderMain held its third panel discussion of the Critical Mass Series. The series was founded and is undertaken annually as a way to examine the role that criticism plays for Kentucky artists and institutions. The co-founders and regional partners believe that critical discourse can help us engage in a more meaningful dialogue regionally and with the national and international contemporary art world.

Collaboration is vital to the Critical Mass Series and as UnderMain hosts the series in a different part of Kentucky each year, we seek out new partners. Critical Mass I (2016) was conducted in partnership with the University of Kentucky Art Museum in Lexington, while Critical Mass II (2017) was held at KMAC in Louisville. This year, we brought in The Carnegie Center in Covington with Exhibitions Director Matt Distel moderating. 

In keeping with his curatorial style known as Open Source, Distel invited five artists (Harry Sanches Jr., Joey Versoza, David Wischer, Lindsey Whittle, and Sky Cubacub) to join three curators/writers working in the region. CMIII:In The Mid (2019) specifically addressed the topic of regionalism and its impact on artists and writers working in the mid-West. Distel set out to ask: What is a healthy arts discourse and does it exist in this region? What are the practical concerns for artists that are working outside of major arts centers? What role does art criticism and critical dialogue in general play in the careers of “regional” artists?

The symposium featured The Great Meadows Foundation Critic-in-Residence and Miami-based curator, Natalia Zuluaga, who shared some of what she learned during her March residency in Kentucky where she made studio visits to the studios of more than thirty artists.  Natalia was joined by Valentine Umansky, Curatorial Fellow at the Contemporary Art Center, Cincinnati; Annie dell’Aria, Assistant Professor at Miami University and writer for AEQAI; and Sarah Rose Sharp, Detroit-based activist and multi-media artist and writer for HyperAllergic, Art in America, Flash Art, and Sculpure Magazine.

For those of you who could not join us, below is an interview with Christine Huskisson and Matt Distel on the WEKU current affairs program Eastern Standard explaining a bit about The Critical Mass Series, as well as a short video of the symposium itself. We hope you enjoy.

Planning for Critical Mass IV is underway. More on that soon.

Interview with Christine Huskisson, co-founder and curator of The Critical Mass Series and Matt Distel, moderator of CMIII:In The Mid.

Video and Audio

© 2019 UnderMain, Inc.


UnderMain, Inc. would like to acknowledge the following for helping us organize Critical Mass III and producing this short video:

Curation and Administration

Christine Huskisson, Co-Founder and Curator of The Critical Mass Series

Tom Martin and Art Shechet, Co-Founders of The Critical Mass Series

Matt Distel, Moderator of CMIII and Exhibitions Director of The Carnegie Center

Savannah Wills, Coordinator of CMIII and Chellgren scholar

Julien Robson, Advisor to UnderMain for the CM Series and Director of the Great Meadows Foundation

The staff at The Carnegie Center in Covington, Kentucky


Due to audio complications, the artists discussion was not properly recorded.

We value highly the visual content and the sharing of artistic practices for discussion purposes.

Thanks goes out to:

Harry Sanches Jr. 

Joey Versoza

David Wischer

Lindsey Whittle

Sky Cubacub


Natalia Zuluaga, Miami-based Independent Curator and Critic-in-Residence with the Great Meadows Foundation

Valentine Umansky, Curatorial Fellow at the Contemporary Art Center, Cincinnati

Annie dell’Aria, Assistant Professor at Miami University and writer for AEQAI

Sarah Rose Sharp, Detroit-based activist and multi-media artist and

writer for HyperAllergic, Art in America, Flash Art, and Sculpure Magazine

John Williams, Principal Photographer / Producer SoundART Management™



 Great Meadows Foundation is a grant giving foundation, launched in 2016 by contemporary art collector and philanthropist Al Shands. Named for the home that Al and his late wife Mary created, the mission of Great Meadows Foundation is to critically strengthen and support visual art in Kentucky by empowering our community’s artists and other visual arts professionals to research, connect, and participate more actively in the broader contemporary art world. (

The Carnegie Center provides an extraordinary venue for the arts and arts education made possible through the generosity of individuals, private foundations and businesses in our community. They receive operating support from the ArtsWave, the Kentucky Arts Council, The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation and Kenton County Fiscal Courts.






Published by UnderMain, Inc., P.O. Box 575, Lexington, Kentucky 40388


Tunis: Old Time Is the Best Time for The Zinc Kings

It’s a perhaps natural expectation.

The sight of stringed instruments, the focus on traditionally based melodies and harmonies and a performance setting that often favors a social backdrop – meaning, in many instances, a festival. Put them all together and you have bluegrass, right?

Not so fast. Granted, that kind of reflex thinking might hit prospective fans of The Zinc Kings, especially those unaccustomed to the tradition, location and inspiration of the music this North Carolina quartet favors.

“Everybody thinks we’re a bluegrass band,” said guitarist, mandolinist and banjoist Mark Dillon. “When you play music with banjos, people are going to think you’re in a bluegrass band.”

The Zinc Kings, L to R: Mark Dillon, Christen Blanton Mack, Ryan Mack, Dan Clouse

The Zinc Kings’ traditional sounds are devoted more to pre-bluegrass country, folk and the assimilation of generations-old sounds collectively referenced as Old Time. Such traditional music ensembles are plentiful around the country. Most, though, operate so far under the mainstream radar that bluegrass becomes an accessible, available but ultimately misleading tag for audiences to pin on the music.

“It’s a bit of a novelty, I suppose,” added fiddler Christen Blanton Mack. “People who are not engaged in traditional music and they see a banjo, it’s like, ‘Uh oh, there’s that thing.’ It’s a symbol of something people don’t always connect with. They latch onto this idea of ‘Oh, they’re going to play bluegrass.’

“We played at a festival in New York and I knew a bunch of people there. They had been hearing me talk about the guys that I play with and what it’s like being in an Old Time band. They’re going, ‘Yeah, bluegrass is cool.’ I was like, ‘Dude, really?’ Because of where we’re situated and because we have access to a lot of really great local tradition, it makes for an easy connection. It’s not such a huge community, though, that you can’t find commonalities.”

In many cases, especially in Kentucky, Old Time music is passed down through families and communities, a lexicon built around fiddle tunes and folk songs that serve as the DNA for what later evolved into bluegrass and country music. It’s the music of rural regions, of working environments and often of spiritual worship. It’s the music of the mountains – the Southern Appalachians and the Ozarks, primarily. The Zinc Kings, playing as part of the Appalachia in the Bluegrass traditional music series at the University of Kentucky’s Niles Gallery on Sept. 20, have their own mountain inspirations to work from, their own music to play and their own ways of finding a new audience for it.

Piedmont calling

The Zinc Kings were spearheaded by members of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro Old Time Ensemble that set out, beginning in 2010, to explore the folk traditions of the Carolina Piedmont. The band, completed by banjoist Dan Clouse and bassist Ryan Mack (Blanton Mack’s husband, who joined in 2011), wasn’t made up exclusively of natives from the region. Still, they were quickly fascinated by the Piedmont’s accents of harmony and instrumentation, its distinctive string sound and, perhaps most importantly, the music’s adaptability for projects that weren’t strictly traditional in design.

“For us, the catch is that we live in central North Carolina,” Dillon said. “We don’t live in the mountains. We just recognized there was a pretty rich tradition that was happening with Piedmont.

“When you look at the history, a lot of people from the mountains were coming down into mill villages. A lot of African-Americans were coming into the mill villages, as well. When you get there, you start learning about artists like Charlie Poole (the North Carolina singer and banjoist whose late 1920s music would strongly influence succeeding folk generations). These guys were blending blues with North Carolina Appalachian music. We found there was a niche that really no one else, or very few people outside of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, were looking at.”

For the classically reared Blanton Black, the music of the North Carolina Piedmont meant the study of a style with a looser, more socially inviting discipline. But the sense of devotion she gave it equaled what was demanded of her classical studies.

“I didn’t start going to festivals right away,” she said. “For me, the natural habitat for traditional music was just making music with your friends.

“When you put old time music on a stage and people don’t know what they’re listening to – because a lot of times, people might not – you present that music in a way that you would if you were playing that music in a jam with friends. We like energy. We love singing. Both help to connect you with an audience.”

But the music of The Zinc Kings isn’t locked solely into string sounds. Clouse, a Michigan native, studied tuba in high school before pursuing a Master’s degree in music theory at the University of Tennessee. That’s where and when he was drawn to the banjo. As such, he adds tuba and even washboard to the band’s string sound. In fact, The Zinc Kings take their name from a washboard – specifically, a brand dubbed “the Stradivarius of washboards” by the Bone Dry Musical Instrument Company.

“I didn’t grow up with Old Time music,” Clouse said. “I never saw a banjo until I went to school in Tennessee. I didn’t come to it with these ideas of what the music should sound like.”

“All the world’s a stage…”

On The Zinc Kings’ third album, 2017’s aptly-titled, “Piedmont,” the inspirations of such Carolina stylists as blues singer Blind Boy Fuller, gospel/blues artist Blind Joe Taggart and musician/folklorist Bascom Lamar Lunsford are explored with the music’s blues, folk and Celtic roots blended into a deliciously unspoiled Old Time fabric.

But the band isn’t anchored to its homeland. “Piedmont” also reaches out to Kentucky by honoring famed Monticello fiddler Clyde Davenport with a lightly percussive and beautifully paced version of “Lazy John.”

Similarly, the band’s Old Time sound has sometimes taken flight from expected concert settings. A case in point: The Zinc Kings composed a score of traditionally inspired music for a 2013 production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” undertaken as a collaboration between Raleigh Little Theatre, Bare Theatre and the traditional music organization PineCone.

“For Shakespeare, we had to work really hard to make the Shakespearean text fit the traditional Appalachian influences,” Blanton Mack said “But the meter that’s in Shakespeare did kind of lend itself to the music. We tried to stay really true to the text of Shakespeare but have the music feel participatory and inviting in hopes that people would want to sing along with us because that’s something that everyone can do.

“There are bands into traditional music who do similar things to what we do. They’re into traditional music but also are writing songs, composing music and working with composers and theatre companies. The tradition presents itself as being pretty straight forward and simple. The forms are really accessible, so we try to take the things that we love about traditional music, like the danceability or the sentiment of the song or the ability to tell a story like you might hear in a ballad, and just put out own stamp on it.”

The Zinc Kings perform at 12 noon on Sept. 20 for the Appalachia in the Bluegrass series at the Niles Gallery of the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music at the University of Kentucky’s Lucille C. Little Fine Arts Library. Admission is free.


LexPhil’s Maestro Marathon

There is little in the recent history of the Lexington Philharmonic (LexPhil) to compare with the intensity and variety of the 2019-2020 season. After a ten-year stint on the podium, maestro Scott Terrell departed in June. Now the search begins for a successor.

Six finalist candidates will make weeklong visits to Lexington over the course of a season appropriately entitled RESOUND, their schedules crammed with whirlwinds of meet-and-greet receptions, fundraising dinners, discussions with multiple boards, Q&A with the search committee, meeting the orchestra’s musicians, nightly rehearsals, and, ultimately, conducting the orchestra they hope to lead.

In an interview for this week’s edition of WEKU’s Eastern Standard I spoke with LexPhil Executive Director Allison Kaiser about the audition process and the opportunities presented by transition:



LexPhil Executive Director Allison Kaiser

I also caught up with Candidate Number One, Thomas Heuser, before he departed Idaho Falls for his tryout week in Lexington:  



Thomas Heuser, conductor

Heuser’s program will include a composition by Lexington-born Julia Perry. Click here to read a column by Tom Eblen about Perry’s Lexington youth. And for a sampling of Perry’s artistry, check out conductor Karina Canellakis leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a performance of Perry’s A Short Piece for Orchestra. It was recorded live at the Hollywood Bowl on September 11, 2018.

I’ll be interviewing all conductor candidates prior to their arrivals in Lexington. Watch this space, and listen for them on UnderMain media partner, 88.9 WEKU.


Thomas Heuser conducts The Lexington Philharmonic on Saturday, September 21, at 7:30pm at the Singletary Center for the Arts. He will conduct works by Perry, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky.

Tom Martin is co-publisher of UnderMain and host/producer of WEKU’s Eastern Standard.


In Search of Bodies Lost: Surveying The Internal Landscapes of Vian Sora

“People love narratives. They love winning stories. They think it’s a love story, this Iraqi girl, this American man. But it’s not that easy or glamorous or romantic.” – Vian Sora

Vian Sora, “End Of Hostilities”, 2019, Mixed media finished with oil on board, 120 x 1200 in., Collection of KMAC Museum

Prologue: End of Hostilities

The first thing the eye sees is the tiny rivulets of blue, the happy hue of a robin’s egg or a bright morning sky, undulating dots and dashes that wind around the other pools of color: swathes of violet and lilac here, lakes of deepest green over there. Forms and shapes possess an organic fluidity, as if millions of tiny water molecules were swirling in frenzied motion within the mass of a large wave slowly rolling across the canvas. 

There is a grittiness, too: dark bodies of black and grey, fragments of skulls and fractured bone hidden in the corner, half-buried under layers of pigment. Oxidized shades of crimson manifest like blood in all its violent expressions: splattered, bleeding and pooling. Even in the painting’s lighter areas, hundreds of hairline fissures materialize like the capillaries of human tissue or the cracked surface of desiccated land.

The work is undeniably chaotic, struggling to contain the exploded forms of color and texture and memory in a surge of energy and heat. And yet it also holds a persistent beauty, lines of elegance and grace that cut through the debris and roughness in lucid and reassuring curves. What is left is both a hope and a hollowness: streets clear of foreign tanks, skies absent of fighter jets, the silent stillness of a bombed-out city, this vast and sudden absence, this aching emptiness.   

End of Hostilities was first shown in Sora’s solo show “Unbounded Domains” at Moremen Gallery in the spring of 2019 and then acquired by KMAC Museum through the support of a donor. It also served as the departure point for a new body of work Sora was creating for the museum’s premier Triennial (on view August 24 – December 1, 2019) when I visited her studio that July and August.

Sora’s work serves not only as a record of horrific acts of violence and the lives they destroy, but also as a way of making sense of war, of beginning to fill the void it leaves in its wake. In the aftermath of terror and destruction, she sorts through the smoldering rubble, searching for some small fragment of beauty that will tell her: All is not lost. 

Vian Sora,”Peasant”, 2009, Mixed media on canvas, 45 x 37 in., Private collection

Part I: A New Language

When Sora came to the United States a decade ago, she brought with her a painting style and technique she first developed as a young artist in her native Iraq. She would begin by sculpting wet material onto her canvases, often in the intricate patterns of ancient Islamic ornament, and then build up multiple layers of paint in colors that offered the hazy illusion of sunlight seen through sandstorms. Only then would she add figures: translucent apparitions of veiled women, the primitive outlines of horses and birds. In the process of layering, Sora chose what to paint over and what to reveal, allowing her to hide forms in the canvas. “Most of my life in Iraq was very secretive,” she says. “I think most females are like that. And that technique was my little thing, my secret.” 

Sora had many paintings in this early style in her 2016 solo show at 1619 Flux, where KMAC curator Joey Yates first took notice of her work. “I recognized her skill and her aesthetic in that work,” Yates recalls, “but what I was really drawn to was a couple of newer abstract pieces that seemed unique to me. They had a very distinct visual language I hadn’t seen other people engage.”

The paintings Yates saw were the first in a new approach Sora had been exploring in which she banished the figurative forms, abandoned the bas-relief foundation and traded the palette of khaki and desert and dust for a piercing intensity of blues and yellows and greens. Black made its appearance, too: sometimes as plumes of smoke drifting in front of the technicolor chaos, sometimes shooting across the canvas like gunpowder, other times lurking in the background as a subtle shadow presence. Abstract forms were unknowable as friend or foe: a broad palm leaf could reveal itself as a human lung upon second glance, the dripping tendrils of vines could morph into disembodied veins. Sora had stumbled upon a psychological trompe l’oeil, creating an uneasy tension between exultation and terror through this deft exploitation of form and color.

Two years before the show, Sora had undergone a major operation. She was given general anesthesia, organs were removed from her body, and when she recovered she began painting in a completely new way. “I woke up with a wholly different visual language,” she says. “I used different colors, I changed my technique. And that helped me make sense of my existence, using these colors that were foreign to me in a manner that doesn’t exist in real life, to create a world that somehow is in my head.”

Sora has continued to work within this new aesthetic in the years following its introduction at the 1619 Flux exhibit, and she still has much to explore. “Even within this abstract language, she moves quickly,” Yates observes. “She’s not going back to the canvas with the same ideas. With the newer work, she’s making more vertical pieces and changing up the framing. She’s picking different colors. She’s thinking about different subjects. She’s able to maintain that identifiable abstract language as the same time she’s becoming really adept and nimble at working within it.”

Sora’s paintings begin with a barrage of fast-drying pigments

In Sora’s studio, the canvas starts down on the floor, subject to a blitzkrieg of fast-drying acrylics and pigments and inks, applied using whatever is within arm’s reach: brushes, sponges, paper, nylons, spray bottles. There is an earthly physicality to this work as Sora moves around the canvas, using arms and hands to manipulate the color, sometimes prostrating herself on the floor, face to canvas, using her breath to move the pigment in an extravagantly life-giving gesture.

“The beginning is very chaotic, the end is very controlling,” she says. “And the control is that tension between me and this thing called painting that is telling me, in some indirect language, that I need to go and work a little bit here to build those shapes. This is me finding the relationships and the bodies and the narrative that leads you through.” 

Even as Sora moves into the controlled part of the process, using a narrow brush of oil paint to carve out figures and forms, memory and meaning, one senses that she is still more midwife to the work than its master, not acting on the painting as much as she is allowing it to come into being. As she paints, her attempts to describe what’s happening between her and the canvas acquire a mystical, almost Tantric, vocabulary: she is doing what the painting is asking for, she says, following the lines to see where they take her, investigating forms that have the unsettling persistence of reoccurring dreams, led by some intuition she doesn’t always fully understand.

“I always start with an intention and an idea,” she says. “But the encounters that happen through the life of creating the work, you would not be honest to yourself and your path if you stick to the initial idea. You have to let everything that happens to you happen to the painting. It’s a long process. Some paintings take almost a year to finish because they have that much to give.”

Yates readily observes these encounters in her work: “All the issues she may deal with – war and trauma and PTSD and violence and death – she finds order within that chaos. And that chaos changes, right? Sometimes it’s connected to her family, sometimes it’s connected to larger issues of trauma and migration, but those things always feed into her personal experience, and she’s translating them into that expressive abstract language.”

“The bodies are still there,” he says. “She’s burying them in the landscapes.

Part II: Scenes From A New Country 

“I love the duality of grotesque and beautiful. That’s what interests me,” Sora says. “The two things that have affected me most, visually, are amazing scenes of natural beauty – these landscapes that I’m obsessed with – and scenes from car bombs in Baghdad.”

Vian Sora, “Citizen”, 2019, Oil on canvas, 48 x 48 in., Shown in “Unbounded Domains” at Moremen Gallery in April 2019

Ten years ago, when Sora began the process of gaining U.S. citizenship, she was restricted from leaving the country, cut off from the places that excited her – cities like Istanbul, Sao Paolo and Berlin that were teeming with the exotic vibrancy she found so invigorating. So she went to the desert – to Moab and Sedona with their colorful layers of rock, their mesas and bridges and buttes, those ancient vistas sculpted by air and water and the weight of time.

“The Canyonlands are very intense,” Sora says. “That visual landscape, that kind of terrifying beauty, completely messed me up. It’s like a scene from an archaic war zone, like the scene of an explosion. The way the light creates illusions on all these layers of rock. It feels like you could fall and break into hundreds of pieces. That sense of emptiness makes me want to go fill it with something.”

At the time, Sora and her husband were living in an elegant apartment overlooking a century-old park in Louisville, Kentucky. But because they were renters, she was afraid to attempt anything that might mar this borrowed home. She felt constricted: “I don’t like what I painted there because for me to work in a space it can’t be white and clean and perfect. I have to destroy the place to feel free enough that I can paint.”

A drafting table in Sora’s studio

Three years later, Sora was granted a citizenship that made her both subject to U.S. laws and free to leave its borders. She and her husband bought a house on a quiet suburban street, where Sora now has a light-filled studio with windows that look out onto a verdant garden with a small koi pond that her cat, Lilu, watches intently. Inside, linoleum tiles catch paint in splatters, drips and spills; a wooden drafting table gazes upward to the windows; a battered, armless office chair slumps abandoned in the middle of the room. Drawings and sketches scatter the floor, torn fragments from older sketchbooks pile up comfortably on the sofa as Sora apologizes for a mess that doesn’t actually exist.

“It’s kind of embarrassing, but I cannot work in an organized environment,” she tells me. “I once tried to force my space to look like one of those perfect Vogue magazine studios. I got color-coded drawers and organized everything, separated the acrylics, the pigments, the oils, the oil sticks, the whole thing. And then without even realizing what I was doing, within a day everything was mixed, everything was destroyed. But I think it’s part of the process. The chaotic start and then the control.” 

Sora is in her studio sixteen hours a day if her schedule allows, often working well into the night, sometimes waking from a dream and descending to the studio to feed it to the canvas. In many ways, she is doing the work of every artist, translating personal experience into a unique visual expression, putting memory into form and turning feeling into color. But Sora works in an emotional alchemy as well, taking what is secret and dark and buried, all that is grotesque and awful and horrific, and transmuting it into something light-filled, as beautifully ordered and knowable and free as the natural universe.

“I’m trying to make sense of these visuals that are coming out indirectly,” she tells me. “Most of this recent work, I feel, is an internal landscape. An internal landscape of a woman who lived through wars and physical discomfort, who was in accidents and witnessed family members die. And these grotesque, awful situations, I can turn them into something meaningful and powerful.”

Vian Sora, “Echo And Narcissus”, 2018, Mixed media on canvas, 84 x 60 in., Collection of Speed Art Museum

Sora wants her paintings to start a conversation about the effect of displacement and migration, about the effect of war on the human soul. And while this may cast her as a political artist in some minds, the great accomplishment of Sora’s work is, in fact, that it transcends the political. In choosing to find the beautiful in the grotesque, the order in the chaos, the tiny buds of green amid the rubble of destruction, Sora is affirming a world of pleasure and delight and spirit and wonder – those very things that remind us of what it is to be human. 

We are, in Sora’s words, “all of us, starving for connection with something. With each other.” And in her search to recapture what she’s lost – the smells of her grandmother’s garden, the warmth of her childhood summers, the textures of her homeland – Sora is able to find that universal human desire for love and belonging and connection, carving out a space that’s free from the political and full of those personal, intimate encounters that make a life rich with meaning.

“There is a certain smell and a temperature associated with my childhood and I’m always trying to replicate that,” she says. “It left such a gap in my soul not to have that anymore when I left Iraq. Maybe that’s why I use all these warm colors. For me, the scariest thing is not to have memories.”

Part III: Ancient History

Vian grew up in Baghdad, in a house where artists were always coming and going. She spent a lot of time in her grandmother’s garden, playing amongst rose bushes and pomegranate trees. In the summers, her family went to museums and archaeological sites along the Mediterranean. She loved art and math because they were the only things that made sense to her. She made drawings every day.

Then there was a war. The students had to go back to school even though there was no gas or electricity and smoke everywhere. One day, Vian was walking to school and a member of the Iraqi Intelligence Service ran a red light and hit her with his car. She flew six meters into the air and landed on her leg. It shattered. She had seven surgeries and walked on crutches for three years. Every day, she painted and drew.

She began showing her art in local galleries. Then she studied computer science and took a job with Mercedes-Benz. She was very good at it and all her colleagues loved her. Vian hated it and quit within a year so she could be an artist. Her boss with the very thick German accent said, Come with me. It was late and everyone else had gone home. She followed him back to his office where he opened a closet door and gestured inside. My wife, Maria, she was so miserable here in Baghdad. She thought she would take painting classes. All these expensive supplies. You should have them. Go be an artist.

Vian had her first solo show in Baghdad when she was 24. Her friends from Mercedes-Benz came and bought all her paintings. Foreign workers came to the galleries each day after they finished looking for weapons of mass destruction. Then her uncle was killed. Her father disappeared. The Iraqi government told the family he had been killed. Then he showed up one day. He had been tortured and imprisoned. The whole time this was going on, Vian painted and drew every day.

She took a job at the AP. She started as an assistant, but quickly learned all the jobs because her co-workers kept getting killed. Mostly she reported on car bombs. She and her crew would go to the bomb scene and interview people at the sidewalk cafe that now had bodies and body parts and organs everywhere. Vian would go back to the office and edit the footage and file the report saying how many people had died. She did this for three years. At night she would go to her studio and paint.

Then one day she and her colleagues were returning from a bomb site and they were bombed. Half the people in her crew died. The AP flew her to London and gave her a job and treated her like a hero. It was springtime and the city was sunny and beautiful. Vian wanted to kill herself. She met an American man who collected her art. She said, Look, I am really not the person you want to be with in a relationship with right now. But she was very smart and very beautiful so he ignored her. They lived in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates and then they moved to the United States. Vian had shows in Ankara and Istanbul and Kuwait City and Dubai.

She painted every day.

Epilogue: Last Sound

Vian Sora, “Last Sound”, 2018, Mixed media on canvas, 60 x 85 in

Late July, high summer. Uncomfortably humid, the sun intensely bright. The birds are silent, the trees are motionless in the breezeless air. Animals hide in shaded corners. Inside the artist’s studio, it is cool and quiet. The cat sits on the floor and watches the koi fish; the writer sits on the sofa and watches a painting that’s in the process of becoming Last Sound. The artist stands before a canvas taller and larger than herself, looking for meaning. Her dark hair is swept into a gracefully messy bun, her smooth olive skin smudged with pigment. She holds a broken piece of porcelain – it was the closest palette within reach – with a vivid blue oil paint and murmurs to herself, or perhaps to the canvas, as she contemplates the forms taking shape. 

It’s a conversation she’s been having, in some way, every day since she was a child and first put line to paper, that primal impulse to find meaning and give it expression. In a world where wars can be started by men in underground chambers, where a judge can decide the fate of an asylum-seeker, where entire lives can be blown apart in an instant by a 19-year-old boy with a suicide wish, art – the act of creating – offers its refuge of order and elegance, its unknowable grace. “How important is beauty to you?” the writer asks, and the artist holds her gaze on the canvas as she responds:

“It’s everything.”

UnderMain would like to thank The Great Meadows Foundation for support of our 2019 programming, which will include twelve in-depth studio visits of Kentucky artists. See our other publications related to this project: 

Emily Elizabeth Goodman visits Melissa Vandenberg
Hunter Kissel visits Harry Sanchez, Jr. 
Jim Fields visits Skylar Smith
Keith Banner visits Michael Goodlett

Miriam Keinle visits Lori Larusso
Sso-Rha Kang Visits Carlos Gamez De Francisco

The Great Meadows Foundation is a grant giving foundation whose mission is to critically strengthen and support visual art in Kentucky by empowering our community’s artists and other visual arts professionals to research, connect, and participate more actively in the broader contemporary art world.


Warhol-ier than Thou: “POP STARS!” at 21C

​The best way to take in “Pop Stars! Popular Culture and Contemporary Art” at the 21C Museum and Hotel in Lexington, Kentucky, is to make a pilgrimage, the way I did. On a gorgeous Sunday morning, after a beautiful slumber in a plush hotel room, take the elevator to the second floor. When the doors slide open the first thing you see: two fiberglass arms and hands clasped in prayer hanging on a white wall, fingertips spinning a glittery blue basketball. It’s the perfect joke, and yet also the perfect icon.  “Icon” in this instance is literal. Hank Willis Thomas’s “Faith” is a sacred, 3-D representation of multiple urges all pulled together into one succinct object and moment, a Harlem Globetrotters hymn to showmanship, a sad and simple reverie on what it takes to be a star when no one thinks you can be one, outside of that one thing they always think you can do.

Hank Willis Thomas (American), “Faith”, 2017, Fiberglass, chameleon auto paint finish

There’s a lot of iconography and showing off going on in “Pop Stars!,” currently on display through May 2020. It’s a big and ambitious show that deserves repeat viewings. Fandom gets recalibrated and turned into strategies for resistance and even a little revolt. Everyday idolatry becomes both a vernacular and endpoint in pieces dedicated to what “Pop” constitutes today: a constellation of superstars, from Britney to Kurt to Kim to Barack to Abraham Lincoln, celebrities of every ilk given treatments in oil, silkscreen, video, neon, and so on. This adoration and awe are laced through the obsessions of artists trying to figure out what it all means and what they can do with it. In an era when everyone has easy access to the apparatus of fame-creation via social media, a super-awareness has bloomed inside people’s skulls and manifested on their screens. Continual, virtual fame-hunting, fame-shaming, fame-faming. Fame is courted, everyone priming themselves for it. It’s what life is. A “true self” is now a selfie. So is everyone’s soul, it seems.

​“Pop Stars!” deals with this kind of embarrassment of riches by homing in on all kinds of fames and fortunes and considering both the meaning and meaninglessness of biography, posing, and consummating identity through selling it. R. Luke Dubois’ “(Pop) Icon: Britney” is a video screen ensconced in old-school gold Rococo framing, hidden speakers broadcasting the vocal-fry lullaby known as Brittney’s voice. Britney Spears in the work is a smeared automaton, and yet poignant somehow because of it.  Our love for her makes her go into a kaleidoscope of guises; she is a ghost trying to figure us out, giving us what we want, but then again scaring us because of it. Her beauty is an amalgamation of banality and working-on-all-cylinders star power, a fierce need to please smashed up with exhaustion and confusion and hurt. And Dubois’ treatment, while satirical, is reaching for holiness, grabbing at the hem of her electronic garment, wishing Britney could be more than she is, yet wishing, too, for nothing else but what she is.

Graham Dolphin (English), “36 Michael Jackson Songs”, 2006, Ink on record cover

Andy Warhol, the creepy and somehow sweet granddaddy of Pop, its progenitor and mysterious slave, was a devout Catholic. He went to mass obsessively. That spirit of wanting to worship haunts all aspects of this handsome and beautifully arranged exhibit, “Pop” being the driving force,” and “Stars!” being the gasoline that keeps everything moving in fast motion toward oblivion. One of the loveliest works is one of the simplest:  Graham Dolphin’s “36 Michael Jackson Songs,” a paean to fan obsession complicated, of course, by Michael’s tragic history as a fading star offering up Jesus Juice. Dolphin in an extra-tiny, OCD script writes out the lyrics to Jackson’s songs on top of the Thriller album cover. The whole thing has a throwaway finesse to it, a combo of doodles and diary entries and monks creating illuminated manuscripts. Yet the purpose seems to be to figure out a meaning that has somehow collapsed, trying to cipher out the joy of what pop used to bring, what it can’t sustain except through scribbling it on itself.

Warhol did the same kind of thing with silkscreens and Polaroids, hunting down the lost memory of pop-culture innocence by making Liz’s lips a smeary red, by turning the tomato soup he loved as a kid into a totem so ripe and rich it becomes a full-on low-brow/high-brow ringtone. He traced the junk in our lives back to a necessary aesthetic impulse; he found God in Brillo Pads and Coca-Cola.

Rebecca Campbell (American), “
Candy Darling”, 2015, 
Oil on canvas with gold leaf

Rebecca Campbell takes Warhol on with an oil-on-canvas-with-gold-leaf knockout that both eulogizes and diffuses Candy Darling, one of Warhol’s Superstars, in one fell swoop. Titled appropriately enough “Candy Darling,” it’s the Mona Lisa of the show, taking in light and saving it up in its flat yet somehow glorious surface, a painting of a silkscreen of a painting, with a little bit of a nod to Abstract Expressionism as both pun and punishment. Candy Darling’s story gets told without having to tell it, the tragedy of her short life, having died of lymphoma at age 29, revealed through the glamour she craved all her life growing up under the name and gender of James Lawrence Slattery, idolizing Kim Novak and Joan Bennett to the point of wanting to transform lovingly into them. The bleariness of Campbell’s style is reverential and made me go back to the passage in the letter Candy wrote on her deathbed: “Unfortunately before my death I had no desire left for life…  I am just so bored with everything.  You might say bored to death.  Did you know I couldn’t last?  I always knew it.  I wish I could meet you all again.”

Frances Goodman’s “The Sigh,” a hand stitched, sequins-on-linen swoon, gets at that same lush boredom Candy references – it’s a cool blue pixelated pastiche of old-movie sadness turning toward rapture. The materials Goodman deploys here lend the image both pathos and surface sheen, an eroticism that leans toward a good cry. Alexandre Mazza’s video entry, titled “If It’s Meant to Be Love, May It Brand the Soul!” also finds solace in Eros and shininess. It presents an anonymous and beautiful boxer in all his fatigued, sweaty and never unmoving glory. The whole setup is dedicated to endurance and the routine of trying to stay ahead of passing out, building up resistance to forces beyond your control. It also is a good, old-fashioned lovesick poem from a voyeur to the object of desire. Video flesh as shiny as stained glass, muscles bulging, face intent on not being loved, but still absorbing the inevitable adoration of the camera.

Maybe that is what fame is, Mazza’s video seems to be saying: the connection between viewer and the viewed being continually renewed even while thermodynamics take their toll. “Love” and “sex” and “death” become fetishes and flashes, pictographs and posts, obsessions to be lived through and documented. “Pop Stars!” is a great show that revels in fetish and obsession and flash. Curated with humor and respect, using a through-line that narrates the ecstasy and agony of famousness, both craving it and trying to outsmart it, “Pop Stars!” establishes itself within a context and outside of it. “Pop,” whether signified by art or by commerce, has always been about negating history while fixating on it. The show’s curation pulls together a variety of responses to mass culture and to histories of all kinds, what’s popular and what survives being popular, all these depictions of art and life sashaying from ridiculous to profound, with many works blending it all into gorgeous-nonsense/gorgeous-philosophy, until you start asking yourself, “What’s the difference?”  At the end of day, when you leave “Pop Stars!” you feel fulfilled, let in on what it means to survive both boredom and elation.  You are captured and then released.


A Review: “Off the Menu: Looking at Food” at the UK Art Museum

Food and art are ubiquitous entities within any culture. Both incite the senses and provide nourishment for the body and mind. Both are derived from particular traditions, passed down from various generations with successive additions and alterations made with each iteration. Both involve creativity and mastery at the highest levels, and yet both are common within our homes and our daily lives. Considering the prevalence of food and art and the status of each as markers of culture, it is no wonder that artists throughout the ages have ruminated on food in their practices.

This contemplation of the form and function of food provides the basis of the exhibition “Off the Menu: Looking at Food,” currently on view at the UK Art Museum. In particular, this show gathers together a variety of different works by artists from across the country and spanning a wide range of ages and abilities—from school children to world-famous masters—to explore the complex issues that arise when we consider deeply the role of food in our world today. While we consume food on a daily basis by necessity, we may not often consider how the food we prepare and eat exists within larger systems; by looking at food practices in art, we can attend to the more subtle aspects of food as an expression of our identities. 

“Off the Menu: Looking at Food “(installation view), UK Art Museum, June 1 – August 11, 2019.

While the show is organized around the idea of how food and art are generally intertwined, the exhibition offers a particular snapshot of 20th and 21st century notions of food and food practices within the United States. In particular, the exhibition focuses on the politics of preparation, commodification, and consumption within our lives today. Bringing together artists from across the country – including a considerable number of local artists of a variety of ages – this exhibition highlights the ways in which food is central to who we are as humans, while also demonstrating how what we eat shapes and is shaped by the culture in which we exist.  

Desire is central to how and what we eat. While we need food to sustain our lives, we crave food to nourish and comfort ourselves. It is this process of desire that is central to Julia Jacquette’s paintings. In particular, Jacquette explores the force of explicitly capitalist desire in her series “If I Could Only,” an 8-panel polyptych in which she juxtaposes the phrase “If I could only touch your perfect body” with aestheticized images of mid-century American dishes, like meatloaf and ice cream sundaes. These dishes, sourced from vintage publications including Life, Ladies Home Journal, and The Saturday Evening Post, are clearly designed for presentation—trimmed with an excessive amount of garnish and decoration and cleanly arranged on particular serving dishes—and appear visually perfect, and thus desirable. The words thus highlight the subtext of these mass cultural images of food, stating clearly how they are meant to stoke our desire as consumers, both literally and figuratively. In so doing, she makes apparent the way that advertisements and other works of mass culture conflate sexual desire with consumption, highlighting the coercive forces that make us want food.

Julia Jacquette, “If I Could Only”, 1997, enamel on wood panels. Courtesy of the artist.

Lori Larusso’s painting “Imminent Danger” also involves the tension of a single moment to call attention to particular elements of food culture, specifically its relation to gendered labor and bodies. In the painting, Larusso depicts a three-layer yellow cake with a slice removed, decorated with white frosting, lines of piped red icing, and four miniature American flags, precariously perched on the edge of a kitchen counter, teetering over a garbage can. Yet, like Jacquette’s piece, there’s an ambiguity about what might be the actual danger suggested in the title. The fall of the cake is one perceived imminent danger, further underscored by Larusso’s use of foreshortening to create a steep angle to the countertop. In this case the danger would be the ruination of a considerable amount of effort, most likely that of a woman, since baking is, by and large, a gendered practice. Alternatively, the over-consumption of the cake is the possible danger, a danger more acutely felt by women given the societal expectations on women’s figures. Either way, by ruminating on this single instance of a cake on a counter, Larusso raises several issues around gender by looking at food.

While Jacquette’s and Larusso’s paintings focus on meticulously crafted individual dishes, several of the works in this exhibition explore the mass production of fast food. The ubiquity of American fast food is central to Steve Aishman’s 2007 photo series “Throwing Fast Food”. In this series, Aishman purchases and then tosses a recognizable menu item from a variety of fast food restaurants —a Nathan’s hotdog, sandwiches from Subways and Arby’s, a filet-o-fish from McDonalds, and a Frosty from Wendy’s—capturing the ensuing flight in a single still frame. There is humor in the precariousness in which these items appear; they fly through the air about to cause a mess that has not yet happened, spilling their contents as they go as if they are engaged in some kind of slapstick pratfall. At the same time, seeing these items separate into component parts midair makes these foods rather unappetizing and even inedible, and yet these items comprise a large portion of the American diet.

Steve Aishman, “Throwing Fast Food”, 2007, archival digital prints. Courtesy of the artist.

Sally Davies’ “Happy Meal Project” takes this rumination further, ultimately challenging the notion that these items are even food to begin with. For this on-going project, Davies purchased a Happy Meal from her local McDonalds on April 10, 2010, and has continued to photograph said Happy Meal daily for the last 9 years. Over that time, the meal has neither degraded nor decayed, as is natural for all foodstuffs. Instead, it has continued to look the same, day after day, year after year. Davies project of documenting the progress of this single burger and kid-sized fries, has drawn considerable media attention overtime, and an assortment of stills of the omnipresent meal are presented below a row of media clippings about Davies’ project. That the burger remains the same and media attention keeps returning to Davies’ documentation of it speaks to the staying power—both literal and figurative—of fast food within the American diet; even though it is clear from the documentation that this Happy Meal is, at the very least, full of preservatives, and, at worst, not food at all, McDonalds still persists as a mainstay of food culture in the U.S.

Sally Davies, “Happy Meal Project”, begun April 10, 2010, and ongoing, digital prints. Courtesy of the artist.

In addition to exploring shifting diets in the form of historical and present dishes (or in the case of Davies’, past meals persisting in the present), “Off the Menu” also considers how tastes change over the life of an individual by focusing on the preferences of children. For instance, Jennifer Coates’ painting “PBJ” focuses on the ubiquitous childhood staple of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Coates enlarges the form of the sandwich and depicts it open face—or more likely in mid-construction—highlighting the smearing together of the two viscous substrates that form the basis of the dish. In so doing, she renders the sandwich as a painterly and almost abstract image, making the tactility of the process of spreading peanut butter and jelly on a slice of bread almost palpable. The shift in scale and the attention therefore afforded to it, provides the audience with the opportunity to consider this simple and commonplace meal, allowing us to consider all the ways in which we have engaged with PB&J as cooks and eaters, adults and children.

This attention to the eating patterns of children is further explored in the section of the gallery dubbed “Kid’s Table,” which brings together work by local children under the guidance of Jarah Jones at ArtPlay and Georgia Henkel at Sayre School. These projects include drawings, paintings, and sculptures of particular foods done either individually or collaboratively, as well as a project wherein students constructed their own imagined restaurants out of boxes and other craft supplies. For the latter project, students also created menus for their restaurants, often including mainstays of childhood like pizza, pasta, and ice cream. Taken together, these projects serve as a reminder of the origins of our tastes as eaters and highlight the fact that food consumption is a learned process.

Kids Table (installation view), UK Art Museum, June 1 – August 11, 2019.

Moreover, the collaborative nature of these projects prompts us to remember the social and shared aspects of food practices in general. From the very beginning, we are dependent on others in order to eat and what and how we eat is deeply tied to the practices of our caretakers. While children are acutely aware of the power of food as a form of caretaking, as we get older we tend to forget that we began eating as a social exchange between ourselves and those who fed us. As such, this section allows us to consider more than simply what a chili pepper or a strawberry looks like when rendered by a child, but also to contemplate the multifaceted ways in which we have engaged with food over our lifetimes.

These are just a few of the myriad issues raised in “Off the Menu: Looking at Food.” Food’s position in our culture is so ubiquitous and our relationships to food practices are so complex and multifaceted that it is impossible to fully ascertain all of them in a single exhibition. That said, this show makes a clear effort to incite deeper thought and reflection on the subject of foodways than we typically allow in our daily interactions. By stopping to look at food, and literally regarding what we eat, we can see how the substances that nourish us reflect our broader social and cultural identities. Through this exhibition, we get a glimpse at the various forces that shape our consumption, be they historical antecedents, the ubiquity of fast food, or the process of learning to eat in the first place.


Five Lakes, Twenty Seven Artists, Three Weeks

James R. Southard, photographer and University of Kentucky educator, was sent on assignment by UnderMain to circle the Great Lakes – Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie, and Ontario – and document artists, their lives, work habits, social networking, and physical environments.

Earlier this year, James submitted a highly detailed proposal to UnderMain and we are happy to now present the first two installments of a five-part photo essay series.  

The links below give us a glimpse of how artists are living in urban areas like Milwaukee, Chicago, Toronto, Cleveland, Detroit as well as small towns like Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Sauckets Harbor and more. 

Great Lakes Tour: Part I – Lake Michigan

Great Lakes Tour: Part II – Lake Superior

Great Lakes Tour: Part III – Lake Huron

Great Lakes Tour: Part IV – Lake Ontario

Great Lakes Tour: Part V – Lake Erie


Along the way, James recently connected by cellphone to discuss the project for a segment on the WEKU program Eastern Standard. To listen, click here.

Stay tuned for more on James’ travels, which couldn’t have happened without the support of UnderMain and the Great Meadows Foundation.


Studio Visit with Carlos Gamez De Francisco: Reconsidering Form

A tree-lined driveway led to a private house tucked away in the rural suburbs of Kentucky. Lavish, otherworldly, and remote, artist Carlos Gamez De Francisco’s (b. 1987) home-based studio is evocative of Medici-era patronage. Housed in a friend’s secondary home, Gamez De Francisco uses the private space to focus exclusively on his art practice.

Tree-lined driveway to Carlos Gamez De Francisco’s home-based studio

Outdoor lounging area of Gamez De Francisco’s home-based studio

Reminiscent of 17th century Dutch portraiture, a series of young women adorned in pearls, head dresses, and ruffled collars are posed in a manner that is both austere and elegant. The works are visually and tonally seductive as vibrant hues of red, purple, gold, and white stand stark against a black backdrop. There is a frankness in the women’s demeanor as they stare directly into the camera, implicating the viewer with their gaze. The subjects are not to be reduced as being simply beautiful. Upon closer examination what initially appears as lavish garments are objects, such as: trash bags, kitchen towels, and bedspreads, to name a few. The objects are specific to each model, carefully scoured and chosen from their homes to be recontextualized and reformed into clothing.

work from the series “The Power of the Powerless” and “Specimen Lost in a Tropical Island.

Formally trained as a painter, Gamez De Francisco intentionally references painterly motifs to construct his photographic images. The history of portraiture is fraught with classism as those depicted were often in a position of status and power. Gamez De Francisco utilizes the format of portraitures’ to simultaneously empower the depicted models and dismantle portraitures’ exclusionary history. Regarding portraiture he states, “I think portraiture is the thing that is depicted the most in the history of art, I like to make portraits for that reason. What I wanted was to depict them in a position of power. I want to do the same with people of color and of different backgrounds, in the same position of power.”

The models depicted in the images are what Gamez De Francisco refers to as the “new generation of Cubans.” Born and raised in communist Cuba, Gamez De Francisco emphasized the hardships of growing up in a regime where basic everyday needs were scarce and access to the Internet or cell phones was unavailable. At 21 years old, he immigrated to the United States to pursue his career in the arts. In 2018, Gamez De Francisco traveled back to Cuba to document the new generation of Cubans with his series titled, “The Power of the Powerless” and “Specimen Lost in a Tropical Island”. Prior to his project, he put out a call in Cuba for people who would be interested in being photographed; 280 people responded. When asked how he chose from 280 people, Gamez De Francisco emphasized, “I want people of different genders, races, backgrounds, and incomes.”

work from the series “The Power of the Powerless” and “Specimen Lost in a Tropical Island

Opulent displays of material wealth paired with aristocratic poses that give an aura of nobility are reimagined through people of various economic classes, races, and backgrounds. Issues of diversity are at the forefront of the images. It is through portraiture that Gamez De Francisco gives the subjects a newfound sense of agency. There is a conceptual component to Gamez De Francisco’s photographic process as he goes through each individual model’s home to find various objects that can be transformed into a garment or accessory. The quality of objects can range from jewelry to utilitarian items like trash bags, which through the process of manipulation and recontextualization warps the original meaning of the objects and constructs a more powerful narrative through image-making. Regardless of the model’s background or quality of items represented in the picture, the motif of portraiture aesthetically eradicates unstable power discrepancies through the visual language associated with bourgeois portrait culture.

screen shot of Henrik Kersten’s photographs. Courtesy of Google Images

Unlike the Dutch photographer Henrik Kersten (b. 1956) who also uses repurposed materials like plastic bags and napkins to recreate a formal likeness to Dutch portraiture, Gamez De Francisco subverts the Eurocentric paradigm of portraiture found in the canon of art history. He does this by not only incorporating people of color but by interviewing each subject which allows the depicted to be an active participant in the construction of their image. Personal narrative is imbued into the subject’s personal items which incorporates a level of intimacy and ownership that is not initially apparent but activates the portraits in a way that destabilizes both the colonial and male gaze.

commissioned watercolor portraits and abstract painting in-progress

Interested in further expanding his studio practice, Gamez De Francisco likes to challenge himself by working in different styles and media. He is still working within the style of portraiture, however there is a stylistic transition that is centered on exploring the technical aspects of painting. His solo exhibition at Miller Gallery in Cincinnati this year titled, “Modern Nobility, The Art of Carlos Gamez De Francisco” involved painting in front of a live audience, adding a performative quality to the act of painting. Having formally trained as a painter, breaking free of its technical limitations and challenging the parameters of the medium itself are always a points of consideration.

Apart from the painting-based performance, Gamez De Francisco likes to work with watercolor paint because of its unforgiving and spontaneous characteristics. The paint is hard to handle due to its lack of texture, and the loose translucent quality of the pigment tends to spread rather than hold. It appears less calculated yet takes an instinctual precision to ensure the paint moves and applies as directed. Intention is less mediated, as control is viable only up to a certain point as the medium is unable to be tamed completely. Unlike his photographs which are meticulously staged and executed, his watercolor portraits have a gestural ephemerality. The quality is markedly soft in comparison to the polished finish of his Baroque-like photographs.

mural in-progress at the Origin Hotel in Lexington, Kentucky

Gamez De Francisco having a conversation in front of mural at the Origin Hotel in Lexington, Kentucky

The aesthetic composition of his watercolors with loose calligraphic forms and muddled pops of colors are being challenged on a much larger scale as Gamez De Francisco is currently working on a wall mural for the Origin Hotel in Lexington, Kentucky. The scope of this project is in direct contrast to the temporal constraints of the watercolor portraits seen in his studio, where works are executed in a much more unrehearsed manner with inevitably shorter time and labor constraints.

The most evident stylistic shift that was seen during the studio visit was Gamez De Francisco’s blatant effort to deviate from pictorial representation. A circular canvas with textured strokes of oil paint in various patches of light blue, white, red, and pink rests unfinished, a work in-progress. For Gamez De Francisco, Abstract Expressionism is new territory that results in a different type of aesthetic experience. With no recognizable meaning the viewer is forced to contemplate and simply experience the work. Like the viewer, the artist is also confronted with the freedom of non-representational ways of painting. The formlessness of abstraction comes with new sets of decision-making that pose challenges of its own.

Although this stylistic transition is conceptually new, Gamez De Francisco has had a penchant for abstract thinking from a young age. He recalls one of his earliest memories of drawing from when he was six years old. His father was in the kitchen explaining how water comes out of the faucet. Fascinated with the faucet’s ability to release water, Gamez De Francisco became enamored with the idea of drawing running water. This was a concern for his mother, as she felt her son’s desire to draw moving water warranted a visit to the local psychiatrist. According to Gamez De Francisco this was a seminal moment for him, “At 6 years old I was determined I wanted to be an artist.”

This level of decisiveness and determination made Gamez De Francisco resort to savvy tactics in his attempt to paint during a period in his life where resources were limited. It was during this time that the United States of America sanctioned an embargo on exports to Cuba that resulted in Cubans having to get creative within their material constraints. Gamez De Francisco would mix watercolors with toothpaste in an attempt to achieve the quality of oil paint, and used found pieces of cardboard as a substitute for canvas. This single-minded resourcefulness has carried into his art practice today.

Gamez De Francisco is disciplined and methodical in his approach to painting. He emphasized his rigorous daily routine that is fueled with an incessant need to make work that is always contingent on improvement. The secluded environment of the Kentucky countryside in which his studio resides allows for no distractions and enables an almost obsessive focus on making work. The grounds are both scenic and isolating, which recall a pre-Modernist model of an art studio.

However, it is not just the environment that won him over. Gamez De Francisco quite deliberately chose to have his art practice based in Louisville. In 2017, he moved to study at the School of Art Institute of Chicago. However, he recently moved back because of Louisville’s art community. He says, “I prefer Louisville because of the people, they love to support art and in an art scene that is not large. There is so many people that love art.” There is a culture of support, inclusivity, and passion that resonates with Gamez De Francisco on a deeper level and one he considers to be pertinent to a creative community.

UnderMain would like to thank The Great Meadows Foundation for support of our 2019 programming, which will include twelve in-depth studio visits of Kentucky artists. See our other publications related to this project: 

Emily Elizabeth Goodman visits Melissa Vandenberg
Hunter Kissel visits Harry Sanchez, Jr. 
Jim Fields visits Skylar Smith
Keith Banner visits Michael Goodlett

Miriam Keinle visits Lori Larusso

The Great Meadows Foundation is a grant giving foundation whose mission is to critically strengthen and support visual art in Kentucky by empowering our community’s artists and other visual arts professionals to research, connect, and participate more actively in the broader contemporary art world.


In Their Own Words

Listen to interviews gathered for our segments on Eastern Standard, the weekly public affairs radio magazine on WEKU.  Click on the images to listen to UnderMain’s Art Shechet, in conversation with Speed Museum contemporary arts curator Miranda Lash; Tatiana Gant, executive director of the Montana Arts Council discussing with Sky Marietta the value to rural artists of their “Artrepreneur” program; and Wendy Barnett sitting down with Ave Lawyer, co-founder of Lexington’s unique On The Verge theatre company, and actors Kevin Hardesty and Rachel Lee Rogers to discuss the production of Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part Two.

Miranda Lash, Speed Art Museum curator of contemporary art

Tatiana Gant, Executive Director, Montana Arts Council

Kevin Hardesty, Rachel Lee Rogers in A Doll’s House, Part II


Tunis: Travels With Tim

The life of most working musicians, if they strive for any kind of notice outside their hometown following, involves being a journeyman. Tim Easton is no exception, although in his case, the traveling comes naturally.

Whether it was the seven year stretch he spent gigging though London, Paris, Madrid and more or the scores of Stateside locales he has called home, stretching from Akron to Joshua Tree, Easton has remained an artist on the move. In fact, after he makes a return visit to Lexington via a June 19 concert at The Burl, he will be off to shows in Alaska, the Netherlands and Estonia before 2019 winds down.

Tim Easton Photo Credit: Michael Weintrob

It’s no wonder then that “Exposition,” the latest in a series of sterling solo albums by the veteran songsmith, was also made on the road. Travel, it seems, is more than a mere work requisite. For Easton, it’s an integral part of his existence.

“It started out young,” he said recently by phone during a brief “nesting” stay at a rented country home in Leipers Fork, Tenn. “It started out when my parents moved to Japan. I, being in the second grade, had to go with them. So what started out as something in my youth has now grown into a lifestyle. I feel comfortable traveling. I love to see new places and mostly the people in those places. It has made me, I suppose, something of an armchair anthropologist.”

Protect Me
Easton’s travels have taken him to Lexington on a regular basis for over two decades, whether it was through introductory shows as a member of the Haynes Boys at the long defunct Lynagh’s Music Club or high profile opening act sets for artists like Lucinda Williams to more distinctive shows and settings. Among the latter was a 2007 stop at the Christ the King Oktoberfest where Easton offered a song titled “J.P.M.F.Y.F.” It stood for “Jesus Protect Me From Your Followers.” “Not all of them,” the song went in a sheepishly confessional tone. “Just the ones who turn love into fear and hatred.”

Fortifying those performances were recordings rooted in folk-related narratives and accents that shifted from Byrds-like lyricism, such as 2006’s “Ammunition” (the record that featured the original version of “J.P.M.F.Y.F”), to the unadorned solo acoustics of 2018’s “Paco and the Melodic Poloroids” (which featured a starker update of the tune retitled as “Jesus Protect Me”).

“The life of the songwriter or writer involves constant observation, note taking and a fair bit of travel, I’d say,” Easton said. “With all of my favorites, from Hemingway to Woody Guthrie – with any writer, really – there seems to be a fair amount of traveling in their lives. Mark Twain had a lot to say about it, about the traveling, about what it does for you.

Photo Credit: Michael Weintrob

“I feel the same way about America, about our country. I wish more people could actually see the third world just so they could be grateful for how great we actually do have it here, even though all around us, everywhere, there is extreme poverty and extreme wealth. Yes, the balance is difficult. But going to a third world country really helps put it all in perspective.”

Easton’s newest album, “Exposition,” due out just five days before his Burl concert, takes even further advantage of traveling as a modus operandi for making music. It was cut in very portable fashion at numerous locations favored mostly for their aesthetic, cultural and historical appeal. Among them were the Okemah Historical Society (Okemah, Okla. being the birthplace of Woody Guthrie) and the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio (where blues giant Robert Johnson famously recorded in 1936).

“Today you can record almost anywhere you wish simply because technology has made it possible,” Easton said. “So pop-up studios, or setting up studios in a house or a comfortable location, become so easy. You wake up, make some coffee, have some breakfast and get to work. It’s like anywhere else. The room definitely dictates the vibe.

“I had a plan to make two very stripped-down folk albums in a row (“Paco and the Melodic Poloroids” being the first) in order that I might be able to survive in the modern music business. In other words, the plan was not to spend above my means in regard to fancy studios, backing bands and producers. Instead, I wanted to make the kind of record that I would love to listen to around the house, which are solo folk albums. Really, that’s what this was all about. I plan on returning to the full band and all that for the next one. But in the meantime, I wanted to make two stripped-down folk albums of exactly the music you would expect when someone saw me live and said, ‘I’d like to buy some music from you.’ You can hand them basically what they just saw and heard.”

Plot Exposition
The 10 songs making up “Exposition” play out in varying ways. Some possesses a theme that is detectable within its title, such as “Don’t Speculate, Participate,” a call for action at election time or, as Easton terms it, “an apathy busting anthem.”

“If you don’t give a damn, then you’ve nothing to say,” Easton sings a manner more soft-spoken than scolding. “If you won’t give a damn, step out of the way.”

“I’m not trying to tell anybody who to vote for. I just have this feeling that if more of us participated, more of us would be satisfied with the results. If more people participated, it would just be a happier society. Also, that entire expression came from when I was marching in London way back in the day. I was marching to raise awareness for a guy who was in prison. His name was Nelson Mandela. All these big artists – Big Audio Dynamite, Boy George, Sting, Billy Bragg – sang at it. At one point, this guy with a green pointy haired mohawk said, ‘Don’t spectate, participate.’ So I filed that phrase and used it to kind of address voter participation. Simple as that.”

Balancing such directness are “Saint Augustine” and “New Year’s Day,” less obvious requiems for a battered soul whose life tribulations largely mirrored Easton’s own.

Photo Credit: Michael Weintrob

“A lot of times a song will be autobiographical, but in such a way that it could be about anybody. In this case, I woke up in Saint Augustine and wrote those words down. Then I finished the song in Spain months later on a train. No one else was in the compartment with me, so I just finished it there. It’s definitely a requiem for the destructive life I was living.

“As you’ll see in ‘New Year’s Day,’ I’ve had gone through some personal things in the last couple of years. I got divorced. We have a child, so it’s been an interesting nesting period for me. I’m just happy to say that we all get along and we all want to support each other in the work we do.”

Glorious perseverance
For the better part of his career, Easton has been an independent recording artist. There was an extended period spent with the Americana-leaning New West Records (distilled on the fine 2013 anthology “Before the Revolution”), but even then, he worked far afield from major label pull and promotion.

Today, Easton is the CEO of a one-man operation. That means on “Paco and the Melodic Poloroids” and “Exposition” Easton handled nearly everything on his own, from the recording to the packaging to the distribution of his songs.

Photo Credit: Michael Weintrob

“By music business standards, I’m not really selling the kinds of numbers that enable a whole record company to carry on. But with my little folk stuff, I’m able to live comfortably and really enjoy myself as a traveler. I’m able to blend into society enough to be able to observe it. So it’s, like, the best. I don’t have financial stress, but I work hard. I travel a lot. I perform a lot.

“Also, as president of the record company, I give myself the occasional bonus. That occasional bonus is to go fishing somewhere, eat a good meal every so often and treat myself with respect. I struggle, but then I also persevere. Sometimes it’s a struggle, but mostly it’s glorious perseverance. How about that? Really, I’m very lucky. I get to travel around the world and play music.

“I’m not the greatest singer in the world, but I can pick a guitar just fine and I have stories to tell. I’ve honed my solo act into way more of an entertaining time because of observations of people and my heroes at work over the years. I’ve learned to put on a better show as a solo artist. I can do it by myself, so why not? It’s way easier on the company payroll, too.”

Tim Easton performs at 7 p.m. June 19 at The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd. Tickets are $12. Call 859-447-8166 or go to


Feasts of Fantasy: The Cruel Pleasures of Lori Larusso’s Paintings

Food is central to our daily lives. It provides necessary nourishment and pleasure, as well as aggravation and anxiety. What and how we eat informs our identities in terms of gender, class, and ethnicity. Eating shapes our social relations with others and our environment. However, these are not abstract associations, but intimate and specific experiences that encode desire, taste, tradition, ritual, and etiquette. Much of Lori Larusso’s work explores the unwritten rules and underlying effects of the domestic activity of making and consuming food. With meticulously applied layers of bright glossy paint, she lovingly renders delicious confections and delectable meals, as well as kitchen and dining room disasters, to make us consider how food communicates effective experiences, psychological states, and moral dilemmas.

In her painting If you can Bake a Cake, you can Make a Bomb (2017), a dozen splattered eggs appear on the floor of a pristine powder-blue kitchen. As the title suggests, cakemaking has turned incendiary. Perhaps the baker, frustrated by the expectation of bourgeois domestic perfection, has turned against her craft. Or alternatively, maybe the chickens themselves have revolted against the pilfering of their eggs for use in our cakes, as intimated by dark silhouettes of barnyard fowl that appear in the cabinet-turned-chicken-coup under the kitchen counter. Either way, the broken eggs convey that something is amiss in this seemingly idyllic yet creepily sanitized American home.

“If you can Bake a Cake, you can Make a Bomb”, acrylic on (2) shaped panels, approximately 42 x 64 x 2 inches, 2017

“Trickle Down”, acrylic on (2) shaped panels, approximately 18 x 33 inches, 2013

In fact, a feeling of unease haunts all of Larusso’s immaculate surfaces. In Trickle Down (2013), a double chocolate chunk ice cream cone oozes sticky sweet cream onto the floor of an otherwise picture perfect interior. A cozy fire burns in the fireplace, as sophisticated busts and vases of flowers rest on an adjacent bookshelf. This mid-century modern home could be in Dwell magazine if it were not for the fallen ice cream cone that ruins the image of upper middle-class luxury. There is a tension between the cheap treat in the foreground and the impeccable home behind it, as if to suggest that we must be satiated with small affordable pleasures while an unattainable dream lies just out of reach.

The atmosphere of this picture is one of frustrated desire. In an economy where wealth and opportunity are supposed to “trickle down” from rich to poor, yet rarely do, we are torn between settling for brief moments of feeling good and aspiring for something better through real political change. Embodying this tension, Larusso’s paintings recall what literary theorist Lauren Berlant describes as the “cruel optimism” of the American Dream, or a condition in which “something you desire is actually the obstacle to your own flourishing.” Much like the sentimental fiction that Berlant describes in her writing, Larusso’s paintings capture the combination of fantasy and futility that characterize the mirage of accessible abundance propagated in the US. Although we are accustomed to wanting things that we know are probably bad for us, like that double chocolate chunk ice cream cone, the stakes are higher when we desire a better lot in life. And these paintings register this intense longing to believe in meritocracy and upward mobility, as well as the sense of resignation and exhaustion indicative of the new economy that thwarts that promise.  

“I’m Sorry (We Are Garbage)”, acrylic on (2) shaped panels and ribbon, approximately 3.5 x 12 feet, 2017

Larusso’s works appear as stages for dispirited characters who are perhaps in the process of relinquishing their fantasies. Whether visualizing the specter of economic precarity or environmental degradation, her paintings evoke conflicted responses to everyday experiences that we sense affectively even if we don’t register them cognitively. Lunch By The Dumpster (2013) brings to mind a quick break to eat a packed lunch by the dumpster before returning to one’s minimum wage-paying job, as well as the post-consumer waste that haunts even the smallest of meals. I’m Sorry (We Are Garbage) (2017), which depicts an apologetic party balloon attempting to lift a plump white trash bag out of a metal bin, recalls the profuse amounts of trash produced by the average American party. Although we’d probably rather forget all the decorations, paper plates, plastic utensils, gift wrappings, and food remains that get stuffed into bags after the event is over, this painting reminds us that this is part of who we are. Our garbage does not just float away after we toss it in the bin, even if the weekly trash pick-up makes it seem so.

Like Berlant, Larusso is concerned with ordinary moments and encounters more than major events and big revelatory gestures. For this reason, as well as her humorous, colorful, and representational style, Larusso’s paintings were received earlier in her career as lacking “seriousness.” This perception recalls the criticisms leveled at Pop artists during the 1960s. However, Pop was redeemed by its “coolness” that conveys a sense of neutrality, detachment, and impassiveness when approaching themes of consumerism and the everyday. These masculinist imperatives, as feminist art historians Cécile Whiting and Kalliopi Minioudaki have respectively shown in their writings, were also mobilized to exclude female Pop artists who were deemed too personally invested in their subjects to be properly Pop.

“Hungry Heart”, acrylic on shaped panel, 43 x 40 inches, 2010

“You Used to Blog About Cupcakes”, acrylic on (2) shaped panels, approximately 40 x 32 inches, 2013

Similar to her feminist Pop precursors, the convivial yet disturbing domestic scenes of Larusso’s “Shapes” series (2007 – 2014) feel engaged and impassioned more than cynical and impersonal. Pithy suggestive titles like Boil, Fried, Cracked, Wrecked, and Hungry are common in the series and reinforce the impression that all is not well in these seemingly happy homes. Although no people appear, Larusso strategically uses absent objects or out of place elements to make tangible the feelings of hunger, exhaustion, abuse, self-loathing, and unrequited love of the characters that one imagines inhabiting these spaces. In Hungry Heart (2010) and You Used to Blog About Cupcakes (2013) from the series, the oven—which is absent in the former, and defunct in the latter—serves to heighten the melodrama of the scene. Almost anthropomorphized, its open door seems to cry out, exposing the void within. Similarly, eye-catching colors like Pepto-Bismal pink, bright white, and chocolaty brown intensify the mood of anxiety, longing, and disillusionment of the once recognized food blogger who has recently abandoned her craft. In this way, Larusso orchestrates these compositions to capture a frustrated belief in the good life, speaking to what Berlant describes as the “dramas of adjustment” that characterize our age of growing income inequality.

Berlant builds on what Raymond Williams calls the “structure of feeling” or the intuited contours of a particular space in time that gives one a sense of the possibility of certain futures over others. Through her shaped paintings, Larusso brings into relief the pain, stress, and humiliation of hungry hearts that cannot be sated. However, this yearning is not only met with refusal and despair, but also compassion and optimism. Through humorous juxtapositions and exquisitely detailed subjects, Larusso conveys a sense of attachment to the world she depicts. And by accentuating its contradictions, her paintings offer a space to recalibrate and resist the patterns of life that we have come to expect. As Larusso states: “I am, in part, searching for the tipping point. When does one decide to alter their systems of belief, behavior, and take action? Is a revolution necessary, or can we incite positive change in our lives by individual acts of resistance? What does resistance look like?”

In her recent “Non-compliance” series, works like If you can Mop a Floor, you can Exercise Total Personal Non-Cooperation (2017) and If you can Perform a Striptease for your Husband, You can Perform a Lysistratic Non-Action (2018) set the stage for such individual acts of resistance. Cast-off objects like the mop and bra imply that someone has reached their breaking point and abandoned their chores mid-action. And because there are no people in these works, animals often activate the scene. Whether they be dead cockroaches swimming in a pool of mop water or an orange pussy cat turned doormat-sized area rug, these creatures produce a tension between a repugnant foreground and alluring background.

“If you can Mop a Floor, you can Exercise Total Personal Non-Cooperation”, acrylic on (3) shaped panels, approximately 60 x 84 x 32 inches, 2017

This pull between attraction and repulsion also animates Larusso’s “Eating Animals” series (2017 ongoing). Works like Strawberry Short Snake, Broccoli Poodle, and Radish Mice morph fruits and vegetables into cartoon animals. Inspired by blogs posts and Instagram images taken by parents who aspired to shape these foods into more appealing forms for their children, Larusso explores this strange phenomenon in which edible items are transformed into animals that are socially unacceptable to eat in order to somehow make them more appetizing. This convoluted game while initially appearing absurd, invites one to think about the bizarre nature of the highly processed and packaged foods that the average American regularly consumes like chicken fingers and pumpkin spice lattes.

“Eating Animals (Strawberry Short Snake)”, acrylic on shaped panel, 32 x 20 inches, 2017

Although staged and idealized in advertising and social media, food entails messy and entangled systems of procurement, preparation, and consumption. Drawn like the rest of us to the flawless and filtered images of mouthwatering delights that appear in glossy magazine pages and populate one’s social media feed, Larusso takes this source material and transforms it into complex pictures that register a sense of precarity lurking beneath their appetizing surfaces. In her series “It’s Not My Birthday, That’s Not my Cake,” different kinds of cake communicate a range of emotional states. Each one with its candles extinguished has been wished over and awaits devouring. Coconut Cake (2010) appears stout and proud despite the shaky green lettering that timidly spells out “Happy Birthday.” In On A Doily (2014), thick layers of rust colored icing cover dense chocolate cake which sits atop a delicate bed of white lace that seems to float effortlessly under the weight of the cake’s burden. Across the series, the cheerful colors of Larusso’s celebratory confections invite one to contemplate the complicated range of emotions generated by those delicious things that are in fact not yours to enjoy.

“It’s Not My Birthday, That’s Not My (Strawberry Short) Cake”, acrylic and enamel on panel, 12 x 16 x 1 inches, 2010

This complicated space of longing is eloquently captured in the poems written by Carrie Green to accompany Larusso’s painting in their co-authored chapbook. Dedicated to “women artists everywhere, whether their medium is words, paint, or buttercream frosting,” the book is an ode to the overlooked domestic labor of cake baking and decorating. In its last poem, “Not Your Cake” Green’s ekphrastic text brings to life the space of desire embodied in Larusso’s painting It’s Not My Birthday, That’s Not my (Strawberry Short) Cake (2010). It reads:

The cake winks from behind
the neighbor’s starched white curtains

strawberries and cream and yellow cake
striping a green Formica background

You spent your last birthday
eating boxed macaroni from the pan.

Now you imagine the layered sweetness:
moist cake, rich fullness of cream,

tart bite of farm-stand fruit
carried home in the green paper cartons.

The kitchen is empty, washed pale
with early June light. Did you miss

the singing, the bright bouquet
of balloons marking the mailbox?

Flame has blackened the candlewicks,
and someone has served a generous slice

or two. The missing wedge
opens to you, an invitation.

It’s not your birthday. But why
couldn’t this cake be yours?

Although quieter in their sentiments, the paintings reproduced in It’s Not My Birthday, That’s Not my Cake highlight Larusso’s long-standing interest in how the seeds of change are sown into ordinary experiences. Seeking to re-contextualize revolution on a micro-scale that speaks to the complex entanglements of the domestic sphere, her paintings ask questions about how our intimate experiences with food educate and enculturate us, serving as a vehicle to alter the world in which we live.

New series “I Like Your Pictures and I Like YOU”, 2019, in progress in Larusso’s Studio in Lexington, KY.

UnderMain would like to thank The Great Meadows Foundation for support of our 2019 programming, which will include twelve in-depth studio visits of Kentucky artists. See our other publications related to this project: 

Emily Elizabeth Goodman visits Melissa Vandenberg
Hunter Kissel visits Harry Sanchez, Jr. 
Jim Fields visits Skylar Smith
Keith Banner visits Michael Goodlett

The Great Meadows Foundation is a grant giving foundation whose mission is to critically strengthen and support visual art in Kentucky by empowering our community’s artists and other visual arts professionals to research, connect, and participate more actively in the broader contemporary art world.


Emily Ludwig Shaffer at Institute 193

Approaching Institute 193 on North Limestone in Lexington, I peer through the storefront window to make my first encounter with Emily Ludwig Shaffer’s paintings. A New York resident with deep roots in Lexington, Kentucky, Ludwig Shaffer treats us to meticulously rendered scenes which engage with visual elements traditionally relegated to second-class citizenship, or else, to the merely “decorative.” A braid adorns a side of a building. A topiary wall pushes forth, and seemingly through, a canvas surface. Plants, in various arrangements, populate the works. As I step into the space, the architecture of the work presents itself. The painted surfaces, at once, acknowledge their illusionistic nature by offering flat color passages and push us into masterfully modeled surreal spaces, wherein the difference between interior and exterior constructions oscillate and meld.

There are no clear protagonists within these subtle dreamscapes, no clue to privilege in any one of their quiet actors. When we are finally presented with the human form, it is that of two monochromatic grey, female sculptures, with arms outstretched in a gesture of refusal—the “No-No dance.” This term, coined by the artist, contributes to the titles of the painting and the show “From the Ha-Ha Wall Comes the No-No Dance” joined with reference to a French garden design feature.

From The Ha-Ha Wall Comes The No-No Dance, 2019
Oil on canvas
72 x 65 inches

Ha-ha is a wall structure that acts as a physical separator without breaking the visual flow of the landscape. Aside from grounding the references to gardens and greenery, which abound in Ludwig Shaffer’s work, this term allows us to speak about “control” as one of the themes explored on the painted surface. Much like the Ha-Ha wall’s ability to assert a boundary while preserving a certain viewing and traversing of the landscape, many of the painted elements govern the viewer’s eye without announcing their presence. This runs the gamut from more literal renderings of walls and hedges within the painted naturescape, to utilizing the physical dimensions of the canvas to interrupt the flow of the composition. Here, meticulously-rendered realism strains against the two-dimensional surface. These compositions effuse a careful balance, presenting elements which both challenge and control one another. This facilitates a productive tension, drawing this viewer back into the painted surfaces in an attempt to discern the visual flows suggested within them.

Another aspect of the works on view that echos control and tension in an intriguing way is Ludwig Shaffer’s treatment of the female body. It is denied specific personhood and, as mentioned earlier, does not function as a protagonist of any narrative suggested in the paintings. It is an object, just like any other within the space of the composition, and in a visual culture that often both centers and objectifies its female subjects, this visual strategy provides an understated yet quite empowering alternative.

R & R & R, 2019
Acrylic on paper
22.5 x 30 inches

When preparing to write about the work, I quickly scanned through a number of historical French garden images. The most famous of these, the Gardens of Versailles, somewhat ironically bill themselves within the two-dimensional space of the webpage as, “The art of perspective.” I find this to be a really interesting point of entry into Ludwig Shaffer’s paintings due to the visual complexity of the interior and exterior spaces that she renders within her work. Although the architectural edges are carefully taped off and delivered to the viewer in a pristine semblance, the actual geometry is compromised: the viewer experiences an amalgam of possible perspective points within a single composition. This signals a very careful and intentional game played by the artist, one full of intriguing visual nuance.

Up Out In, 2019
Oil on canvas
72 x 96 inches

During the exhibition opening, I spoke briefly with Ludwig Shaffer, about possible links to Giotto paintings or perhaps Uccello: visual spaces where the technique of perspective was explored but not equally controlled over the whole of the composition by painters steeped in iconographic traditions. The artist brought up another early source of inspiration, Roman and Greek sarcophagi friezes, where the viewers encounter implied interior spaces which travel between the physicality of carved stone and the illusion of perspective. Upon further communication, Ludwig Shaffer brought up another exciting line of visual influence, Persian miniatures; illustrative works on paper that emerged in the region after the Mongol conquest in the 13th century and subsequent introduction of Chinese scroll painting tradition. Presented within album or book format, the miniatures allow for a completely different way to organize the composition that eschews standard perspective practices of Western painting. These constitute truly intriguing points of departure for the exploration of the painted surfaces, particularly in the art world that is often more concerned with referencing its own mercurial trends, than maintaining deeply-rooted dialogs with the past.

Giotto, Feast of Herod
Fresco, 1320
110 x 177 inches
[source: ]

The Spy Zambur Brings Mahiya to the City of Tawariq, Folio from a Hamzanama (Book of Hamza),ca. 1570
Attributed to Kesav Das
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on cloth; mounted on paper
29 1/8 x 22 1/2 inches
[source: Met collection]


It is important to mention, at this point, another aspect of the show, the collaboration with the Michler Family Florists and Lexington-based architect & designer Jason Scroggin, who teaches at the University of Kentucky School of Architecture. Scroggin’s studio designed and built a custom bench seat with planters, which in addition to function, complemented the show by extending the motif of architectural space. This was a feature that many a gallery visitor appreciated during the opening and one that, perhaps, suggested the potential domestic settings the paintings could go on to inhabit in their future lives.

Overall, this is a show that presents us with smart, carefully-balanced, painted constructions. They are not loud. They do not demand our attention. But if attention is given, they are like good books; reminding us how easy it is to lose oneself within tightly crafted layers full of visual games, historical allusions, tactile enjoyment, and nuance.

Emily Ludwig Shaffer: From the Ha-Ha Wall Comes the No-No Dance, runs thru June 8, 2019, at Institute 193 in Lexington.


From Cuba to Keeneland: New Additions to the Lexington Music Scene

Green Room Exchange: Soul of Cuba

Listen to this segment from WEKU’s Eastern Standard as Lee Carroll, co-founder of the non-profit international concert series Green Room Exchange, talks with Xiomarra Laugert about her next Lexington recording session and performance. Click on image to listen.


Railbird Festival: The Back Story

UnderMain’s Art Shechet sits down with David Helmers, local co-producer of the new Railbird Festival coming to Keeneland this summer and putting Lexington on the national festival map. Click on poster to listen.


Why would a woman choose to walk out on her apparently perfect life? Why would she walk back in again? It’s the central question of A Doll’s House by Norway’s Henrik Ibsen. The three-act play premiered at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark, on 21 December 1879. And it is the latest work to receive the ingenious “out-of-the-black box” treatment of the Lexington theatre company, On The Verge.

To get the details, WEKU’s Wendy Barnett sat down with director Ave Lawyer. Listen to their conversation.


Tunis: liddle’s A Lot

Back on American soil for only a few hours, Brian Krock is already feeling the tension and anticipation that comes from life in New York.

“My anxiety has really spiked and I just got back. The city just has an anxiety provoking thing about it.”
But the saxophonist has translated a New York existence into a remarkably fruitful and far-reaching career, from initial gigs in orchestras for Broadway shows to a current juggling act of several adventurous jazz projects. One, as part of former Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson’s ensemble for a Beatles-rooted ballet called “Pepperland,” had him traveling Europe for the past seven weeks (“One of the longest periods I’ve spent away from home”). Another is a project of his own, a stylistically daring quartet called liddle, that he will bring to Lexington for a May 15 performance at J. Gumbo’s.

Brian Krock
Photo Credit: Desmond White

“Like everyone else who lives here, I have a love/hate relationship with New York,” Krock said. “But like any other job, you can’t just jump in and immediately do your best work. You have to work your way up. So I feel lucky that I’ve had a variety of really challenging gigs so far in my life, from subbing on Broadway to teaching private music lessons and doing music copying and editing.

“There are the financial constraints of living in such an expensive place, meaning that we all need to have a million different hustles. It can be really hard, but it forces you to grow pretty quickly. It can make you think, ‘What could I possibly have to offer that isn’t already here?’ But then having to constantly wrestle with that question also forces you to think really hard about who you are and what is that you want to contribute to the world of music.”

The liddle things

To understand the band liddle, you first need an introduction to Big Heart Machine, an 18 member troupe assembled by Krock that meshes horn orchestration, free-informed dissonance, pop overtones and much more. The rhythm section of that ensemble – guitarist Olli Hirvonen, bassist Marty Kenney and drummer Nathan Ellman-Bell – form the touring version of liddle. But the smaller group actually predates the larger one.

“It wasn’t called liddle at the time,” Krock said. “I had a band for years called Heart Machine. Then when I expanded that, I decided to call it Big Heart Machine. The rhythm section of Big Heart Machine includes pretty much my closest friends. They’re the guys I go get a beer with and talk life with.

“We spent a lot of our time these past few years rehearsing together because the music was so complex and required a lot of practice. We didn’t really approach the project with any goal necessarily. I just wanted music that would give us challenges we could work towards that would also play to my friends’ strengths. Olli, Marty and Nathan are growing into their own artistic aesthetics as leaders and as composers, so I wanted to write music for them.”

L to R: Marty Kenney, Nathan Ellman-Bell, Brian Krock, Olli Hirvonen
Photo Credit: Luke Marantz

Within the broad soundscapes of the quartet’s debut album, “liddle,” which was released April 26, the music shifts from the Zappa-like bounce and eventual electric glide of the opening “Flip” to the spacious fusion cool of “Memphis” to the dizzying sax runs in a playful update of “Opus 23b” (a 1974 composition by one of Krock’s prime musical heroes, Anthony Braxton). Topping it all is “Please Stop,” a fascinating requiem of sorts that closes the album in an ambient wash of guitar and bass clarinet.

Krock’s prefers not to view the album’s many styles in specific or separate terms. He sees it all as part of a more singular musical vocabulary for liddle.

“We, as jazz artists, are obligated to deal with all of the history we are aware of that has come before us. So I don’t try to make value judgements. ‘Is this atonal? Is this tonal? Is this swinging? Is it fusion? Is it heavy? Is it straight ahead? Is it free?’ I love all of those kinds of music. They all inform who I am, so I guess the fact that it’s the same four people playing the music is what ties it all together.

“But I hope, as a listener, you will go through a journey with the music, where the contrasts between the individual songs will highlight what is interesting about them. For example, ‘Please Stop’ is really tonal. It almost has a folk song quality. I love having that at the end of the record as a sort of cleansing thing after you’ve heard all this chaotic and crazy music. That song gives you a chance to come back to reality. I guess I just didn’t try to overthink things.”

Jazz and Joyce

One of Krock’s foremost artistic inspirations isn’t a jazz artist at all, yet it figures in the designs of at least two songs on “liddle.” It comes from the famed Irish writer and poet James Joyce. The quirky piano/reed rumble “Saturnine” references “A Painful Case” while the gently unsettling ensemble skirmish “Spondulics” takes its name from “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.” Both Joyce works are part of his 1914 short story collection “Dubliners.”

Perhaps fittingly, the day we spoke with Krock began with the saxophonist in Dublin.

“I went crazy with the James Joyce sightseeing. I basically did Bloomsday (the city’s annual Joyce celebration), even though that happens in June. I did it on my own. I visited all the places that are in his books. I visited the Martello Tower that he lived in for awhile, which is in Sandycove. But I also spent the entire seven weeks of the Pepperland tour working my way through Richard Ellmann’s famous biography of James Joyce, which is a masterpiece.

“While I’m deeply fascinated and inspired by Joyce. I’m not really interested in trying to mimic his style in my music, that sort of stream of consciousness writing that was very controversial but sort of made him famous. But I am interested in the grandiosity of his ideas and the rigor with which he follows through with them. He spent 10 years writing ‘Ulysses’ and then spent 17 years writing ‘Finnegans Wake.’ As his plans for his books developed, he was forced to study all kinds of different things, from Latin and Greek to completely other disciplines. He let every aspect of his real life bleed into his work. So all of those and more are things I try to emulate in my life. There is a lot of stuff you wouldn’t want to emulate, of course. He had a lot of dark struggles, but his work invites you, as an audience member, to participate in a really interesting way.

“He actually said something that sounds very egotistical and arrogant, but is also kind of amazing. He said his challenge for his audience was to for people to spend their entire lives engaged with his work. I mean, I’ve spent maybe 10 years engaged with his work, reading and re-reading it. It’s challenging and it forces you, as a reader, to view parts of your own psyche that maybe you don’t like. It’s not necessarily fun all the time. Sometimes, they’re a drudge to get through. But I think after engaging with James Joyce’s work, I’ve grown in some way by knowing a little bit more about myself. That’s a pretty high hope for my own work, but at least it’s something to strive for.”

The crystalized idea

With Iverson’s Pepperland tour of Europe complete and liddle, briefly, on the front burner within a career that is continually in New York motion, Krock feels content with the artistic progress he is making and the general acceptance of his myriad performance related projects.

Specifically, the word he used most often in describing such development was “lucky.”

“Living and working in New York is sort of like a pressure cooker that forces you to spread out all the things that aren’t important. It leaves you with a crystalized idea of what it is that your goals are. So with each recording project and each opportunity, you get a little bit closer. You sort of chip away at the big marble rock that you’re hoping to turn into a beautiful sculpture. Every year, it gets a little bit better.

“I’m very lucky to be working with so many heroes, having had the chance to work closely with (Canadian born, Brooklyn based composer and bandleader) Darcy James Argue, Ethan Iverson and (New York by way of Pennsylvania pianist, composer and improviser) Matt Mitchell. I’m also lucky to get to work with my peers and my best friends, like Olli and Marty and Nathan, and on top of that to be able to make a living. I’m lucky not to have to have a day job anymore.

“For those things, I’m very grateful. So, yeah, I’m just going to keep on doing my best and enjoy the ride.”

+ Brian Krock’s liddle performs at J. Gumbos Lex, 808 North Limestone at 8 p.m. May 15. Admission is $10 for the concert only and free to dinner customers. For reservations, call 859-286-9239.


Ray Kleinhelter: Riverscapes

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.”


Carolyn Young Hisel: Light to See

A “retrospective” is a specific type of exhibition curated to reveal certain themes or stages of an artist’s career. Depending on the length of that career and the artist’s level of production, mounting such a show can be a significant challenge. The benefit to the viewer is that a narrative, perhaps not known from individual works, unfolds and the artist’s larger vision emerges. Often times these narratives speak of change or resistance to change over a broad swath of time.

Such a concept lies at the core of the works that were selected for Luminous, the retrospective of Carolyn Young Hisel’s work and career now on display at the Headley-Whitney Museum. Hisel’s oeuvre shows a strong interest in the mysterious workings of memory. Many of Hisel’s largest painted works hint at complex and repetitious snatches of personal experience translated into a visual language. The effect is surreal, not just in the way this manifests in Hisel’s specific imagery, but also her technique and materials.

Transparency, such as in the large painting Red Piano, is repeatedly employed in the form of see-through walls and rooms constructed by thin and likewise transparent layers of paint. Imaginary ephemeral surfaces and the hard material realities of paint and light are woven together in a way that is both pleasing and unsettling. As insides merge with outsides, the figures Hisel places in her scenes seem perturbed by the effects of disintegration they see around them.

Red Piano

Hisel’s work is an ambivalent engagement with such uncanny glimpses of memories. The uncanny often exists in a space where remembrance and experience mingle in unexpected and deeply affective ways. Hisel’s figures, placed within strange landscapes, seem transformed by the same kind of flattening, softening, and disintegration occurring to buildings and ground. While some of these figures are whimsical or comic (clownish even), the familiarity and unfamiliarity of their humanness makes them something else entirely. For example, one image that greets viewers to the exhibition is a near life-sized monstrous creature whose bashful awareness of the viewer hints also at some vague confrontational danger.

Spindle-limbed figures appear across many of Hisel’s works – their faces are nearly always flattened and expressionless. Yet these faces are also sympathetic. They possess a similar kind of classical softness employed in Hisel’s more conventional nudes or ephemeral figures. They appear like a counterpoint to classical beauty, bodies abstracted to essential rather than ideal parts. A juxtaposition of two paintings, Arrivals and Passage, shows this in vivid detail. While ostensibly images of infant and elderly figures, they are ultimately difficult to differentiate. They share common features, two representations of an earlier primal existence. The uncanniness of these figures, though they appear more or less human, is the almost-ness of their bodies.


A consciousness can be seen in many of these works, both of figures and in the scenes they appear in. Not to say the eyes of Hisel’s figures really gaze out, but there is logic and vitality to the worlds they inhabit. For example, the painting Air Walkers presents figures astride an almost invisible tightrope suspended entirely in space. Their faces, while displaying little obvious emotion seem aware of the absurdity of their positions as literal and figurative performers for an outside audience. The overly cliché comparison of square-framed art with that of a similarly framed window comes to mind. But instead of being trite, Hisel’s exploration of transparency thoughtfully engages with seeing and being seen. It is often taken for granted that viewers hold power in their ability to look at art. Much like a voyeur, the expectation is one of looking without being looked at. But in Hisel’s peopled landscapes there is no such security. Just as surfaces disintegrate and the comfort of walls and their ability to keep things out (or in) breaks down into a fluidity of light and space, Hisel’s figures seem to gaze out at the viewer and jumble the neat distinctions between realities.

Air Walkers

Circling back to the concept of the retrospective, this particular one is constructed in a somewhat subversive way. It is unexpected that none of the works are dated, especially if the purpose of the exhibition is to contextualize Hisel’s career as a certain length of time. Without specific dates, it is strange that there is a separate group of works dedicated to a specific (though still vague) “early” stage of Hisel’s career. It sticks out among the larger collection in which time is treated with little if any specificity. The majority of works mingle and viewers are left with a thematic rather than chronological sense of narrative. It might be assumed that the figures and landscapes, in their abstraction, progress towards the grotesque or greater transparency. Indeed, separate consideration of earlier works seems to suggest a shedding of borrowed styles for Hisel’s own personal vision. But viewers are not directed to project an easily graspable narrative of progression from style to style. Instead, the absence of dates allows the juxtapositions of works to be more conversational or collaborative than cardinal in direction. In the end, setting off a portion of works as “early” when time plays a much more conceptual role in the greater organization of the exhibition proves to distract rather than offer any insight into Hisel’s broader oeuvre.

Ultimately, it is the placement of works like Girl with Dogs and Riding Instructor in proximity that broadens this exhibition into something beyond the pitfalls of a straightforward chronological survey. Here two very distinct scenes share little in style or substance, yet there is a dialogue, both between the paintings and with the viewer. As the girl and the figure riding the horse seem to consider the realms outside their respective painting, the other figures look back into the mysteries of their own painted worlds. The viewer is invited to participate in this complex conversation between inward and outward, memory and fantasy. The focus shifts towards that of possibility, of new life in the present and future. Hisel’s work can continue to be dynamic rather than relegated to the finality of the past. With her passing in 2017, this exhibition allows Hisel’s life and work to reverberate in new and meaningful ways.

Girl with Dogs

Riding Instructor

“Luminous: Carolyn Young Hisel, A 50 Year Retrospective”, runs thru June 16 at the Headley-Whitney Museum of Art in Lexington.

The Girl Project Comes to Lexington

What do you get when you put arts and activism together in the same space? Meet Voices HEaRd, one of the three branches of the Kentucky-based summer arts program, The Girl Project. Co-founded by Ellie Clark and Vanessa Becker-Weig, The Girl Project is part of Woodford Theatre’s Education Program and is focused on empowering girls of all ages through the arts.

The Girl Project’s third annual Voices HEaRd is set for its biggest year yet. The event was met with such success last year that they decided to spread the workshops and scheduled festivities out over an entire weekend and relocate Voices HEaRd to Lexington. Vanessa Becker-Weig, who is the Program Director and a Co-Founder of The Girl Project said, “It was out at Versailles at Woodford Theater. Woodford is kind of the home base for The Girl Project, but most of our base in terms of patrons for The Girl Project is in Lexington, so we just moved everything here.”

The idea for Voices HEaRd was formed in 2016, “post-election” Becker-Weig said as she chuckled with Jeni Benavides, who is Associate Director of The Girl Project as well as a lead guest artist.

“The first year, it was just one performance, and then the second year we expanded it to two nights of performances.” said Benavides. This year’s Voices HEaRd event will feature theater, music, visual art, spoken word, dance, workshops, and community organizations during Mother’s Day weekend. “This year, we switched it to Mother’s Day weekend because we kind of wanted to switch the focus a bit and make it feel more celebratory of relationships, like the mother-daughter relationship, the mentor relationship, that kind of thing.” said Becker-Weig.

Another new addition to the event is a ten minute play festival. “Before, we just kind of did this collective, and we’re doing that again this year, but we’ve also decided to start this ten minute play festival, and that’s kind of Ellie’s baby, if you will. She’s reached out to some different female playwrights and they’ve submitted pieces, so we’re really excited about that.” said Becker-Weig. Ellie Clark is a Co-Founder and Co-Director of The Girl Project.

Benavides added that there will also be a community tabeling event this year in an effort to involve more community organizations and give them the opportunity to connect with others. Tabling events involve organizations setting up tables with information and sign-ups to share what they do for the community and how people can get involved. The Voices HEaRd tabling event will also feature The Horse’s Mouth storytelling group. “What they do is facilitate the community to get up and tell stories, so we’re bringing them in and they’re going to facilitate a storytelling hour for anybody that wants to tell a story. The people who are coming in with their organizations and at the tabeling event will get a chance to tell their stories. It’s a really cool way for even more stories to be told and it’s not staged, it’s just sitting in a circle telling a story.” said Benavides.

Curtain Call, 2018 Voices HEaRd

The theme for the past two Voices HEaRd events was centered around violence against women and speaking out against it, while this time, the event is more inclusive of different relationships and involves more of the community, which is something the co-founders wanted to emphasize. One of the ideas that formed Voices HEaRd came from wanting to give back to the community, which is easy to see with all of the Lexington businesses who have partnered with this year’s event. Some of them include Centered Yoga Studio, Ranada’s Bistro and Bar, Downtown Arts Center, and Chocolate Holler, where they will be hosting the weekend’s events like the spoken word performances, the PlayFest, and tabling event.

“The first year we did Voices HEaRd, we decided we were going to choose a co-beneficiary, so the proceeds from voices heard will be shared between us, The Girl Project,  and whoever that community partner is. The first year it was Greenhouse17, last year it was the Step by Step program, and this year it’s The Nest. What’s really cool about that too is that we can then bring their stories to light.” Said Becker-Weig. The proceeds from this year’s Voices HEaRd event will benefit The Nest, a nonprofit community resource center for women, children, and families. All of the programs that The Nest provides are completely free and serve women, children, and families in the community who are in crisis.

Ellie Clark added in an email correspondence, “It is a community event. We are looking to reach as many people as possible. I hope everyone hears one story, sees one painting, watches one dance or attends one workshop that speaks to them, inspires them, encourages them to pay it forward. It is a labor of love and passion for all the artists involved and certainly for us. I find it an honor to be a part of all of it. It takes a village and in a world where we sit with our devices all day sometimes we forget how inspiring another human being can be, how inspiring live arts can be.”

“I think that it’s really been great seeing all of the different artists that come together for this project. Our background is primarily as theater artists but it also includes spoken word artists, singer-songwriters, visual art, things like that.” said Benavides. “Part of this idea of celebrating these relationships in our lives, one of the things we’re doing is having a day of mentoring and self-care over at Centered Yoga Studio. They’ll be hosting all of these great workshops along with the visual art.”

“We had a little preview night of pieces that you might see by doing a spoken word night at Chocolate Holler, and that was so successful that we said, ‘this has to be a part of the weekend now’!” Exclaimed Benavides. “You’re looking at the audience of Chocolate Holler and it has Girl Project alumni, members of the community that have come out to support, and different spoken word artists, and the line is out the door. People are sitting on the floor to listen to what these people are saying and people are standing outside able to hear it because all of the attention is focused there. That’s a rare opportunity sometimes to have that captive audience. It’s like wow, we’re doing something right.”

Becker-Weig added, “Almost everything is one person for $15 and two for $25 because we’re trying to encourage people to bring their mothers, mentors, daughters, or fathers. If they want to come to the play fest, it’s $10 per person or 2 for $25, or if they want to come to the collective, it’s the same thing.” The spoken word and music night will accept donations along with a full bar where other things can be purchased. “We have one special workshop that will be targeted towards college students. One of the playwrights is coming in and doing a workshop on basically how to submit and write a 10 minute play, and I think she’s going to charge $25 for that. We’re going to be reaching out to a lot of the universities because we’re really looking towards that kind of academia.”

Benavides wanted to emphasize that the Voices HEaRd event is open to everyone. “This is not just an event for women, we have male artists that are part of it and definitely deal with the issues that women and girls face but we also try to be inclusive about other kind of marginalized groups, the LGBTQ community, race, and there’s definitely a lot of different stories.”

Voices HEaRd will be held May 10th-12th. Learn more information about the schedule of event here.

From top, clockwise: Margaret McGladrey, Vanessa Becker-Weig, Ellie Clark, and Jeni Benavides.


NorthSide Festival Debuts

Lexington has its annual Woodland Arts Fair. Now the city is getting a second celebration of art with a particular focus on the locally produced variety. Tom Martin, host of Eastern Standard on WEKU, talked about the new event scheduled for April 27 at LAL’s Castlewood Park with Adrienne Dixon, Events and Membership Director at the Lexington Art League.

Ring The Bell, Bethel – LaVon Williams

More information about the NorthSide Festival


Ghosts and the Clothes They Wear: Mike Goodlett’s Life with Art

It’s been a week or so since I visited Mike Goodlett in his sanctuary.

“Sanctuary” is one of those go-to words I never go to, but I’m going to it now, after having experienced its manifestation in real life.  Where Goodlett makes art is simply that: a place of refuge, of safety, sort of sacred but also a little scary, like a hiding place you go to in dreams when you are being chased by blurry creatures you may not be able to remember but then wake up and try to draw.

In this case, “sanctuary” is an anonymous farmhouse with a gravel road leading up to it tunneled in trees and vines.  The day I visited was all crystal-clear blue sky, a beautifully strange shine on and coming from everything, like a photograph that never gets taken but somehow still is a photograph.  The house is white-sided, two-storied, and gray-roofed, with multiple front and back doors, lots of windows, and all around it is yard going off into land, some of it barren, some of it treed, grass just now sprouting into life.

Mike Goodlett’s Studio

I parked and got out of my car.  There wasn’t any wind, just that bright chilly air.  Even though I had never been here before, it was like a returning.  Meeting Goodlett was like that as well.

He is tall and unassuming, very polite, and we shook hands after I called him on my phone, confused by which door I should knock on.  We both were awkward at first, but almost instantly we got down to business.  I was here to see his art, and this is where he makes it, so we went on in, an automatic transfer from reality to ghostliness.  Nothing unnerving at all about it though.  There wasn’t an abandoned-house fustiness, or even a feeling of loss; it was the smell and ambience of lives having been lived, dusty but clean, sunlight baking old wood and plaster into an atmosphere.

“I’ve always wanted to be left alone,” Goodlett said.  It was sort of a joke, but I think he meant it as a solemn introduction too.

“I mean, I can’t find a group I want to be a part of.  So being out here for me has made a lot of sense.”

The house is actually his grandmother and grandfather’s. They died 30 or so years ago, and since then Goodlett has used the rooms, and the vicinity, as his studio and headspace, creating batches of artworks made from the humblest of materials (concrete, plaster, thread, ball point pens, pencils, crayons, and spray-paint) but that exude a sophistication that belies the humility of their construction.

Goodlett escorted me through each room of the house, which is gutted mostly, emptied of hominess so it can supply this new form of utility.  The wallpaper is shredded at points, but still covers many of the walls in a handsome form of pentimento, like a shirt half torn off.  A small black wood-burning stove occupies the middle portion of the house, releasing that warmth and smell from my own backwoods childhood: wood-smoke almost like a cologne.  In the kitchen a long table covered in stacks of books, drawing paper, pen and pencils, a coffee urn.

In each of the rooms Goodlett displayed works he wanted to show me.  We started out, though, in a cold little side area where he was experimenting with spray paint and cut-out stencil-like netting.  There were chunks of sculptures in here as well.

He walked around showing me what he was trying to figure out, and then told me, “I love changing materials, figuring out what they can do for me.  Ideas, too. I move from one body of work into another that way.  I know a body of work is finished really when I don’t have any more energy for it, and when it has a place to go.  Energy and interest are kind of linked that way.”

This house itself was like his manifesto in a lot of ways: objects and ideas half-formed, trying to find each other.  An exuberance flashed out of everything that’s not finished, that was looking for a way to be something else.  At one point he showed me some homemade lace he’d constructed from thread, pastel cobwebs shaped into socks and little hats, creepy and droopy but also innocently tattered, as if made to be used by ghosts.

Goodlett walked us through a hall and into another first-floor room, which was crowded with more sculptural works, as well as pages and pages of his drawings spanning across the gray-painted wood slats.  His three-dimensional objects have a tenderness you can’t name, concrete/plaster-formed mainly biomorphic and/or humanoid shapes that have evolved from the drawings.  And conversely, the drawings often vacuum in the shapes of the sculptures, a sort of aesthetic circle-jerk that reminds you both of angelic visitations and, well, group sex.

Or, as Goodlett likes to call it, the intersection of “whimsy” and “pornography.”  That’s one of his main themes, he told me, a way of trying to figure out the meaning of those two usually unintegrated penchants, often seen as polar opposites.  Whimsy in visual art often can become a twee exercise in flirtation, pornography a way to shock or display street cred.  The drawings, on paper and cardboard, created through an enmeshing of ink and pencil, needle and thread and paint, get at that merger without losing a sense of vigor and intimacy.  They are shapes pulled from gestures and moans that have ballooned into myth.  Through that clarification process, whimsy connects to porn, and abstract goes concrete.

In a drawing from 2011 titled “Dress Socks” (from a show called “Dress Socks and Other Diversions” at Institute 193 in Lexington, Kentucky), Goodlett gets down to the whimsy of porn and the porn of whimsy through a delicate fetishization of everydayness.  It’s an abstracted image of socks, given a veil of obsession, but a delicate ritual line informs every aspect of the drawing, like a Spirograph finding its way to language.  The drawing’s beauty comes from Goodlett’s dedication to finding what makes something erotic when it is not, what makes something endearing when it’s just an object you slide your feet into.  That investigation is done without words but through an adherence to what drawing can mean and do, a visual language that does not ever need a thesaurus.

Mike Goodlett, Dress Socks, 2011, ballpoint pen and thread on paper, 19 x 15.5 inches

We went upstairs.

Witnessing all of Goodlett’s rooms on display in his own personal museum up on the second floor, I kept thinking of Philip Guston’s jazzy delinquency and Georgia O’Keefe’s penchant for curves – all of that aestheticism laid bare through a need to make something personal, to find relief.  Throw a little Dichirico in there too, especially when taking in Goodlett’s objects: that stony sense of stillness matched with a yearning for songs of love.

In a piece I saw in one of the rooms, “Untitled” (from the 2015 exhibit “Human Behavior” at the John Goodlett Kohler Art Center), the connection to all of the above references comes through clearest.  The shape is chandelier crossed with internal organs, all of that turned to stone and then clothed in gauzy spandex, like something a mummy-stripper might put on to take off.  The muted color gives it dreaminess and pallor, but also highlights the stalagmite seriousness of its existence.  The solidity of it is an elegant joke too, like a lead balloon, but also you feel enlightened by its sense of holiness somehow.  It’s something you might worship, like an Egyptian artifact after the fact.

Michael Goodlett, Untitled

Goodlett mentioned Osiris in this room upstairs. The Egyptian-ness of his pursuit.

“It’s like inviting something supernatural to come and visit,” he said.  “Like I’m making vessels to contain them.”

One of many Osiris’s many identities is “Lord of Silence.”  He also goes by “Ruler of the Dead,” probably the first Egyptian deity to be associated with the mummy wrap, containing the dead in supernatural fabric to protect them as they made their way out of themselves.

Goodlett also explained to me that he works in cycles. Each cycle gets determined through exhaustion and external deadlines.  He is constantly pursuing obsessions, materials, and subject matter with an eye toward perfecting what he can, reinventing what he invents, and repurposing what he gets rid of.  (Right beyond the back porch is a beautiful pile of tossed-aside concrete and plaster pieces, a little encampment of future shapes, ideas, connections.)

In each room upstairs, drawings and sculptures waited for us politely, leaned up against the walls, ready for whatever.  My mind went to J. F. Sebastian from the movie Bladerunner.  He’s the genetic engineer left behind on Earth after most people have gone to colonize other planets, and because of dystopian loneliness and boredom he creates a generation of toys and androids to help him feel a little less alone.

I’ve always considered J. F. Sebastian a beautifully realized portrait of an artist without the normal baggage associated with “being an artist.”  His connection to what he makes is sincere and real, and yet he also understands the purpose of his practice in a pragmatic, unadorned way. He needs to make things in order to have someone there at the end of the day to greet him, to break away from a world that may no longer be there for him.  He creates an ecosystem out of bits and pieces, and in a movie filled with bleakness and doubt his existence feels the most hopeful and ironically the most grounded.

At one point, in one of the rooms upstairs, Goodlett brought in a bunch of drawings and laid them out on the floor, an overwhelming overspill.  You could tell he doesn’t like to talk about his work until he starts talking about it. But once he got going, he seemed relieved to be able to say what he wanted to say.

“Solitude appeals to me,” he said.  “But I also know I need to have a place for all of this stuff to go.”

He mentioned Philip March Jones as one of those external factors who’s assisted in understanding where he might fit in the world outside of here.  Jones, funder of Institute 193 and currently its Curator-at-Large, visited Goodlett here ten or so years ago and would not take no for an answer after asking Goodlett to have a one-man show.  Now dealers and curators often come to him.

All of my talk about J. F. Sebastian and solitude and sanctuary might make you consider Goodlett an “outsider artist.”  I truly hope not.  I don’t really think those old-school rules of arbitrary classifications apply here or basically anywhere now.  Goodlett graduated from an art school in the 1980s (Cincinnati Art Academy), and he has had exhibits at a lot of high-end joints, write-ups in national media (BOMBmagazine and Artforum, just to name a couple).  His outsiderness really is not something to focus on or to conjure.  He is an artist living his life, using what he makes to keep his life and energy and interest going.

At the end of our visit Goodlett told me he had to go to the grocery store next.  He explained how he’s one of the only family members left who can take care of his elderly mom and his aunts.  He spends a lot of time making sure they are doing okay, and then he comes out here to pursue what he needs to pursue.

This farmhouse from his childhood is not Paradise Gardens, or a version of Watts Towers.  It’s just where he has wound up.  Somehow the journey and the destination have merged into both an artistic practice and a reason to live.  Making art, whoever is making it, weaves the inner-world into the outer-world in a way that allows you to recover and replenish and continue.  This rooms in Goodlett’s farmhouse are always evolving, changing, and he always struggles to figure out what fits where.  What drawing can give birth to three dimensions, what object can be sucked into two.  This space has given him permission to do the work he needs to do: making clothes for ghosts, making ghosts so he can make clothes for them.

“I guess you’d call everything I do part of an ongoing installation that never ends,” he told me.

Eventually, we went outside and did a little tour of the yard and surrounding area.  Just beyond his front yard is a thicket of tall trees where he’s installed a couple of sculptures.  One of them, sprouting from the mud like the hardened teats of a buried cow, is the perfect example of whimsy sliding into something a little less than charming and more guttural.  It’s ridiculous but also makes perfect sense.

Goodlett’s pursuit of art is converging the need to be seen with the need to disappear.

Right before the end of our visit, Goodlett talked about his legacy in terms of where all this work might go.  He told me he had a dream that he would have all of his works stored in an anonymous storage shed, and he would give the key to someone, right before he passes.  He smiled.

“The only problem is – who do I give the key to?”

I nodded my head.  We said goodbye.

The night  before visiting Goodlett, I went to an Iron and Wine concert, so I was playing Iron and Wine songs all the way here and all the way back.  When I arrived, and when I left, the song I was listening to was “Resurrection Fern,” from the 2007 album The Shepherd’s Dog.  The music is steel-guitar languish blurring into folk-rock lament.  Sam Beam’s voice has a cadence and warmth to it, like a voice you hear only inside your head when you’re dozing off in church.

“Resurrection Fern” starts with these words:

In our days we will live
Like our ghosts will live
Pitching glass at the cornfield crows
And folding clothes.

I won’t be able to hear that song now without thinking about the depth and amount of Goodlett’s work, the place where he makes it, and the life he’s lived in order to be able to do it.  There’s a poetry to his pursuit you can’t write poems about; you can only acknowledge his lifelong project by knowing his work is a journey toward making more work, and more work, until all of it will need to a final place to exist – a pyramid, a museum, a storage unit, or a haunted house. It doesn’t matter.  Wherever it all goes it will be called “home.”


Tunis: OTS Features Musical Brothers Tim Daisy & Dave Rempis

Tim Daisy doesn’t want to use the word “telepathic.” But in describing the two decade-plus musical partnership between himself and Dave Rempis, few other tags seem to fit as securely.

Both are longstanding members of a prolific indie jazz scene in Chicago. Both are prolific composers, bandleaders and, above all, improvisers. Both have run their own record labels for several years as a means of releasing their own decidedly non-commercial music in a timely and uncompromising manner. And despite a juggling act where each performs in numerous ensemble settings, many of which have played Lexington over the last 16 years as part of the Outside the Spotlight Series of free jazz and improvisational music concerts, both have regularly shared the same stage in the same band.

That won’t be the case in April. Percussionist Daisy and saxophonist Rempis will be here for separate OTS concerts a mere four days part. Yet the music they play apart from each other has most certainly been informed by the work they have done together.

“I’ve been working with Dave since ’97,” Daisy said. “We’ve been playing together for so long and working in so many contexts together that when we sit down to work… I don’t know. I really don’t want to use the word telepathic, but I don’t know of any other musicians that I play with here or anywhere where the work is as comfortable, focused and engaging as it is with Dave. With Dave, I really do feel like he is my musical brother.”

Tim Daisy and Dave Rempis (Photo by Andrej Chudy)

“With us, it’s almost like a married couple,” said Rempis with a laugh. “There are so many subtle things I’m aware of in his playing and, I’m sure, vice versa. He always knows exactly where I’m going to land. It’s something that changes over the years as people go through different phases of life, like having kids. Our lives are so different now than they were 10 or 20 years ago, but what’s so great about that is how those life changes inform the music and how the music transforms everything.”

“Creating by Yourself”
Watching Tim Daisy play a solo is like viewing a vintage film of a building collapsing that is quickly rewound so you can view the demolition in reverse. He forges sound on a percussion arsenal by adding and discarding instruments at a dizzying pace. It could be a cymbal or a gong placed on a drum head. It could be a dash upon the drum kit using every available surface – a snare, a rim or even a stand. A rhythm might emerge, but if it does, it most certainly recedes into a new idea that has already loaded itself into his playing awaiting dispatch.

If he is playing alongside another artist, the outside element might serve as a foil, as in his duet exchanges with Rempis during their collaborative music in the Rempis Percussion Quartet, the Daisy-led Celebration Sextet or the times they record or tour simply as a drum/saxophone duo.

For his solo performances, Daisy’s singular vocabulary becomes remarkably expansive, incorporating everything from percussive accents on marimba and bass xylophone to more happenstance sounds emitted from a transistor radio.

Tim Daisy (Photo by Emma Daisy)

“I just love the solo format,” he said. “I’m huge fan of visual arts and paintings and admire the fact these artists can work by themselves on a canvas. Don’t get me wrong. I love collaborating with other people, but I love that solitary moment of just creating by yourself, whether it’s composing or improvising. I think that a solo format for a musician comes closest to what the format would be for a painter working in a studio on their own. That’s one of the reasons I’m attracted to it, especially in the compositional aspect of the music. Secondly, playing solo is the most challenging format to me, especially in performing. There is no one to fall back on but yourself. It’s quite easy to fall on your face. I’ve done it a number of times, but I’ve become a better musician by putting myself in these uncomfortable solo settings. I find when I go back into a situation where I do collaborate with other musicians, I’ve learned something and I’m able to apply that into my collaborations.”

Daisy’s return to Lexington on April 12 at the University of Kentucky Niles Gallery reteams him with pianist, composer and UK Associate Professor of Jazz Studies Raleigh Dailey. The two cut a trio album with bass clarinetist Jason Stein, “Opening Lines,” in 2015.

“When we played together, I felt this amazing curiosity in sound exploration. It felt to me like Raleigh was going, ‘Wow. This is stuff I can use that I’m really excited about.’
“It’s easy to fall back on old habits when you’ve been improvising with people over a long period of time. But when you throw someone new in the mix like Raleigh, suddenly all the music gets kicked around in new directions. That’s what I felt happened. Jason and I had been playing together a lot, then we did this thing with Raleigh and it felt great. The music felt fresh and new. Ever since that happened, I’ve been meaning to get back down to Lexington to work with Raleigh some more.”

While “Opening Lines” is an exception, the majority of Daisy’s recorded music has been released through his own Relay label.

“I’m sure you’ve seen in the last 15 years how much the music industry has changed and how many musicians are starting their own labels, especially in our world where we don’t sell thousands and thousands of records. We sell three, four, maybe five hundred. I’m happy to sell that many, so I couldn’t be happier having my own label.”

“When I release something, I don’t want to wait a year to put it out. With the other labels I was working with – Okka Disk, Clean Feed, all great labels – you’re going to be waiting about a year between when an album is made and when it comes out. I’m more interested in trying to document my creative process in a shorter time scale. And who can release my records faster than me? No one.”

“Happily Developed”
In performance, Dave Rempis is something of a volcano. It doesn’t matter if his weapon of choice is alto, tenor or baritone sax, the sounds he conjures are, shall we say, combustible.

Dave Rempis (Photo by Geert Vandepoele)

Some of that comes from playing alongside such veteran Chicago sax stylists, improvisers and bandleaders as Ken Vandermark (Rempis and Daisy were members of his acclaimed Vandermark 5 band until its dispersal in 2010). But the mix of immediacy and intensity in Rempis’ musicianship has also been evident in the many ensembles he has either led or collaborated with for OTS shows in Lexington, a roster that includes The Engines, Triage, Gunwale and perhaps most frequently, Ballister.

During shows with the latter, the muscular tone and free-inspired phrasing of his playing becomes almost punkish, yet the sense of sharing and collaboration with bandmates is unmistakably jazz-like.

“I have happily developed as an artist, if that makes sense,” Rempis said. “I’m not a kid anymore. I’ve been doing this awhile, so I know my way around the block. I feel confident in my ability as a saxophone player and an improviser. There are so many fantastic musicians out there who I’ve gotten a chance to work with, and that’s incredibly rewarding to get all that great energy from them and to share some of their stories and knowledge.”

“It’s also special for me to be part of this generation and to see things from a different perspective, from a perhaps longer perspective. Once you’re around this music and start thinking about things that way, it makes sense to say, ‘Well, where are we going to be in 10 or 20 years and how can we help shape things?’”

The bio material from Rempis’ Aerophonic label describes “The Early Bird Gets,” the debut recording by a new trio with bassist Brandon Lopez and drummer Ryan Packard (the group the saxophonist brings to Lexington on April 16 for an OTS performance at the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall) as one of his “jazziest” endeavors.

Brandon Lopez, Dave Rempis, Ryan Packard (Photo by Erika Raberg)

“It’s funny,” Rempis said. “Many or most of the projects I do are completely improvised where we are not bringing in any material. This band is the same way. Generally, what makes a band stick out to me is if it has a sound to it. This band, at the beginning, felt like it had a distinct territory that it was carving out. It really had a group sound that was unique from any of the other projects that I was doing. I think part of that came from exploring rhythm in a very kind of fluid way. We’ll really be in a groove but then we’ll figure out ways where we can slowly stretch it out. It’s almost like what a classical pianist does when they’re playing rubato, but we’re in a group context where we’re really stretching the grooves out, speeding them up, slowing them down in very fun and creative ways. That’s probably what makes the music feel so jazzy. We are working so much with rhythm, but not in this type of fixed way that a lot of jazz bands might play in.”

Like Daisy, Rempis enjoys the ability to get his music out to public ears in a timely manner with his own label. But Aerophonic offers another equally important attribute – artistic control.

“I can put out whatever recordings I want on whatever schedule I want. To have that freedom is great. I also have the chance to communicate. I do all the shipping and everything for the label, so I can be in touch with the people who are actually buying the music directly, which is really fantastic. In trying to build an audience base with this kind of music, I get to find the people who are honestly interested in it. It’s very encouraging for me as an artist to get that kind of feedback. It’s heartening to know there are people out there who actually care about what we’re doing.”

Re-Exploring the Relationship
Curiously, just after our conversations, Daisy and Rempis headed overseas together for a seven-date concert tour of Europe with the Rempis Percussion Quartet, an ensemble the two have collaborated in for 15 years of their two-decade long friendship and musical alliance.

“Dave and I try to challenge each other,” Daisy said. “We push each other, but there is real respect there, so it’s not antagonistic. It’s real. I feel like we have really similar goals in trying to grow as improvisers. It’s been a wonderful relationship, one where I feel like, after we take these breaks from each other and get back to playing again, there is a very fresh quality to our work. He has grown as a musician since I’ve last played with him. I have, hopefully, grown and changed, as well.”

“Tim is somebody I just have so much respect for,” added Rempis “In the over 20 years I’ve known him, he continues to really push himself. He has an incredible amount of artistic integrity, so it’s always great every few years to go back and re-explore that relationship.”

+ Tim Daisy and Raleigh Dailey perform at the University of Kentucky Niles Gallery in the UK Fine Arts Library at 7 p.m. April 12, for the Outside the Spotlight Series. Admission is free.

+ Dave Rempis/Brandon Lopez/Ryan Packard perform at the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall, 720 Bryan Ave. at 7 p.m. April 16, for the Outside the Spotlight Series. Admission is free.


Review: LexPhil’s Verdi Requiem

The Lexington Philharmonic gave their second concert of the 2018-2019 season this Friday evening at Singletary Center for the Arts on the Lexington campus of the University of Kentucky. While there was only one piece on the program, the monumental Requiem by Giuseppe Verdi, the concert required a larger-than-usual Philharmonic Orchestra, a full set of four soloists, and over 150 singers drawn from Berea College, Asbury University, Transylvania University, and Eastern Kentucky University.

Conductor Scott Terrell, in his final season at the Philharmonic, led the orchestra and singers for a passionate and fiery (even occasionally apocalyptic) performance. To understand the depth of of the performance required, it might be helpful to discuss the history of the Requiem (Mass for the Dead).

A Catholic graveyard. Photo: William Murphy, under a Creative Commons License.

Verdi wrote the Requiem between 1868 and 1874, and was  composed to commemorate the death of the Italian poet & author Alessandro Manzoni, who was a friend of Verdi’s. (Verdi had written the final movement, titled Libera Me (Deliver Me), for a concert commemorating the death of fellow composer Gioachino Rossini, but had shelved it for several years). For a time after it was called the Manzoni Requiem, but as the reputation of the piece grew it lost its specific connotations.

The piece today is one of the most widely-performed choral works, despite the fact that it calls for a rather large orchestra & choir, as well as the efforts of four soloists.

On a historical note, the inclusion of the female voices, and particularly the female soloists, was a point of minor controversy at the time of the Requiem’s premiere; women were not allowed to participate in the performance of the funerary rites of the Catholic Church at the time.

But what a loss it would have been on Friday evening had the soprano and mezzo-soprano parts never been written! D’ana Lombard as the soprano and Nancy Maultsby as the mezzo soloists were practical forces of nature, firing their voices across the length of the hall over the roars of an orchestra that included 8 trumpets. Maultsby in particular gave a sublime performance, by turns measured in a mournful lyricism and soaring on the passionate declamatory sections.

Stylistically, the piece is noted for its operatic, theatrical tone—fitting, as Verdi was primarily an opera composer (as he is still known as such today). The height of this style comes early in the piece, with the Dies Irae (usually translated as The Day of Wrath or The Day of Judgment); this movement is most likely the most familiar piece of the Requiem for most listeners—it’s been used in everything from The Simpsons to Mad Max: Fury Road and Django Unchained.

The combined collegiate choirs boomed, rang, and descanted their way through the almost-demonic Dies Irae, the full performance of which took about half an hour. While the choir has the showy (and memorable) opening theme, bass soloist Peixin Chen dazzled with the full range of the low voice through the Mors Stupebit (Death is Struck) section. The orchestra also got its share of major moments, from a set of trumpets that traded horn calls across the breadth of the hall like hunters finding each other in the woods, to a set of bass drums that gave reports of thunder like the clouds discharging armies of avenging angels.

At the moments of highest intensity, each part of the vast ensemble seemed to momentarily overtake all the others, until another voice crashed over the hall like a wave, followed by another, and a further peak after that, practically until time seemed suspended—in such a way was eternity composed.

Hieronymous Bosch’s depictions of torments that await sinners. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

After the Dies Irae, the Requiem finds moments of quietude and stillness in the Offeratory movement, although with a boisterous ending for the choir.

The Sanctus movement is structured in one of the most difficult forms in all of music: a double fugue. Now, a fugue is a musical structure where one voice starts a melody, a second voice answers, a third voice replies to the second, a fourth to the third, and so on and so on and so on; now double that and you have a double fugue. Most composers only attempt a fugue at the absolute height of their abilities, and a double fugue is showing off to a degree that’s practically unbearable. Nevertheless, Terrell and choirs were able to keep the structure of the piece clean and clear, even at the points of maximum overlap and possible confusion—this is no modest feat.

Throughout the piece, each component of the ensemble—orchestra, soloists, and choirs—strove to keep the whole effect clear, even while the maximalistic dynamic range of  Verdi’s score made it nigh-on impossible to balance a single solo voice against an entire set of strings. By the end of the evening, the final two movements, Lux Aeterna (Eternal Light) and Libera Me, each gesture, no matter where it was situated in the sections, seemed to melt into the next, as if a great effort had been expended to launch the hall towards the heavens, and the music could now float, weightlessly, in orbit.

The concert proper ended on a quiet sigh, a C major chord, one of the most simple and pure sounds available to a classical composer. But the roaring applause of the hall ended the night on a note that celebrated life after mourning death.


Studio Visit with Skylar Smith: Her Story

With the launching of the American Women’s History Initiative, Because of Her Story, the Smithsonian Institution states that its intent is to: “Amplify women’s voices to honor the past, inform the present and inspire the future.” So I don’t think there could have been a more appropriate time (Women’s History Month) for me to visit with Louisville multimedia studio artist Skylar Smith, whose work graphically signifies the Smithsonian’s mission to tell stories that “deepen our understanding of women’s contributions to America and the world, showing how far women have advanced and how we as a country value equality and the contribution of all our citizens” (Smithsonian Office of Communications & External Affairs).

Given our current political climate, these words may sound vacuous, hypocritical, or downright fake. Not so, though, in the context of Smith’s work in the duo exhibit, Personal Is Still Political, at Spaulding University’s Huff Gallery in Louisville last spring where she brought into full play what she describes as “human-scale politics that influence perception.” And because Smith’s regard for intersectionality encompasses gender and race as well as the subtle and overt ways in which discrimination becomes manifest, the scope and impact of her work are considerable. 

Skylar Smith, “Personal Is Still Political”, Installation View, Spalding University’s Huff Gallery, Louisville, KY, March 2-31, 2018

Smith’s transition from her earlier 2016 pre-election abstract work was initially inspired by the Women’s Suffrage Parade of 1913 and the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, granting white women the right to vote. But she says the turning point for her was the Women’s March in 2017 because no one was expecting it to happen. It became one of the largest protests in the history of this country—a positive act stirred by negative political actions that unified women from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds worldwide.

Skylar Smith surrounded by images and research that inspire her work. Photo/Jim Fields

On Personal Is Still Political, Smith comments that the 2016 presidential election opened her eyes and that she “had to move out of the abstract into the difficult process of making work about this moment in history and be somewhat objective rather than emotional. I wanted to be very clear about what statement I was making and what I was responding to. I wanted my work to be educational and provide the potential for the viewer to think about ideas in a different way, to experience some kind of transformation or exploration of thought.” She points out that by walking around and between these banners you are participating in marches that span decades not only in protest against discrimination, misogyny and the dehumanization of women, but for human rights as well. 

Skylar Smith, “Marching Installation”, 3’ x 10’, acrylic, ink & pencil on vellum, 2018

Smith painted these banners with image overlays on both sides of large sheets of vellum and as light passes through this translucent material, the streamers not only edify but radiate a palpable spiritual tone that challenges the viewer’s sense of awareness, especially when viewed in a single space as shown in the photo above. Essential to her  point of view, Smith wanted the personal and politically charged takeaway from this show to be: “It’s not okay to say that some people can be oppressed but not you.” The same holds true for her work in other media, particularly her more abstract Suffrage paintings.

Skylar Smith, “Ladies Remember”, 28” x 40”, acrylic, ink & pencil on paper, 2018

Although she works in a variety of media, including photography, video, and installations, Smith gravitates toward the immediacy of what she loves most—drawing and the materials used to paint and draw: graphite, charcoal, colored pencils, pastels, and water-based media, such as acrylic and ink. By combining wet and dry media, as in Ladies Remember, she is able to create a dichotomy and establish a dialogue within a given piece where tension emerges between the wet marks that are erratic and fluid and the dry marks that are more precise and controlled. However, she says she often chooses a wet medium on wet paper over dry because “it creates a visual manifestation of something I cannot control or expect and for me that’s like life, one percent within our control and 99 percent out of our control.” 

The surface she works on, be it vellum, paper, or wood, is crucial since it dictates what she can and cannot do. For instance, different types of paper—cold press with a rough texture or hot press with a smooth surface—render distinct effects based on the medium she applies to it.


Smith creating colored pencil overlays on vellum from projected images. Photo/Jim Fields

As for me, I chose this particular photo of Smith at work in her studio because the harsh light striking her hair, shoulder and arm illustrates a salient point she emphasizes about her work from her Accumulation and Micro/Macro series. “Everything mimics and echoes something else. The only thing that is different is the scale.” Here, the light projected from behind her and onto the vellem echoes her as an integral part of her process and raises an important question in relation to a long-accepted theory of art. In this instance, is it coincidental that the nap of Smith’s sweater looks remarkably similar to the texture of her painting, Afghanistan, 1963, or is it simply art imitating life? Regardless, the palimpsest technique the artist used to create this image deepens the viewer’s connection to her work and her purpose while inviting further exploration and personal interpretation where the conscious and subconscious can be given free rein.  

Skylar Smith, “Afghanistan”, 1963, 10” x 13”, ink & pencil on paper, 2018

Afghanistan, 1963, and India, 1947 are from Smith’s Suffrage series, which includes the United States, Canada, Italy, and Saudi Arabia, where the date women gained the right to vote became the subject of each piece. These paintings require close examination and are significant because Smith intended for them to represent “both the historical assertion and the absence of female representation in the history of voting rights and political office.” They are literally figurative works that are at the same time abstract and real.

Skylar Smith, “India”, 1947, 10” x 13″, ink & pencil on paper, 2018

The palimpsest process involves painting the voting rights date on the surface of the paper, then scraping and wiping it away, and then repainting and removing it repeatedly as it builds up the canvas with a rhythmic repetition of color and form that amazes in its singularity of purpose. Smith emphasizes that history is a lot like this where we make marks in the sand and they’re gone the next day: “We still have in our own country voter disenfranchisement with people not getting to vote for any number of reasons, as in our most recent election involving particular populations and the redrawing of districts for political favor. How government is built and policy is made is at the heart of all of this.”

Skylar Smith, “Things Arise, Things Disappear”, 25” x 36”, ink, watercolor & colored pencil on paper, 2015

Things Arise, Things Disappear from Smith’s Accumulation series is also a nod to American history and the ephemeral and transitory nature of time, to the nefariousness and self-serving actions of government, and to the ability of the people (for the sake of freedom and human decency) to endure, persevere, and overcome. The fragments of the American flag I see fluttering in this piece convince me that Smith is acknowledging and drawing on the power of her earlier non-representational abstract work to help advance her goal of creating “more literal content connected to a particular concept.” 

The painting, With Her, makes a substantive statement. Smith places the familiar symbol of the Women’s Movement up front and center—an emblem that combines the astrological symbol of Venus, representing all things feminine, with that of a clenched fist from the 60s and early 70s power movements, particularly black power. The women don “pink” pussyhats with somewhat haunting and almost ghostly visages to the right of the proud nonwhite figure waving the sign. The rays of light emanating from the upper left corner of the painting seem to link the past and present, indicating an uneven and rough journey but one filled with hope. However, I think based on Smith’s broadened interest in intersectionality (a term coined by the African American civil rights advocate and scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989), the content of this painting would have benefited from including a more diverse display of disenfranchised women voters, adding to its effectiveness in communicating the significance of the Women’s March of 2017. 


Skylar Smith, “With Her”, 28” x 40”, acrylic, ink & pencil on paper, 2018

I bring this point up because of the far-reaching comments Smith made as we discussed her personal-is-political views and her ideas related to intersectionality that have her looking toward the future: “The message of the women’s march was intersectional in that you have women in general who faced challenges historically, politically, socially, and personally, as well as other marginalized groups. For feminism to be relevant it needs not to include just women’s rights but human rights. Immigrants, native Americans, blacks, LGBTQI, and individuals with disabilities are all discriminated against in different ways.”  Making art that narrates such a multidimensional concept of  intersectionality sounds like a monumental commitment, but no more so than the life Smith navigates in order to grow, do her art, and feed her spirit.

To say Smith is a busy woman is an understatement. She obtained her MFA in Painting and Drawing from The Art Institute of Chicago and her BFA from the Maryland Institute, College of Art in Baltimore. She is a founding member and Associate Professor at the Kentucky College of Arts + Design (KyCAD), where she teaches studio art and art history classes. KyCAD became independent from Spaulding University in May 2018 and was approved by the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education to grant a BFA in Studio Art. It is now poised to become the only stand-alone, accredited four-year college of art and design in the state of Kentucky and will have its own downtown campus.

Smith, who is also a certified yoga instructor, lives in the Crescent Hill neighborhood with her husband, two daughters and three cats; and her involvement in the Louisville arts community falls right in line with the guiding principles of her teaching philosophy. So how does she manage all this? 

Skylar Smith, “Radiant, But Easy on the Eyes”, 24” x 24”, ink, acrylic, colored pencil, & crayon on wood panel, 2015

In every artist’s portfolio there is a seminal work that explains a lot and Radiant, But Easy on the Eyes, epitomizes Smith’s process and practice of art—past, present, and future. Beethoven had his Fifth Symphony that served as the bridge from his early Classical style to his later Romantic style, culminating with his Ninth Symphony—his magnum opus. Radiant bridges Smith’s earlier nonrepresentational abstract work in her Accumulation Series with her current realism and narrative approach in Personal Is Still Political and beyond.

Radiant, But Easy on the Eyes vibrates with energy. It looks like a square of irregularly shaped pixels from an enlarged computer image that teases you into thinking it will eventually assume a recognizable form. Instead, these juxtaposed blotches of glowing color seem to rearrange themselves the longer you look at it. Smith attributes the radiance of this piece to the spirituality she explores in her personal life through yoga and meditation and to her process of making art by “using deliberate, repetitive marks in ink and pencil [as she] investigates the tension between the ‘chaos’ of ‘wet’ media (ink) and the ‘order’ of ‘dry’ media (pencil).” These are the moments where she reclaims her “sense of inner peace by connecting to a larger life cycle, and consciously marking the passage of time in ink and pencil” ( So, for Smith, moving from women’s suffrage in 1913 to the centennial celebration of the 19th Amendment in 2020 represents more than a stitch in time. 

“Home Makers,” part of the Women’s Suffrage Parade on March 3, 1913, George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress

Ann Taylor, in an article for The Atlantic (March 1, 2013) honoring the 100th anniversary of the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade, recounts the abominable treatment these women received during the march from the men who had deluged Washington, D.C. for President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration to be held the following day. “Marchers were jostled and ridiculed by many in the crowd. Some were tripped, others assaulted. Policemen appeared to be either indifferent to the struggling paraders, or sympathetic to the mob. Before the day was out, one hundred marchers had been hospitalized.”

Smith with her own inventive tribute, Homemakers’ Rebellion, brings these women into the 21st century wearing pink pussyhats as they march out of and back into the picture, essentially saying, “We are here, we are making progress, and we are not going away!” 

Impressive in her resolve, Smith does not try to emulate other artists although she is notably inspired by the works of three contemporaries: Mark Bradford, an African American artist living in Los Angeles, known for his large abstract grid paintings combined with collage representing aerial views of the city’s segregated neighborhoods; Julie Mehretu, an Ethiopian-born New York City abstract artist who creates politically themed works on a monumental scale by using a variety of techniques and media to layer her canvases; and Japanese artist Yoyai Kusami, who works primarily in sculpture and installations and is currently best known for her Infinity Rooms that provide viewers an unparalleled virtual experience with art.

Smith says she never feels limited by her media or content and, even with her busy schedule, she is looking forward to pushing the art side of herself, never losing sight of her goals and purpose, “Because the narrative for me right now is important, I want my current work to be very audience focused. I’m interested in making art where I am connecting with people in  more direct ways, especially in making work that has a political bent to it or effects change so that the conversation doesn’t end right there. The message may be literal but the impact has to go beyond that.”

Smith’s work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, and she has curated several in and out-of-state exhibitions. She has also been the recipient of grants from The Kentucky Foundation for Women, and Great Meadows Foundation Artist Professional Development Grants.

Skylar Smith, “Marching”, 3’ x 10’, acrylic, ink & pencil on vellum, 2018

Edward Hopper, the great 20th century American Realist painter said, “Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world.”  Skylar Smith is committed to making more art and to additional community involvement as the centennial of the 19th Amendment approaches, reminding us that black women (and men) did not get the right to vote until 1965. Facts like this and continued voter disenfranchisement and discrimination drive her artistic narrative.

UnderMain would like to thank The Great Meadows Foundation for support of our 2019 programming, which will include twelve in-depth studio visits of Kentucky artists. See other submissions related to this project: Dr. Emily Elizabeth Goodman on the work of Melissa Vandenberg, and Hunter Kissel on the work of Harry Sanchez, Jr.

The Great Meadows Foundation is a grant giving foundation whose mission is to critically strengthen and support visual art in Kentucky by empowering our community’s artists and other visual arts professionals to research, connect, and participate more actively in the broader contemporary art world.


Temporal Slippage at the MS Rezny Gallery

By nature, a palimpsest is a document that collapses time, bringing together two disparate moments juxtaposed one over the other. It is this temporal slippage that is at the center of Martin Beck’s current exhibition on view at MS Rezny in Lexington. Beck’s works function as the titular palimpsest (or Palimpsest 2 in this particular case) by drawing on the historicity associated with the nude in Western art history—both with regard to the long tradition of the nude dating back to antiquity and in terms of its usage in order to create a sense of the past by removing the sartorial markers of a present moment—while simultaneously imbuing the works with an undeniable sense of the here and now.

Taken from life, Beck’s figures contain a certain phenomenological quality that makes them undeniably present, particularly through the tactility of his chosen medium. Moreover, his drawings engage with the present through the inclusion of subtle and simple symbolic objects—including guns and even the hammer and sickle—that remind us of the highly contentious and politicized climate of our current moment. In so doing, Beck draws the viewer into a moment of deep contemplation of the conditions of their present state, both in front of the work and in our society on the whole.

Martin Beck, “Tuesday”, 2019, Mixed media on prepared paper, 29 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches

For all of the works in Palimpsest 2, Beck manages to blur the line between eternal and ephemeral. On the one hand, works like Tuesday engage with the long tradition of the nudes within the western canon. In this work, a young woman appears seated, legs stretched out in front of her as centuries of reclining female nudes have done before. Beck further gives her a sense of timelessness by rendering the setting completely illegible. Abstract coloration has taken the place of any scenery, including whatever implement she is seated upon, providing the viewer with no historical content to understand this appearance. With no such temporal signifiers, we are left with an eternal nude.

At the same time, this eternal quality is undercut by the tactility of the work and the fact that it is drawn from life. While Beck uses a variety of media in creating his drawings, the works are all clearly marked by the hand of the artist in the present moment rendering them not only visually compelling, but also imbuing them with a haptic quality. The gradations in texture and color as well as the clear imprints of the hand used to contour and shade all provide the work with a sense of immediacy and the momentary.

While the subject matter may feel eternal, the works are undeniably the result of an instantaneous and particular interaction. This momentary quality is furthered by the fact that all of the works are drawn directly from life. According to Beck, “working from life, the model and artist reveal the truth of a specific time, place and act. […] Rather than think of these as pictures of people, for me these are authentic depictions of selective experiences.” As such, Beck’s nudes are given an ephemerality and a temporality of the present, despite the lack of signifiers that would tie them to a time or place.

Martin Beck, “Ties That Bind”, 2019, Mixed media on prepared paper, 29 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches

Yet not all of Beck’s works involve the complete disavowal of present-day objects in order to create this collapsing of time within each one. Some works, like the piece Ties that Bind, include clear references to our current moment in the form of specific items, while still maintaining a sense of temporal ambiguity. In this piece, Beck depicts a woman lying on the ground, with her head at the bottom of the composition and her legs propped up on some unknown, wrapped object, holding an assault rifle next to her right hip. Beck unsettles the woman from time and space, not only through her nudity, but again through his abstraction of the background; Beck denies the viewer a concrete horizon line and thus she appears floating and timeless.

At the same time, Beck’s inclusion of the gun works to draw us immediately back to the present. Given the prevalence of gun violence—especially that carried out with assault-style weapons—it is impossible to view the rifle by her side and not consider both the carnage and the contention surrounding these objects in our current moment. As such, Beck uses these objects to further the sense of the present within each work.

Martin Beck, “Material Girl”, 2019 Mixed media on prepared paper 29 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches

Martin Beck, “Home Grown #4”, 2018, mixed media on prepared paper, 29 1/2 x 42 inches

While some of the items included in Beck’s images are unabashed signifiers of our present moment, others have a subtler allusion to temporal “now.” For instance, several of the works, including Material Girl, Lurid Red, and Home Grown #4, all involve nude figures—a singular woman in the cases of Material Girl and Lurid Red and a man for Home Grown #4holding a hammer and sickle. Unlike the assault rifle, the signification of these objects is less immediate; in the almost three decades since the decline of the Soviet Union, the hammer and sickle have become more historic signifiers than anything else.

Yet Beck’s inclusion of these object in works that—which through their tactility involve a sense of immediacy and the present—functions to dust off the historical characteristic of the hammer and sickle and force us to examine their role in the present. Given the current contentious geopolitical situation between the United States and Russia, and the outspoken desire of Russia’s president to return to the glory days of the U.S.S.R., these seemingly outdated objects do have a clear bearing on our contemporary existence.

Furthermore, the continued debates over “Socialism” and its place within the United States is also evoked, albeit not answered, through Beck’s inclusion of these items. In considering his works with regard to the palimpsest, this inclusion lays bare the fact that the same object or text can participate in different discussions at separate moments overtime, wherein traces of the past engage in dialogue withnew iterations in the present.

Moreover, in addition to the multiple temporalities at play in each work, the show evokes the sense of the palimpsest for which it is named when viewing the works in a conglomeration. As documents, palimpsests are multifaceted and often layered works, with newer text interspersed amongst the older. The result is a document that requires both close reading and a sense of distance in order to fully ascertain its full meaning. This oscillation between proximal and detached viewing is underscored in the way the exhibition is curated. Beck’s works adorn not only the surrounding walls of the gallery, but also a smaller, four-sided pilaster and both sides of a false wall.

These two structures divide the gallery so that only some of the works can be viewed from a single, distanced vantage point. Moreover, the placement of the pilaster requires us to get close to the images, and to even be surrounded by them. In so doing, we engage each image, phenomenologically speaking, with a close intimacy of the present while simultaneously being made aware of a larger continuum within the body of work, much as we would while actually reading a palimpsest.

On the whole, Martin Beck’s latest works call our attention to the present and its position within a larger temporal trajectory. The tactility of his medium and his use of live drawing bring us, the audience, into a particular ephemeral and instantaneous moment, while his subject matter—the nude—calls our attention to a longer tradition of history. Similarly, Beck’s use of abstract backgrounds works to remove us from a specific temporality, while the objects he often presents alongside his figures draw us back into our contemporary settings. Beck’s work thus demands both proximity and distance, presence and detachment, from his viewers, creating a layered and multifaceted experience.


Interview: Green Room Exchange

Music transcends borders, even oceans. What moves a listener in Havana can also stir the soul of a Kentuckian. Making the experience possible in a very intimate, up-close way are the efforts of the couple you see up above, Lee Carroll and Connie Milligan, out and about in Havana, scouting for great music to bring to Lexington. In an interview from WEKU’s Eastern StandardUnderMain’s Tom Martin talks with these founders of the non-profit Green Room Exchange and shares samples of the music they’re bringing to Lexington.


Xiamarra and Axel Laugert performing with Jonathan Ragonese conducting a Lexington ensemble at Tee Dee’s

Torgbui Gideon Alorwoyie leading Thunder God drumming at his God Mother’s funeral – Photo provided by Green Room Exchange

Gidi Agbeko – Image from the album Ayeko

UnderMain is an Eastern Standard content partner, providing arts and culture reporting and interviews to the public radio magazine. If you enjoy this kind of thing, help us sustain it by supporting WEKU during this week’s Spring 2019 Pledge Drive. Click here to help make great public radio happen.


‘The Veracity of Images: Judy Pfaff, Isaac Abrams and Kirk Mangus’ at Carl Solway Gallery

Just across Central Parkway from Find
lay Market, in the West End of Cincinnati, longstanding Carl Solway Gallery currently features three discrete exhibitions of works by multimedia artists Judy Pfaff, Isaac Abrams, and Kirk Mangus.  

Pfaff’s large-scale, multi-layered prints, which occupy the majority of the Solway exhibition space, seem apt for an artist with a reputation for sprawling material-based installations that allow her to define line, color, and pattern within space.  

Judy Pfaff, “Morning Raga”, 2017, Woodcut, hand painted dye, archival inkjet, 44 x 96 inches, Varied edition of 12, 8/12

Likewise, Pfaff’s oversized prints such as the three Morning, Afternoon, and Evening Raga series in this show of new prints demonstrate a delicate, multi-layering of woodcuts and archival inkjet prints of digitally distorted lines, colors, and patterns—in addition to small moments of unique embellishments like colored silver leaf, and hand-painted plastic films and dyes on shellacked Kozo paper.

Judy Pfaff, “Evening Raga”, 2017, Archival inkjet, hand painted ink, clear plastic film 44 x 96 inches Varied edition of 12, 4:12

The Sanskrit word “raga” literally means coloring or dyeing, so there is perhaps even an explicit connection between the artist’s printed layers and this invocation of drapery. Be
they sumptuous bed linens, vaguely opaque window curtains, or the building block of a sari, the life-sized dimensions of the Raga series would be consistent with this implication of the works as textiles.

Judy Pfaff, “+’s & -‘s”, 2018, Chinese book papers, oil stick, encaustic, archival inkjet on aluminum, 69 ¾ x 133 ¼ inches

The artist’s site-specific multimedia installation for the Solway show, +’s & -‘s features small, framed, oil stick and encaustic studies atop archival inkjet photographs on metal of Pfaff’s studio,which the artist digitally distorted with a spinner-like motif that shows up in nearly a dozen of her other works in the show.  It is bright, colorful, and links her previous installation work with her current more two-dimensional works in this show.

Isaac Abrams, “The Triune Reality – I (The Active) It (The Objective) Me (The Subjective)”, 1970, Ink on paper, 25 ½ x 31 ½ inches

Self-taught pioneer of psychedelic art Isaac Abrams’ paintings and drawings feature the artist’s biomorphic landscapes populated by ambiguously undulating living creatures so connected to their environment that they merge with it, exemplified in such works as The Triune Reality – I (The Active) It (The Objective) Me (The Subjective), 1970, and Garden Spirit with Shimmering Eye, 2013.  Everything is alive—teeming with body parts and natural forms—everything is divine.  

Isaac Abrams, “Garden Spirit with Shimmering Eye”, 2013, Acrylic on canvas, 24 x 20 inches

The far gallery features 21 works by the artist, and Abrams’ skill as a draftsman is particularly evident in his work that doesn’t rely on color to limn space, such as the charcoal on paper drawing, Eating Strange Fruit Brings About Strange Dreams, 2014.  In the aforementioned composition, by simply applying pressure upon his instrument, the artist wavers precariously between defining robust and plump volume as well as its dissipation and evaporation.

The work of longtime beloved Kent State Ceramics Professor Kirk Mangus in the smallest gallery at Solway is kind of a mixed bag.  Despite the artist’s charming observations of city life and the ways in which his overpopulated surfaces teem with faces and characters—formally linking his work with that of Abrams in particular—as well as a folk-like approach to carving and painting on clay, some of his pieces teeter precariously upon a fine line of cultural appropriation.  

Posthumous biographies of the artist, who passed away in 2013, frequently speak to his careerlong interest and research in world cultures, including Iga, Oribe, Mayan, Moche Greek, Roman and Silla ceramics, which informed his work.  

Kirk Mangus, “Multi-Eyed Guardian Jar”, Stoneware, colored slips, sgraffito drawing, salt-glazed, 29.5 x 13 x 13 inches

Like many late modernist artists, Mangus’ formal experimentation often involved a suggestion of the “primitive” other:  “Multi-eyed guardians emerge from the surfaces of his wheel thrown, carved and woodfired local stoneware, as well as his paintings in Sumi ink on silk and homemade Korean mulberry paper.

Totemic structures, face jugs, vessels, and amphoras throughout the show elude to ritual and ancient mysteries—so seemingly far removed from the current historical timeline, that they allowed the artist himself (as well as many other emerging artists within Mangus’ milieu in the late 70s) to wrestle with the implications of modernist abstractions, often via a romanticized and reductive view of non-Western cultures.

Kirk Mangus, “Downtown with the Family”, 1988, Sumi ink drawing on handmade Korean mulberry paper, 37.5 x 74 inches

Kirk Mangus, “Multi-Eyed Guardian with Catgirl + Insect Guy”, 1988, Sumi ink drawing on handmade, Korean mulberry paper, 74 x 37.5 inches

To be sure, Mangus’ work is playful and expressive—roughhewn and experimental in his deeply incised clay surfaces, and enchanting in his quick, observational life studies.  For example, his Sumi ink drawing Downtown with the Family, 1988, features dozens of faces of city folk, mostly from the chest and neck up, giving each other knowing sideways glances, carrying tools and lunchboxes, sporting hardhats and baseball caps, smoking cigarettes, and otherwise avoiding interpersonal engagement—all the while encroaching on each other’s personal space.  

It is the perfect embodiment of city life:  avoiding the sideways gaze of your neighbor while going about your own business.  And just as one might people-watch in a city packed with characters, so too, one wants to spend time just looking at Mangus’ assorted cast of people.

Kirk Mangus, “Two Women with Insect Guy Having Tea”, 1980, Porcelain with blue and white glaze, 9.5 x 8 x 8 inches

This cross-cultural experimentation feels the most successful when the contrived narrative is obviously fabricated, and the artist takes no aim at authenticity.  For instance, the porcelain with blue and white glaze vessel, Two Women with Insect Guy Having Tea , 1980, features the face of what appears to be a large mantis (a reoccurring character in Mangus’ oeuvre,) receiving tea from a woman depicted in profile, her hair styled to resemble a headpiece along the lines of something one might encounter in a Mesoamerican relief sculpture.  Both the vessel itself as well as the far-fetched references of cultures within the scene being depicted upon it feel fantastical— not rooted in time or even reality.

Therein lies the magic of art:  whereas depicting reality encourages us to acknowledge specific truths, knowingly depicting fabricated realities can also allow us to reveal valid and substantial facts and discrepancies about the world we live in.  In their current exhibitions at Carl Solway Gallery, artists like Pfaff, Abrams, and Mangus give us some raw materials to do just that.


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