Category Archives: Arts

Arts

Reaching Critical Mass (IV)

UnderMain’s annual event “Critical Mass” has been postponed.

Dear Supporters:

We regret to inform you of the following news:

Due to a recommendation from the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department, the CDC, and WHO for high risk and other populations, and out of reasonable care and caution regarding the hazards of COVID-19 for high-risk populations, we are postponing Critical Mass IV: Tastemakers: Collectors, Critics, and Curators until further notice. The annual event was scheduled for Saturday, March 14th at 21c in Lexington, Kentucky.

UnderMain, The Great Meadows Foundation, and 21C agree that this is the prudent thing to do until the virus no longer poses a threat to our community.


Arts

Teri Dryden, “the zen of things” at B. Deemer

Without saying as much, the concepts in Teri Dryden’s exhibition relate to a fairly elusive phenomenon in Japanese aesthetics known as wabi-sabi. Often associated with tea ceremonies (and their utensils) and flower arranging, the concept is concerned with aspects design that seem impermanent or unfixed. The ideas of wabi-sabi can be variously described, but a productive definition, especially for this show of works, might be its concern with the traces of borders between being and non-being, finished and unfinished, beautiful and ugly.

Installation view, Teri Dryden, “the zen of things”, B. Deemer Gallery, Louisville.

If this seems ambiguous or even cagey, that’s much of the point. To this end, the vagueness concerning the ideas explored in Dryden’s paintings and collages finds a strange cohesion in its conception as a single body of work. This is best reflected in the two walls of small paintings and collages that occupy most of the exhibition’s space. Like its title, rendered without capital letters, the exhibition is an informal gathering of pieces and parts. The haphazard arrangement of these objects can’t be taken as accidental, nor should it. Instead the arrangement can be thought of as an extension of the tensioned elements present in each of Dryden’s collages.

Several pieces find direct and immediate application. One note: except for the few large paintings, no other works are displayed with their titles, a choice that makes the installation more (and purposefully) elusive. So, these “countless” smaller works are free to play with one another in diptych, triptych, and also individually. One vertical triptych includes green and orange patterned cut paper pasted over various other scraps. These squares end up being both abstract arrangements and blocky landscapes. Irregularly cut rectangles function as simple shapes and what appear to be roofed huts or houses. A nearby horizontally oriented set shows an image that is probably a photograph of distant mountains and fields. This is framed by very stylized illustrations of tree branches peppered with red berries. In these combined images (that is, combined from bits of different materials and types of images) the contrast between the pieces creates a somewhat anxious tension between figuration and non-figuration.

Installation view, Teri Dryden, “the zen of things”, B. Deemer Gallery, Louisville.

The overtness of this collaging of differences provides another layer of interest (no puns here). The fact that the pieces of paper Dryden put together play both as bits of paper and as the elements of new images seems important to the overall project. The conflict of difference plays a large role in what makes these pieces work. Within the works as well as among them, unresolved difference creates a space where the unsettled nature of art works to its benefit rather than detriment.

There’s the small square collage whose layers are comprised of paper crushed and pushed into rippling strata peppered with Japanese text. Another layer of materiality played against smoothness or cohesion. Or there’s instances of text, especially Japanese illegible to an English-speaking audience, transformed into its graphic components of line and shape. Or there are several works with frames made from both infinitesimally thin paper and much thicker wood covered in patterned fragments set next to those whose paper nearly tumbles over the edges. There are even several pieces, like one with a frenetically rendered bird’s nest with eggs, that seems curiously stuck outside the continuum of objects on the walls. This is one of the few overtly figurative pieces, and it hangs apart in its specific uniqueness.

Installation view, Teri Dryden, “the zen of things”, B. Deemer Gallery, Louisville.

Again, the various tensions between so many differences are what make Dryden’s project compelling. Even the difficulty in discussing the individual pieces gives the exhibition this interest. Without titles, the small works aren’t singled out or placed into the relief of this or that. Again it’s more vague than that. The poles of “this work” versus “that work” give way to a network where even the triptych and diptych groupings are suggestions of context. So within the single work or all the works is a web of playful ambiguity.

Installation view, Teri Dryden, “the zen of things”, B. Deemer Gallery, Louisville.

To speak more on the microcosm of the individual piece warrants a look at a few unassuming works that can be lost among the entire installation.  Some very close and introspective observation reveals a bit more about the ways Dryden’s process of layering incorporates the spectrum of material possibilities. Several such possibilities are on display in a small rectangular work with stone gray paper across one corner, white paint and graphite across its opposite corner, and semi-transparent pieces of paper filling the middle. On these middle pieces, the layered effect is emphasized by pencil diagrams, those below still visible through the pieces of paper placed over them. There is little apparent to their previous purpose: now they only reveal the subtle depth possible when materials are placed on top of each other. The collage of these found fragments gives them new context while those old contexts, still visible, remain playfully suggestive. It’s within these tiny complexes that wabi-sabi appears yet remains playfully obtuse.

To bring things back to the beginning (or perhaps the end as well), the fragmentary nature of Dryden’s works finds itself incorporated into the largeness of the displayed paintings. The effect is obvious, to the point of exaggeration. Three tiny squares climb the wall diagonally towards the edge of a much larger painting titled Begin Again. Inside the painting, along this path, appears a squared of paper fragments, themselves bits of a larger collection of paper and paint layers that spans the entirety of the canvas. Walls and paintings become the same surface. Yet they also retain their distinct differences. Held in a fragile suspension, Dryden’s exploration of materials and things seeks little in the way closure and finality, and this gentle refusal is what ultimately matters.

Arts

Fixed in Place: Six Exhibitions at the Lexington Art League

Not quite a group show or even a series of solo shows, works by six artists recently shown at the Lexington Art League were separated out but still strung together by a similar thread. Critic Roland Barthes might have called this connection an umbilical cord, something that does more that just bind things together. Across the galleries the importance of the photographic image resonated through artworks by Lori Larusso, Mark Williams, Christina Conroy, Holly Graham, Josh Dross, and Sarah Madison Brown.

When photographic technology was in its infancy, images were described as being “fixed” to their metal or paper surfaces. Certainly, anyone familiar with the darkroom knows a print needs a chemical fixer to keep it from fading away. Fixing has special connotations to photographs, but it’s a broad definition. Fixing repairs, but it also ties up, sticks on, attaches. In these six exhibitions, there is the strong sense that the objects on display have real weight in the world.

Lori Larusso, “Populist Clowd(er)”, 2019, acrylic on four polymetal panels.

Lori Larusso, “Populist Clowd(er)”, 2019, acrylic on four polymetal panels.

Lori Larusso’s Like sent up the flatness of social media interactions by re-imagining them as large meticulously crafted painted panels. The irony was palpable, even in Larusso’s intentions: can a dearth of images and interactions shared day in and day out be meaningful art? There was a past pop art sensibility to Larusso’s paintings, applied to contemporary forms of expression and communication used by billions. Painted text and images culled from a sea of words and images that swirl through the wastelands of the internet are juxtaposed in ways that focused their aimlessness into sharper points. Why are endless pictures of cats and food so tiresome yet somehow crucial to how we process our emotions? Larusso’s works spoke to this constant flow and what society does to shape it into some kind of shared culture. Experience transformed into something more permanent. Images of cats in sinks, like those represented in Populist Clowd(er) (2019), felt less trivial somehow when carefully rendered and set on white walls.

Of course, art usually deals in monumental feelings. In Mark Williams’ Karst, time is stretched out according to that of geologic forces, but expressed through individual snapshots of experience. These snapshots form the patterned layers that Williams screen prints. The display of Williams’ prints felt both scientific and deeply personal, drawn from the experience of plumbed depths taken in instants. What was gripping about these prints was the way frenetic layers of ink were buoyed by shimmering iridescent paper. A comparison could be drawn between the actions of water and ink that played their parts to create the prints, and the caves from which they were composed. Somewhat ancillary to the prints were several photographs printed on aluminum plates. The reflective surface of Shimmer (2013) lent it a luminous sparkle. Though appearing less abstract than Williams’ screen prints, the cropped rock formations still came across as inarticulate patterns that coalesced the vastness of time into things immediate and emotional.

A similar meeting of science and artistic mythos was Christina Conroy’s Dark Exposure. Like Williams’ Karst, Conroy’s photographs layered together the processes of change to explore the technical strangeness of photographic images. Photographs are often conceits, and these photographs played with peculiar strengths and limitations of the individual image. Here the static image was anything but, and described changes in light and shadow in interesting ways, as in Pathways (2019). Rather than the luminous spheres Conroy created in many of her other photographs, green-lit lines wove through an oddly illuminated wall of trees. The human figures responsible for these moving lights were mostly absent, untraceable in the minutes-long exposure times that reveal Conroy’s method. Time is the photograph’s strength and weaknesses, the human touch able to hide in plain sight in front of and behind the camera.

Holly Graham, “Emily”, 2019, mixed media with digital prints.

Holly Graham, “Makawee (Sioux for “generous, abundant, freely giving”)”, 2019, mixed media with digital prints

Holly Graham’s New Life Doll Project was curiously related to Williams’ or Conroy’s looks into time and change. Process and documentation were at the forefront of Graham’s project reclaiming discarded Barbie dolls. They aren’t simply repaired or cleaned but returned a sense of dignity and identity expanded beyond the status of playthings. The images that accompany the dolls, arranged in similarly scientific grids, show before and after shots of heads and bodies. Hair is pruned and restyled, makeup changed or removed, bodies are covered in new hand-sewn clothes, all documented. The process of reclaiming identities and names, “redeeming” them from abuse or neglect, was fascinating, perhaps because of the clinical regularity of the photographs. Emily (2019) is shown before and after, hair straightened and fixed, a mangled left hand cleanly amputated and plastic wrist smoothed and rounded out. Each doll has a name and identity but also a past and any number of potential futures. Only here, these were fixed together to stress the importance of transition and the messiness of concepts like past, present, and future.

Top: Josh Dross, “Urowndreams”, 2019, archival digital print. Bottom: Josh Dross, “Neighborhood Blues”, 2019, archival digital print.

On the Lexington Art League’s second floor, Josh Dross’s I Dreamed in Black in White seemed as straightforward and unadorned as photography could get. The prints themselves were unframed and tacked to the wall, a seemingly haphazard arrangement that ultimately worked to their advantage. Dross’s images speak to transience and uprootedness cast against a timeless rural landscape. Hooked together, many of these images take a hard look at places rarely considered. Several photographs seemed to have been taken from moving vehicles. The blurriness of movement and starkness of their exposures cut against nature’s idyllic imagery. One such photograph, No Sidewalks (2019), is taken in the middle of an empty road that looks backward (or forward) to a concrete overpass overgrown with vegetation. Such a place seems like no place at all, only the transitory nothingness between start and end points. The landscapes are blank and hard to read, or at least they don’t read the way one might want them too.

Sarah Madison Brown, “Show Me the Way to Go Home”, 2020, mixed media, panoramic installation view.

Sarah Madison Brown, “Show Me the Way to Go Home”, 2020, mixed media, panoramic installation view.

Like the strangeness of Dross’s places, Sarah Madison Brown’s installation Show Me the Way to Go Home was even more difficult to describe. This final space was wholly transformed; several steps led up through a half closed door that leaked utterly strange lights and sounds. Brown’s chosen title refers to a song by the same name, famously sung in the 1975 film JAWS seconds before the titular shark attacks the boat and crew hunting it. Snatches of sound taken from the movie as well as other unrecognizable bits and pieces from places in South Carolina and California formed a haunting accompaniment to disorienting projections and a garbled litter of printed images affixed to printed wallpaper. The floor was replaced by loose boards, plaster shards, and concrete dust, and the ceiling by looming plastic sheeting illuminated to show pine needles and tar drips. The room was essentially a ruin of splintered images and cut up noise. It was an antecedent nightmare. Accompanying text stated, “Forgetting that nothing lasts forever / Ruins are our guide through a landscape of time.” This spoke for itself.

If images are only expected to represent the things that were, there’s little to be gained. If anything, each of the artists in this LAL exhibition provided a vision of images and photographs as experiences that just happen to be, or have been, taken and hung on the wall. The present of and future of these works is just as crucial, and it seems they aren’t content with being forever fixed in the same space or on the same walls.

Arts

Tunis: Fly or Die’s Jaimie Branch Is Grounded and Fully Alive

Artists have different ways of utilizing critical accolades. The higher up you climb commercially, the more pivotal and important a review becomes, mostly because a favorable one is good for business. Come back to earth and talk to an independent artist whose work has minimal, if any, concern for lofty critical praise and the intent of a review becomes more elemental. A good one, in this instance, serves as an introduction. It lets potential patrons know who you are and what you do.

Trumpeter, composer and bandleader Jaimie Branch discovered that at the close of 2017 when the self-titled album by her multi-directional trumpet/cello/bass/drums quartet Fly or Die took “best of” honors in year-end tributes by The New York Times, NPR, Stereogum, Slate and numerous other publications. Rolling Stone subsequently named Branch as one of the “10 Artists You Need to Know About.”

Jaimie Branch photo by Dawid Laskowski

Heady praise, indeed, but well deserved. The “Fly or Die” album was a sublime blend of indie cool, lean and often chamber-like abstraction, and worldly groove that announced the arrival of Branch as a true musical innovator after years of immersion in a vital Chicago jazz community. Such reception (in his New York Times rave, critic Giovanni Russonello tagged “Fly or Die” as “a work of hardscrabble imagination”) doesn’t slip too deep into Branch’s world, although she understands the practical possibilities it can present.

“For me, I can’t live or die by what anybody says about my music,” she said, “Today, it may be very favorable, tomorrow it might not be, so it would be foolish of me to put too much stock into that. Still, it feels really good to have people talking about my music because that means they’re listening to my music. That’s the whole thing. It’s not about anything other than creating more music going forward. It’s like, ‘This is the life I want to lead, but I need to be playing in order to lead it.’ The more folks listen, the more we play and the more we’re able to play. So I’m grateful.

“But the thing is I’ve been making music my whole adult life. I’ve been playing at a very high level and nobody has ever really taken any notice until recently. So I don’t know. There’s a whole confluence of things that have to happen for people to actually hear your music.”

High Life and Paradise
Perhaps, as Branch suggested, audiences outside of Chicago and her native New York (where she relocated to in 2015) took little notice of her music. But Lexington did. Roughly eight years ago, she first performed here as a member of The High Life, a jazz and groove outfit led by bassist Jason Ajemian. As recently as January 2018, on the heels of her critical breakthrough, she was back as part of a predominantly electronic duo with Jason Nazary called Anteloper. Both performances were presentations of the long running, locally produced Outside the Spotlight series of improvisational and free jazz concerts that have brought scores of artists from New York, Europe and especially Chicago to a variety of Lexington stages.

Outside the Spotlight is again behind Branch’s Lexington return on March 26 at the University of Kentucky Niles Gallery, an occasion that marks the local debut of the Fly or Die quartet. The show celebrates the release of “Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise.” The recording expands the thematic scope of Branch’s music (especially on the topically, socially and politically driven “Prayer for Amerikka, Pts. 1 and 2,” which also marks Branch’s recorded debut as a vocalist) as well as its rhythmic sensibility (the neo-calypso strut of “Nuevo Roquero Estereo”).

“Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise” album cover

“I was really focusing on writing for the band. That was my main thing. Like, I have this band of incredible, virtuosic musicians. How do I take… well, not advantage, but how do I write so I can use everybody’s musical strengths?

“While we were on tour in 2018, the midterm elections were going on at home and the political situation in the U.S. was just getting more and more tense. That was where the psyche was that came out on the record. But everything is the sum of all parts. Musical passages might not be quite so literal as the vocal ones, but there’s still a little veil of abstractness. Everything kind of informs the other thing.”

Ironically, at the core of the Fly or Die sound, on record as well as onstage, is Ajemian. The same artist responsible for bringing Branch to Lexington initially in his band is now a first lieutenant of sorts in the critically lauded quartet she is now leading.

“If you have gotten to hang with the great Jason Ajemian, you know he’s a really rare bird. His bass playing is sensitive, but his sound is so big. He’s got a really lovely, deep bass sound. And he really plays what he hears. He’s one of my closest friends. I’ve played in his bands for years.

“For a long time, I wasn’t really touring much except for when Jason would take me on tour. That stayed with me. Today, he’s got the chair in my band until he doesn’t want it anymore.”

“We all have our struggles”
A Suzuki-trained pianist who began playing at the age of three, Branch gravitated to trumpet by absorbing the inspirations of such vanguard jazz men as Miles Davis and Lee Morgan. But the catalyst, aside from watching her brother (10 years Branch’s senior) work as a musician, was an infatuation with punk music. In watching and emulating rock ’n’ roll immediacy while honoring jazz tradition, Branch’s career path was set.

“The energy from those punk shows, that’s what sealed the deal for me. I was like, ‘Man, I just want to do this for the rest of my life.’ Then my interests changed and I started playing more improvised music, creative music. For a while there, it didn’t really have the energy that those punk rock concerts had when I was a kid. But musically, they were super gratifying. Recently, as in the last couple of years, I’m gotten to that point where I have the music and the energy. That’s just taken things to a whole different level.”

There were pitfalls on the way to seizing that energy, though. Branch fell into heroin addiction, although she eventually discovered an organic stimulation from the music she was making that helped her come clean.

“Well, there’s definitely an adrenaline rush, right, when you’re performing, and that’s a chemical thing. When I was first getting off the drugs, I had to take some time off playing to deal with it. I mean, it wasn’t much time, but with trumpet, two weeks, three weeks, a month – that’s a long time. I was a little bit afraid that it wasn’t going to come back. But quite the opposite came true. I was allowed the ability to focus in a whole new way, to really give a lot to the music, to do it justice.

Jaimie Branch photo by Peter Gannushkin

“The things you learn from a good bout with addiction and the things that come with it, like being homeless, are that you can get up. You can fall down, but you can get back up. And that’s for everybody. A lot of people learn that in other ways. We all have our struggles. I think we can take out of that lessons learned and realize that maybe all of that wasn’t time wasted.”

Horn of Empowerment
In Ben Holman’s short documentary, “Birds Dogs of Paradise,” which follows Branch through the end of a European tour and the beginning of recording sessions for the album that now shares its title with the film, she admits to being anything but shy. Still, when Branch is out in public with her trumpet, her confidence soars. It is with horn in hand that she finds fulfillment in art as well as life.

“I think of the trumpet as my secret weapon. I hate this term, but if people don’t know me from Adam and I have my trumpet with me, I know something can pop off. It’s like, ‘This is what I do. This is what I have to contribute.’

“Hey, if something comes up, if somebody needs an emergency trumpet player, I’m there. Of course, if somebody is passing out on the subway, they don’t ask for a trumpet player. It’s just that I know that when I have my horn with me, the potential for music making is there and that makes me feel empowered.”

Jaimie Branch’s Fly or Die Quartet performs at 7:30 p.m. on March 26 at the University of Kentucky’s John Jacobs Niles Gallery, 160 Patterson Drive, Lexington. The performance, sponsored by WRFL-FM, is free.

Top image: Jaimie Branch photo by Peter Gannushkin

Arts

Hemp and the Future of Fashion

The Future of Fashion 2020 show is coming to Lexington on the evenings of March 13-14, with a focus on designs incorporating hemp fabrics. In an interview for the March 5 edition of Eastern Standard on WEKU, I spoke with fashion designer, community activist, and organizer Soreyda Benedit Begley. Click on the image below to listen.

Soreyda Benedit Begley | Photo by Chris Begley

Images courtesy of Soreyda Benedit Begley

Arts

A Little Room to Breathe

Installation is the presentation of works of art. The following is a look at museum installations in New York, London, Edinburgh and Louisville that all work well in different ways.  In great installations the sequence and juxtaposition of art objects presents a silent argument, making a case for the richness or provocative value of the works laid out in a gallery.  Great installations give maximum value to the artworks and exploit, to that end, lighting, wall color, spacing, explanatory labels and the placement of pedestals and gallery furniture. Great installations also require that the selection of works be judicious and sustain attention and engagement. Too often exhibitions are weakened by the inclusion of mediocre work: better the A work by the C- artist than the C- work by the artist with an A reputation. Failure to consider ways of breaking open the canon of received opinion and the inability to make surprise a component of gallery arrangements are also common shortcomings.  So what works?

‘Action Painting I’, Gallery 403, 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art, New York; photograph: Heidi Bohnenkamp

Installation view of Action Painting I (gallery 403), The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art, Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp

The Museum of Modern Art, newly re-opened in October after a major expansion, sidesteps the common pitfalls.  There is an increase in the white space between works; the re-hang gives precedence to artists neglected earlier, especially women, artists of color, and artists from parts of the world other than Europe and North America.  The Haitian artist Hervé Telemaque adds to the understanding of Pop Art as an international phenomenon, and the Pakistani artist Rasheed Araeen expands the definition of Minimalism.  In the first gallery devoted to Abstract Expressionism, the viewer is greeted by Pollock, deKooning, and David Smith – but also by Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler, Pat Pasloff, Lee Krasner, Isamu Noguchi and Beauford Delaney: four women, a Japanese-American, and an African-American.  The matrix of art history is loosened, media are no longer separated (photography or film almost omnipresent), and masterpieces are de-emphasized in favor of a more searching exposition of the human imagination and the range of expressive solutions. The lock-step march of isms has been replaced by a meandering and discursive path.  Ironically, in many instances, it is also an arrangement that fosters a situation of clear visibility – that is, a hang that makes the masterwork heroes more heroic, enhancing their aesthetic impact, while giving the supporting cast members larger roles.  Picasso’s 1907 Demoiselles D’Avignon is juxtaposed with Faith Ringgold’s image of racial conflict, American People Series #20, executed in 1968. Ringgold’s image references Picasso’s Guernica, and the label asserts that the comparison intensifies “the questions Demoiselles raises about representations of women, power and cultural difference.”  Success!  Demoiselles acquires added complexity and the Ringgold competes very well indeed next to the early Cubist breakthrough painting. 

Best of all, one-third of the MOMA galleries will be re-hung or shifted around every six months, which means a complete re-hang every 18 months.

Another model installation is the new Islamic Gallery at the British Museum, opened in the fall of 2018, which celebrates the way in which Islamic artifacts of all kinds match form to decoration. Even humble clay water filters feature elaborate geometric piercings. The uses of calligraphy, the arabesque interweaving of plant and animal forms, the multiple elaborations of geometric patterns – all are presented with a clarity that surpasses the earlier, rival Islamic art installations at the Louvre and the Met in New York. The lowest levels of the cases have ancient Persian animal figures to engage children, and there are a variety of please-touch items supervised by a museum educator at a low table. And, to add to the pleasure of the Gallery, when I visited there was an adjacent halal café with grilled figs and a spectacular lavender honey tart.

The smartest installations are often the ones in which curatorial responsibility is turned over to the artists. At the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh some ancient Pict and Celt artifacts are installed against backgrounds devised by the artist Andy Goldsworthy – mud, pieces of slate and, most effectively, wooden sticks to set off the 600 B.C.E. Ballachulish figure, an Iron Age fertility figure or goddess. 

Which brings us back to Louisville and Southern Indiana.  Three recently opened galleries have ambitious programs and intriguing spaces which lend well to very satisfactory viewing spaces. Quappi Projects at 517 East Market Street in Louisville has high ceilings, excellent lighting and elegant proportions.  The Moremen Gallery, on the second floor at 517 East Market Street, makes excellent use of the former glass walled offices and conference rooms for modestly scaled one-person shows. The Kleinhelter Gallery at 701 East 8th Street, New Albany (Indiana), is housed in a 19th Century brick building that offers the option of hanging on plain or brick walls. The loser in the newer gallery sweepstakes is the collection-rich Filson Historical Society (Louisville), which did not allow for adequate exhibit space in its recent expansion. The primary galleries are cramped, awkwardly lit, and require a staff member to accompany visitors who wish to visit the exhibitions.

Installation View, Tales from the Turf: The Kentucky Horse, 1825-1950. (1590)

More intriguing in terms of installation is the contrast between the current exhibitions at the Speed Art Museum and KMAC (Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft). At the Speed, Tales from the Turf: The Kentucky Horse, 1825-1950 has a whopping 162 works on view, at least 140 of which depict the equine stars of the race course and breeding industry.  The majority are extracted from Kentucky  collections.  From a museum-strategy point of view, the subject gave the Speed an excuse for access to Bluegrass holdings that would otherwise remain behind closed doors. 

Documentary but also laden with a romanticizing self-regard, the carefully delineated champions’ confirmations are emblems of the horse owners’ prestige:  the nobility of the animals imply by extension their owners’ lofty status.  Artists were partners in the thoroughbred and saddlebred businesses, and the story is told with panache in Tales from the Turf.  In addition to paintings there are prints, silver trophies, artists’ tools, a map of the Bluegrass, a circular pedigree diagram, an example of the actual purse that was presented to a winner in the 19th Century, and a bronze masterpiece of a jockey and rider by the art moderne sculptor Wilhelm Hunt Diederich, who employed a simplifying cubist geometrification.

The introduction to the show includes three paintings by the greatest 20th Century equestrian painter, Sir Alfred Munnings.   In Going Out at Epsom from 1929-1930, Munnings’s alla prima brushwork, especially in the clouds that surmount the scene, complements the energy, excitement and nervousness before a race.  The three Munnings paintings are real zingers, and placement opposite the entrance to the show provides an upbeat introduction.  The gallery-goer is then carried along by six different wall colors, from pale to dark blue, and a sequence of mauve-eggplant hues.  Wall texts, wall text illustrations, varied rhythms of spacing of pictures on the wall, and the piped in sound of clopping horses’ hooves – all keep attention at a high level despite the show’s repetitiveness.  There are also some great curatorial mysteries to be solved, for example, the detection of an American horse altered to appear to be English. In Edmund Troye, the show has a major master whose place in the pantheon of great American painters needs to be more widely acknowledged. The show concludes with three newsreels of Kentucky Derby races from the 1940s. 

A complete contrast is the KMAC installation of “Picasso: From Antibes to Louisville.” It is remarkably understated. The walls are off-white, the pictures are lined up with little variation, and labels are remote, printed out on plasticized sheets. The show consists of three galleries, a timeline, a video about the founder of the Musée Picasso in Antibes, France, and photographs of Picasso at work by Michel Sima.  The first gallery has a reproduction of Picasso’s 1946 Joy of Life, a painting which shows Picasso in a playful, relaxed mood after the horrors of the war years.  The rest of the gallery is devoted to preliminary studies for the Joy of Life, and still lifes from the same year. In this period Picasso was visiting Matisse every two weeks, and the interchange with the older master is apparent.  Picasso, as he had done repeatedly throughout his career, took on the mantle of classicism: the spare graphite studies are of a centaur and several fauns, many playing the regional duale double barreled flute. They are accompanied in the studies by extraordinarily zaftig nymphs with ballooning breasts.  But these mythological fantasy drawings are not easily dismissed on sexist grounds:  Picasso’s lyrical line and the taut compression of his contours imply acrobatic vitality and a division of space that activates every sheet.  

Installation View: “Picasso: From Antibes to Louisville”, KMAC Museum

A second gallery has a selection from Picasso’s Vollard Suite, installed in a flat-footed manner, eight vertical prints followed by eight horizontals. Turn the corner and there is Picasso’s portrait of the maestro art dealer Ambroise Vollard, who commissioned the suite that preoccupied the Spaniard from 1931 to 1937. Picasso makes his viewers complicit in his male gaze: we are voyeurs witnessing the gaze of the middle-aged males in the prints.  The linear contours of the female nudes in these prints have their clearest precedents in Greek vase painting. Sexuality, death, aggression, evil and innocence are some of Picasso’s themes: in effect, Picasso addresses the tissue of human relations, love and antagonism, with classicizing men and women, horses and Minotaurs.  Blind Minotaur Guided through a Starry Night by Marie-Thérèse with a Pigeon, aquatint, drypoint, and engraving, executed in 1934-1935, encompasses the emotional extremes Picasso invested in the Minotaur, symbolizing lasciviousness but also guilt; violence but also despair.  

Installation View: “Picasso: From Antibes to Louisville”, KMAC Museum

The last gallery is reached from a corridor with a very informal Picasso timeline, a nice contrast to the buttoned-up installation of the rest of the show.  A selection of prints done between 1952 and 1956 demonstrate Picasso’s experimental approach to printmaking and include lithographs, silkscreen and aquatint.

So ultimately does installation matter? In the case of the Picasso show at KMAC, the underplayed arrangement is a plus, allowing black and white drawings and prints to command center stage.  The curatorial problem remains: how do you make the work of art mean more? How do you make the work of art more present and more accessible?  How do you sustain attention?  Each exhibition and each exhibition space demand different solutions.

Tales from the Turf: the Kentucky Horse, 1825-1950 , Speed Art Museum, 2035 South Third St., Louisville, KY, 40208.  Closes March 1st.

Picasso: From Antibes to Louisville, KMAC Museum, 715 West Main St., Louisville, KY, 40202.  Closes March 22nd.

Arts

Who Goes There? “Body Language: Hunter Stamps and Mike Goodlett”

The space at the University of Kentucky Art Museum taken over by Mike Goodlett and Hunter Stamps for their show “Body Language” is all white light, white walls and ceiling, delivering microcosmic grandeur, with the floor holding most of the merchandise. The merch here are sculptures, some ceramic, some plastic and concrete, and they all seem to be humming different little mysterious tunes as you walk past them. The music is not music, though; it’s a new form of silence, manufactured by each little monument and doodad. A music that can hum itself into geometry and then into dream and back out into warehouse, reality, nowhere.

Installation view, “Body Language: Hunter Stamps and Mike Goodlett”, University of Kentucky Art Museum

The humble materials seem to dictate that feeling of nowhere, but also give you something delightful to hold onto. In Stamps’ case, materials run the gamut from ceramic to rubber, glazed stoneware to encaustic. They are handsomely grotesque and grotesquely handsome totems dedicated to discovering what it means to be abandoned. Stamps creates a catalog of carapaces and nests and body parts no longer in use, monumentally devoid and yet somehow beautifully decorative because of the obsessive nature of their creation.

Hunter Stamps, “Naked Lunch”, clay – Photo by Keith Banner

One piece, titled “Naked Lunch,” honors the icky, off-kilter 1991 movie David Cronenberg made based on William S.  Burroughs’ icky messed-up novel, a terracotta paean to stylized verbal flourishes, but also baroque and stylish enough to pass as a vase. “Utterance” is a chunk of a Philip Guston painting come to life so it can die a miserable, beautiful death. Kind of like a giant, malformed ruby-slipper, the ceramic and rubber effigy accesses the tongue as its inspiration, but there’s a weariness to its positioning, like this big sad tongue just got back from war.

Hunter Stamps, “Enrapture II”, glazed ceramic, 28″X14″x14″ – Photo courtesy of the artist

Hunter Stamps, “Enrapture II”, glazed ceramic, 28″X14″x14″ – Photo courtesy of the artist

“Enrapture II,” a glazed ceramic riff on sci-fi horror tentacles freezing into stasis, is both a celebration of fierce otherworldliness and a quiet meditation on nature once removed. When you approach it, it seems to harden into itself from the other state it is in when you are not looking. That transformative feeling is built into a lot of Stamps’ works: they seem to be gorgeous props in some kind of big-budget nightmare, like John Carpenter’s 1982 magnum latex opus “The Thing” molecularly fusing with the detritus and emotions inside every 21st Century skull.

Installation view, “Body Language: Hunter Stamps and Mike Goodlett”, University of Kentucky Art Museum

Mike Goodlett’s works play off Stamps’ theatrical body horror perfectly; they have a plush and sordid sarcasm built into their solid concrete souls, as if Hello Kitty and R. Crumb had babies. Playfully adorned in muted nursery hues, they are intense cartoons evaluating the atmosphere, controlling whatever environment they occupy with their passive-aggressive cuteness and de Chirico anonymity. The lovely and dour “Flower of My Secret,” made of plain old concrete and paint, hovers over itself with a cobra-like menace, and yet offers a sort of hardened comfort, a mummified sensuality. “Tiny Dancer,” made of hydrostone, paint and Mason stain, is a tombstone meshed with dessert, its sweetness overcome by its pallor, its finish basking in the unfinished qualities of its unnerving neck brace, its globular antennae. You feel talked to and ignored at the same time.

Mike Goodlett, “Sir Lancelot”, 2019, concrete, hydrostone, oil based paint – Photo by Keith Banner

Another hydrostone and concrete masterpiece, “Sir Lancelot” references a dildo, an ashtray, and the supple shoulders of a 1920s mannequin, all in service to creating an object nothing can land on, meaning can’t find. It’s something meant to be worshipped, but also has a tough ironic sheen, a placidity earned from being warehoused within itself. It ain’t going anywhere, but it’s been all over the universe, glossy and crazy and very quiet.

Michael Goodlett, “Pearl”, 2019, concrete, hydrostone, oil based paint – Photo by Keith Banner

Stamps and Goodlett have packaged their two-person gig under the title “Body Language,” pulling together two opposing forces in service to the absurdity of their pursuit: where does the body end and language begin? How can language ever really describe and/or contain the body with all its organs and tumors and bones, oh my?

The show itself could be likened to both a fulfillment center and a mausoleum, objects breathing and not breathing, curling toward their own version of glamour and also laughing at the way each one of them is dying an undignified death. Goodlett and Stamps have created a Vaudevillian planet together, an Aztec temple on acid, a nightmare toy shop, a landscape populated by creatures and things unnamable, and yet the body language emanating from each piece, ossified through concrete and clay, creates an ongoing and impenetrable narrative. Stories and histories come at you in a foreign language that has never been codified, never written down. All of these objects are refugees, survivors of some absurd holocaust only they know about.

And they aren’t talking.

Arts

A Sort of Celestial Vibration of Earthly Materials, Maybe: L Gnadinger at Quappi Projects

“In each one of us, there is a place of perfect silence. This silence is not dead. It vibrates. It has a pulse. It is the force of this silence that drives a seeker to go within.” Swami Chidvilasananda

For the past two years, L Gnadinger has been quietly making art in the wooded hills of North Carolina on a fellowship at the Penland School of Craft, an open and progressive institute nestled within the Blue Ridge Mountains that offers the conditions for what the artist calls “a good, old fashioned spiritual retreat.” The explorations of this withdrawal to the woods are reflected in Gnadinger’s current solo show at Quappi Projects titled “Notably Untested Spiritual Gestures,” an ecumenical collection of textiles, ceramics, and works on paper that present their vision of a queer futurism as filtered through the visual vernacular of their Roman Catholic upbringing.

“Vestment”. Denim, fabrication steel, acrylic, steel dust. 8’ x 3’, 2019

Call them gestures, call them studies, or – as Gnadinger prefers – “spiritual experiments.” A handsewn white denim lab coat, Vestment, hangs at the back of the gallery and serves as a visual and thematic focal point, setting up the interplay of science and religion that permeates the show. Tailored to the artist’s proportions, the garment has a slightly unsettling liminal quality suggestive of some unseen presence: a ghost from ages past, perhaps, or its opposite – some future being that has created these objects ahead of our present time.

Gnadinger, who self-identifies as nonbinary, thinks of this figure as quasi-autobiographical, one who cobbles together fabric and paint and clay and steel in an attempt to create something that feels sacred: “It’s not religious art in the sense that it’s celebrating something that exists,” the artist says. “It’s more about making art in the hope that I might create something to celebrate – an inward spiritual self that is viable and feels real and honest.”

“Devotional: The Cold Knob”, Ceramic tile, found plate, zip ties, plywood, mortar, grout. 14.5” x 23.5”, 2019

“A Sort of Prayer”, Ceramic tile, found plate, steel, mortar, grout. 5.5” x 23.5”, 2019

Far from rebelling against the visual tropes of Christianity, Gnadinger’s work embraces them, taking classical religious forms and remaking them in the materials of their world (not Rome’s). Two triptychs, the vertical Devotional: The Cold Knob and horizontal A Sort of Prayer, are filled with fragments of found ceramics (faucet knobs, broken tea plates, electric outlet covers, orphaned floor tiles) and the artist’s own handmade tiles adorned with painted binary code, all in close and harmonious arrangement. 

“The marriage of ideas and materials is so beautifully executed,” remarks John Brooks, owner and curator of Quappi Projects. “If you count all of the individual colors in the works, the list is quite long, yet the whole show seems to vibrate in this very narrow band, as if everything is behind gauze or is slightly rubbed out.”

Like the rest of the pieces in the show, the triptychs don’t often stray from a quiet January palette of creamy whites and pale blues, salmon and apricot and copper and dirt – a far cry indeed from the red and gold and silver and brass that invest the traditional Catholic mass with so much of its visual power. Gnadinger’s religion is made from humbler stuff: the colors of the Blue Ridge Mountains in an early morning fog, the rock and clay they offer for our creative use.

“Banner, Ordinary Time”, Woven cotton, wool, plastic, newspaper, electrical fence, commercial clothes. 2’ x 8’, 2019.

Detail: “Banner, Ordinary Time”, Woven cotton, wool, plastic, newspaper, electrical fence, commercial clothes. 2’ x 8’, 2019.

In a hanging textile work, Banner, Ordinary Time, Gnadinger interweaves scraps of everyday garments, newspapers, and plastic with delicate strands of shimmering threads, again bringing together the mundane and the ethereal in pleasurable conversation. Even the title suggests a more accessible spirituality, one oriented to domestic ritual, rooted in our daily routines and grounded in our quotidian hopes and concerns, our small but personal lives.

Detail, Assorted ceramics

It is an idea that is given eloquent articulation in a collection of ceramics gathered on a white table like a band of misfit toys, roughhewn and misshapen but reverently – adoringly, even – marked and painted and glazed, as if to illustrate Simone Weil’s assertion that “absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” The pieces take the vague shapes of bells and horns, chalice and ciborium, vessels for communal celebration rendered in lowly materials by humble hands. What more primal matter than clay, the very stuff that pre-Christian gods employed for their human creations?

“Untitled”, Acrylic, watercolor, charcoal on paper. 16” x 19”, 2019.

Gnadinger can call forth celestial realms as well, most notably in their works on paper. A trinity named Untitled offers the show’s rare concentrated use of the color black: over layers of collaged paper painted in a creamy shade of acrylic, they rub large swathes of charcoal to bring forth the shapes and textures of moon craters, nascent galaxies and futurist geometries. In the search for something larger than ourselves, we travel beyond the limits of heaven and into the infinite vastness of the universe, to this primordial mingling of cosmic dust, these eternal materials that are then imbued with ephemeral meaning through the artist’s hands.

“Presently Undetectable Things Or Maybe Tiny Ghosts, #7 – 18”, Acrylic, watercolor, linen thread, pen, charcoal, paper, canvas. 3” x 5”, 2019.

Look closer at the works on paper – Presently Undetectable Things Or Maybe Tiny Ghosts #5, #6, #7 – and see the linen threads mechanically stitched within the works; suddenly one can imagine our creature in the lab coat as an interstellar seamstress in her celestial atelier, carefully attending to the creation of a new world. (Let the series of miniatures, numbered #7-18, stand as the thumbnail sketches she created in birthing this grand design.) In Gnadinger’s spirituality, space is not a cosmic void but a pregnant silence quietly vibrating with possibility. The dead are not tiny ghosts, but instead very real things that are simply presently undetectable through our earthly ways of seeing.

“Altar with Telescope”, Fabricated steel, acrylic, ceramic, textile, thread, books. 8’ x 3’, 2019.

Perhaps that helps explain the titular objects in Altar With Telescope, a modestly proportioned work featuring a fabricated steel altar prepared for worship with ceremonial linens, a parcel of thin paper books and a mounted telescope made from a short cuff of ceramic wrapped with handwoven cloth. The inclusion of a telescope on the altar would seem to suggest that spiritual answers may be found in the stars, or that there is some merit in skyward searching, at least. 

“Presently Undetectable Things Or Maybe Tiny Ghosts, #5” behind another altar of sorts.

And yet Gnadinger’s rudimentary telescope contains no apparatus for magnification, not even the crude focus offered by a long, narrow tube: it is simply a circular frame through which to gaze. But what if that is the point? What if this collection of spiritual experiments reveals that, in fact, there’s nothing to reveal: the divine has been in plain sight all along, in the everyday vessels of our commonplace rituals, in the materials of our kitchens and baths, even here in this gallery where wine is poured and strangers gather in celebration of the communal grace of art. 

Arts

A New Approach to Facilitating Cultural Discovery

Do you remember the first time you went to your favorite local music venue, art gallery or  theatre? Was there a sense of community palpable in the room among those individuals whose interests brought them together, if just for a few hours? Did you discover a band doing something different from what you had ever heard before? Maybe there was an artist whose work you have since come to fall in love with. Something must have kept you coming back until going there felt like coming to your second home. Perhaps you created a relationship that wouldn’t have been possible without that one night at Al’s or that thought-provoking conversation at the Parachute Factory.

Al’s Bar. Photo by Alex Slitz ASLITZ@HERALD-LEADER.COM

The prospect of getting out of the house to participate in non-digital communities may be increasingly rare, but those who make the effort know that the reward for those unplanned experiences makes every effort and dollar spent worth it. These kind of memorable experiences are the ones that Infinite Industries wants to make more accessible and less rare for everyone who wants to be a part of the various subcultures in Lexington.

The Parachute Factory

For me, it was when I went to the Parachute Factory, shortly after I moved to Lexington – my first year of college. I wasn’t sure what to expect but found an art show that was more experimental than what I had previously been exposed to. (I was floored.) But I also found a place to talk and meet other creative people, and it felt like turning over a stone and discovering the existence of a whole culture I didn’t know about before.

But I got lucky; I had met the right people who took me there that night. For those of us whose lives primarily take place around other creative people, we can rely on our network of artists, curators, writers and musicians to let us know about their projects and other artists on their radars. From this we build our evening and weekend plans, but this flawed system leaves people out, and inevitably events become forgotten in the web of information stored within our skulls. The result of this is a fractured art community. Programming is strenuously planned, just barely funded, and yet attendance is often lacking. This is exactly the reason behind the existence of a new start-up non-profit organization in Lexington called Infinite Industries.

Dmitry “Dima” Strakovsky started Infinite Industries at the end of 2017. Dima is a studio professor at the University of Kentucky, a digital media artist, and has done curatorial work around the world. To Dima, Infinite Industries is the answer to fixing a fractured Lexington arts community. It exists as a website (Infinite.Industries) populated by several cards with information about local events in Lexington. The events featured are not the ones you are likely to see ads for, and the website shows only a curated list of upcoming arts and culture events in Lexington.

While there always seems to be something interesting going on somewhere in the city, the awareness of these events seem to extend only to particular groups specific to that venue. Thus his idea for creating a more democratic, welcoming and healthy artist community in Lexington is opening the lines of communication between the people looking for these events and those programmers looking for their audiences. No algorithms or paid promotions; these events are primarily from organizations without a large budget for marketing. Additionally, every time an event is entered on the submission form on Infinite Industries, this information is stored in a cloud database, documenting all the cultural happenings in Lexington in all their varieties.

Institute 193

Institute 193

The realm of the Internet has the potential to be used in a way to make places like art communities more democratic, but only with the right tools – like Infinite Industries. Marketing for events in places like Lexington primarily consists of posting the event on Facebook Events. The rest of the process is simply hoping that the people willing to take time out of their schedule to attend will navigate to the post at some point in their algorithm-calculated scrolling. Infinite Industries exists to offer an alternative to this process. They look to cater to individuals in Lexington that are interested in everything from jazz and folk music to EDM shows and experimental new media art shows.

Dmitry Strakovsky

Dmitry “Dima” Strakovsky, Founder of Infinite Industries

Dima Strakovsky began his artistic career in Chicago, receiving his MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago. Working as both an artist and a curator, he has shown works and curated shows around the world, including Moscow, Beijing, Poland, Los Angeles, New York, Vienna, and Vancouver. Though, getting his career started in Chicago seems to be at the foundation of his curatorial philosophy and artistic practice. In my conversation with him, he explained how in his graduate school days, curating shows necessitated using various alternative spaces. This created room for everyone involved to experiment and learn.

These alternative spaces, coupled with the fact that the art scene in Chicago did not force artists to constantly push a specific brand or ideology, facilitated an art community based on experimentation and the exchange of ideas. It seemed like an obvious conclusion to draw that this experience has shaped the work he is doing with Infinite Industries. Because that is what it is about: Facilitating these experimental spaces in a democratic way so artistic individuals and the community as a whole may thrive.

To get involved with Infinite Industries, follow their social media accounts for updates on upcoming collaborations and/or events. They send out a weekly digest of upcoming events if email communication is your thing. There are also several venues around Lexington that may be displaying Infinite Industries stickers (designed by local artists) – feel free to take one! Don’t forget to submit your event to the website for that extra exposure, and – as always – support our local artists and artistic happenings.

Arts

LexPhil’s Maestro Marathon: Enrico Lopez-Yañez

Enrico Lopez-Yañez, Principal Pops Conductor of the Nashville Symphony, is fourth among six finalist candidates scheduled for an audition with the Lexington Philharmonic. Mr. Lopez-Yañez will spend a week in Lexington, interviewing, meeting and greeting and rehearsing for a Friday, February 21 concert at Singletary Center for the Arts. 

Each candidate is being interviewed prior to their arrival by Tom Martin for the weekly WEKU radio magazine, Eastern Standard. You can listen to the conversation here:

Interview with Enrico Lopez-Yañez

-0-

Interviews with previous candidates

Arts

Tunis: Larry Cordle’s Eastern Kentucky Is Always Nearby

It’s a few days prior to when Larry Cordle hits the road again and the phone is ringing.

Calling in isn’t a high profile country music collaborator, although he has been in contact with several of late. An especially noteworthy one, in fact, hails from Cordle’s native Lawrence County.

Similarly, the call isn’t bringing word of another award for his champion sense of composition. That came the previous weekend, when the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America (commonly referred to as SPBGMA but pronounced in loosely acronymic terms by bluegrass enthusiasts as “spigma”) informed Cordle that the organization had named him Bluegrass Songwriter of the Year. Again. He took home the same trophy in 2019.

No, on this February afternoon, Cordle is dealing with logistics. He’s on the phone for the second or third time in as many hours sorting out hotel reservations for members of his Lonesome Standard Time band ahead of an impending weekend concert in Alabama.

That’s right. The Songwriter of the Year who is also a member of the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and a celebrated bluegrass stylist whose songs have been recorded over the past three decades by the likes of  Garth Brooks, George Strait and Alison Krauss, is arranging hotel accommodations.

“Well, you know the bluegrass business,” Cordle said. “I guess some people can delegate it out to their road managers. But, man, I just wear so many hats that I can’t honestly ask somebody to do this. My life is just too complicated. It’s too complicated for me, so it would be a nightmare to parcel this out to somebody else. And horribly expensive.”

Karma is an intriguing thing, though, even in the world of bluegrass. As Cordle deals with locking down hotel details for his bandmates, one of the country music’s most lauded new celebrities – the hometown accomplice mentioned earlier – is making room for him on what is perhaps Nashville’s most revered concert stage.

The Tyler Connection
The week after the Alabama gig, Cordle will head to Music City – specifically, just a few blocks removed from the legendary complex of record label offices, recording studios and publishing companies he depicted going up in artistic flames on his 1999 song “Murder on Music Row.” In short, Cordle will be playing the famed Ryman Auditorium on a sold-out bill with Tyler Childers, the artist whose sense of rural storytelling detail has made him a Grammy-nominated country and Americana music sensation. He also hails from Lawrence County and has regularly cited Cordle and other regional greats, including Ricky Skaggs (who had one of his first hits with Cordle’s “Highway 40 Blues”), as heroic influences.

The soft-spoken Cordle is both moved but also mildly bewildered by the recognition.

“Tyler is from Lawrence County, like I am and Ricky is. I didn’t know a lot about him at first. About three or four years ago, I worked a show with him in Huntington. It was down on this riverbank at a little amphitheater. We played our set to 150 to 200 people there. It was nowhere near full, but we had a good set.

“A disc jockey I knew from up in that area asked me afterward if I knew Tyler. I said, ‘Well, no I don’t. I’ve seen his name around and stuff.’ He said, ‘Well, he’s building a great following.’ That’s when I looked up on the hill. By that time, it was nearly full for Tyler’s set. He said, ‘Maybe you ought to hang around here and listen to a couple of his songs.’”

Fast forward to the end of 2018. In the midst of a sold-out string of shows at the Louisville Palace, Childers, already well into his transformation into a major concert draw, has picked Cordle as a show opener. It would be a far cry from the Huntington gig and a primer for what the songsmith is about to experience at the Ryman. Cordle simply views all these shows as a collective affirmation of the powerful country muses that have always inhabited Eastern Kentucky.

“I remember making some comment to Tyler’s manager. ‘I can’t believe you sold out all these Palace shows.’ He said, ‘Larry, this is the way it is everywhere. This is not a Kentucky thing.’

“Eastern Kentucky, man. It’s amazing how all that’s come along. I mean, look at Chris Stapleton. He basically does his own thing. No one was running over themselves to help him. He was already making a good living as a songwriter, but the singing career was basically his doing. Same thing for Sturgill (Simpson). Just the fact that all those guys are from within 60 or 70 miles from one another is so strong.”

Curiously, the regional references, imagery and sentiments that have made Childers’ music so distinctive were qualities Cordle felt might isolate the young artist’s music from wider acceptance and a larger audience.

“I could tell Tyler had this real raw bone energy that was really excitable to crowds. But my first thought was his songs were so regional that I didn’t know how in the world it was going to work out for him. He had those things like that Virgie song (“Follow You to Virgie”). Well, I know where Virgie is, but a lot of people probably don’t. I mean, I knew his songs were really great, but I was surprised that they blew up like they did.

“That shows you how little I knew about it.”

Eastern Intrigue
Okay, so Cordle is a better songwriter than fortune teller. Luckily, he remains fascinated by the possibilities of a tune and the kinds of audiences that will take to one he has put his name to. A recent single, a spry string music reverie titled “Breakin’ on the Jimmy Ridge,” wound up at the top of the Bluegrass Today Top 20 Song Chart in December. It will be part of an upcoming album called “Where the Trees Know My Name” due for release in May.

It’s a telling title. As the critical and commercial prominence of artists like Skaggs and Childers, as well as Cordle himself, attests to, there is something whistling within those trees that inspires music of such reverential depth. The rest of the world may cheer on its unspoiled blend of country cheer and candor. But for Cordle, music is a statement of life. It stands as a reflection of the family and community he grew up with and a milestone of faith that has helped him brave a battle with leukemia that been in remission since 2016.

“My parents and grandparents had just come out of the depression and they worked hard. I tell you, a big part of my life was growing up with us getting together and playing music around here. We couldn’t hardly get TV. In the late ’50s and early ‘60s, watching our TV was like watching ghosts. But my grandfathers and uncles on both sides of the family were great storytellers. They had all these great stories to share. I can’t tell how many of those things that I’ve made songs out of.

“The work ethic of those people was incredible. They were so connected to that land, but it was a hard life. We romanticize about the good times – you know, ‘the good old days.’ Well, they were only the good old days because your mother and daddy took care of you. We still had to work hard. Me and my brother tried to get out of there as much we possibly could because it was hard, backbreaking work. But some way or another, that found a firm place in my mind for these songs I’ve written over the years and the stories they’ve told me that I have made into songs.

“I don’t even know how it all works. For some of these things, I feel I was just sitting there holding the pencil. I don’t know. All that comes from a higher place. It’s a reminder of where you came from and not to get away from where you came from. No matter where I live, I’ll always be from Eastern Kentucky.”

Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time perform at:
+ 7:30 p.m. Feb. 15 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville opening for Tyler Childers. The performance is sold out.
+ 6 p.m. Feb. 22 at Meadowgreen Appalachian Music Park, 303 Bluegrass Lane in Clay City with The Tommy Webb Band. Tickets are $15. meadowgreenmusicpark.com.
+ 4 p.m. Feb. 28 at the Clarion Hotel Conference Center North, 1950 Newtown Pike as part of the two-day Bluegrass in the Bluegrass. Tickets are $45 each evening, $80 for both nights. samjambluegrass.com/bluegrass-in-the-bluegrass.

Arts

Swanson Contemporary Closes After 37 Years

Rodney Hatfield (a.k.a. Art Snake), “Figures Rising”, mixed media, 2007.

In the fall of 1982, Chuck Swanson opened an art gallery in Louisville, bought a house and got married. Home and marriage survive, but after 37 years, Swanson closed his space at the end of 2019. He continues online at  http://swansoncontemporary.com/ and may do some independent curating. The gallery, last located on Market Street in Louisville’s Nulu neighborhood, was a mainstay of Louisville’s art community. Informal and welcoming, the gallery was a gateway to recognition for many young regional artists. While the gallery’s taste was broadly eclectic, Swanson Contemporary was always encouraging to cutting-edge work, and more than willing to take risks. Chuck’s enjoyment of his profession was infectious: “It’s not for everybody. But I was always interested in where young artists would go with their passion. My role was to push them to go further. And a lot of the gallery patrons were really fun to be around. Many of the artists have M.F.A.s. They are smart people and interesting to talk to. Plus we had something new to look at every five or six weeks. Installing work is like making art and draws on some of the same skills. It’s not a bad way to spend your career.”

Jacob Heustis, “Please Do Not Touch the Art”, oil, acrylic on canvas. 2011.

What was the secret to the gallery’s extraordinary longevity? There are many shibboleths around the term “arts community” but Swanson fostered an audience by making community a process and a practice. Swanson Contemporary was a place of inquiry taking its part in larger current narratives and acting as an open-ended unit of social organization dedicated to aesthetic pleasure.

Valerie Fuchs, “01:02:08″,   video loop of 1868 frames projected onto 1868 inkjet prints, 2002, from the exhibition” sine::apsis experiments Signal Noise”, 2004.

No particular visual idiom predominated. It was the first Louisville gallery, commercial or non-profit, to show video art. Russel Hulsey and Tom DeLisle were the first artists in that medium Swanson showed, followed shortly by Valerie Sullivan Fuchs. Swanson remembered, “For a while there was a competitive but collaborative joint effort in video between Russ, Tom and Valerie. Their work was very different. Valerie’s background in architecture gave it a particular structure, while Russ, who more recently has become an actor, always had a performative element. We showed a video in Russ’s basement of a 10-year-old girl in a white dress twirling like a Sufi dervish. Word got around and it was very popular. I remember grandmothers bringing their grandchildren to see it. We sold it to 21C.”

Mark Anthony Mulligan, “We Are Watching”, markers on paper, 2019.

Fuchs believes the gallery was notable for its commitment to the wishes of exhibitors in matters of installation and presentation: “We were able to install as we saw fit for the artwork. We were given a wide open field with few fences.”

Swanson always had one guest curator each year including, among others, Nick Cook and Sarah Olshansky, Dan Pfalzgraf, Nathan Hendrickson, Cindy Norton, and Andrew Cozzens. As a guest curator in 1996, Fuchs was allowed to bring in the group sine::apsis, artists she had met as a graduate student at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She recalls, “We had two amazing shows simultaneously, one at Artswatch with Mary Yates in charge and the other at Chuck’s.  We also had a performance night with artists from the region – Dima Strakovsky from the University of Kentucky, for example. Chuck gave us the freedom to push the edges, even out over into the streets where I installed guerrilla solar-powered light boxes on light poles down Market Street.” Fuchs remains grateful “for the opportunity to show without real limits.” 

Thaniel Ion Lee, “Canvas Drag”, mixed media, 2012.  The artist dragged a chained canvas from the front door of 21C Museum Hotel to the front door of the Swanson Gallery from his wheelchair.

Swanson’s business ethic and his dedication to service to the art community were always in balance. He focused on local and regional art, and showed artists he felt were deserving of wider notice. When Chuck ventured further for shows, he did so with work he believed Louisville should see. Self-censorship was never an issue; in 1994 with then-partner Lynn Cralle the gallery booked both Sally Mann and Jock Sturges shows. The exhibitions included photographs of nude children. Swanson recalls, “I thought the Sally Mann and Jock Sturges shows would get us into trouble. The FBI had seized Jock’s negatives. Miraculously we never had a problem. Jock knew the children at the French nude beach and watched them grow up. He was not coming from a prurient place.” In the first year of the Louisville Photo Biennial, 1999, Swanson Gallery participated with a show entitled, “About Skin.” It was the most popular exhibition Swanson ever mounted, and the most widely publicized.  

Leslie Lyons, “Susan”, black and white photograph, 2000, from the exhibition, “About Skin”, 2000.

A major contribution of the gallery was to bring the work of Mark Anthony Mulligan to wider notice. Mulligan was born in 1963 and grew up in Louisville’s Chickasaw-Rubbertown community, with its industrial sites adjoining the Ohio River, and its prominent plant signs and billboards. Mulligan is a self-taught artist with cognitive challenges. His fanciful bird’s eye-view cityscapes with jumbled streets and businesses renamed to suit his fantasies (Pork Lane, Gentle Way, Mulligan High School, Sausage Square, St. Mulligan Parkway, Garlic Fresh Bread Company) are notable for their brilliant color and urban energies. Artist Bruce Linn first encountered Mulligan drawing outdoors along Bardstown Road in the Highlands neighborhood, and notified his brother-in-law Al Gorman, then working for Chuck. Swanson gave Mulligan a studio space to work in and, with Fred Miller, provided Mark Anthony with paint and materials. A series of shows followed and in 2015 Swanson was co-producer of the documentary short, Welcome to the Peace Lands, which showed Mulligan working on several pieces.

Mary Carothers, “Colony”, mixed media, 2019, from the exhibition, “Currents: Contemporary Art Along the Banks of the Ohio”. The installation reflects on environmental damage from mussel harvesting.

Mary Carothers, photographer, installation artist, and Fine Arts professor at the University of Louisville, observed that “Chuck has the rare ability to embrace uncertain outcomes while simultaneously providing a professional platform. Chuck was committed to engaging in critical discourse and allowing artists to challenge what art can be. Chuck recently allowed me to create a non-traditional sculpture in his space. I did not have a price tag on the artwork as I did not expect it would attract a buyer. Chuck insisted that I set a price. When I set a price, he insisted that I should double it. I reluctantly agreed and – lo and behold – the work sold! I could and sometimes did talk to Chuck for hours. I would stop to make a drop-off or pick-up and I’d soon find myself immersed in the most hilarious and intriguing conversations. I always had to push myself out the door but I also always left Chuck Swanson’s gallery thinking, ‘This guy really loves art…and he really loves artists, too.’”

One of Swanson Contemporary’s legacies is the training it provided to so many people in Louisville arts and culture circles. A partial list of former employees includes Laura Shine, disc jockey; Nancy Peterson, art gallery owner; Jennifer Webb, art educator; Mary Yates, university professor; Dan Pfalzgraf, curator; Fred Miller, writer; Barry Dozier, fine art printer;  Steve Irwin, artist; and Al Gorman, art educator.

For former Speed Art Museum Contemporary Art Curator, Julien Robson, “The Swanson Gallery was the pivot point. It was a key point of interchange, where often things began and were passed off to other galleries or to artists’ studios.  It played a very large role over its 37 years.”  Even without a gallery, Chuck Swanson will continue informally to influence the visual arts dialogue in Louisville and Kentucky.

Arts

Filmed in Alaska, Made in Kentucky

It was one of those “lifetime moments” for Catharine Axley when the University of Kentucky Filmmaker-in-Residence switched on the TV and saw her labor of love filling the screen. Independent Lens had selected her work from among hundreds and there it was, airing nationwide on the PBS series.

The story of champion Alaskan dogsled racer George Attla had captured her attention, and…well, now we’re getting ahead of things. Click “Listen” to hear Catharine tell it in her own words in a conversation we taped for this week’s edition of Eastern Standard on WEKU.

LISTEN

L to R: Associate Producer/Cultural Advisor Evon Peter, Film participant Kathy Turco, Film participant Amanda Attla, Director Catharine Axley, Film participant Joe Bifelt

Arts

Arts Tasting Menu

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

This week, interesting talks and presentations are featured.

Appetizer

Black Horse Men of Kentucky with Dr. Katherine Mooney. Speed Art Museum, Louisville. February 16th, 1-2:30 pm.

Mooney is Associate Professor of History at Florida State University. Her presentation will explore the history of the Black Horse Men of Kentucky. She will be signing her book, Race Horse Men: How Slavery and Freedom Were Made at the Racetrack. The presentation is in conjunction with the Speed’s current exhibition, Tales from the Turf: The Kentucky Horse, 1825 – 1950.

Entrée

2020 Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. Kentucky Theater, Lexington. February 5th, 7 pm – 9 pm.

The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning presents its latest inductees into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. This year’s inductees are Cleanth Brooks, Lucy Furman, Sena Jeter Naslund, Sam Shepard, and Hollis Summers.

Dessert

Robert C. May Photography Lecture Series: Erika Larsen. Gatton Student Center, University of Kentucky. January 31st, 4 pm.

Erika Larsen, Mik’nuraq, 2015, archival pigment print.

Renowned photojournalist Erika Larsen comes to UK for a talk in conjunction with an exhibition of her work at UK Art Museum, Erika Larsen: Ritual for a Changing Planet. Larsen’s work appears in National Geographic. Her current work explores how indigenous cultures are utilizing ritual practices to cope with the effects of climate change on their natural environments.

Arts

Letters of Acceptance: One Chapter Closes, Another Opens

In some ways, “LOA 3”, the latest EP by Lexington rockers Letters of Acceptance, feels like a departure. Unlike the songs on prior releases “LOA 1” and “LOA 2,” which each had a consistent feel throughout, “LOA 3” shifts gears willy-nilly, jumping tonally from track to track. It gives the impression of late-era Beatles, when the band knew what it had earned musically and started to spend that coin with experimentation.

The surprising note, however, is that “LOA 3” is not the result of a shift in a new direction musically, but a planned final act in a trilogy of EPs that both caps off an era and starts down a new path. The first three songs on the release are the final songs recorded as part of the same process which produced the first two EPs – recordings cut at home by the core duo of singers/songwriters/band founders John Norris and Clint Newman.

L-R: John Norris (guitar/vocals); Scott Whiddon (bass); Clint Newman (guitar/vocals); Tim Welch (drums) – Photo by Andrew Brinkhorst

“John and I have been friends for a long time but spent a lot of time nowhere near each other geographically and periodically losing touch,” said Newman. “So the first batch of recordings, which was us holed up in an attic or basement, was like time we spent getting to know each other again. I loved spending that time with him, just working on our little project like it’s a secret.”

That process, recording a full project as a twosome (chronicled back near the end of the last decade here), produced nearly three EPs worth of music, culminating in “LOA 3.” Now, here’s where all the heavy-handed metaphors about endings and beginnings find their purchase: the kernel of change on “LOA 3” is the fourth track on the EP, “150 Ways to Play Solitaire,” in which Letters of Acceptance members drummer Tim Welch and bassist Scott Whiddon get in on the action.

In other words, after nearly three EPs as a duo, now witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational rock’n’roll band. Also, the…sorta goofiness, since “150 Ways…” seems to be rooted in how much fun one band can have recording a tune (and, hey, the Kinks made a career out of this).

“It is a decade-plus-old song that Clint and I made a home recording of long ago, then we re-recorded it with Scott and Tim in a recording studio with Otto Helmuth. So it is the first recording to introduce the full band, yet is also our oldest (and perhaps silliest) song,” said Norris.

The song would be an outlier on any other album, but it fits here on an EP where every song is an outlier, and the musical jumps could give one whiplash. The third track is “Zip Up Your Pockets,” which starts as something of a bleak meditation and then builds to an epic finale, right before “150 Ways to Play Solitaire” cuts in with a Beatles-esque goofy zeal, complete with an intro whistle solo.

“It’s really fun to be in a band that can put such a silly song next to something far more somber like ‘Zip Up’. I think that’s part of what we want to do – have freedom to go in lots of different directions, nor worry about some kind of sound or concept….” said Norris.

“Part of the reason we settled on our band name was because from the beginning of this project, we decided that we weren’t going to lay an overall concept on the sound and instead just trust that whatever comes naturally to us will be good,” said Newman. “Try and work quickly, though not necessarily in a rush.  Accept (!) whatever comes up and run with it.”

Scott Whiddon (bass); Tim Welch (drums)- Photo by Andrew Brinkhorst

Those instincts serve the band well, and the evident enjoyment had by all on the final track portends what may be an even more fully realized musical vision. To date, there have really been two versions of Letters of Acceptance – Newman and Norris recording alone, and the full band playing the tunes live in a flurry of shows from houses to festivals.  Now, with “LOA 3”, these entities have merged into a single recording band. 

“I think that we’ve grown to trust each other more and to listen to each other as players and writers,” said Whiddon, of the evolution of the group. “What hasn’t really changed – maybe deepened or grown? – is that we like each other’s company.  We get each other’s jokes.  And we can kinda predict each other a bit more now, and that’s great.”

LOA with engineer/producer Otto Helmuth (center) – Photo by Andrew Brinkhorst

This new unit brings about new possibilities but, for now, the recording process retains the same ethos: keep plugging away without looking back.

“I think some bands write songs and “workshop” them by playing them live a lot before recording, so that they really understand what the song can do. That makes sense,” said Newman. “But the other approach that bands often take, and that we’re taking, is to write the songs, work them up just enough so we can record basic tracks, and try to capture the magic that happens when a song is still really fresh.  After playing something live a lot, it can get a bit stale quickly, and that’s what you don’t want when you’re recording.”

“I think we just want to keep recording while the material is coming and keep trying to capture it while it’s fresh,” said Norris. “Then maybe in the summer we’ll start figuring out how to shape it all together.”

Contributing writer Brian Powers is a freelance writer, bassist, legal writer and amateur home remodeler originally from Clearwater, Florida. He lives in Lexington with his wife and at least four children, and his favorite band is Def Leppard, for which he refuses to apologize. 

Top photo by Andrew Brinkhorst.

Arts

Arts Tasting Menu

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

More worthwhile museum shows in the region.

Appetizer

Picasso: From  Antibes to Louisville. KMAC Museum, Louisville. Through March 22nd, 2020.

About fifty of the artist’s works in ceramics and on paper from the Musée Picasso in Antibes, France, are exhibited for the first time outside of Europe. Might be wise to purchase advance tickets for this one.

Entree

Something Over Something Else: Romare Bearden’s Profile Series. Cincinnati Art Museum. February 28th through May 24th, 2020.

Romare Bearden (1911–1988), United States, Profile/Part I, The Twenties: Mecklenberg County, Miss Bertha and Mr. Seth, 1978, collage on board, Collection of Susan Merker. © Romare Bearden Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Paul Takeuchi.

The work of African-American artist, writer, and composer is featured in this important exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Museum. One of America’s greatest collagists, this exhibition features thirty collages from Bearden’s Profile Series, which is both autobiographical and also addresses the scope of the African-American experience in this country.

Dessert

Loose Nuts: Bert Hurley’s West End Story. Speed Art Museum, Louisville. Through April 19th, 2020.

Bert Hurley (American, 1898–1955), Loose Nuts: A Rapsody in Brown, 1933. Pen and black ink, brush and black ink, crayon, watercolor, and graphite on wove paper.

Louisville artist Bert Hurley was know almost exclusively within the African-American community. He was known in Louisville’s West End as a talented visual artist and musician. Much of his work has been lost but this exhibition features a handwritten and illustrated novella which takes place in the vibrant West End of the 1930’s.

Arts

John Brooks Unknows Through Painting and Poetry

When visiting John Brooks’s studio on Lytle Street, one must pass through several rooms before arriving at the inner sanctum of Brooks’s creative practice. First, one enters the ground floor of the Lytle Street building, an industrial warehouse in the Portland neighborhood of Louisville. Then, up the stairs to the second floor, one finds a cluster of different studio spaces occupied by the loose collective of artists who, like Brooks, occupy Lytle Street, among them Letitia Quesenberry, Chris Radtke, Denise Furnish, Dominic Guarnaschelli, Rosalie Rosenthal, and Jacob Heustis. Through a foyer of second-hand furniture and down the hall, there is a door to the first location of Quappi Projects.

Brooks founded this gallery in 2017 with the aim of furthering the artistic conversation amongst artists and art-lovers in Louisville. Named after the affectionate nickname of painter Max Beckmann’s second wife Quappi (a derivation of Kaulquappe, German for “tadpole”), Quappi Projects hosted numerous exhibitions at Lytle Street before moving during the summer of 2019 to its current space on Market Street. Brooks now operates Quappi Projects out of Market Street and continues his studio practice on Lytle. There, tucked within the bright, white-walled space of the former Quappi Projects, one finds a curtain. And behind that curtain is Brooks’s studio: an enclave for his paintings, collages, easels, and gathered sources of inspiration.

John Brooks, studio view.

As an artist Brooks is at home with the unknown, the ambiguous, the subtle, and the fleeting. His education had various chapters, from studying politics at the University at Charleston, to studying art at the Central St. Martins College of Art & Design and the Hampstead School of Art while living in London, England. The most lasting conceptual impact, however, came from his time spent visiting Berlin over the years and a summer spent studying under the figurative painter Norbert Bisky in 2015 at Berlin’s AUTOCENTER Summer Academy. Brooks’s admiration for Germanic artistic influences and Germany’s sensitivity to its own dark history finds its way into many aspects of his practice. He often returns to the Max Beckmann quote: “All important things in art have always originated from the deepest feeling about the mystery of Being.” He explains, “I came across that quote some years ago and it stuck with me because that is how I look at the world. We understand a lot, but there is also so much that we don’t understand. Or can’t comprehend…I aim to imbue my work with that sense of unknowing. My creative impulses come from that place, and from a place of longing or missing. There’s a great German word for this feeling: Sehnsucht.”

Brooks’s promotion of expansive thinking connects to his work in curation (as the director of Quappi Projects he steers the gallery’s exhibition program), and to his interest in poetry. He describes himself as “a person who writes constantly in my head as I move throughout the day.” Though it felt natural for him to eventually connect his painting to his poetry practice, the result was nonetheless transformative. The titles for his most recent body of paintings are all drawn from his poetry. His series of work, “A Map of Scents,” on view at Moremen Gallery during the summer of 2019, employs this strategy of poetically titling his pictures, as well as a fresh aesthetic that Brooks explains came from integrating his process of collage-making into his painting. Brooks previously felt he could create more freely in the medium of collage, without the historical weight of painting upon him. He had a breakthrough moment when he realized he could combine his collage and painting techniques: “After nearly a decade of almost exclusively creating expressive faces, my painting practice had reached a standstill. I did not see a way forward until it occurred to me to utilize my collages—during the making of which I do not suffer from compositional frustrations—to help facilitate composition in my painting. Through this change in method and approach I feel unbounded.”

Whereas in recent years a dreamy haziness surrounded Brooks’s figures, in his most recent works he articulates a more defined aesthetic of modeling people in light touches of black paint, with striking clarity in their gazes. These newer figures reside in a world of free-floating images pulled from magazines, websites, social media, and gestural textures of paint.

John Brooks, You Were a Night Owl But it Doesn’t Matter, 47 x 39.5 inches.

Collage allows for unexpected juxtapositions. We see this in the layering of eyes, body, faces, and limbs in Brooks’s paintings, as well as distinct swaths of color: a zone of pink, a backdrop of green, an abstracted touch of olive. Collage’s unprescribed form also allows for the use of empty space. Brooks compares the deliberate, blank areas of his canvases to the restraint used in poetry. “Good poetry says the most it can with as few words as necessary,” he reminds us. As readers we must fill in the gaps between words, accordingly there are unpainted areas between the images in Brooks’s paintings. These gaps allow the poetic elements to breathe.

John Brooks, Dark Breakfast, 47 x 39.5 inches.

This “push and pull” between the extravagance of oil painting and the discipline of poetry parallels another abiding question in Brooks’s work: how much narrative and explicit (i.e., political) content to include? While the meanings of his paintings might seem open-ended to his viewers, for Brooks the politically motivated inspiration for the work is clear. He cites making works about subjects as diverse as the legacy of World War II (Hürtgen Forest; Berlin is a Dirty Mirror), spousal abuse (Elizabeth in the Same Hour), polyamory (An Abyss of Thighs), and the consequences of queer sexuality in our culture (Constant State of New Sorrows (Orlando Boldewijn)). In the Boldewijn painting, Brooks captures the tragedy surrounding his subject’s death in the penetrating melancholy of Boldewijn’s eyes. Only nineteen years old, the Dutch teenager Boldewijn was found murdered in 2018 following a Grindr date. Violence experienced by young queer men carries a personal significance for Brooks, who lost a friend in 2014 under circumstances to similar to Boldewijn’s (foul play following a Grindr date). Brooks explains that the name “Orlando” also reminds him of the horrific mass shooting in 2016 at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida. While friends and family inspire many of Brooks’s themes, not all the subjects in his painting and poetry are autobiographically inspired. Some works (and texts) speak more generally to the state of our country, society, and the environment, aspiring to the time-honored tradition of the artist articulating universal truths.

Studio view with Constant State of New Sorrows (Orlando Boldewijn) in foregound.

Brooks’s calculations in deciding what to reveal and not reveal through the titles and content of his work reminds me of contemporary painter Keltie Ferris’s approach to sharing parts of her queer identity. (Ferris, coincidentally, was also raised in Kentucky.) Regarding her body prints she explained, “There is something about disclosing and not disclosing, or revealing or not revealing: the unfolding…You see everything, but you don’t. That kind of controlled unfurling is queer.”

Growing up in Frankfort, Kentucky, Brooks describes espousing “a certain timidity as a way to cope and make my way through small town life in Kentucky in the 80s.” As a practicing artist, however, he argues that his work “has never been apologetic.” It’s all there for those who care to probe deeper. He describes wanting to take his stance further, saying, “Moving forward with my practice I plan to continue integrating politics and political ideas and current events into my work, but I want to do it in a way so that the work functions in a variety of ways, that it touches not just on ideas of politics but also ideas of art, too.”

Paul Valéry once described poetry as a “language within a language.” Poets nestle ideas into words in ways that defy literal and succinct description. Continuing with my Russian doll theme of rooms within rooms and languages within languages, I’d like to conclude by calling attention to micro-passages of paint that Brooks pointed out to me within his paintings. Within his newest works he inserts shapes and color that are influenced by the painters he admires. “I am thinking about specific artists when I’m pondering colors,” he explains. “Max Beckmann and Marlene Dumas with black, Cy Twombly and Ferdinand Hodler with white, Kirchner with purple and green (and Hockney) and Peter Doig, Matisse and Guston with pinks.” Floating within the paintings Bisky Says Joy Comes from the Action and The Collectors are small, variegated strokes of color comprising green leaves, crafted in the style of David Hockney. It’s a quiet, knowing gesture, an intimacy born of looking and (as Bisky says) joy.

The following three poems by John Brooks are published here for the first time, on UnderMain:


November

Morning is ministry,
birdsong homiletic.

Finespun bruise
of autumn on this

newest day. You slip
into a susurrus

of fog, become
indigenous, mute

to the now.
Leaves are lime

of Osage orange,
drop without

gasping. In rain
this slope is slick,

full of snakes aching
not to be seen

scraping in the dregs
of summer’s last

honey. Heron, Snowy
egret, Sandhill crane

forage and hover
as a trio in a shy

pond. Departing geese
are a cadent scene

in four acts. You exult
in the urgent quality

of this dying light.
Tomorrow is already

another goodbye, almost
the deep black lake

of November when
winds get wild,

hailstones cover
the road, and dark

is a song stuck
in your head

or the mood
as you head

to the polls.


Alarm

Wojnarowicz said
what’s happening

now is cause for
alarm. And that

was then. We
are even more

entrenched
in our comfort

now. You know
where I live out

in the middle
of nowhere

all sunsets look
like bad paintings.

My kids think
I’m pretty

at least. I float
on blue song.

Joni resisted
guile, gave into

vivid Ellingtonia.
She was nocturnal;

for me morning
is always a hymnal

but by midday
I remember

who we are. Empires
collapse out of fear.

It’s uniform in a Kubrick,
it’s uniform in a Hitchcock.
I can’t get the monarch
to agree; he’s after

milkweed, goldenrod;
a guest in my garden

or is it the other
way around?

Who belongs
and who leaves

and who remains.
Even friendships

sour into
oblivion

so of course
a culture does.

This is kind of
an old story

but we thought
ourselves immune.

Our coal trucks, our
cobalt plunderings;

we have cornered
ourselves into erasure.

Rockets red glare
in an elephant eye.

Rain hopes to be oil,
oil hopes to be oilier.

I don’t think
the future will be

careful with us.
The present, obviously

not. Today we are
weeping; tomorrow

we are empty.
Where I live

a monarch is a
summer thing.

To summer is
a moonview

of twilight.
David said

keep close
to dark so

it can’t
surprise or

he might
have if he

had lived.


Elizabeth in the Same Hour

In a forest daylight is
melodrama, distance

a drawback. Here is this
photograph of Elizabeth

in the same hour, head
encircled by hair as

black as wood char.
She called herself

an Indian, hesitated
to marry. Marriages

are the regrets
of spooky girls.

What tribe had
she wed? Bill

spoke to horses,
came on foot

from Missouri, drank
too much, went blind

from bile. She learned
how good touch

and bad touch
were parallel

but never touched.
Her children seized

the river in her
and gave it one

noiseless dress.
She kept it spotless,

whether in town
or picnicking.
For generations,
her women had known

how to silo scars
and trespasses;

they understood
just how to manage

difficulties. Disappointments
were chiseled into and out

of their lore. Her own
mother liked to say

she looked beyond
weather to commune

with a musical future.
After Bill, she could see

in total darkness
while carrying only

a vacant lantern.

All Photo Credits: Miranda Lash

Arts

The Spirit of Gurdjieff Lives on in Two Guitars

Bert Lams has come to recognize the look. It’s the one he receives when audience patrons think they know what is in store once he initiates a concert with fellow guitarist Fabio Mittino.

“It’s funny,” the Belgian-born Lams remarked. “Being a guitar duo brings a connotation for people that what we do is always going to be about ‘guitar music.’ They expect to hear flamenco, Spanish guitar music or some kind of virtuoso music. What we do is totally the opposite of that.

“You’ll see it when we start our first piece. You can see the surprise on people’s faces. They have no idea. ‘What is this? What are they doing? This is not what we expected.’ I enjoy that because it still draws people in, but in a different way, from a different angle. A lot of that has to do with where this music comes from. It was created under special circumstances in difficult times. It is very spiritual music with a lot of folklore elements mixed in.”

The Gurdjieff connection
What distinguishes Lams and Italian guitarist Mittino from other duos and ensembles – even the celebrated California Guitar Trio, which Lams has toured and recorded with extensively for nearly three decades – is the source material. The core of the duo’s repertoire revolves around G.I. Gurdjieff, a journeyman whose music was as diverse as the many occupational hats he juggled.

Born from Russian, Armenian and Greek descent, Gurdjieff was, at various times, a merchant, author, philosopher, spiritual teacher, mystic and more. He wasn’t a composer in any traditional sense. Instead, he absorbed songs, melodies and meditations throughout travels in Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East in much the same way ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax did in collecting tunes of mid-19th century folk music in rural America.

Lomax preserved the music he found through field recordings. Gurdjieff stored what he heard in his head, then hummed or plucked out single-string recitations on guitar to one of his most trusted proteges, Russian composer Thomas de Hartmann. Much of that music was then “composed” for piano. What Lams and Mittino did, at the latter’s suggestion, was rework it for two guitars.

“Gurdjieff was not a musician,” Lams said. “Still, everything he touched turned to gold. He could sell carpets at the market early in the morning. He could open a restaurant. He was a great businessman, but was also a teacher. He wrote books. He could kind of do anything he wanted, really.

“His father was a professional storyteller. I think that’s where the nature of this music comes from. His father had it in his blood, that oral tradition. He did not write any of these stories down. They were passed on from one person to another. That was his job. I think Gurdjieff inherited some of that gift.

“When he went on his travels, he was able to somehow memorize these melodies and hum them to de Hartmann. There were Aremenian songs, Egyptian songs, Syrian songs. There were these different songs from all over the East. We play a lot of those.”

Movimenti
So what does the resulting music sound like? Well, on “Movimenti,” a newly released second album of Gurdjieff/de Hartmann music by Mittino and Lams (the first, “Long Ago,” came out in 2016), the guitar sound is subtle yet exotic with a strong Eastern accent. It is delicately dance-like but powerfully emotive. And short. The duo glides through 11 compositions on the recording in under 20 minutes.

“Yes, these are short pieces. Most of the ones on the second album are designed for movement. There is sort of a dance choreography that Gurdjieff came up with. Fabio and I experienced this last summer. We were invited to Greece to play for participants at a ten-day seminar where they studied these movements every day. They kept repeating these pieces as they studied the movements. Some were repeated for half an hour. Most were played on piano and were played a lot slower.

“Since we’re guitar players, we make this music more of an adaptation for the guitar. It just seems to sound better when it’s played a little faster on the guitar. On piano, you can play one note and it can ring forever. Not on guitar. On guitar, the note is played and it is over, so we have to kind of play it a little bit differently and adapt it somewhat. That’s why most of those pieces are played faster.

“This music is like a painting. It takes me to a place, but I think it also speaks to people in a way that is simpler, a way that is more innocent, than Gurdjieff’s teachings. Even if people don’t know anything about the music, you can tell that it speaks to them when we play it. You can tell that there is something that touches them in the melodies. There is a lot of emotion in this music, a lot of longing.”

Enter Fabio
Lams’ journey to Gurdjieff landed him in two countries before the alliance with Mittino began. In 1987, Lams made his first visit to the United States to take part in a course called Guitar Craft overseen by King Crimson founder Robert Fripp. The studies took him to Claymont Court in West Virginia, a mansion that was (and still is) home to the Claymont Society, which offers retreats centered largely around the teachings of Gurdjieff.

While Lams was focused on Guitar Craft, the Claymont Society and the grounds it called home remained a profound inspiration for a young guitarist just getting introduced to America. Ironically, Lams and Mittino will perform at Claymont Court only two nights after a January 15th concert at the Kentucky Coffeetree Café in Frankfort.

“That’s where it all started for me. It was a big thing, coming to America for the first time, not knowing what I was in for. This country changed my life. Now I live here and work here.”

But it was while residing in England that Mittino entered the picture. Hoping to also become a Guitar Craft student, he reached out directly to Fripp. While courses at the time were unavailable, Fripp referred the Italian instrumentalist to Lams for lessons. That led to an extended friendship, professional alliance and a fascination with Gurdjieff.

“Fabio is about 20 years younger than I am,” Lams said. “He is actually the one who instigated this whole project on the music of Gurdjieff because he had already been arranging it for solo guitar. He made an album of the music and asked me to write something in the liner notes. But I think he felt it would sound a lot better in a duo because some parts were missing with one guitar. That’s when he started having the idea of playing this music with me.”

Gurdjieff in the house
The majority of the performances during the brief tour Mittino and Lams are undertaking this month – a series of nine shows in ten days – are house concerts. The Frankfort outing at the Coffeetree Café, where Lams has played several times before with Mittino as well as with the California Guitar Trio, is one of the few exceptions. But the café’s atmosphere, he said, very much possesses the proper living room atmosphere.

“The house concerts are a perfect situation for this music, because they are very intimate and very much like at the Coffeetree where people are in a smaller space. They’re close by, close up. There is no division of stage and lighting system and sound and all that. We’re in the same space, so we hear what the audience hears and they hear exactly what we hear. Normally, when we do a regular concert with the trio in a larger room or a theatre, for instance, you’re in a separate space than the audience. It’s much easier to connect with the audience with a house concert because you’re right there in the same room.

“The house concerts are like heaven for me. When there are just 20 or 30 people there listening closely to you, it’s special. It’s special every night.”

Fabio Mittino and Bert Lams perform at 7 p.m. on January 15th at the Kentucky Coffeetree Café, 235 W. Broadway in Frankfort. Admission is $20. Call 502-875-3009. For reservations, go to www.kentuckycoffeetree.com.

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. 

Arts

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.”

 

Arts

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

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.

Appetizer

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.

Entree

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.

Dessert

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.

Arts

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.

Arts

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.  

Arts

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.

Arts

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.

“Holiday.”

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 theburlky.com.

Top Image Photo Credit: Joshua Smith

Arts

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:

www.lucyazubuikeart.com

www.scharlesart.com

www.ramonadlindsey.weebly.com

www.instagram.com/toya_northington

Arts

Arts Tasting Menu

Hand-cut cultural delicacies from around the region.

This week, a Lexington-centric menu.

Appetizer

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.

Entree

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).

Dessert

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.

 

Arts

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.

Arts

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

-0-

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.

Arts

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 originsjazz.org.

Title Image Photo Credit: Ben Monder by John Rogers

Arts

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.

Arts

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.

https://secureservercdn.net/198.71.233.129/d7b.1c5.myftpupload.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/IMG-1852.mov

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.

https://secureservercdn.net/198.71.233.129/d7b.1c5.myftpupload.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/IMG-1855.mov

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.

https://secureservercdn.net/198.71.233.129/d7b.1c5.myftpupload.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/IMG-1837.mov
Arts

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

Arts

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 www.miacinelli.com.

Arts

Arts Tasting Menu

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

Appetizer

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.

Entree

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.

Dessert

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!

Arts

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

Arts Tasting Menu

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

Appetizer

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.

Entree

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.

Dessert

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.

Arts

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 lexingtonlyric.tix.com.

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

Arts

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.

-0-

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.

Arts

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

Arts

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.

Arts

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.

Email: info@neweditionsgallery.com

All images of artwork were provided by the artist.

Arts

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.

Appetizer

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.

Entree

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.

Dessert

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

Digestif

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.

Arts

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.

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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

Artists

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

Panelists

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™

HD PERFECT™ VIDEO & PHOTO

 

 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. (www.greatmeadowsfoundation.org)

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

Arts

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.

Arts

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:

LISTEN

READ AS YOU LISTEN

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:  

LISTEN

READ AS YOU LISTEN

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.

Arts

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.

Arts

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.

Arts

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.

Arts

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

Audio:

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.

Arts

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