Category Archives: Arts

Arts

Heaven In Hand: Julie Baldyga at KMAC Museum

“In Heaven Everyone Will Shake Your Hand: The Art of Julie Baldyga,” a book of the Louisville artist’s work published by the Louisville Story Program, was scheduled to be released at the opening of her solo show at KMAC Museum on April 17, 2020. Instead, books were shipped to those who had ordered them and who were now hunkered down at home during the pandemic-prompted lockdown. I vaguely remember enjoying a quick perusal of the book when it arrived, though admittedly it was soon covered up by other mail and forgotten amid the fresh anxieties that were threatening to bury everyone during those first quarantined spring weeks.

This is not any indication of the book’s quality – it is indeed a wonderful volume filled with more than 150 works from a career spanning nearly five decades, complemented by personal photographs of the artist and interviews with Baldyga’s friends and family. But I merely want to emphasize, for those who have not yet ventured out to discover this for themselves, after months of having my art consumption rationed to its digital forms, that the experience of viewing “Julie Baldyga’s Heavenly People” in the third-floor gallery of KMAC Museum was nothing short of ecstatic.

‘Billy on the Beach in California’, oil pastel on paper, c.1974-75.

I choose the word ‘ecstatic’ because there is a religious quality that permeates all of the works in the show. Perhaps it had something to do with staring into a stranger’s unmasked face for the first time since March, but standing in the empty gallery in front of Billy on the Beach in California, I found myself incredibly moved by this almost Christlike figure, his long, sandy hair blowing in the ocean breeze, a beatific smile across his tanned visage. With oil pastels, Baldyga deftly renders the folds of her subject’s chambray shirt with the same devotion to detail that older masters dedicated to the robes of religious icons. Encircling Billy’s head, her skillful blending of the tricky medium creates the faintest of halos against an azure sky. 

‘Hadley’ (center), oil pastel, c.1974-75, and other early works by Baldyga.

The work is one of few in the show – comprising more than a dozen of Baldyga’s pastels, along with several ceramic and soft sculpture works and six of her titular heavenly people — in which human hands are not a prominent focus. In Hadley, another early work, Baldyga portrays her subject (a friend of her brother Philip) from behind, obscuring his face entirely but allowing us to see, in magnified proportion, his hands held open in offering behind his back. Note what Baldyga chooses to detail: the machine stitching on his tennis shoes and the back pockets of his jeans, the veins threading down his forearms like the wires might attach to pistons.

“Most of us rely on the face as our essential point of contact,” notes curator Joey Yates. “It is often the primary way we communicate with one another. But for Julie, that point of connection seems to start with the hands. The detail and emphasis on hands are often the expressive center of her images.”

Combined with her penchant for portraying subjects from behind, this distinct perspective was what first drew Yates to Baldyga’s work, seeing it as “a portal into a particular vision of the world.” Nonverbal until she was seven years old, the artist expressed herself through drawing from an early age, a talent that her parents and her teachers at the Binet School (which she attended for ten formative years) enabled to flourish.

As a teenager, Julie began working in oil pastels, teaching herself how to blend pigments with her fingers and add depth and contour to her pieces. Her obsession with mechanics and technology was nurtured by her father, an MIT graduate and chemical engineer, who not only entertained all of Julie’s technical curiosities, but also supplied her with the wires, tubes and hoses she employed in early sculptures, along with the instructional manuals, model engines and spare parts that she recreated in drawings and ceramics. 

‘Elizabeth with a gas engine in her puff shooting smoke’, oil pastel on paper, 2010.

Women in engineering are a favorite subject of the artist’s, such as in the delightful Elizabeth with a gas engine in her puff shooting smoke. Like Billy on the beach so many years before, Elizabeth’s long, lustrous tresses (her “puff,” in Baldyga’s lexicon) are swept to the side, this time occupying enough of the canvas to make it a horizontal work. Dark curls of hair swirl around a gas engine, their curving lines echoed in the undulations of smoke emanating from the motor: mane and machine are happily one.

‘Kissing Fish’, oil pastel on paper, 2014. Collection of Susan Moremen.

Even more resplendent is the 2014 work Kissing Fish, in which the female subject is surrounded by lush palms and verdant grasses with small clusters of pink tulips while amphibious creatures with long arms and human hands tenderly pick at the young woman’s hair (her puff!). These two pairs of creatures have human hair, too, of course, and their hands and arms mirror each other in beautiful symmetry, reminiscent of a wondrous, Chagall-like space in which humans and animals float through joyful skies.

“Julie has invented her own world,” Yates says. “It is not only a place she can escape to, but also a world that she invites us, as viewers, into as well. In those moments when we want to turn away from the chaos around us, we rely on visionaries who can guide us to a respite from harsher realities.”

Six of Baldyga’s Heavenly People, mixed materials, various dates.

It is a curiosity, then, that the show’s namesake pieces – life-size representations of Baldyga’s friends that she creates out of found materials in the belief that they will inhabit these forms when they go to heaven – embody the idea that perfection is something achieved only in the afterlife. Because if we are to see our own world as Baldyga sees it, to view everyday objects with extraordinary reverence and regard ordinary people as subjects worthy of a visual hagiography – imperfections and all – then that seems like the sort of heavenly world in which I’d want to live.

Julie Baldyga’s ‘Heavenly People’ at KMAC Museum. (Photo: Ted Wathen)

“Julie Baldyga’s Heavenly People” is on view at KMAC Museum through November 8, 2020. KMAC Museum is located at 715 West Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky and is open Wednesday-Sunday, 10am-5pm.

Arts

Studio Visit: Whitesburg’s Lacy Hale

On the corner of Main and Railroad Street in Whitesburg, Kentucky, stands Roundabout Records. This may seem like a roundabout way to begin an art studio visit; however, in this case, it makes perfect sense. The artist Lacy Hale and her husband Benjamin Spangler are the owners of Roundabout Records, just a stone’s throw away from Appalshop, where both she and her husband have been involved for years.

(Photo by Sarah Hoskins)

Lacy and I pretend-hug in this new world of COVID. I follow her back to her studio space, passing by records, speakers and a few guitars along the way. As we continue through the store, the art form changes from music to wood cuts and screens, as Lacy and her art take center stage.

“I always knew I wanted to be an artist. Both of my parents were creative – my dad played guitar (really, anything that had strings) and my mom, who is still living, loves arts and crafts. We grew up extremely poor and she was always making things. I remember one year for Easter she made us all (my three siblings and me) terry cloth bunny dolls. After my dad passed away in 2008 she made us art quilts out of his clothing.

I like to try my hand at a little bit of everything, just because it’s hard to make it as an artist here. You have to be an entrepreneur.”

(Photo by Sarah Hoskins)

You can see that Lacy is indeed an entrepreneur. There are stacks of cards, T-shirts, and linoleum and wood cuts throughout. This might be a small space, but it is full of big ideas. A beautiful new print of Frida Kahlo is tacked to the wall. Lacy tells me it was recently included in an exhibit in New York where she once attended the prestigious Pratt Institute School of Art.

What was it like to transition from Eastern Kentucky to Manhattan and one of the world’s leading private art institutes?

“Pratt was an opportunity that I never thought that I would have. I only made it there because my community in Knott County rallied around me and helped raise money to send me there. My parents worked so hard to pay for it but it was just too much and I came home after my second year.

The culture shock wasn’t that intense – or at least I played it off like it wasn’t. I had obviously seen movies and shows with NYC in them. There were new things to learn, but the first time I stepped foot into the Met, I bawled my eyes out. Stendhal Syndrome is real.

I loved the subway! I had never been able to go anywhere I wanted for $1.50 or whatever it was at the time. In rural Eastern Kentucky, you must have a car. My family could only really afford the one my dad used to drive to work, so the subway was a whole new and exciting experience. Also, though, as soon as I opened my mouth people would assume I was stupid because of my accent. I dealt a lot with that.”

(Photo by Sarah Hoskins)

Yet, she embraces her mountain accent with humor, pulling out a new screen recently completed.

“This is a design my husband and I came up with. It’s Dracula, but around here people would call him “Draculer.” He is wearing a Beechnut Tobacco hat and he’s got an RC Cola in his hand. I just did the screen yesterday. Not all of my work has a sense of humor, but some of it does. I think art should be enjoyed and it can be beautiful and funny and meaningful and blah, blah, blah.”

I ask Lacy about #nohateinmyholler, her phrase and hashtag with a voice of its own.

“I don’t know if I’ve told you how that came about. The neo-Nazis were going to march in Pikeville in 2017 to try and recruit. What better way to try and protest then to make a piece of art that could be put on a sign or a shirt? People saw it and just really took to it. I’ve seen it all over this county and all over the world. I just sent one each to Japan and Germany. Holler transplants, I guess.”

(Photo by Sarah Hoskins)

I ask: Do you feel you have always been a socially conscious artist?

“I’ve always been socially conscious. My parents instilled in me that all people are equal, and to stand up if you see an injustice. I did some work through the years with groups concerning social justice ideals, but when I knew that white supremacists were coming to a town an hour from me, under the guise of helping poor families in eastern Kentucky, I was infuriated. And so were some of the kids where I was working. At the time I was working with the Appalshop Media Institute, their youth media program. One of the youths asked if we could have an ‘Art in Response’ day to make protest signs and things. We thought it was an incredible idea! I had taught many of them to do block printing and we took a day and made posters and things.

The phrase ‘No Hate in My Holler’ came to me the night before and I carved it that day surrounded by a lot of local kids and adults who were also making protest pieces. It was so encouraging then and the response to ‘No Hate in My Holler’ has been incredibly encouraging ever since.”

Lacy pulls out the screen for #nohateinmyholler. This is actually her second screen. The first one wore out after she printed over 500 t-shirts in June and July.

(Photo by Sarah Hoskins)

After George Floyd’s murder and the breaking news of the police shooting of Breonna Taylor, she felt a need to take action. She made a post saying she was going to donate 75 percent of all funds raised selling the t-shirts to Black Visions Collective and the Louisville Bail Fund. The orders came pouring in. She has raised over $5,000 for these important causes.

Lacy demonstrates how to make a split fountain, a process of screen printing and printmaking, placing more than one ink color on the same screen to achieve an ombré or rainbow effect. The paint blends on the screen as you use a squeegee to push the ink through the screen onto the medium. It’s a method used to place multiple colors on a print without using a different screen for each color. The paint colors line up on one side as Lacy begins to pull them through. The colors repeat and pull through again as the paint finds its path – not unlike Lacy finding her path back here and home.

(Photo by Sarah Hoskins)

It seems as though Lacy’s work is everywhere in Whitesburg. We leave the record store and walk over to the Boone Motor Building also known as AMI (Appalshop Media Institute), where she has created some of her murals. Her next mural was supposed to be a community collaboration, but in this new COVID age it will now be a solo piece.

We took a drive up to Jenkins, where she tells me about her mural there, commissioned by Appalshop.

“The community wanted to move away from coal. They didn’t want it to be about coal. It could respect the history, but they wanted to move forward.”

The mural shows a miner’s head lamp pointing its way to the future, leaving the black and white world of coal behind and peering into a new, colorful age. I particularly love the young girl with a dulcimer and an iPhone on the ground next to her.

(Photo by Sarah Hoskins)

“I designed it like a paint-by-number and the community painted it. The age range was 7-87 years old and there were 60 community members.

I view a lot of public art as community outreach. Working outside as people walk by gives an artist the chance to answer questions and talk to folks that may never set foot in a museum. For most of my murals, I have worked with organizations and we always get the community to give us feedback, as well. Sometimes they’re involved in the design process. It’s important for the community to have some buy-in instead of forcing a piece of artwork on them.”

Her Possum and Pokeweed mural brought about a lot of discussion. Lacy appreciated the possum for its resilience, but she learned that others were not so affectionate toward them. In the end, the piece was embraced by the community and can be seen in Harlan.

(Photo by Sarah Hoskins)

How does place influence your work?

“I am the 5th or 6th generation of Hales to be raised on the property where I grew up. I grew up running wild through the mountains and the creeks, working the garden with my dad, wandering the family cemetery looking at my ancestors’ headstones. I think eastern Kentucky gets into your bones and blood. The mountains will always feel like home, no matter where else you may live. I think I really settled into my artistic voice when I began doing pieces about the place I love. I’ll always be searching for and refining that voice but it feels right and I feel good about the work I produce. My identity is so entwined with this place. Making the decision to move back here, live here, make a way here, and make my work here was a very conscious one.”

Did you ever feel bad having to leave Pratt?

“At the time I had to go, it felt like it was time to go. I was a holler girl in New York City which was awesome – I learned a lot and I met a lot of really cool people, ate a lot of different food I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise, but it also made me realize how much I missed this place. I was lucky to be there for the time I was, but I was ready to come home.”

I think home is glad to have her back.

Arts

Book Review

Some poets spend most of their writing lives searching for the subject matter that is theirs alone. Others find it early on – or perhaps it finds them. There’s no guarantee, of course, that anything special will come of such a meeting. Recognizing your own material only takes you so far. What matters more, in the end, is what you do with it.

Photo by Kevin Nance

In Horsepower, her prize-winning debut poetry collection just out from the University of Pittsburgh Press, the Kentucky poet Joy Priest hasn’t just seen, perhaps earlier than most of her contemporaries, what is uniquely hers: the story of her life as a biracial child and young woman in racially divided Louisville and beyond. She has also seized and shaped it, revealing the ways in which her personal history, as specific as it is, dovetails and resonates with that of Kentucky’s horse culture and of America itself. Winner of the Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, given by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs and judged by former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, Horsepower is the harrowing yet luminous testament of a young woman whose life has unfolded smack on the very fault line of America’s racial divide. Restlessly she crosses it back and forth from both directions, absorbing its tectonic shifts and quakes, and lives to tell the tale.

Joy Priest at Churchill Downs, photo by Kevin Nance

She tells it with passion, ferocity and considerable skill. As we learn in the title poem that serves as prologue and prophecy in this collection that unspools with some of the ironic force of Greek tragedy, it begins with a little girl raised by a single white mother and grandfather in a working-class neighborhood across the street from the backside of Churchill Downs, “the twin steeples / & emerald roofs just past / our garage, // a horse practicing / its start out of the gate.” She grows up amid the scent of the stables and the distant gabbling of racing announcers, reeling in customers looking for yard parking on Derby Day. But

Beyond the spires

is a larger world I do not know

exists. A mile west, in my line

of vision, is a family

I do not know

I have.  

That family is headed by her black father, whose existence, including his race, has been kept from the girl on the orders of her racist “pappaw” who, armed with a nightstick and “a many-chambered gun,” has turned her father away for years. In “Winning Colors, 1988” – the book’s thrilling high point, featuring the triumph of the filly who galloped away with the Kentucky Derby the year of the poet’s birth (an event memorialized, as I know from interviewing Priest for an article last year, in a tattoo on her forearm) – we learn the racially fraught backstory of the speaker’s birth. And in “My Father Teaches Me to Slip Away,” the volume’s dramatic centerpiece and turning point, father and daughter are reunited, all but accidentally, when her mother runs into her former lover in a Louisville video shop. That night, a black man she closely resembles knocks on the door. “Your father, this is your father,” her mother says, pushing her over the threshold onto the porch. “When I step into him & look back at my mother, she // Is on the other side.”

It’s a gripping story – the narrative spine, I suspect, of a bestselling memoir waiting to happen – but it hardly ends there. The reunion of daughter and father, and her transition into his extended family and their mostly black milieu in West Louisville, only begins the long, difficult process of her education in the ways and means of survival in a world she is now on the business end of. In poem after poem, the speaker reenacts the discovery and assembly of pieces of herself – her history and heritage, her ancestors living and dead – that had been hidden from her for the worst of reasons. (In the virtuosic “Abecedarian for Alzheimer’s,” she revisits her much-changed pappaw, who near the end of his life is “forgetting // to hate us, to put his white hood on every day” and taking a black girlfriend, a stripper named Angel who fascinates crowds of white men with her “kaleidoscope of color contacts & quick weave” and her “equine” legs, into his house.) 

What follows, chronologically speaking, is a troubled adjustment period in which the speaker struggles to navigate through a world full of racial, sexual and economic pitfalls that she’s always getting caught up in, running away from and sometimes returning to. (This often happens behind the wheel of big American automobiles, muscle cars or junkers, mechanisms of shelter and escape whose names – Chevelle, Oldsmobile, Cutlass Supreme – have a kind of talismanic juice here that underlines the book title’s double meaning.) The dramatic situations in many of the resulting poems are hazy, shifting, fugitive, sometimes to a fault; the reader spends much of Horsepower stumbling about in an unstable landscape of memory that evokes something like the fog of war. What’s going on and when and where, in particular who’s doing what to whom and why, aren’t always easy to follow. The scorching clarity of the book’s central poems breaks down a bit here, although Priest does provide notes to many of the poems at the back of the book; consulting these in advance will save the reader some measure of head-scratching. 

On the other hand, the poet’s sometimes skimpy scene-setting seems to be by design. Perhaps strategically, she preserves the fragmentary quality of her memories – which are often quite grim, with references to guns, sexual assault and drug use – even as she patches them together in lines that are by turns sinuous, elegant and gritty. (She consistently swaps out the word and with an ampersand, which can be interpreted as a declaration of membership in a lineage that includes, among others, one of her mentors, former Lexington-based poet Nikky Finney, who oversaw Priest’s work as a graduate student at the University of South Carolina.) In “The Payphone,” Priest provides something of an ars poetica: “I am obsessed with 

What’s phantom: the younger self;

The angry & agile body, starved & able

To consume indiscriminately;

The gently-pumping vein.

 

The portrait that emerges powerfully from this welter of words, memory and imagery is of a fiercely questing poet who isn’t content to exhume the skeleton of her hardscrabble past at the mercy of historical forces that have little mercy to spare, especially for young black women. In Horsepower, Joy Priest breathes imaginative life into the bones of her past and leads it, like a prize filly, onto the sloppy track of American poetry, where it explodes from the gate.

Arts

Photo Essay: The Wall Says ‘Take a Knee’

There is a quiet protest going on in Louisville. Actions that speak volumes, and in the language of the visual.  Everyone who is anyone is there: from Oprah to Obama and Beshear to Biden.

Thomas English had planned to create a mural honoring the Negro League’s 100th anniversary. The site: under the viaduct on Broadway near 35th Street in Louisville. But his plan quickly changed in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. And so began the “Take a Knee” project.

If you visit and you’re lucky enough, Thomas will offer you a brush and ask you to contribute – as he did one Saturday morning for a group of children and passersby from Atlanta.

Artist Cheryl Johnson has painted here for years. You will find her here almost every day, painting portraits of those she feels should be recognized. It’s an honor to be surrounded by those Thomas and Cheryl revere.

Do yourself a favor and head over to Broadway in Louisville to take a look and take a knee. In the meantime, go there through my lens. Enjoy the scroll!

Continue reading

Arts

A Tapestry of Talent: An Interview with Kōan Jeff Baysa

In December 2019, I met with Kōan Jeff Baysa, the elected presider over UnderMain’s fourth running of the Critical Mass Series (CMIV) as the incoming Critic-in-Residence (CIR) with the Great Meadows Foundation (GMF). As we sat in a window seat at Nyonya in Manhattan’s NoLita neighborhood, I shared details about UnderMain and why the Critical Mass Series was founded, primarily as an effort to bring a multitude of talent together in critical discourse about the role of contemporary art in the region.

I explained my original concerns about the lack of critical writing and the ongoing battle against stereotypical notions of Kentucky as a backwater, and that Critical Mass had become my passion. Over the last three years, I’d reached out to various leaders in our community and worked with interns, artists, and writers to include their voices. UnderMain funded the program in its entirety. Then, in 2019, The Great Meadows Foundation recognized our efforts and a common goal for the two organizations: Both were intent on developing Kentucky’s collective voice in the world of contemporary art and, as a result, GMF granted funding to UnderMain to support CMIV, CMV, and CMVI.

Kōan had visited Kentucky before, and from the range of topics that flowed from appetizer to entree to tea, I knew CMIV would succeed on a grander scale than in years past. Kōan’s approach was clearly global; together we began weaving an even larger tapestry.

From our meeting, two topics remained at the forefront of my mind: First, Kōan’s comments after speaking with Fred Wilson about the museological approach underpinning his installation at the Maryland Historical Society titled Mining the Museum – namely to challenge all narratives presented to us – and second, Kōan’s intrigue with The Rubin Museum, which I later toured for the first time. This was a remarkable collection of contemporary works in conversation with the collection of Himalayan art. These talking points were harbingers of what would develop in the coming months with Kōan leading the 2020 Critical Mass Series – open discourse was at the center of both.

The Wilson and Rubin discussions would also lead to an exhibition proposal that UnderMain agreed to mount in partnership with 21c Museum Hotel and the GMF, Icon Interventions, which Kōan curated and discusses further in the interview conducted with him here.

Kōan later joked that our lunch had ranged from ‘cabbages to kings’ and that was just the beginning. Under usual circumstances, he was to spend approximately eighty hours in Kentucky artists’ studios and help raise the level of critical discourse among artists in the region.

In March 2020, the circumstance was far from usual, and while the pandemic robbed us all of what we might have done together, what we could have learned first hand from Kōan Jeff Baysa, and what outcomes we may have been able to build upon for 2021, it also meant the residency spanned four months and influenced many more conversations than we had anticipated, much of which is discussed in this in-depth interview.

Kōan requested that I include the caveat that his findings revealed in this interview are in no way comprehensive of the Kentucky art scene, that all errors of omissions are his alone, and that his comments are based on limited observations with mostly personal impressions guiding him.

CH: How many artists did you visit across the state of Kentucky?

KJ: Over the two months (Feb-March 2019) that I was invited to serve as the third Critic-in-Residence (CIR) for the Great Meadows Foundation (GMF), and for the two additional months (April-May) prompted by the advent of the COVID-19, I interfaced with just short of ninety individuals in Kentucky’s creative communities. For the first six weeks these interactions were actual studio visits, then via virtual interviews, successively from the INhouse in New Albany, to a private apartment in NuLu, and then the Speed Mansion in Old Louisville.

CH: How did you determine which artists to include?

KJ: Some groundwork had been laid when I made my first visit to Louisville in 2005. I did a studio visit with Steve Irwin, was introduced to Julien Robson at the Speed Museum, met Ed Hamilton in his studio, visited Zephyr Gallery, and toured 21C in its original location. Fast forward to 2020. In the interim, Steve passed, Swanson Gallery closed, and 21C grew to nine locations, among other changes. As a curator and critic, in the fifteen-year period of living in Honolulu, Los Angeles, and New York City, I wasn’t able to keep track of what was happening in Kentucky contemporary art.

Anna Olivia Blake, GMF assistant

Chris Reitz, with Joey Yates, Henry Heuser Jr. at the Cressman Center for Visual Arts

In advance of my arrival in Kentucky on the first of February 2020, the Great Meadows Foundation let me know they hired an intern, Anna Olivia Blake, to work as my assistant. She was a pleasure to work with, a local resident enrolled in the curatorial studies program run by Chris Reitz at the Hite Institute of the University of Louisville. I told her of my interests in everything outside the mainstream art world:  the intersection of art and science, underrepresented communities, especially the differently enabled, the incarcerated, LGBTQA, Asian and native American artists, performance art, outsider art, art with novel uses of materials and surprising concepts. In retrospect, I also wish that I had been able to experience more new media, chemosensory, and sound works.

Dinner at Al’s with art community leaders

Group of artists at Al’s

Koan, Al Shands, Julien Robson

Venice Four: Sandra Charles, Toya Northington, Ramona Lindsey, Lucy Azubuike

Al Shands and Julien Robson had the foresight to host a dinner with a dozen leaders from Kentucky arts organizations and two large groups of artists. As an icebreaker, I asked individual artists to introduce themselves to the rest of the group. The icebreaker generated conversations between adjacent “strangers,” all of whom were all members of the same creative community but were previously unaware of their neighbors’ roles and contributions. I largely met my goal of meeting every artist present, encouraging each to contact me for a studio visit as Anna helped collate the lists of artists.

It was my first time meeting the group of four women artists funded by GMF to experience the 58th Venice Biennale 2019: Sandra Charles, Toya Northington, Ramona Lindsey, and Lucy Azubuike. As I settled into my role as CIR, I attended openings, panel discussions, poetry slams, and other gatherings. One of the first openings in Louisville I attended was African-American Women: Celebrating Diversity in Art at Kore Gallery, commemorating Black History Month when I was introduced to the artist Elmer Lucille Allen.

Elmer Lucille Allen at Kore Gallery opening

Lance Newman at KMAC poetry slam

At KMAC’s poetry slam Anna introduced me to visual artist Lance Newman who organized the impressive showcase of talent that evening. An invitation by Ramona Lindsey, Program Officer at Hadley Creatives, to conduct critiques offered another opportunity to meet artists. Visiting regional art collectors and viewing their collections was a good way to know works and artists in concentrated forums.

Ramona Lindsey at Kore Gallery opening

Larry Shapin and Ladonna Nicola in their home; Julien Robson

Larry Shapin and Ladonna Nicola focus primarily on collecting and displaying the works of Kentucky artists in their spacious home, and are now planning another structure on the property for art. Gil Holland, who is credited with branding and developing the NuLu and Portland neighborhoods, gave me a virtual walkthrough of his home collection. John Brooks and Erik Eaker generously shared their select private collection with me.

John Brooks and Erik Eaker; Ramona Lindsey, Toya Northington

Dinner with Susan Moremen and Gaela Erwin, Susan’s home

I was privileged to have several walkthroughs of the extensive art collection at Al Shands’ Great Meadows home and grounds. Invitations to private homes for properly socially distanced meals provided additional opportunities to see works by local artists: dinner at gallerist Susan Moremen’s with artist Gaela Ewin, and lunch with the retired pioneer photography educator CJ Pressman and the former zoo curator Marcelle Gianelloni, who have amassed an astounding collection of regional folk art and contemporary photography.

Chris Radtke in her home with work by Steve Irwin.

CJ Pressman and Marcelle Gianelloni in their home

Chris Radtke, one of the founders of Zephyr Gallery, gave a gracious tour of her home, her artwork, and extensive art collection. I was also able to view artworks collected by Henry Heuser, Jr. in the offices of the Community Foundation of Louisville.

CH: What regions of the state did you reach?

KJ: My directive was to visit artists living within the one hundred twenty counties of the Commonwealth of Kentucky and two adjacent counties across the Ohio River in Indiana. I went north to attend a panel discussion at the Kennedy Heights Art Center in Cincinnati featuring Kentucky artists John Brooks and Kiah Celeste. Venturing south to Western University Kentucky in Bowling Green, I saw artists and instructors Yvonne Petkus and Kristina Arnold.

John Brooks and Kiah Celeste, panel discussion at Kennedy Heights Art Center, IN

Yvonne Petkus at Western Kentucky University

Alice Gray Stites, Chief Curator and Museum Director; Nico Jorcino23, Director Of Museum Design and Planning, 21C Museum Hotels

Josh Azzarella at home

I drove to Nashville where Tiffany Calvert and Josh Azzarella opened their joint exhibition at Tinney Contemporary, east to Morehead State University to visit Melissa and Adam Yungbluth and photographer Robyn Moore. Through the kindness of Alice Gray Stites, Chief Curator and Museum Director, and Nico Jorcino, Director of Museum Design & Planning, of the 21C Museum Hotels, arrangements were made for me to stay at and tour the current shows and collections at 21C locations in Lexington, Nashville, and Cincinnati.

Melissa and Jason Yuthblud, Morehead State University

Robyn Moore at Morehead State University

Lacy Hale, Appalachia

Robert Gipe, Appalachia

I was fortunate to get in touch with creatives and organizers working near and in Appalachia. With prior affiliations to Appalshop, Lacy Hale and Robert Gipe gave insights into the hardships of surviving as artists and art advocates in the area.

Crystal Wilkinson, Affrilachia

Frank X Walker, Affrilachia

Writers for Affrilachia, Crystal Wilkinson and Frank X Walker gave strong insights into the origins of Black art, craft and literature in Appalachia. I was able to visit the shows: Black Before I Was Born curated by Ashley Cathey at the Roots 101 African-American Museum founded by Lamont Collins; the beautifully installed solo show by Megan Bickel at the Georgetown College Gallery; the handiwork of Danny Seim and the art installed at the Portland Museum; and a chance to meet Daniel Pfalzgraf who curated the work of Eke Alexis in Permanent and Natural at the Carnegie Center in New Albany.

Curator, Ashley Cathey; Lamont Collins, Director at Roots 101

Megan Bickel, Jacob Wilson, Kōan, art collectors at Georgetown College Gallery

Danny Seim, Portland Museum

Eke Alexis’ work in Permanent and Natural at Carnegie Center, New Albany. Photo courtesy of Carnegie Center New Albany.

Given the opportunity, I would have further explored lesser-known art venues, researched more black artists and queer artists in Appalachia and visited the artist Julie Baldyga. I had plans for explorations to Paducah further to the west, Whitesburg to the east, and Covington in the north, but the pandemic truncated those travel plans.

CH: What genres were represented by the artists you visited?

KJ: All 2D and 3D genres were well represented, and I was especially interested in works that crossed disciplines and combined platforms, so I specifically reached out to Teddy Abrams, widely acclaimed Music Director of the Louisville Orchestra; Robert Curran, the iconoclastic Artistic Director of the Louisville Ballet, and Matt Wallace, the Director/Facilitator of the Shakespeare Behind Bars program at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex. In other genres, I approached Edward Taylor in fashion, Amberly Simpson in dance, and Jane Jones, a playwright. Fortunate to be given a tour of the artworks installed in the expansive UK HealthCare Center in Lexington, I am grateful to Jason Akhtarekhavari, the Manager of the UK Arts in HealthCare program.

Matt Wallace, Director/Facilitator of Shakespeare Behind Bars program

Edward Taylor, fashion designer

Jason Akhtarekhavari, Manager, Arts in HealthCare Program, UK HealthCare Center

Jenny Zeller, Visual Arts Coordinator, Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest

I also wish to acknowledge the art programs at outdoor sculpture parks that expand the scope of contemporary art experiences for the public, especially for school age youths and for hosting international artist-in-residence programs. I was invited by Jenny Zeller, the Visual Arts Coordinator at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest to tour artworks installed on the grounds. Besides the wildly popular Forest Giants, especially notable is Earth Measure (2013) the large sculptural installation by Matt Weir. Similarly, Josephine Sculpture Park Director Melanie Van Houten gave me a tour of the installations in the landscape.

Matt Weir sculpture, ‘Earth Measure’, Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest

Lucy Azubuike, Josephine Sculpture Park

Near the entrance is a remarkable installation by Lucy Azubuike whose arc of tall poles presents previews of tree-based pareidolia found in the park and constitutes the basis for exciting discoveries by children. Innovative Louisville exhibition spaces include the exhibition space Houseguest, as well as the front room of the home of artist Megan Bickel and chef Jacob Wilson. Art-related dinners are hosted in that same space. Sheherazade is the converted downstairs garage space of the studio home of Julie Leidner. On a busily trafficked street, the shows are observed through windows in the rollup garage door.

Megan Bickel, Jacob Wilson, Guesthouse

Julie Leidner, Sheherazade

CH: What are some themes or topics that the artists you visited seem to hold in common?

KJ: Identity politics of race, gender, and class are being universally addressed. Artists can be effective catalysts for change, so the crucial issues of segregation, homelessness, opioid addiction, institutionalized incarceration, toxic masculinity, the legacy of slavery, serial exploitation of Appalachia, immigration, and other hot-button topics, could be further explored. Critical discourses are hampered in part by the culture of regimented politeness and lingering segregation. Kentucky is fractured into 120 counties within which there is underrepresentation of Asian-American, LGBTQA, and indigenous artists.

Skylar Smith, Ballot Box exhibition

Brianna Harlan, Ballot Box exhibition

Jaylin Stewart

Thaniel Ion Lee, Moremen Gallery

Particularly arresting and poignant, Brianna Harlan’s installation in Skylar Smith’s exhibition Ballot Box, at Louisville Metro Hall, chronicled her grandmother being denied voting because she, on command by an election official, allegedly sang the Star Spangled Banner off-key. I appreciate the energy and dedication that self-taught artist Jaylin Stewart invests in her painted portrait series that she also executes in chalk on city streets. I was not able to experience the powerful poetry and performances of Hannah Drake but we spoke about her forceful enacted oratories on social justice. I was struck by the art of Thaniel Ion Lee that transcends physical restrictions and takes flight in highly detailed drawings, photo self-portraits, fine digital images, and instructional word-images.

CH: Does ‘Kentucky art’ have a distinguishing character of its own?

KJ: Some may look to the KMAC Triennial as an example, but I am not aware of any characteristics that would distinguish works as “Kentucky art.” When I posed the question regarding the existence of a “School of Kentucky Art” and what Kentucky art is known for, the conversation often turned to the crafts in Kentucky, especially art from Appalachia. The institution’s name – Kentucky Museum of Art & Craft – reflects its historical emphasis on craft, and evokes longstanding discussions regarding art and craft.

Letitia Quesenberry, studio

Steve Irwin, early magazine work

When conducting a straw poll on “famous Kentucky artists” the names mentioned most often included Ed Hamilton, Keltie Ferris, Letitia Quesenberry, and Steve Irwin. Hamilton is a world-renown sculptor based in Louisville. Ferris, who lives and works in Brooklyn, is known as an artist from Kentucky locally noted for having “made it” by being represented by an established gallery in Manhattan. Quesenberry has also shown in New York, lives and works in Louisville, noted for her work with light installations, and her work with the Louisville Ballet. Irwin was an acclaimed, charismatic, and beloved Louisville artist famous for his hedonistic lifestyle. Undergoing cardiac bypass surgery in his 20s, he bore a precarious cardiac status and died at age 51 of a massive heart attack. Certainly not to the exclusion of other organizations, I acknowledge the significant contributions of the Great Meadows Foundation, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, the insightful leadership of artist director John Brooks at Quappi Projects, and the adept stewardship of Susan Moremen in directing her eponymous gallery. I am grateful to Warhol Grant awardee Paul Michael Brown in Lexington for introducing me to Institute 193 and its mission of championing quality relevant works over commercial viability.

John Edward Brooks in his studio

Paul Michael Brown, Institute 193, Lexington

CH: Are there a few artists whose work really stood out?

KJ:  I’m very much interested in surprising processes and the novel manipulation of material; I’m totally entranced by the approach that Vian Sora employs to initiate her stunning abstract paintings with evolving figurative references. The scale of her polyptychs approximate immersive experiences. The fabric-based series by Crystal Gregory revolve around her concept of “material interrogation” that involves the astonishing use of cloth in conjunction with glass, pewter, and concrete.

Vian Sora, home studio

Crystal Gregory, Office of Al Shands

The head of the glass program at the Hite Art Institute of the University of Louisville, Che Rhodes demonstrates his creative mettle of working outside of the mainstream glass studio practice with controlled explosion glass-within-glass pieces.

Che Rhodes, Hite Institute

Tiffany Calvert, Hite Institute

By layering digital and physical masking, digital printing and painting, a particular series by Tiffany Calvert reads as Dutch still lifes with technologic flourishes.

Ian Pemberton

Jacob Heustis in his studio

Andrew Marsh

Stan Squirewell, at home studio

Having studied traditional Asian ceramic glazing and firing techniques, Ian Pemberton challenges himself by altering the processes from engineering perspectives to produce “relics for the future.” In addition, I like the scaled-up scratched mirror pieces by Jacob Heustis, the repurposing of metal and wood, experimental cast metal work by Andrew Marsh, driven by a personal history of physical trauma and chronic pain and the brilliant epoch-collapsing social commentary collages of Stan Squirewell.

Ebony G. Patterson, large work with C21 Nashville gallery guide

Vinhay Keo, Photo courtesy Susan Moremen Gallery

Having taught as Associate Professor in Painting and Mixed Media at the University of Kentucky, Jamaica-born Ebony G. Patterson creates eye-dazzling socially conscious large-scale works that are placed in many collections, including in several of the 21C Museum Hotels. From Cambodia, Vinhay Keo creates self-referential photographs, performances, and installations that embody an important rising immigrant voice. Having completed his studies at the Kentucky College of Art and Design, the talented artist now lives and works in Los Angeles.

Penny Sisto

Cynthia Norton

Among the several artists that working with fabric, the standout is the quilted work of Penny Sisto for her exquisitely detailed large-scale portraits of select iconic individuals. I’m fascinated with the scope of concepts tackled by Mary Carothers, especially her ambitious encasing an entire car frozen in ice. I was enchanted by my studio visit with Cynthia Norton and her performances as alter ego “Ninnie Noises Nonesuch” of rural Kentucky accompanied by her self-made musical instruments.

I have yet to see the finished sculpture that Maker’s Mark commissioned Matt Weir to create. Over two separate visits totaling nearly hours, I reviewed his tremendous range of works and was particularly impressed with the specialized tools that the artist invented and built for the precision work required to execute Earth Measure and his current commission.

CH: We understand that you were able to connect artists with larger art world experiences. Can you elaborate on those?

KJ: I habitually make individualized recommendations to artists with each encounter. These include suggestions of reference articles, other works of art, and art residencies with whom I am affiliated: Omi International Arts Center, Residency Unlimited, iBiennale, Joshua Treenial (California), Fresh Winds Biennale (Iceland), Kaus Australis (Netherlands), Young Congo Biennale (DR Congo), and other connections. My written recommendations made for the artists of Hadley Creatives were copied and collected by its program officer. As CIR, I was first generously housed at INhouse, in the Silver Hills section of New Albany. I envisioned it as a meeting place for artists. Unfortunately, grand plans for a multisensory dining event fell through at the last minute. On one evening, Julien organized an introductory meeting with members of the critical discourse group Ruckus. The event that I was happiest with was an elaborate meet-and-greet event that centered around the four female artists from Kentucky who were funded by the Great Meadows Foundation to experience the most recent Venice Biennale. I coordinated a potluck BYOB event of ten artists, each of whom was asked to bring a guest. Each person was then expected to share his/her/their work with the group. The happening encouraged lively dinner conversations, enthusiastic discussions of the presentations, and the making of new friends and potential collaborations.

The other large opportunity that was scuttled by the pandemic was Icon Interventions at the 21C Museum Hotel in Lexington. The concept was to have works by Kentucky artists in conversation with works in the then current exhibition Pop Stars!. Supported chiefly by 21C, Great Meadows Foundation, and UnderMain, the associated conference, Critical Mass IV – led by Christine Huskisson – was drawing audiences from New York, Cincinnati, Nashville, and elsewhere. It was a golden opportunity to showcase art by Kentucky artists, introducing them to larger audiences of curators, museum directors, critics, bloggers, and others from outside the state. I offered to support the application of a Kentucky artist with arthrogryposis to a funded position at Omi International Arts Center in upstate New York. An artist with the same condition was invited to the residency program several years ago and I shared that artist’s work with the potential applicant. Another instance was referring Letitia Quesenberry to the career of friend Eric Orr, a California Light and Space artist whose works were previously unknown to her. A further example is putting Mary Carothers, a prior visitor to the Faroe Islands, in conversation with artists Brandur Patursson and his father, well-established artists there. I met the island artist when I served as the Curatorial Advisor for the Fresh Winds Biennale VI in Iceland.

CH: How did the regions’ public/communities compare in terms of engagement and support of artists?

KJ: As a bona fide erstwhile farmer producing the gourmet goat cheese, chevre, I’ve often made the analogy of a healthy art ecosystem with a well balanced milking stool. In a gross oversimplification, the contemporary art world is made up of a several components that are analogized to the legs that support the stability of the stool: producers (artists), consumers (individual collectors, institutions), and facilitators (gallerists, critics, curators, museum directors, nonprofit facility directors, etc) that work between the two. Art activities in Kentucky are centered mainly around the more populous cities of Lexington and Louisville, and towns with colleges and universities with art departments. Kentucky has an imbalance in the components of the art world ecosystem: a pool of talented producers/artists in all disciplines, modest exhibition-promotional-sales sectors, and a limited consumer/collector base. The more “legs” equitable in position and in length, the more stable the entire structure. The ongoing challenge is how to grow the individual and corporate collector bases to support the artist communities, perhaps from younger generations with wealth, innovative concepts, and new definitions of collecting. There is a disproportionate number of exhibition venues for the numbers of artists. Admirably, Quappi Projects, Roots 101 and the Portland Museum are proactively building diverse audiences and constituencies. Real estate developers, architects, and designers should be engaged in this discussion. The dependence of the Kentucky art market as primarily in-house sales-driven should be reassessed. Critical discourse in Kentucky is ably served by organizations like Ruckus and UnderMain, and should be scaled up. The upcoming careers of curators-in-training at the Hite Institute should be encouraged and supported early on in their careers. Most importantly, active conversations between these various components of the Kentucky art ecosystem should be encouraged and sustained rather than being siloed, for that just maintains the status quo.

CH: What steps could/should be taken to strengthen the Kentucky visual arts communities?

KJ: Strive to correct the imbalances as described. This was also answered in part previously. Take initiative. “Chance favors the prepared mind.” – Louis Pasteur. Don’t be shy asking for help. “Not trying guarantees failure 100% of the time.” Take advantage of the resources offered by existing local resources like Great Meadows Foundation, Kentucky Foundation for Women, UnderMain, Louisville Visual Arts, and like organizations. Start with the individual artist. Professional development, available through programs and through personal initiative, is crucial. Artists should be articulate and conversant about their work from a personal perspective and within the larger context of the art world. Read, research, and experiment. Be curious. Satisfy that curiosity. Share resources and knowledge. Form, join, and participate in artist discussion and critique groups, in addition to those in academic settings, of mentors, peers, and juniors is important for personal and professional growth. Become an art collector. It’s not elitist to collect art. Herbert and Dorothy Vogel were civil servants who amassed one of the most important post-1960’s art collections in the U.S. One can start modestly by buying or trading works with other artists. Get to know art dealers and art advisors. Propose an installment plan and/or ask for discount with purchase, as many art dealers are willing to work with collectors. Be mutually supportive. Seek out and attend as many openings, receptions, award ceremonies, campus activities as practical. Introduce yourself to a “new stranger,” an artist you don’t know or whose work you’re unfamiliar with. Discover what you have in common or just make a new friend. Be voracious in looking at art.

If you feel that you’ve seen everything in your town, travel to see exhibitions whenever possible, whether actually or virtually. Proactively invite more people to your studio. If you’ve gone through the “usual suspects” regionally, find out which visiting art persons are around and approach them. Curate an exhibition. Whether solo or group exhibition, the process of mounting an exhibition will be educational. Critique an exhibition. Express yourself. If not for publication with Ruckus or UnderMain, put it on your blog and share it with colleagues. The characteristics of “Southern hospitality” include humility, courtesy, good behavior, modesty, and “knowing one’s place.” Genteel Southern upbringing discourages disparaging one’s neighbor, especially in smaller communities where everyone knows each other’s business, and particularly in the subpopulations of the art world. This is keenly impactful in the subject of critical discourse in Kentucky, where reviews may be perceived as more descriptive than critical, but commendable efforts by organizations like UnderMain and Ruckus are reversing the trend. Surprised to discover that Louisville was among the top ten most segregated cities in the U.S. along with neighboring Nashville and Cincinnati, I learned of Louisville’s notorious “Ninth Street Divide.” Acknowledging its Sisyphean challenge, I encourage and support all measures that promote bidirectional porosity and the ultimate breakdown of this physical and mental barrier. The origin of the name Kentucky as the “dark and bloody ground” is arguably ambiguous, but the double entendre evokes historical and current events of racial and gun violence.

CH: Do you feel that the artists in Kentucky have access to enough outlets (galleries, publications, critical review, collectors) to develop their work to its fullest potential?

KJ: No. But access is not just limited to these outlets, for they are moderated by psychological, socio-economic, temporal factors as well. Notably, direct person-to-person communication is effective, but vastly under-utilized and integral to professional development. Also see prior responses. And Yes. The internet is a vast ocean of information with remarkable potentials for developing access to these outlets. Also see prior responses. 

CH: What can Kentucky do to begin a collective conversation (together with the artists from all areas of the state) with the larger world of contemporary artists? 

KJ: Collective conversations have already been initiated with organizations like Great Meadows Foundation. By funding artist experiences outside of Kentucky, it has importantly extended and increased the exposure of Kentucky artists to the larger world of contemporary art. Again, I cite the funding of Sandra Charles, Toya Northington, Ramona Lindsey, and Lucy Azubuike to the recent Venice Biennale. In addition, GMF’s invitation to Dan Cameron, Natalia Zuluaga, and myself to interface with Kentucky artists exposes those artists to our respective networks, resources and conversations.

Sandra Charles

Toya Northington

By attracting well-heeled and well-traveled individuals to the various 21C Museum Hotels and restaurants, this hospitality group plays a significant role in increasing exposure to and awareness of the Kentucky artists’ works represented in its collections. I viewed my postponed curatorial project, Icon Interventions, at 21C Lexington, as a similar potential force. In addition to changing exhibitions at the museum, the KMAC Triennial, organized through a committee led by curator Joey Yates, is a welcome format encouraging further dialogues between Kentucky artists while fostering attention from beyond the state’s borders.

Group of artists at Al Shands

Joey Yates, KMAC Curator

Requiring funding and an enterprising spirit, national and international art events, including biennials, art fairs, and out-of-state group exhibitions offer more opportunities for Kentucky artists to gain further visibility. To gain further insight into the growth of the Kentucky Art ecosystem, fundamental issues require scrutiny:

        • Do Kentucky artists want these conversations or are many satisfied with the status quo?
            • What are the motivations, goals, and desired results to have these conversations?
        • A rising Kentucky artist moves away to pursue further education.
            • Will this artist return? Why or why not?
        • A talented artist moves to Kentucky for a faculty position and lower living expenses.
            • How does one encourage this artist to stay?
            • How does one attract other talented artists to come and settle here?
        • A certain Kentucky artist has the skills and reputation that could serve this artist well in larger cities like Los Angeles and New York.
            • What keeps this artist in Kentucky?
            • How does Kentucky keep this artist from moving away for other opportunities in larger cities?

To be fair, my comments are made with the presumption that artists hunger to extend their reach further. Some may not. There may be a case for maintaining the status quo. In the exhibition catalog for Here, contributor Mark Harris remarks, “Paradoxically, the circumstances that prevent this art from circulating at a national level are the same that enable it to gain its distinctive local color and depth.” Throughout my rewarding four month long experience as Critic-in-Residence for the Great Meadows Foundation, it has been a distinct honor and an absolute pleasure to work with all of you and especially with several extraordinarily gifted artists. I am invested in the creative communities of Kentucky, and offer my continued support and friendship from Los Angeles, Honolulu, and New York.

Mahalo nui loa!

Photo credits: Kōan Jeff Baysa

Arts

Melissa Watt: Symmetry Breaking

It’s tempting to walk into Symmetry Breaking, a small but richly ambiguous exhibit of photo collages by the gifted Lexington photographer Melissa Watt at Institute 193, expecting it to be more about style than substance. Watt’s virtuosity with computer software and her apparently compulsive attention to detail in these heavily layered images might have called so much attention to themselves that we could have been forgiven for missing the forest for the digital trees.

It doesn’t, hasn’t, turned out that way. Although we’re aware that the show (in which Watt is continually sampling, inverting, repositioning, overlaying and otherwise obsessively manipulating her photography) is the product of an elaborate, no doubt intensely cerebral process, said process is not what the show is about. It has many things on its mind other than its own making. 

What those things might be, viewers must determine on their own, not least because the artist herself offers nothing remotely like an explication. (Consistent with Institute 193’s practice, there are no wall labels – a mistake, I think, as Watt’s witty titles do sometimes contain small, valuable clues; nor does she offer an artist’s statement.) This is less problematic than it might seem, however, since there are so many possibilities to choose from.  

One obvious place to start is telegraphed in the show’s title. The mirroring of duplicated and/or flipped elements in the pieces is saved from the status of a gimmick by the fact that Watt is always setting us up to expect the images to be perfectly symmetrical and then impishly, perhaps gleefully thwarting that expectation. The effect of having that optical rug pulled out from beneath us so regularly is to make us look harder at every element, searching for things that don’t face its twin across the median of the frame. 

But this cat-and-mouse game that the artist is playing with us may be a bit of a feint. Watt is less interested in smoke and mirrors, it seems to me, than in setting up odd scenarios that feel like premises (or in some cases aftermaths) of eerie, dark, perhaps darkly comic fantasies that carry some of the dreamlike potency of fables and magic-realist folklore. She’s a storyteller, finally, or at least a suggester of stories – a fabulist who gets the tale started, then sends you off to finish it on your own.

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

In a collage called “After You” (2019), for example, two great blue herons – the same heron, fairly obviously, only cloned and flipped by Watt’s digital wizardry (though not entirely; notice, as the artist wants you to, the slightly different angle of the two heads, the two hungry, spearing beaks) – seem locked in a staring contest. The prize laid out between them, as if on a buffet table, is a small fish, not dull gold like the common koi underfoot but a delicate silver morsel, perfect for swallowing whole. After you, my ass. This is winner-take-all.

Or not. The above flight of fancy is just one possible interpretation of the piece. It might evoke, like Leonardo’s The Vitruvian Man, ancient notions of balance and, yes, symmetry. It might be an Orwellian allegory of nature’s cruel, sacred circle of life. It might be some form of self-dramatization by the artist, in something like the vein of Cindy Sherman, Anthony Goicolea, or that other Central Kentucky photo-collage artist named Melissa (Melissa Hall), except with animal avatars instead of human ones. It might be an oblique passion play – the crucified Christ (symbolized for centuries as a fish) lying on a slab, attended by winged angels – or an even more oblique reenactment of the Christian sacrament. Eat, this is my body.

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

If these interpretations sound far-fetched, they’re unmistakably reinforced – chillingly or amusingly (or perhaps both at once), depending on your perspective – in two other pieces in the show. “Spring Lamb” (2016) features another altar of sorts, upon which three lamb heads appear to have been flayed and arranged like delicacies on a plate in a fine-dining restaurant. Religious rites and symbols, including the burnt offerings of Abraham and the Lamb of God, come inexorably to mind. 

Melissa Watt, “Meanwhile, the World Goes On”, 2019, composite photograph, 18.5 x 43.5 inches.

Then there’s my favorite piece in this group, “Meanwhile, the World Goes On” (2019), in which a dead opossum is ritualistically, perhaps ominously surrounded by a semicircle of chickens. The hens are doubled (plus one) in Watt’s usual symmetrical/asymmetrical manner, but that’s the least interesting thing about the picture. The mind – at least my mind – reels at the narrative and dramatic possibilities of the scene. Was the opossum shot as an intruder, and if so by whom? Was it murdered with malice aforethought? Was it sacrificed as an offering to the dark poultry gods? Is this a vigil of some sort, at the end of which the opossum will ascend to the heavens, leaving his flock astonished, awaiting a second coming?

You think these responses are over the top? I refer you back to the pictures.

In the end, of course, the artist’s intent is less important than what we make of what’s in front of us here, which is plenty. Certainly the works in Symmetry Breaking are not merely decorative pieces, despite the many ways they ravish the eye. They’re most assuredly not empty exercises in digitally manipulated photography. Their visual density and resonant webs of symbols invite not just interpretation – in something like the way objects in commissioned portraits from the Renaissance tell us about their human subjects – but multiple, sometimes simultaneous interpretations. That’s one of the overall show’s chief strengths, though not its only one. 

Melissa Watt, “Monkey in the Pawpaws”, 2019, composite photograph, 18.5 x 47 inches.

Another pleasure the artist offers us here, for example, is the opportunity to register her echoes of various threads and periods of art history, from 17th-century Dutch and Flemish still-life paintings of dead game animals and fish waiting for the stew pot to the koi ponds and water lilies of ancient China and feudal Japan. The emphasis on the sky’s reflection on a pond’s surface in “After You” seems to locate us in a funhouse version of Monet’s home in Giverny. The grinning beast with bloody teeth in “Monkey in the Pawpaws” (2019) seems like a descendant of Henri Rousseau’s jungle critters. And the intricately cloned and mirrored borders that frame each piece in the show bring with them musty whiffs of fairytale book illustrations, which have a way of fostering the romantic and/or gothic atmospheres of the pictures, and of medieval illuminated manuscripts, which may nudge some viewers in ecclesiastical directions.

Watt has expanded and extended those ornate borders in vertical elements affixed to the wall behind most of the pictures at Institute 193. In a much larger exhibit space, this might have been a coup de théâtre, an amplification of the decorative aspect of these images in multiple dimensions. As it is, these secondary elements threaten to overwhelm the main events they’re meant to enhance, not to mention the small gallery itself. They overstate, unnecessarily so, what is already abundantly clear: that Symmetry Breaking is one of the best art shows Lexington has seen in quite a long time.

“Melissa Watt: Symmetry Breaking” continues through September 30 at Institute 193, 193 North Limestone Street in Lexington.

Arts

Harvesting Home: Nicolette Lim

Strange Harvest was on view at the Lexington Art League’s Loudon House from July 1st to July 24th.

Upon entering Nicolette Lim’s 2020 solo exhibition Strange Harvest, the viewer was greeted by two giant women. These figures, Amazonian in stature, towered over the viewer. Their eyes straight forward, gazing upon something undisclosed in the distance. They were nude save for a pair of thick woolen socks and the bundles of sticks (also known as faggots) strapped to their backs. The weight of the bundles evidenced by the rope pressing into their fleshy torsos. The figure in the foreground stood tall while the figure in the background crouched as if to collect the single charred matte black stick just out of her reach.

“Perempuan Minyak”, 2020, drawing on customized rice paper soaked in palm oil

Malaysian-born Chinese-American artist Nicolette Lim draws from a wide range of influences and experience; her art is inspired by Kiki Smith, Louise Bourgeois, and Ann Hamilton just for starters. Lim grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where she attended a rigorous and conservative traditional Chinese all-girls school. Lim’s identity as a mixed-race person, child of an American and queer woman made her the subject of intense hazing, bullying, and scrutiny from students and teachers. These experiences shaped Lim for life and the rigid disciplinarian structures of her girlhood play into her visual iconography. Images of girls in pinafore uniforms (similar to the one Lim herself was required to wear), books, and even an old school projector occupy space within the exhibition. One image which I found incredibly striking is a drawing of a girl standing upon a chair and tugging on her earlobes. This strange ritual feels both foreign and familiar all at once. Lim’s girls exist in a space void of distinguishing characteristics but occupied instead by bugs, sticks, anatomical illustrations, tears, seeds, and veins.

Strange Harvest recounted Lim’s experience of the haze, an annual human-made phenomenon in Malaysia where a thick smog blankets the country for weeks at a time as a result of slash burnings done by those in the palm-oil industry. These dangerous and ecologically disastrous practices, according to Lim, contribute to the disintegration of Malaysia’s ecosystems and environment. Lim recalls, as a child, perceiving the haze as a natural phenomenon, it being something persistent and unavoidable.

“Burung Puki”, 2020, soft sculpture with porcelain

A piece that best exemplifies the soft-violence of the haze is a large nest placed upon a table. The nest constructed of sticks and bows is occupied by several bird-girl figures who appear to be in the midst of a secret ritual, the purpose known only to them. One cannot help but feel concerned for these creatures, whose porcelain legs and sock-clad feet further emphasize their innocence, fragility, and humanness. Lim investigates the larger power structures of capitalism behind this ecological destruction, focusing on the laborers of the palm oil industry (usually women) who are paid poorly and work in unsafe conditions for long hours. Lim also metaphorically demonstrates the destruction of the haze through charred and blackened objects: wooden chairs, tables, and books.

“Seeds of Our Flesh”, 2020, drawing and installation

“Twelve Canes”, 2018, drawings and found sticks

Yet another layer to this exhibition was Lim’s addressing of anti-LGBTQ attitudes in Malaysia. Moments of female intimacy, girls holding hands, and close-ups of women’s bodies persisted through the show. Lim juxtaposed this sensuality with images of violence, notably a row of hands, flayed open and speared with black sticks. These “switches” are representative of caning, a popular punishment for homosexuality in Malaysia. Lim juxtaposes this violence with the ecological violence, the economic destruction of capitalism, and the violent traditional power structures she came up under in her schooling.

In Strange Harvest, Lim presented a body of work that is both soft and violent, dark and tender. Her investment in examining the underlying power structures of oppression within her home country, and that exist globally, is refreshing. Too often in contemporary art, our artists mine this trauma for material, then cast it aside. Lim’s investment in these issues rings genuine and, although she is halfway across the world, Malaysia is her home.

Arts

The Year of Peril: America in 1942

We may think of World War II as a time when Americans shared a sense of unity and even optimism. But, in reality, America was beginning to splinter from within.

In his latest book The Year of Peril: America in 1942, the University of Kentucky historian and author Tracy Campbell explores the deep social, economic, and political fault lines that pitted factions of citizens against each other in the post-Pearl Harbor era, even as the nation mobilized, government-aided industrial infrastructure blossomed, and parents sent their sons off to war. American society was being challenged by the greatest stress experienced since the Civil War.

As part of UnderMain’s new partnership with the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning and WEKU’s Eastern Standard, Tom Eblen’s interview with Dr. Campbell reveals the various ways, both good and bad, that the trauma of 1942 forced Americans to redefine their relationship with democracy in ways that continue to affect us today.

LISTEN

Arts

Joe Light at Institute 193

“Hobo # Birdman” at Institute 193 is a show that gives us beautiful glimpses into the personal world of Joe Light. The artist who, after much travel, made his home in Memphis, Tennessee, died in 2005. His work is in a number of major collections around the United States, most notably the Arnett Collection who collaborated in bringing the show to the Lexington audience. The paintings on view are direct and playful, full of bright colors and everyday media of house paint and discarded wood. When I stood in front of the work (the gallery is open, maximum capacity of five, bring your mask), I was instantly presented with an image of an artist driven by the inner need to get the work out into the world. Here the paintings present themselves not as cerebral academic exercises but as direct streams of consciousness that dare the viewer to react. Name your emotion. Push it forward. Dance with it. Sing it. Make it your own.

Hobo # Birdman, Installation view, Institute 193

When situating the work within the narrative of Joe Light’s complex personal history, one realizes just how much of the spiritual core of his work is reflected in it. His story, early struggles with family, several incarcerations, conversion to a self-constructed version of Judaism that initially prompted prison authorities to place him in a mental health institution, and the eventual construction, through his art production, of a sacred space around his house, speaks to both the transformation of an individual and the uniquely American context of racial segregation and syncretism. “Renouncing the Baptist Christianity of his youth, he developed a personal faith conditioned by the racial prejudice he experienced in the pre-civil rights era South, as well as suspicion toward Christianity’s effects on colonized peoples,” states Gerard Wertkin in the Encyclopedia of American Folk Art.

The artwork that comes out of this context is split into two bodies, statements written on yard signs (not featured in the show at the Institute) and paintings on found materials and architectural structures. Both point to a set of deeply personal religious convictions that were rooted in Light’s interpretation of the Old Testament and navigation of his own identity as a descendant of both Africans and Native Americans. His figures are quite intentionally multi-colored and, in the case of the Birdman cycle of works, refer to the universal nature of his spiritual project. It must be noted that he perceived this “universality” through direct experiences and ancestry of his own body. This is not a generalized message of unity but rather one that leads with the internalization of life experience and its transformation into a life work of an artist.

Joe Light, Birdman #1, Birdman #2, Birdman B, 1980s, house paint on wood, 25.5 x 7.25 inches

The Birdman, one of the namesakes of the show’s title, is an image of a human with a bird on their head. This has personal significance, as a bird flew into the window of Light’s jail cell during his conversion experience. The artist described the event the following way:

“I said, ‘If you’re God, prove it.’ He said, ‘Step up to the cell door and I’m going to let a bird land on that window sill, and you take control of him. Tell it what to do and it will do it.’ And sure enough, the bird landed on it.”

The bird becomes quite literally a symbol of the divine in Joe Light’s work. It is important to note that in the artist’s self-portrait there is a space left for the bird to land on his own head as if to tell the viewer that he is indeed waiting for his personal enlightenment.

Joe Light, Joe Light, 1980s, house paint on plywood, 22 x 13.25 inches

Another image that hovers in the space between an archetype and a personal symbol is that of a traveler, or Hobo. The traveler evokes mythologies from Mercury to Eshu and readily references Light’s own wandering days. This journey can be a spiritual one, leading us to the Promised Land of the Old Testament, or one that navigates the complex socio-economic landscape of the American South. Regardless of the setting, the Hobo becomes a visual focus of the narrative constructed by the viewers; deserving of our empathy, and seemingly ready to sit down and tell us his story.

Joe Light, Wandering Hobo, 1980s, house paint on plywood, 35 x 48 inches

Each of the images described above repeats over and over again in Joe Light’s body of work. I find myself inevitably drawn to music metaphors to describe this visual experience – a way to translate the authentic reimagination of the pop culture by a Black American pushed outside the boundaries of the dominant culture. These recurring visual motifs are very much akin to blues licks – recast, reinvented, reshaped by life experience. They rely on soul and imagination; slight variations on color or duration of a note speaking to more possibilities than a symphony. Here the direct pulse of the work allows us to enter into a dialog with a unique vision of the artist and the sanctuary that he built to his version of the sacred.

All images courtesy of Institute 193

“Joe Light: Hobo # Birdman”, is on view at Institute 193 in Lexington thru July 31st.

Arts

Taking Care: A Studio Visit with Diane Kahlo

Care is a complicated word. On the most basic level, it means to keep something in mind and to attend to it. But the attention lavished on those things that we care for can range from the simple gesture of placing a precious object in a safe spot to the arduous and onerous labors of parenting and tending to the sick. Throughout her art practice, Diane Kahlo weaves together these two approaches to care. The objects she produces bear the marks of meticulous craftsmanship, highlighting the attention and labor she has put into each one, rendering them unique and precious. They are the result of careful work and are thus items deserving of care. The care that Kahlo imbues in each object is reflected in the care with which she treats her subject matter, specifically the lives and memories of those who have experienced gender-based violence and the exploitation of human beings and the lands they inhabit. Moreover, in attending so closely to these particular narratives, Kahlo implores us, her viewers, to consider and thus to care about those who are marginalized, victimized, and oppressed.

Care is something we do with precious and singular objects, items that cannot be easily replaced, and the objects that Diane Kahlo creates are marked by the care she takes in crafting them, rendering them worthy of preservation. Although she trained initially as a painter, Kahlo felt that she “[needed] even another visual language, sometimes painting wasn’t sufficient. I didn’t feel that painting could really address some of those things I wanted to address. So I felt that I needed to do a lot of exploration.” That exploration took the form of meticulously hand-crafted, “multi-level” paintings, in which she would “take a scroll saw and cut out these elaborately…kind of almost like a web work” consisting of cut out birds, vines and flowers, which she would overlay and integrate into her paintings, imbuing the works with a greater sense of delicateness.

“Babes in Postcard Land 1”, mixed media, 2001

One of the first works in which Kahlo began utilizing this kind of multilevel painting approach is her series Babes in Postcard Land. In this series, Kahlo appropriates the images of women from 1940s and 1950s vacation postcards – the kind that would feature wholesome white women in minimal clothing posing as an enticement for visitors – and places them in a hand-carved frame in the shape of a religious niche. The forms of the women and the various props that they hold, like long shafts of wheat in one or a pitchfork in another, are also carved, giving each piece a tangible, physical depth in contrast to the illusory ones that populate traditional painting. The multidimensionality that Kahlo ingrains in these works stands in stark contrast to the mass-produced flat postcard images from which the works originate. The handcrafted nature of Kahlo’s works makes each piece feel singular and precious, and the layering of each element gives the subject matter considerably more depth than the original ever could.

In adding new dimensions to these images, Kahlo is then able to challenge the relationship between gender and commercialization implied in the originals. She notes: “I really began to question these postcards that were enticements to vacation land, like come to Florida, come to California. Why were there always these sexualized ‘Girl Next Door’ images? Was it to entice the man to the land of fertility? Even that dichotomy between the girl next door as a sexualized image, the virgin/whore dichotomy.” In literally overlaying the land with the figure of a conventionally attractive white woman, Kahlo ties together two forms of objectification: the commodification of women’s bodies and the capitalist exploitation of the landscape and its natural resources. Presenting them this way demonstrates to her audience her care for these issues and, in turn, asks us to pay closer attention to the systems that inform our world that have become so ingrained that they become our form of kitsch.

“Myths and Revelations 4” (detail), mixed media, 2001

Kahlo has more explicitly used her work to incite care amongst her viewers with regard to the issues of gender-based violence. As in her series Babes in Postcard Land, in Myths and Revelations (2001) Kahlo combines the visible care of handcrafting with the emotional efforts of empathy to create several portraits of survivors of sexual violence. Kahlo depicts each woman carefully draped in the nude surrounded by a variety of natural and religious symbols; as Kahlo describes the process: “I had long conversations with each friend to learn about her hopes, dreams, fears, things that made her feel weak, symbols that she felt empowered by. I surrounded her in these objects and symbols, draped her in fabrics of her favorite colors, and photographed her so that she would appear to be floating. All these images became her ‘attributes’. I often carved some of these symbols to add to the framed portrait. About half of the dozen portraits had carved elements, and in the others, these symbols were represented in the painted object.”

The result is a series of large-scale triptych portraits that celebrate the power of the women depicted, highlighting their triumph over trauma and their ability to thrive in adversity. Kahlo equates their experience with the subjects of art historical masterpieces by integrating several highly traditional elements, like the contrapposto positioning of the legs, the classical billowing of the drapery, and several elements of religious iconography, ranging from blooming lilies – a common element of Renaissance Annunciation scenes – to elaborate gilded halos. Great care is taken in the selection of the images accompanying each woman and the rendering of the figure, objects, and drapery within the composition. Moreover, as in Babes in Postcard Land, Kahlo has added physical depth by incorporating both found objects and hand-carved elements, and in so doing reveals that the experience of trauma is, in fact, multidimensional, and a survivor’s narrative cannot and should not be flattened to focus only on victimhood.

Pink cross installation from “Wall of Memories: Las Desaparecidas de Ciudad Juárez” at the Human Rights Institute Gallery at Kean University in NJ.

Entrance view, “Wall of Memories: Las Desaparecidas de Ciudad Juárez” at the Human Rights Institute Gallery at Kean University in NJ.

The care that Kahlo offers those who have experienced sexual and gender-based violence extends beyond those she knows personally. In one of her most substantial works, Wall of Memories, Kahlo offers a similar kind of attenuation to the victims of the femicides of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, a human rights tragedy wherein more than 350 women and girls have been targeted and murdered because of their gender since 1993. Stirred by the ongoing violence that has plagued this community, Kahlo worked for more than five years to create portraits of the various victims of this violence, 150 in total.

In conceptualizing the work, she wanted to build on other traditions of memorialization and thought particularly of the power of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in which the names of those lost during that war are simply engraved upon a polished granite surface. “I had seen the very visceral response just to the name imprinted on the wall. People would walk up, they would touch it, they would make tracings of it, and it begged the question: ‘How do we respond to memory?’”

Whereas the power in Lin’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial comes from reading the individual names of the approximately 58,000 American deaths in that war, Kahlo takes the gesture of individuation a step further in her Wall of Memories. In creating her portraits, she’s literally putting a face to the names, deriving them from photographs of the women who perished or creating them herself in the case of the unknown victims. As such, Kahlo makes real for her audience the pain and loss of a tragedy that is depersonalized because of the sheer number of victims. She noted in our virtual studio visit, “We hear names and unless you’re concerned with specific populations, they’re just names like Maria Jesus Rodriguez or something that doesn’t mean anything to people. I felt that if I put a face to it, and then I put numbers […] if I made enough so that I would create what I called a Wall of Memories.” In creating these portraits, Kahlo herself becomes the caretaker of the memories of these victims and, in imploring us to look, she asks us to share the weight of remembrance.

The work is challenging to view, and it was challenging for Kahlo to create. “I began and then it grew,” she says, “Then I became obsessed with my increasing pain, and even something beyond melancholy – a sinking feeling. And then people would ask why I continued, why I was doing what I was doing. Why are you looking at the faces of these little girls and imagining? And my answer was in the fact that the mothers couldn’t walk away.” For Kahlo the intense feeling of empathy – not only for the victims of this violence whose lives were cut short, but also for the families who only have memories left of their loved ones – meant that she had to keep working. She asserts: “I can’t walk away. I have to make it. So it at least does something – maybe brings attention.”

“Sanctuary 1”, Mixed media, 2019

The sense of overwhelm involved in both the creation and viewing of Wall of Memories has led Diane Kahlo to her more recent body of work, her series of Mandalas. For the last few years, Kahlo has been hand crafting mandalas – a geometric pattern derived from Buddhist cosmology – from discarded and cheaply made objects. The impetus to make the mandalas came from a desire to present something other than portraits following an interaction with a viewer. She notes: “I had shown it in one place where a woman walked in, and she was part of the Latinx community. And she held her heart and she needed a place to sit down and she said, “I can’t take it in. It hurts too much. I feel the spirits.” Kahlo decided that she wanted to offer her viewers “some areas of comfort” while also suffusing the installation of Wall of Memories with a sense of the sacred.

“Mandala 6, Sanctuary 2”, mixed media, 2019

And yet, Kahlo’s Mandalas hardly shy away from the harsh reality of femicide or violence in general. These Mandalas consist of elaborate abstract patterns created out of everyday mass-produced objects and, like most assemblage work, function to pull us into our own lived experiences. Scattered among these found materials are clear references to the violence of the femicides, such as bullet casings or the plastic beads that young girls – like those whose lives were cut short – often play with. Moreover, that these materials are mass produced within factories by low wage workers is a clear reference to the victims of these femicides, workers in the assembly plants, or “maquiladoras” that had sprung up in Ciudad Juárez, particularly after the implementation of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) in 1994.

Not only does the mass production of the objects contained within each mandala allude to the individuals who produced them, but that facet of their creation makes them inherently disposable. That so many of the component parts of each Mandala could easily be understood as “trash” is central to the point Kahlo conveys with each work. She notes that “these objects had been discarded into the trash, ending up in landfills and polluting our water sources and I use them as a symbol for marginalized populations that are considered ‘disposable’. A great deal of my work has attempted to address the intersection of human rights violations and the human assault on our environment. I attempt to link environmental justice and social justice by using these disposed, discarded objects in a work that symbolizes life, death and rebirth [the mandala].”

By using these disposable materials in a work that ruminates on “disposable people,” Kahlo provides both with a kind of attention that undercuts their ability to be discarded. In placing the refuse from our daily lives – items we use, discard, and replace with such regularity that we never fully apprehend their forms beyond their function – into an elaborate undulating pattern on a monumental scale, Kahlo makes them part of something that is singular and precious, which bestows a similar preciousness on each component object. The care she takes in cleaning, arranging, and affixing each object in her Mandalas reflects the care that Kahlo took to create each portrait in the Wall of Memories.

“Jakelin’s Quince”, mixed media, 2019

Currently, Kahlo has been turning her attention to other circumstances of girls and young women whose lives have been cut short, often because they are treated carelessly and their lives are considered disposable. She recently completed a piece entitled “Jakelin’s Quince” in which she has created a memory box of found objects for Jakelin Caal.  Seven-year-old Jakelin died in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody in 2018 from a lack of medical care following an onset of severe illness, after being apprehended with her father. Accompanying the memory box, Kahlo painted a portrait of Jakelin as she might have looked if she had reached the age of 15, when she would have had her quinceañeara. In this piece, Kahlo considers what Jakelin herself would have cared about, including objects like rosary beads, dress fabric, flowers, and tiaras in her memory box, all items that refer to important instances in a girl’s life, like a First Communion or a quinceañeara. As such, she reinvigorates a narrative that has largely fallen away from our collective consciousness, and she also takes the time to attend to the memory of Jakelin Caal, separating her personhood and her lived experience from the conditions of her death, much in the same way Kahlo does for the victims of the Ciudad Juárez femicides. 

Throughout her practice, Diane Kahlo ruminates on what it means to care. Whether in the form of the meticulous labor that she puts into her work, from her inclusion of hand-carved elements in her multilevel paintings to the careful collection and arrangement of found objects in her Mandalas, or with regard to the emotional labor she exerts in memorializing victims of systemic and systematic gender-based violence, Kahlo makes apparent that care is an active process. Moreover, the power of her caring is itself infectious; by creating works that draw a viewer in so deeply and that present multifaceted opportunities for connection, Kahlo implores us to empathize and to feel deeply for the subjects of her work, to lavish attention where we often would not and do not, and in so doing, begin to shift our perspectives and, hopefully, advocate for change.

Arts

And then, boom! Pandemic.

Robin Irwin, Executive Director, Appalachian Center for the Arts

Erick Buckley, Director of Education, Appalachian Center for the Arts

Broadway veterans Robin Irwin (Titanic) and Erick Buckley (Addams Family) relocated to Pikeville, Kentucky, one year ago in search of a quality lifestyle and an opportunity to boost Eastern Kentucky’s game in theatre and performance. Then a pandemic struck. Irwin and Buckley discussed the consequences (by phone, of course) with UnderMain’s Tom Martin for his WEKU program, Eastern Standard.

Listen to the interview

Arts

The Art World After COVID and After the Murder of George Floyd. In Poem and Prose.

You can’t say much about the art world
That can’t also be said about the world.
Both are being hurled into a trajectory
New, untested, unimagined until now.

Like Charlie Brown, you have to face
Adversity with philosophy, insanity
With unity. Like the bard said, you
Gotta be tough. It helps to be in
Fighting shape when the weather
Gets this rough, this windy, this in-
Dependent-bookstore-spindly. Songs
Of canaries dot the landscape in rhyme
With each other as they slide towards the
Rapid decline. Some have resources, some
Have hope, some have enough dope for two
More days if they’re lucky, three if they’re not.

I had a studio in a gallery, Gallerie Soleil, in the
2000’s, teaching myself to paint after a print-
Making major and a stint as an art director
For local TV. This last frisky decade came to
A close on my own public studio & gallery,
Homegrown Press, where the occasional
Blocks were carved, prints were printed,
But mainly I painted paintings, trying to
Keep them all real enough while selling
Enough to keep the doors open, always
Hoping someone would walk through in
Time to pay my rent for me, with no new
Enemies, and as often as not it has worked,
But only online, social media sharing my work,
Connecting with and selling to souls from coast
To coast, Sight unseen, not laying my eyes on them,
Nor theirs on my pieces, except in an email, but my doors
Stayed open, if only for the occasional critique by the home-
Less (Old School was almost always right, and in fact, the piece
Of mine that upset him so, never sold, and it cost me my studio,
That and the virus that took all the restaurants and bars and my
Sweet buddy Carleton), but the main reason I kept that open sign
On the door, to welcome the occasional child/artist that would
Would walk in with a donut and a sibling, parents looking around
The crazy place with its murals and messes and giant rough easels.
The parents would raise a skeptical eyebrow at each other, or they

Would register nothing at all, but sometimes a child’s eye would rove
The gallery and the noise, the brushes and rollers and ink, and I could
See on their face the look that says “I have found my people. I could
Maybe do this.” And I would reply to them with a corresponding
Expression on my face, “If you want to, you should. It’s good.”
Maybe Old School was right about my piece, “Rat King.” And
Maybe he wasn’t. Time will tell. For now, I have carried all
Of my belongings home, one old truck full at a time, all
By myself, during quarantine, easels and tables, inks
And my press, books, magazines, slabs of old marble
And plywood and carved blocks, carving tools, brayers
And brushes, nails, screws, tools, lightbulbs and big ideas.

What didn’t fit in my music room, with the drums, guitars and
Keyboard, was relegated to the basement, where just last week
I had to go through it all again when our basement flooded, saving
Boxes of framed prints and canvas and paper. I had planes flying in
The air, in the clouds, then they were grounded and I had to retrofit
A tiny airport, and try to fling them aloft again. I’ve had help. Oh yes,
I have had help. Unemployment paid the back rent I owed on my now
Defunct studio. My wife has a good job as a medical administrator. We
Will be fine, there are many people in much more dire straits than are
We. And now that restaurants are decimated, and sports television
Echoes only its innocent past, people sit at home and have time
To watch as the world turns and the edges of cities burn, and
Our children empty into the streets to demand racial justice,
Racial equality, an end to the crushing status quo, and they
Can see much more clearly than we ever have, we are
All just people. The system is getting a much needed
Overhaul. The world is crushed and compacted and
The people try to hold on, much like the art world.

And, much like the art world, I imagine that the
Upper echelons will continue to be just a little
More bullet-proof than those creative folks
On the ground, in the trenches, making do.

BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD

2020 marks 10 years that Homegrown Press Studio & Gallery has been located on North Limestone at 6th Street, in Lexington’s NoLi district. 2020 also marks 30 years since I met my wife and organized my gypsy screen-printing endeavor into Homegrown Press. There was to be a celebration September 24th, my late father’s 76th birthday. My band (okay, my son’s band) was to make their debut on the little wooden stage, and I would have new paintings, block prints and T-shirts for the occasion.

Instead, faint murmurings of distant illness gave way to a couple weeks of social distancing which have, in turn, become a new way of life. And death. People stopped buying paintings (not forever). Coronavirus ended my much-needed lunch dates with artists, writers, and misfits, and took our sweet friend Carleton. Then fate took two more friends to whom I owed much more than was owed to me.

The regular stress and anxiety of studio overhead became too much when compounded with grief, loss and uncertainty. I had been putting together a modest 13 x 18 foot music studio in our house, a place for our band to practice, maybe cut demos. It would now have to do double (triple?) duty. I gave notice to my NoLi landlord and brought home everything from Homegrown: press, stand, inking table, easels, drafting table, filing cabinets, canvases, paint, brushes, ink, paper, frames, tools, lamps, carved blocks, uncarved blocks, knives, pencils, pens.

It has taken a few months to find a place for everything, but I have successfully integrated the printmaking and painting equipment into the music studio without disturbing the band’s footprint too awful much. I’ve had to get creative. I am now back to painting, working on a couple of promised commissions, and some surreal little paintings for my nieces and nephew in Oregon, whom I miss. Songs and poems are popping out occasionally, but the space to paint in is limited, and my paintings have become too expensive for most of the people I know. Times change, and it is time to get back to the drawing board. Or the carving table.

For the first time in the 20 years that I have been learning how to paint, I will again be working in reductive method block printing. While more physically and mentally taxing than painting, it will be a more democratic endeavor, and more affordable. Multiple prints of each design will be made, and the number produced in each edition will be limited, since the block is destroyed during the reductive process. I will miss having a public studio space, but the main reason I had an open sign on the door was so kids whose families happened to wander over from the donut shop could see an artist just being an artist. I really could have used that example as a kid.

Like I said, times change. Human beings can be very adaptable when circumstances demand it. And circumstance is knocking. It knows we are home. Coronavirus. Unemployment. Stress. Fear. Loneliness. Then George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Marching. Signs. Fires. Smoke. And marching out of that smoke and into the light? The many thousands of protesters who, day after day and week after week, are taking back the power, in dogged pursuit of justice, truth, and unity. I acknowledge this is a crisis for individuals who have lost loved ones, jobs, businesses. But what we are seeing is the beginning of a huge recalculation. The timing is horrible. The timing is perfect.

The world is preparing to get a little more creative. I am not really familiar enough with the art world at large to be able to respond to the Last Days of the Art World article by Jerry Saltz in any substantive way, other than to say what it has been like for me. I hope every artist and arts organization that operates from the heart can survive and thrive, from the largest museums to the weirdest little galleries, studios, venues. I have been shaken from my particular tree, and like a squirrel, I only hope to land with a little dignity. Time will tell. And Black Lives Matter.

Arts

Ancient Stars, New Constellations

The COVID-19 pandemic has been crowned “the world’s unrivaled equalizer” and many have embraced this. But even though it strikes across all socio-economic classes, the blows are not delivered equally. The coronavirus has pulled back the curtain to shine a glaring spotlight on the deep divides of medical care delivery in America. The vulnerability of specific populations is reflected in their disproportionately higher morbidity and mortality statistics, blamed on the commingled complex social determinants that include limited access to healthcare and cycles of poverty. The curtain, pulled aside, has also revealed just how interconnected and interdependent we are as humans, sharing vital concerns of individual and community health. It is a wake-up call to a heightened awareness of our reliance on ostensibly invisible individuals in our society from grocery shelf stockers and food service laborers to personal care workers, but also an increased consciousness of the plight of our society’s most vulnerable: the homeless and the incarcerated, the addicted and chronically infirm, the physically and mentally disabled, the poor, the very young, and the aged.

The American writer James Baldwin opined, “The purpose of art is to reveal the questions that have been hidden by the answers.” Art making has ultimately been about self-expression, from the powdered hand silhouettes by Neanderthals in caves to megawatt auction market celebrity artists – as well as outsider artists who have no designs whatsoever on the art market. The arts are the means through which humans make the ineffable sensate; it is an elaboration of the emotional abstractions of the limbic system into the realm of the physical and perceivable.

In theory, the detonation of a neutron bomb would leave buildings largely intact while eliminating enemy combatants. In an inverse analogy, the explosive pandemic in one fell swoop collapsed the infrastructures of the art world, leaving creative economies intact but exposed, susceptible, and affected. Brick and mortar institutions have been depopulated and the art world has shifted to virtual presences. Those unsustainable art world dynamics of crushing overheads, fierce competition, and manipulated auctions are now laid bare to be questioned, and to force change. Our future challenges and responsibilities are to build new art world infrastructures without reinstating the misguided monetary armatures of the past. Withdrawal of funding for the arts, precipitated by the pandemic, complicates this task even further.

Artists have been tested before on navigating the transition from the what of the present to the how of the future. Our creative communities now similarly see the roles of art as coping mechanisms, educational opportunities, and calls to action. Commonalities between COVID-19 and the HIV AIDS global epidemic include misinformation provided by federal authorities, poor coordination of public health strategies, and partisan willingness to allow certain groups of people to suffer and die. A principal of the World Health Organization was asked what about the pandemic kept her awake at night. Her answer: “complacency” and the headlong rush to get back to a semblance of the old normal knowing full well that it no longer exists. There is now only the disequilibrium of the new normal. Viruses are ancient, integral members of the biosphere, essential as precipitants of evolution. We can expect the SARS CoV-2 virus to be around for a while, as the HIV AIDS virus continues to be present in our current populations.

The pandemic’s requisite social distancing has sentenced us to purgatories of solitude and has disclosed the crucial importance of socialization and the power of touch. Shut-in homes with dysfunctional family members have become their own pressure cooker detention centers. School age students are increasingly intolerant and frustrated, acting out against being confined. Graduation from high school and medical school now occurs virtually without the celebratory sensory rites of passage. Banned from delivery rooms, fathers are deprived of the primal skin-to-skin bonding of holding their newly born sons and daughters. Legions are departing this life alone, robbed of the loving surround of family and community during the final moments of passing, bereft of the parting gifts of touch and voice. Bodies are being stacked and stored in refrigerated containers. Some are interred in mass graves, others are serially fed into crematoria; most are sequestered from their cultures’ mourning rituals. New psychosocial pathologies of depression and anxiety like post-pandemic stress disorder (PPSD) may well emerge.

Medical scientists will continue to fight on the front lines of halting transmission by finding, testing, and treating COVID-19 while developing effective vaccines and cultivating herd immunity, but SARS CoV-2 is a novel virus and mutations are expected. Already a subset disease may be emerging: pediatric multi-system inflammatory syndrome (PMIS).

Past pandemics have forced us to confront sickness and finitude and have thus molded economic policies, shaped societies, fostered new technologies, and galvanized creative and intellectual communities. Artists are the conveyors of solace, bearers of hope, agents of joy, guardians of memories, and the storytellers for future generations. The successful application of solid science research towards ultimate solutions, of necessity, factors in social psychology and vital behavioral changes. These goals are most successfully communicated and efficiently implemented through the arts, with artists as our new scouts and seers. Equitably protecting those most vulnerable is our primary humanitarian mission.

This pandemic offers widespread opportunities to reconfigure ancient stars into new constellations by which to navigate our future, for humanity’s survival lies not in perseverative behavior, but in how resiliently we respond to and look beyond these tragedies…or not.

Arts

There’s No A-R-T in “Pandemic”

We’ve invited a number of people to write brief reaction pieces to art critic Jerry Saltz’s recent piece in Vulture,“The Last Days of the Art World … and Perhaps the First Days of a New One”. The writers were also asked to comment about the effects the virus and resulting mitigation steps have had on their work. We will be publishing these pieces over the next several months.

Last December, KMAC Museum opened new exhibitions of work by contemporary artist Summer Wheat, modernist Pablo Picasso, and recent University of Louisville grad Nina Kersey. From mid-December until four weeks ago, these exhibits and related programming were driving a visitorship increase of nearly 300% for the museum. KMAC was earning local and national exposure, and the organization was set to build off this momentum through the summer and into the rest of 2020 with more art, activities, and partnerships.

Then, of course, the pandemic hit. Suddenly, all current and future plans are on hold.

Every arts organization is feeling the impact of the virus. It’s devastating, to say the least. Projects have come to a halt, too many people are out of work, and communities are getting minimal aid and relief.

What can the arts offer during this time? How can we be essential? These questions are now engrained in every plan of action.

For the KMAC staff, we’re rarely meeting face-to-face. Our intent for the museum, like nearly every other institution, is for it to continue to be public facing. Social media has been a great tool to reach audiences, but it’s not the same as offering the physicality of our galleries. Previously, the museum did have some off-site programming, but having to craft every service to be so presents numerous challenges. While the mission remains central, difficulties are abundant.

We’re not the only ones trying to keep things going. Everyone seems to be working like crazy to generate content and inspire the masses. Some are very successful, and for different reasons. New territories are being explored in attempts to connect with new audiences. All doesn’t seem to be quite lost, as it were.

When it comes to what the world looks like on the other side of this, Saltz is more optimistic than not. He’s certainly not the ultimate authority on coping with tragedy (I’m not sure anyone could be), but he recalls that past hardships “shaped, not destroyed, the community that I love.” Maybe this is easy for him to say. Still, it’s probably the right sentiment to have.

Early panic is settling in as we are now clearly in a changed reality. This is a time for artists, museums, and galleries to ask themselves: What can I contribute? How can I help shape the new way forward? Cross-sector collaboration is likely a given and the need for transparency is at a high.

On top of everything else, the pandemic actually magnified and intensified the already existing inequality, and nonprofits and cultural centers are hurting. The disparity across every social sphere is impossible to ignore. Saltz includes statistics describing the layoffs and budget cuts for some of the nation’s cultural behemoths. Smaller museums – and many local museums – are coping with the same problems (and are presumably worse off).

A change in collective consciousness seems inevitable. Saltz would probably say current socioeconomic structures are likely to be our downfall. He makes his political tendencies quite clear in every format he publishes. There’s probably a good chance this is true. If the arts, though, can become integral to every facet of culture, then we may see a way through. Not just for the art world, but for everyone. As long as we continue, art will, too. We might as well embrace it.

Arts

End of the Beginning UMGram/Sent 5-4-2020

Photo credit: Theresa Bautista

Reflections on Stillness:  How Dance Continues to Move Through the Pandemic
Stephanie Harris, who is on the faculty of the Dance program at the University of Kentucky, explores a paradox of our COVID era; how the stillness of our quarantined lives allows for the expression of deeper insights through movement. Using improvisational techniques that she has been studying and researching, Harris works with her students to explore and express deeper truths within themselves through dance.

Artist Tony Tasset standing next to his Mood Sculpture, installed near the Student Center, but relocated this past winter to the front of the UK Art Museum. Photograph by Alan Rideout

Stuart Horodner: The Art World After COVID
The Director of the University of Kentucky Art Museum misses the public interface that is so much a part of any museum’s life. After COVID, surviving arts organizations will face an environment that needs and demands clarification of relevance and mission, and that ascertains what can be accomplished with assurance and excellence when faced with new limits on resources.

Image courtesy of Dmitry Strakovsky

Dmitry Strakovsky: The Art World After COVID – The Last Days of the [Centralized] Art World.
Strakovsky is hardly mourning the art world that Jerry Saltz describes in his piece in Vulture. With little room for technological innovation or small galleries and a constantly escalating “arms race”, that gallery art world was unsustainable with its limited audience of extremely wealthy patrons. Maybe there is hope for a reinvented, accessible, and decentralized visual art world after COVID.

KY Author Debut: Bobi Conn
An idyllic setting in Eastern Kentucky, but author Bobi Conn’s debut memoir recounts a harrowing childhood home with an abusive father, and her escape from that place filled with trauma and violence. Tom Martin interviews the author for WEKU’s Eastern Standard.

ETC.,

While we are all surely hoping for a breakthrough in both the development of treatments and vaccines, it is apparent that we are just in the first phase of dealing with this deadly virus. Despite noisy and threatening protests, polling consistently shows that most Americans understand this. How the arts and culture community is coping with the pandemic and its ravages is an important story we will continue to cover. Our ongoing series of brief essays, “The Art World After COVID”, is one way we are engaging in this needed conversation. Look for more of these provocative essays on our website and highlighted in future newsletters. We encourage you to send us your responses and feedback to these essays and more at UM@under-main.com. We will have other COVID-related coverage going forward, including interviews with folks in different roles in the arts sector.

Meanwhile, we have highlighted in past newsletters and on our website arts relief efforts emanating from Louisville and Lexington, and we encourage you to support those efforts. Watch for a big announcement this week from the Artist Relief Trust . UnderMain’s Christine Huskisson is an A.R.T. steering committee participant and says, “This initiative is exemplary as a broad-based coalition from across the state of Kentucky; arts advocates from multiple disciplines continue to raise funds for distribution to Kentucky artists and musicians and I am proud to call UnderMain a partner in the effort.” If you would like more information or are considering a donation, feel free to contact Christine at christine@under-main.com.

A shout-out to our friends at the Lexington-focused CivicLex. In addition to their COVID resource page, they have been holding an excellent series of well-attended online digital town halls, including one pertaining to the arts and culture sector. They are currently uploading the recordings of the town halls to their website.

Bobi Conn (With permission of the author)

Looking ahead, we are going to be increasing our book-related content. Tom Martin’s interview for WEKU’s Eastern Standard of author Bobi Conn is a terrific introduction to the kind of book coverage we hope to be able to offer. A pandemic is a perfect time to catch up on your reading. We will focus on books with a Kentucky-connection, due to authorship or Kentucky-relevant content.

Photo image: Musei Vaticani

Sorry about the cancellation of this summer’s trip to the continent. We know Italy was on the itinerary and surely a visit to the Vatican in Rome was on the schedule. The Vatican has one of the world’s great collections of art housed in several museums. You can take virtual tours of some of the museums on the Musei Vaticani website. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is, of course, a highlight of any visit to the Vatican. Here is a link to a decent tour of the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel.

Detail of Sistine Chapel

As we acclimate to our changed lives, take a moment to think about all those helping hands that are working to keep us healthy and safe. If you are able, consider donating to community relief efforts that are helping others. We are all in this together.

You can sign up to receive our UMGram newsletters hot off the press in your email inbox on any page of our website.

Arts

Mirroring the Environmental Nosedive: Anne Peabody at Moremen Gallery

Sunspike, Anne Peabody’s current show at the Moremen Gallery in Louisville, Kentucky, opened on March 20; it is available to view online at moremengallery.com. Some works will remain at the gallery until reopening. The exhibition includes 19 works in glass ranging from 8′ by 6′ to only 3″ in diameter. In addition, there is one installation in copper and three paintings on silk. Peabody uses glass for its transparency – she draws behind the clear sheets – and for its reflectivity. Incorporating the viewer’s reflected image is core to her work, as is the veiling that comes from surface glare.

Peabody’s technique is her own variant of reverse foil painting (verre églomisé), a practice glass historians have traced back to the 13th century. These are deeply layered works that repay prolonged contemplation.

“Ohio River Clearing through a Square”, 2020, antique silver leaf, gold flake and japan paint on glass with felt backing, 24”x18”x ¼”

Most of Peabody’s paintings on glass depict plant life:  hardwood trees, dense underbrush, wetlands and scrub lands well off the tourists’ beaten path. Peabody honors disappearing wetlands by painting with precious metals – silver, gold and platinum. She uses oxidation as an artistic process and as a metaphor for aging and deterioration, of both the environment and the viewer. But she does so with deftness that belies its crusading message and suggests instead a mythic land that straddles the historic and the contemporary.

Peabody is an admirer of fellow Kentuckians:  agrarian author and farmer Wendell Berry and the painter-environmentalist-journal-keeper Harlan Hubbard (1900-1988). Like them, Peabody is a localist, and the landscapes she chooses to depict are ones she knows very well, near her current home in Brooklyn, in Kentucky and Tennessee, and close to the home of family in South Carolina. Meditative and rich in surface incident, the work from 2017 to the present interrogates with ever more specificity, interaction and commonality with nature. Peabody wrests aside the common landscape-viewing tropes of awe, timelessness, and passive enjoyment, instead inserting the viewer into her passages. She weaves past into present, drawing on both personal experience and collective cultural memory with an insistence that engages her audience at multiple levels.

The earliest work in the show is the title piece of the exhibition, Sunspike, from 2017. The 8′ x 6′ composition is composed of 16 plates of glass, each backed with 24 sheets of aged silver leaf. The repeated grids suggest a minimalist order, but depending on the viewer’s angle of vision and the light levels, the grids dissolve in the luminous sheen of the glass and silver. In fact, no view is complete; shifting one’s viewpoint from side to side is necessary to take in the work in its entirety. The image emerges uncannily, as if summoned up from the subconscious. Despite the grids, Peabody’s sensibility is distinctly anti-minimalist and relies on strategies for disorder and distancing of the artist’s hand through chance, delegation, and deteriorated materials.  

Peabody uses several techniques to lead the viewer to excavate the past. Her monochromatic compositions evoke glass-encased daguerreotypes, the glass plates in the mid-19th century collodion wet plate process, as well as 20th century black and white photography negatives. The sense of seeing into cultural remembrance is reinforced by the composition of Sunspike and other works in the exhibition. They emulate, with more humble subjects, the Romantic Era compositions of the Barbizon and Hudson River schools – stands of arching trees flank a view into the distance and several scenes depict a clearing in the woods or water features. (The artist gave her husband museum postcards and asked him to snap pictures of similar compositions in nature.) The appearance of silver leaf and the silver halide of black and white photography are comparable, so the boundaries between painting and photography, past and present, are repeatedly blurred.

The artist’s technique itself inserts aging into the process. She employs very old, deteriorated silver leaf and there is a high degree of probability that the leaf will fragment before being glued to the glass. Imperfections in the adherence of metal to the glass become accidental details of the landscape. Peabody draws from the back into whatever silver leaf adhered. She uses her fingers or natural bristle brushes. Oil in her fingers or the brushes causes a chemical reaction and breaks down the silver until it falls off like dust, leaving the marks of the artist’s hand in the darker, drawn upon areas. Employing chance again, Peabody leaves the drawing exposed to the air (pollution is a chemical reagent) for a period of time determined by rolling dice, two to twelve days. Japan paint or felt is then applied to the back to halt the process. The drawings that have been exposed for too brief or too long a period are discarded.  

Peabody has stated that she was inspired by Andy Warhol’s Piss paintings, done in 1961 and 1976-1978:  

Warhol made meditative yet beautifully complex abstract works of art by urinating on canvas just after it was painted with a combination of copper powder and acrylic medium, then letting the oxidative process do the work. Warhol stated that he made his Piss paintings in order to “sense time as it happens.” Aesthetic form was achieved by the use of bodily fluid that was considered waste. Putting oxidation paintings between the discourses dealing with artistic experimentation with body, abstract art and, finally, eroticism, Warhol invited friends and assistants to pee on the canvases when he realized that the colors of the metals could be changed according to the body chemistry of each individual. Ronny Cutrone, one of his assistants, was said to be among the artist’s favorites, because “…he takes a lot of Vitamin B, so the canvas turns a really pretty color when it’s his piss.”

After an immersion into a fictional narrative, we are brought back to the moment, present in our own reflection. No longer detached, we are thrown back upon ourselves and, by implication, subject to the same processes of oxidation (the free radicals in the body that are a cause of cancer are also oxidizing agents). It is doubly pertinent that Peabody often selects wetlands for her subjects:  in these marshy bogs and mires the decomposition of plant and animal life also causes oxidation, enabling the wetlands to store carbon dioxide and methane. Both in imagery and in her process, the passage of time is evoked. 

Equally striking is Peabody’s draftsmanship:  gestural and richly inflected, it is decidedly not a 19th century graphic language. Tennessee Woods from 2020 is based on drawings taken from a photograph of a park that subsequently was damaged by a forest fire. The artist constantly modifies her fracture from sharp linear delineation of foliage to broad, painterly swatches of shade. Appearing and disappearing saplings, stout tree trunks, branches, twigs and underbrush are sometimes depicted boldly, but more often with delicacy, forbearance, and restraint. 

The draftsmanship is discursive rather than precise, marked by haloes and rifts caused by the condition of the silver leaf. Applications of gold sparkle spray paint emphasize the materiality of the darker area rather than their descriptive function. Seen in isolation, the marks may read as graffiti, calligraphy, or post-impressionist daubs. Peabody provides an invitation to viewing conditioned on the viewer’s commitment to see past the glare of the glass.

Ohio River Clearing through a Square depicts a foreground of rushes and stemmed plants, with overhanging branches defining a rectilinear view of the distant river (the most polluted waterway in the United States). There is an extraordinary richness of blacks, reminiscent of sugar lift aquatint, in the clumpy, blocky shapes at the base of the composition. The distressed silver leaf is an ideal medium for a balance of opacity and transparency. Peabody responds to random threats to wetlands and rivers – pollution, commercial development, invasive species, climate change, agricultural runoff – with a process that parallels in its use of chance procedures the unpredictable and random hazards afflicting these ecosystems.  Notably, forty percent of the world’s species rely on wetlands for their survival.

“South Carolina II”, 2018, antique sterling silver leaf and japan paint on glass

The fecundity of these threatened landscapes is emphasized in two depictions of a South Carolina swampland. Pines, live oaks, magnolia, palmettos, vines and Spanish moss crowd the water view and challenge the observer’s visual access to a distant objective, just as physical access seems improbable. Traditionally, mirrored surfaces are thresholds to varieties of self-awareness or narcissistic self-deception, vanity, insecure doubt or more plain-spoken self-knowledge. In her mirrored works, Peabody leads her viewers to a deeper apprehension of their embeddedness in the same processes and frailties as in the vegetative world.

“Walking Thread”, copper, 2020 (dimensions vary).

“Walking Thread”, copper, 2020 (dimensions vary), detail.

“Walking Thread”, copper, 2020 (dimensions vary), detail.

The copper installation, Walking Thread, may be a reference to Paul Klee’s invitation “to take a line for a walk.” Copper weeds and vines fill a corner, traverse along a wall and seemingly continue through a glass window into an adjacent room. More storytelling than the glass pieces, Walking Thread continues the environmental theme by copying the common vegetation that grows in sidewalk cracks, on the sides of buildings and in the leftover spaces of urban deterioration:  these are wildings, alien intruders in the concrete world.

The playwright Sarah Ruhl has remarked, “Narrative is an accumulation of knowledge about the future. We begin in the present and end in the present and in the middle is an accumulation of future possibilities.” The seemingly random pathways of the plants offer a demonstration of the actions of chance; the “accumulation of future possibilities” plays out differently in each installation of the piece. It seems relevant that in their struggle for survival, common street plants are known to hybridize more frequently than cultivated plants. Uppermost in the corner of the installation is a crocheted spider web with a cast spider, giving the installation a fairy tale character. The artist draws templates from the plants she gathers, and traces the leaves onto sheets of copper, then draws veins on each leaf. After the copper has been cut it is soldered to a copper wire petiole, which in turn is soldered to a copper stem. Peabody was trained in plant morphology at the New York Botanical Garden. The precise and laborious documentation may be said to be a way of honoring these hardy survivors. 

“New Language”, sterling silver, white gold, platinum and gold leaf on silk, 3’x7’, 2020

Peabody’s most recent work is painting on Japanese silk. The images derive from a meticulous drawing, blown up until it is pixilated and attached to the silk. Each mark is then drawn on the back of the cloth, in an obsessive process that exhaustively transcribes every twig and leaf. She explains further:

In my newest works, I paint swatches of the Kentucky landscape in small dots and brush strokes, using a combination of acrylic medium, watercolor and gilding size, onto silk traditionally used to make Japanese screen paintings. After the paint and glue mixture cure, I adhere sheets of silver, gold, copper, and platinum leaves to each mark, then brush away the metal that has not stuck. By leaving my paintings unsealed, I allow atmosphere to oxidize each piece.

Moisture, chemicals and other impurities in the air in which they are hung darken and discolor the silver and white gold marks, changing the image and revealing the scenes in greater detail over the passage of time…. The silk is left loose and raw instead of stretched onto the frame, so that each is more fragile and susceptible to the environment.

Despite Peabody’s painstaking exertions, the result on the front is an impression of calligraphic dexterity and spontaneity of touch. An elegant, delicate scintillation plays across the surfaces of the silks, somewhat akin to Mark Tobey’s “white writing”, but lighter and more fragile. In density of information they recall the work of Vija Celmins. The pinned cloth is allowed to billow and fold, and the movement of the cloth echoes the quivering light on leafy trees on a breezy day.

The new work bears witness to the artist being on intimate terms with nature, and seems open-ended – fit for all refinements.

Anne Peabody’s art proposes an alternate perception of the natural world. Through reflection, Peabody’s audiences are called upon to see themselves as part of the threatened wetlands, intruding plant life surviving in sidewalk cracks, or evanescent leafy horizons. Her use of oxidation as a metaphor and artistic process brings up a host of current questions concerning personal health and survival (antioxidants, pollution, global warming, environmental degradation), but does so with understated grace. But the question she poses is foreboding:  if how we shape the environment in turn shapes us, how are we each to reckon with the impact of dying and disappearing ecosystems? 

Arts

Tunis: Jorma Kaukonen is Live and Well at Fur Peace Ranch

Saturday night has arrived at Fur Peace Ranch and Jorma Kaukonen is in a spry mood. The guitarist, song stylist and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer has just wound his way through Jesse Fuller’s “San Francisco Bay Blues.” It’s a giddy bit of back porch acoustic serenading that couldn’t have sounded sunnier.

But what awaits Kaukonen at the song’s conclusion might initially seem unexpected. It’s silence – several beats of stillness, in fact. But he has a comeback at the ready.

“And the crowd went wild.”

A few claps of approval then erupt, but they belong to the family and crew members in the largely empty room at hand. They are assisting in bringing the performance to life for audiences listening in from almost everywhere else around the globe. On a typical Saturday night, this performance space would be packed with fans cheering on the folk, blues and Americana music Kaukonen has spent the better part of six decades exploring and playing. But since the COVID-19 outbreak, Fur Peace Ranch, along with most every other performance space on the planet, has been closed.

“Hey, at least we’re here,” he added. Then Kaukonen turned to “Heart Temporary,” an original, summery affirmation recorded for his 2007 album “Stars in My Crown” that further enforced the show’s homey feel.

Kaukonen is here because a series of Saturday night streaming shows – Quarantine Concerts, as he calls them – have maintained his performance visibility. Granted, scores of artists have taken to cyberspace during recent lockdown conditions to air occasional, informal shows of varying length. They are often staged from their homes with little more than an iPhone as a broadcasting device. Fur Peace Ranch – located in Meigs County, Ohio – has regularly presented multi-camera, high definition concert simulcasts. As such, Kaukonen’s Saturday streaming shows are essentially standard operating procedure. And since Kaukonen and wife/manager Vanessa also live on the Fur Peace grounds, the programs maintain the homebound feel of other COVID-climate online concerts.

“We’ve got our crew,” Kaukonen said. “We’ve got all our stuff. So we figured, ‘Hey, we’re here anyway. Might as well do a show.’”

“San Francisco Bay Blues” and “Heart Temporary” were the first two songs played at the inaugural Quarantine Concert. As of this writing, Kaukonen has played a total of five consecutive Saturday evening streaming shows with fans tuning in from as far away as Thailand and Italy. While the performances don’t require any kind of viewer fee, donations and virtual tip jars have collected enough funds to pay the Fur Peace staff assisting with the concerts.

“We’re getting about 4,000 to 5,000 views a week from people watching for the first time through. I mean, that’s like selling out the Beacon (Theatre) in New York twice. Now, I know it’s a free show, and it’s going to stay free. That’s the deal. We’re not going to monetize this thing. But people have really been coming through for us and we’re so grateful. I’m actually able to keep three employees out on the Ranch. So for us, it’s a win-win situation. We get to reach out to the world and it gives me something to do.

“I mean, I’m kind of like a court jester. Without a court, I’m out of work.”

Back to the Starting Line
For the uninitiated, Kaukonen is a student of folk tradition, having learned fingerpicking technique from guitarist Ian Buchanan and roots music composition through the recordings of numerous stylistic forefathers that include the Reverend Gary Davis. But it was rock ‘n’ roll that gave him prominence, specifically tenure with the vanguard psychedelic band Jefferson Airplane (hence the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction) and the spinoff ensemble he formed in 1969 with Airplane bassist Jack Casady dubbed Hot Tuna. The latter alliance still exists today. But with all touring plans on hold this year, Kaukonen is returning to the folk inspirations that guided his career long before the Airplane took off, sounds that continue to fortify his music today.

“Without a band at these shows, without the production and all that stuff, what we’re talking about is what got me into this music in the first place. I’m not playing plugged in. It really is an acoustic guitar and a microphone. For me, it’s going back to where it all started. That’s something that I really enjoy.

“If I’m going to do a show somewhere, we do it the way we all do it. There’s production, there’s lights, you do your soundchecks – all of that. Here are at the Ranch, we have a great sounding room, we have a crack crew… everything is here. I don’t need to think about powdering my nose or making sure my forehead doesn’t shine too much. I just sit down with my guitars and start playing songs and hope everything works. So far, everything’s been working great.”

But what of the new performance dynamics dictated by today’s social distancing world? They allow Kaukonen to present concerts at the Ranch exactly as he has been, with one major stipulation: he can’t admit an audience.

“Listen, there’s nothing like a live audience. We don’t even need to discuss that. But we don’t have one. I think I’ve adapted to the situation in that I’ve convinced myself there’s an audience out there. The downside to not having an audience is you don’t have an audience. The upside, if there is an upside to this, is that without having an audience, the sound of our room becomes pristine. The quality of the sound we’re sending out to our audience around the world is tops, if I do say so myself.”

But live performances constitute only a portion of Kaukonen’s activities at the Ranch. He and his staff also host seminars with guitar students. Since lockdown conditions were established, he has gone the way of most school environments:  online instruction. That took some getting used to, as well.

“Nobody hates change worse than me, so to have to learn how to use a program like Zoom, even though everybody does it, took me awhile to get into. Fortunately, I’ve got a teenage daughter who knows how to do all that stuff. I’ve been doing guitar lessons on Zoom three times a week and I’ve got more coming up. Again, I think the students and myself have adjusted to the fact that this is what we’ve got, so we might as well make it work.

“I guess the bottom line is that I live here at the Ranch anyway. I don’t have to go anywhere. I might as well be giving a guitar lesson.”

Awaiting Eighty
The big question facing Kaukonen, and essentially every other working musician – and perhaps all performing artists, for that matter – is simple but frightening. “What’s next?” Touring schedules have been irreparably damaged if not scrapped all together while the reopening of arts facilities seem uncertain at best.

“That’s a really good question. We talk about it all the time. Basically, tours have been cancelled for the rest of the year, or rather, my tours have been cancelled for the rest of the year. There are still some things that are on the books, like Locken in the fall (the annual Virginia festival has been postponed from June to October). But basically, we don’t know.

“I’ve seen a lot of stuff come and go, but I’ve never seen anything like this. I had a student, a Zoom student, the other day say something that really made sense to me. He said, ‘What’s happening now is not a pause button. It’s a reset button.’

“Listen, we’re going to come back from all of this. Of course, we are. This is not the end of the world. But I think it’s changed things forever in a lot of ways. It’s going to change everything for everybody.”

Through it all, Kaukonen remains hopeful – upbeat, even. In December, he will turn 80, a milestone that seems both remarkable and unfathomable when you witness the assuredness and joy reflected in his playing as cameras zoom in for close ups at his Quarantine Concerts.

“I am pretty upbeat. There are a lot of reasons for that. First of all, children came to me late in life. I’ve got a 22-year-old son and I have an almost 14-year-old daughter. Plus, my wife is younger than me, so the fact that I’m surrounded by younger people lets me know that I’m never allowed to be that old guy.

“At some point, changes will be coming. I understand all that. But while I was waiting for this interview, I took a 30-mile motorcycle ride. I can still do that. I mean, I’m still healthy. My goal is just to enjoy every day as much as possible. I see nothing to be gained by bellyaching about stuff.”

Jorma Kaukonen’s Quarantine Concerts are presented at 8 p.m on Saturdays. Previous performances are still viewable. For viewing info, go here.

Arts

The Art World After COVID: An Invited Essay Series

We’ve invited a number of people to write brief reaction pieces to art critic Jerry Saltz’s recent piece in Vulture,“The Last Days of the Art World … and Perhaps the First Days of a New One”. The writers were also asked to comment about the effects the virus and resulting mitigation steps have had on their work. We are publishing these pieces over the next several months. Below are contributors and links to the individual pieces in this essay series, in order of publication. Additional contributors and links will be added as essays are published.

John Brooks – Artist, Gallerist, Poet and Writer

Stuart Horodner – Director of the University of Kentucky Art Museum

Dmitry Strakovsky – Art Intermedia Faculty, Founder of Infinite Industries

Arts

KY Author Debut: Bobi Conn

Bobi Conn grew up in a hollow near Clearfield, Kentucky, a former factory village located just outside of Morehead. It was an idyllic setting of forest, creeks and tin-roofed homes that sang to the tempos of rainfall. But it also was the scene of a traumatic childhood in the presence of an addicted, alcoholic, violent father. Bobi Conn escaped, got herself into college and landed a white-collar job.

Bobi Conn (With permission of the author)

But that same progress earned the mistrust of her family. And her Eastern Kentucky accent and history were often met by the condescension of peers. 

The account of a survivor is detailed in the pages of Bobi’s debut memoir, “In the Shadow of the Valley.”

She discussed her work and perspectives on life with UnderMain’s Tom Martin for his weekly WEKU program, Eastern Standard.

LISTEN

Arts

Reflections on Stillness: How Dance Continues to Move Through the Pandemic

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I spent the last two years contemplating stillness as a primary focus of my graduate research. As a dancer, my lived experience is visceral, sensuous, kinetic and embodied. However, through my research I have grown accustomed to stillness and have found how it exists in harmony with motion. Stillness and the solitude it provides have afforded me the occasion to develop a deep understanding of the body on an anatomical, sensory, and cellular level. These findings completely altered my internal landscape, which has evolved into a sacred space of knowing.

Now I have awakened to find myself in a world that has become still because the one that we inhabit is no longer safe for us to move about freely. I have spent several weeks in quarantine and while it is a disciplined practice, I have acclimated to isolation and being present within my body.

“The body is a precious habit. There is a way of being towards the body.
One that is a felt body; how one experiences energy running through the body.
The body is asking to be listened to, to be heard.”

– Celeste Snowber

As a lecturer in Dance at the University of Kentucky I focus on embodied inquiry, sensory awareness, and the impact that physics has on the movement practices of dancers. In recent years I have begun to embed these concepts into my curriculum where I encourage my students to look deeply within themselves to understand their anatomy and to work in harmony with the glorious structure it provides. I have come to believe that the body is all knowing; it holds precious intelligence that is waiting for us just beneath the surface of our consciousness. The challenge that we all face is to remain present and to nurture that awareness so that we might discover the exquisite enlightenment that the body holds.

Weeks before our community began sheltering in place, I premiered a new concert dance work at UK entitled Points of Origin. The entire work was an improvised performance score that I was inspired to create while studying dance in Berlin last summer. While there, I had the incredible opportunity to study with Michael Schumacher who has been performing improvised dance works for decades both nationally and internationally. In his class, he proposed that space is an endless field of possibility that our bodies can navigate intuitively and spontaneously to unlock the movement that resides within us. I found myself sinking deeply into that idea and I became acutely aware of how the senses can become tools of navigation that allow us to unearth authentic movement through improvisation. My research has led to the realization that those same senses can alter how we navigate the world not just as movers, but also within our daily lives.

Through the presentation of Points of Origin, I was able to share these concepts with my students, and through our rehearsal process they began the work of connecting to themselves and to their fellow dancers. We began with the senses, which aided in the development of an intuitive movement practice as we slowly created a performance environment that was constantly in flux and full of potential. Through a series of movement prompts I encouraged the cast to sense movement instead of seeking it and to understand the weight of their bodies and how their bodies can become alert to the shifts that might occur within the performance environment. I also utilized contact improvisation to further assist the dancers to become familiar with the weight of their bodies as well as the bodies that they were sharing space with.

Working in this manner provided a unique chance to connect to one another on a human level, as we shared our histories, our vulnerabilities as well as any trauma that we had experienced so that we could properly care for one another within the intimate space we were creating. It was a breathtaking experience to witness these young artists as they discovered the potential that they have within themselves beyond the technicality of their movements as a new field of possibility expanded before them. Together we found truth in the knowing that the body is connected to a world beyond where new vistas can open up before us through sensory awareness and embodied practice.

A week later, I felt as through I was ripped from reality as I went from teaching several hours a week to staring at my computer screen, adapting my syllabi to complete the semester through distance learning. Full disclosure, I am not a huge fan of technology, but like many of us I have evolved along with the rest of the world, and have slowly and with some resistance integrated it into my life so that I can function professionally. After twenty years of teaching students of all ages to dance, I was faced with what seemed to be an insurmountable challenge as I pondered how I might be effective and supportive to my students while fulfilling the outcome for my courses. I have long viewed technology as something that separates and distracts us as it constantly bombards the senses. I have seen countless examples of how technology has left many of us disembodied and detached from our friends, our families, and our colleagues.

For me the joy of teaching is found through personal interaction, a sharing of information from one moving body to another in real time. There, I can intuitively respond to the needs of my students and adjust my curriculum to fit those needs; in this situation, established methodologies were not possible. Thankfully, I quite literally came to my senses, as I returned to the foundational concepts of my research. One such concept states that our bodies hold precious knowledge and I began the work of empowering my students to be present within the stillness and to locate themselves within their senses as a means to adapt to this new way of being. To become aware of what their bodies were feeling, and to make intentional space to give themselves what they need.

Within the past five weeks a beautiful paradox has emerged through my interactions with my students. Through our online communication, this digital environment that I once thought kept us from engaging in personal interaction has provided a valuable platform to share the details of our daily lives with one another through quarantine.

While recording my final movement video of the semester last evening, I spoke to my students about how enlightening this experience has been for me. Through their weekly writing reflections, I have learned where my students live and how they have found solace in the natural landscapes that surround them. They have invited their siblings and parents to join them as they participate in the class videos that I prepare for them weekly, and they have shared stories with me about those experiences. They have also expressed how this has impacted them emotionally and the challenges they are facing, and how many of them feel forced into isolation which has cause issues with depression and anxiety for them. This mode of connection has given me the opportunity to continue to educate, nurture and inspire my students from the confinement of our disparate locations. Together, we have journeyed inward so that we might maintain a connection to movement. We have examined the concept of impermanence and the value of solitude. Finally, we have come to believe that one day we will re-emerge wiser and more embodied because of this experience.

For me, this time has been a gift. I feel as though it is a calling from some great unknown that is inviting us to spend time contemplating stillness and to re-discover the value of solitude in our lives. Maybe it is a calling for us to be present, to be generously compassionate with others, and a reminder to live our lives joyfully once this time of isolation is over. Perhaps it is teaching us how to care for the suffering of others as we are reminded of all that we have to be grateful for. Through this experience I have been blessed with a tremendous opportunity to establish new ways of connecting to my students as we worked together to remain in motion during this time of stillness.

Photo credits: Theresa Bautista

Arts

Our Latest UMGram: Many Helping Hands

Photo courtesy of Sarah Heller

This Mighty Lexington Art Teacher Joins the COVID-19 Fight
Armed with a home 3D printer and a Maker’s can-do attitude, Sarah Heller, an art educator at The Lexington School in Lexington, Kentucky, brought a unique set of skills to the design of a face shield prototype for frontline healthcare workers. As part of the maker movement the project was a great fit for Heller, but also represents a forward-looking way to think about art education as basic and essential.

Arts Resilience Initiative
LexArts and the Bluegrass Community Foundation in Lexington have teamed up with a generous core of foundation and other donors to offer financial relief funds to individual artists and arts organizations in the LexArts/BGCF service area impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The one-time grants are being provided on a first-come, first-served basis. You can read more about it on our website. Here is a link to more information about grant eligibility.

Photo by John Brooks of woman viewing Dorthea Lange exhibition at MoMA.

John Brooks: The Art World After COVID
We’ve invited a group of folks in the arts and culture world to write brief essays responding to a recent piece in Vulture by art critic Jerry Saltz, “The Last Days of the Art World… and Perhaps the First Days of a New One.” John Brooks, a Louisville artists, gallerist, and poet is our first featured response piece contributor. Brooks’ art practice was featured in a recent piece by Miranda Lash on UnderMain.

Artist Relief Trust
Led by the Great Meadows Foundation, Kentucky Foundation for Women, and private donors, and facilitated by ELEVATOR Artist Resource in Louisville, the Artist Relief Trust (ART) has been established to help support individual artists who live in Kentucky or several contiguous Indiana counties who are facing dire financial straits due to the COVID-19 shutdown. ART is funding rapid-response microgrants of $500 to as many artists as possible. Click on the above image to learn more about the effort. Here is the link to the easy-to-complete ART application.

ETC.,

The wonderful donor funds highlighted in this newsletter are generous, remarkable, and timely. In this catastrophic time so many Americans are accessing online arts and cultural content of all kinds from so many different sources to help them deal with their drastically changed circumstances. We are struck by the relatively paltry dollars allocated to the arts and culture sector in the relief package passed by Congress and signed by President Trump. According to a report by Americans for the Arts, the arts and culture sector represents 4.3% of national GDP and generates $166 billion of economic activity. In Kentucky, the sector contributes 2.5% of the state’s economy equal to $4.9 billion, and generates significant revenues for local and state governments. We think this is the right time to start considering how the arts and culture sector can have a significant seat at the table when political decisions are made about allocations of government funds. Some strategies that could be employed will be highlighted in future newsletters.

Our friends at the Lexington-focused Infinite Industries, a free cultural events promotion site, have moved to promoting remote events. The site, free to event creators and end users, was founded by Dmitry Strakovsky, who was interviewed recently on WEKU’s Eastern Standard, hosted by UnderMain’s own Tom Martin. Infinite Industries also now features online resources for all ages and is encouraging event creators and promoters to use the site to disseminate event information.

George Herman “Babe” Ruth, New York Yankees, from the Goudey Gum Company’s Big League Chewing Gum series (R319), The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Are you missing the start of baseball season like we are? Remember that box of baseball cards which included a Mickey Mantle rookie card that your mother gave away? You can at least do a deep dive into the most extensive collection of baseball cards outside of the Baseball Hall of Fame, a thirty-thousand-plus card collection donated by Jefferson Burdick, a Syracuse, New York, electrician who apparently never attended a baseball game.

Pay Nothing Until April, 2003, Edward Ruscha, born 1937. ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/AR00047.

The Tate Modern offer a terrific online survey exhibition of the work of influential American American artist, Ed Ruscha. The artist, known for his work in which text is superimposed over landscapes and often idealized images, talks about his practice in this excellent video.

We’re always interested in hearing what you think about UnderMain. You can send comments, suggestions, and pitches to UM@under-main.com.

Food, housing, health, safety; so many vital needs to be met right now. If you are able, please consider providing needed assistance to organizations supporting our neighbors in our communities. Please also consider, if you are able, donating to one of the financial relief efforts highlighted in this newsletter, or arts and culture organizations and institutions, most of which are in survival mode and trying to find paths to reopening their doors after the crisis.

Most of all, please stay safe.

Arts

This Mighty Lexington Art Teacher Joins the COVID-19 Fight

The lack of adequate personal protection for frontline healthcare workers has been a major failure of our national preparation for the COVID-19 pandemic. Sarah Heller, an art educator at The Lexington School in Lexington, Kentucky, decided to join in the efforts to find solutions to the shortage of PPE by developing a prototype for face shields which would offer a higher degree of protection in healthcare settings. As part of the maker movement, Sarah brought technical skills and capabilities and the requisite can-do attitude to this vital project. She responded in writing to questions. Her account of the project and also its implications for how and what we teach our children is a path into a future where art education becomes absolutely basic and essential.

How did you get the idea to develop a face shield prototype?

I woke up on March 25th at 5 A.M. to a blast of text messages from Dr. Sylvia Cerel who was on a mission to find a resource from all who had technology to get involved in aiding the PPE crisis locally. I know her directly from being a parent at The Lexington School and she knew I had a 3D printer in my classroom. She gave me the spark to research and get involved. It became my greatest challenge as to how I could use my small classroom printer to create a prototype device for making face shields. How can one person with a small 3D printer have any effect?

Process: A.) Identify the need. How can a rapid prototype fill a need for PPE supply? B.) What’s out there in the Maker Space world as far as open source files and designs being shared? C.) Spend time to evaluate, test, fail and find a model that could work. D.) Modify, understand the limitations of open source file; what does design need to move forward based on design, 3D printing limitations, and resources? How do we ultimately find a 3D print file that is a prototype that can be shared for all  to get up and running?

What technical knowledge and abilities did you bring to the project and what tools do you have at your home that enabled you to implement it? What materials did you have to source?

I’m blessed with an unconventional background as a licensed architect and artist. I’m a creative designer with high technical skills who understands how the prototype process works.  This defines what ‘Makers’ are. We understand technology, current machines, and how to push new ideas forward.

My current role as an elementary art teacher at The Lexington School allows me to teach 5th graders the fundamentals of 3D printing with a Makerbot Replicator+ in my classroom. It keeps me in touch with trends and equipment, and ultimately prepares this generation with a technology that will impact every aspect of the workforce they will enter. When I got Sylvia’s call about a dire situation and current crisis for PPE, I literally grabbed my classroom printer, filament, and support materials and set it up in my dining room. My primary goal was to create a prototype to be shared.

What started as a small idea to create a working prototype for a PPE shield in my dining room grew into something I could never have imagined.

Did the open source prototype files that you accessed need modifications?

To be clear, I’m not creating an original design of my own:  I’m examining the uploads of other designers from around the world, testing, and modifying to a need – and that’s the process of makers and prototyping. The beauty of this process is ALTRUISM. The file I’ve taken on to redesign and modify is the one I will, in return, upload to the original creator as a modification to share. Designs that work can be immediately uploaded and pushed further. The model I decided was the best to work with is from Prusa Research, a company in the Czech Republic. I took their open source file and had to make modifications based on metric differences and material reinforcement. Ultimately the greatest challenge is to find a 3D printed model that can be printed in a reasonable time. It is a SLOW process to 3D print which is the greatest barrier most 3D printers face.

How long did it take you to develop the prototype and were there others with expertise that worked with you on the development process?

This has been a breakneck challenge for me as a designer and I worked by myself initially to test and develop a design. I have the added benefit of being teacher at The Lexington School and to have strong support for research and development to push new maker technologies. When I woke up to the call from Sylvia Cerel, I contacted the head of The Lexington School and discussed the project. She immediately dedicated our equipment, resources, and material to sponsor this research to develop a prototype.

The beauty of open source files in the Maker World is that the design options and file sources are infinite. You look to find a design that is most applicable to you, but as a designer you must take on that design and customize it to your own needs. It’s a process of test and fail – just like any innovation process. I often quote Thomas Edison to my students, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  Makers all over the world are challenging designs at breakneck speed. If Edison uploaded one open source file on a light bulb, I guarantee we as designers around the world would react and redesign. Thomas Edison only needed to upload one light bulb design to makers and there would be a maker’s response within a day that would make the perfect light bulb.

To take one idea with a small classroom printer to develop a prototype that has been shared internationally blows my mind.

The New Victory Gardens: 3D Printing May Save Lives from The Lexington School on Vimeo.

Has the prototype been used in small-scale manufacturing locally? Globally? Is there a feedback process to perfect the design?

Simply put, there has not been time to go through normal testing and manufacturing and I don’t claim to be an expert of manufacturing.  This is a prototype file that I’m sharing and supporting.  Due to the immediate crisis of PPE shortage the grassroots efforts of people sewing masks, gowns, and making shields has been at the level of the WW2 victory gardens. Members of the community are making and delivering aid in the moment to help healthcare providers in this major health crisis.

This one shield prototype I’m working on has been given to local nurses, doctors, and hospitals just as a test. I’m not within my means with a small printer to be a source of production. The protoype developed has been modified based on feedback and I continue to share the 3D printed file as it evolves to other makers in the community. I’ve received inquiries about the file from India, Germany, Brazil and the United States from many architecture firms who want to help.  Community partners we’re working closely with are Newton’s Attic/Dawn Cloyd and Grey Construction/Robert Lownes. The file has traveled and I’m here for technical support and feedback.

Do you see larger implications of this kind of project for the Maker Movement and for education?

Absolutely. I currently teach 5th graders 3D printing at The Lexington School and we are gearing up to build our own MakerSpace at TLS to apply to Middle School as curriculum. This is 21st century education and I believe a Design/Thinking mentality is one of the most essential components to early education. Teaching innovation begins with critical thinking skills and empathy. I was jolted out of bed with a need, looked at the resources I had, and worked to find a solution with resilience and creativity.  What I’m going through right now is the exact process I’ll teach, and I can’t think of a better teachable moment. I’m excited as a teacher to share my direct experience in a moment of crisis and how the maker movement and design can save lives. I’m also not afraid to show them my failures in the process. For me to share first-hand experience and use this as an example of solving an immediate crisis, I can’t think of more priceless way to educate on how one person can design with technology from a dining room table. The Makers are our future.

Are you planning other prototyping projects?

I’m not pursuing more projects. My passion for research and development couldn’t ignore this great urgency of protecting our healthcare heroes. It’s so difficult right now to sit by and watch this world unfold as it is. Altruism is my driving force. It’s a word I can’t live without and I’m always happy to collaborate with that drive to push innovation in causes such as these.

Photo images courtesy of Sarah Heller.

Arts

arts resilience initiative

LexArts and the Blue Grass Community Foundation announce the creation of the Arts Resilience Initiative to provide financial relief for artists and arts organizations impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The current health crisis is putting unprecedented pressures on Central Kentucky’s arts community. With strict guidelines to stem the spread of the virus, public gatherings are banned, venues are closed, and performances, shows, events, classes and gigs are being cancelled, resulting in hundreds of thousands in projected lost revenue for artists and arts organizations. 

LexArts, in partnership with Blue Grass Community Foundation, will address the urgent need of nonprofit arts organizations based in, and artists living, working, creating and/or performing in the LexArts/BGCF common service area (Fayette, Bourbon, Clark, Jessamine, Madison, Scott and Woodford counties) by taking immediate action to deploy financial resources through the Arts Resilience Initiative.

Focused on lost income, the fund will quickly provide one-time relief to eligible artists and arts organizations on a first-come, first-served basis. The maximum award for an individual artist is $500, while the maximum award for arts organizations is $2,000. 

Applications from individual artists will be accepted continuously, with grants made on a rolling basis. Applications from arts organizations must be received by April 24. 

Application information and eligibility

Application link

Leading the list of Arts Resilience Initiative donors is Knight Foundation Donor Advised Charitable Fund at Blue Grass Community Foundation, which is issuing a $50,000 matching opportunity to challenge the community to rise to the occasion and support local arts. 

Additional initial gifts include $15,000 from the Jenna and Matthew Mitchell Family Foundation, $11,111.11 from The Groovalution, $10,000 from the EE Murry Family Foundation, an anonymous gift amount from Stockyard, LLC, and $10,000 from The Fund for Greater Lexington, a community endowment at Blue Grass Community Foundation.

“The arts inspire and sustain us in good times and in bad. Theaters, studios and galleries may now be closed, but art has never been more essential,” said Blue Grass Community Foundation President/CEO Lisa Adkins. “Many artists and arts organizations need support right now to sustain them through this crisis. To help do just that, generous donors have stepped forward to help us create the Arts Resilience Initiative. Someday, hopefully soon, we will be able to once again gather to hear a poem, visit a museum, take in a performance and enjoy a concert. We need to make sure that when that day comes, there is something to hear and see and celebrate.” 

Thanks to the support of these generous donors, the fund is able to move swiftly and issue a first round of grants totaling $30,000 to the LexArts 2019/2020 General Operating Support Partners: the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras, the Lexington Art League, Lexington Children’s Theater, Lexington Philharmonic and the Living Arts & Science Center.

The Arts Resilience Fund is a resources-in, resources-out fund, and the fund will continue to provide financial relief to artists and arts organizations only as long as donations support it. It is projected that the demand for funds will exceed the available resources, so donations are needed to continue grantmaking to help our local artists and arts organizations when they need it most. 

“The need is high, and the issue is urgent,” said LexArts Interim President and CEO Ame Sweetall. “We invite those who appreciate and enjoy Lexington’s arts scene to join us in addressing the urgent needs of the artists and arts organizations in our community and ensuring the longevity of the creative sectors of Lexington.”

For more information about the Arts Resilience Fund, eligibility information and online applications for artists and arts organizations, visit LexArts.org/ArtsResilience. 

HOW TO DONATE

Donate online

Donate by check: Make checks payable to Blue Grass Community Foundation and indicate that your gift should be directed to the Arts Resilience Initiative. Mail checks to: Blue Grass Community Foundation Attn: Arts Resilience Initiative, 499 E. High Street #112, Lexington, KY 40507

If your business or company would like to join the initiative and provide a corporate gift, please email Scott Fitzpatrick at sfitzpatrick@bgcf.org.

About LexArts

LexArts is a nonprofit community organization that works for the development of a strong and vibrant arts community as a means of enhancing the quality of life in central Kentucky. Through its annual Fund for the Arts, LexArts raises millions of dollars in support of local arts. In turn, LexArts underwrites the operating expenses for a variety of Partner Organizations, awards grants through its Community Arts Development and Professional Development programs, and offers affordable exhibition and performance space for arts organizations. To learn more about LexArts, visit www.lexarts.org or contact Interim President/CEO Ame Sweetall at 859.255.2951.

About Blue Grass Community Foundation 

Blue Grass Community Foundation creates more generous, vibrant and engaged communities, growing charitable giving throughout the Bluegrass and Appalachia Kentucky. To learn more about the Community Foundation, visit www.bgcf.org or contact President/CEO Lisa Adkins at 859.225.3343.  

Arts

Our Latest UMGram

Artist Relief Trust
Led by the Great Meadows Foundation, Kentucky Foundation for Women, and private donors, and facilitated by ELEVATOR Artist Resource in Louisville, the Artist Relief Trust (ART) has been established to help support individual artists who live in Kentucky or several contiguous Indiana counties who are facing dire financial straits due to the COVID-19 shutdown. ART is funding rapid-response microgrants of $500 to as many artists as possible. Click here to learn more about the effort. Here is the link to the easy-to-complete ART application.

ETC.,

Carleton Wing, Orchid

The Lexington arts community was saddened by news of the death of Carleton Wing from illness due to COVID-19. His work was featured on UnderMain in an in-depth piece by Jim Fields, which you can read and also listen to Wing’s interview clips with Fields here. Wing was scheduled to have a solo exhibition at the Lexington Art League this month. We extend our deepest sympathies to Carleton’s wife, Livia Theodoli-Wing, his family, and friends.

Our friends at the Lexington civic education project, CivicLex, have developed an excellent COVID-19 information and resource hub. Lots of useful links to government assistance programs and other assistance resources.

Another very informative website for arts and culture organizations and individuals is the Kentucky Nonprofit Network’s COVID-19 resource page. Especially useful are their analyses of different available loan programs, including new ones funded by the fast-moving CARES Act passed by Congress and signed by the President.

Have you read the essay in Vulture, The Last Days of the Art World… and Perhaps the First Days of a New One, by Jerry Saltz, famed art critic? Well worth a read for those interested in his thoughts about a post-COVID visual art world. Do you have some thoughts or comments about this piece? Send them to us at UM@under-main.com and we will include them on our website/newsletter.

For this week’s virtual tour we head to the Windy City. Disappointed that you will not get to the Art Institute of Chicago’s blockbuster El Greco exhibition? El Greco: Ambition and Defiance had been slated to close in June. The museum has built a terrific online site to enable all of us to immerse ourselves in the exhibition. It includes this terrific introductory video and an audio tour of the exhibition highlights.

El Greco, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, 1586-88 © Iglesia de Santo Tomé/WikiCommons

Food, housing, health, safety; so many vital needs to be met right now. If you are able, please consider providing needed assistance to organizations supporting our neighbors in our communities. Please also consider, if you are able, donating to arts and culture organizations and institutions, most of which are in survival mode and trying to find paths to reopening their doors after the crisis.

Most of all, please stay safe.

Arts

____________

The COVID-19 pandemic landed hard in Kentucky, causing economic devastation and isolating artists at the moment they need community the most. Many have lost multiple gigs and opportunities they were counting on to pay essential living expenses. Others are newly unemployed, let go by beloved arts organizations or from service industry employment. 

So far $75,000 has been raised from Great Meadows Foundation, Kentucky Foundation for Women, and two private donors to seed the new Artist Relief Trust (ART), which will provide $500 rapid-response microgrants to as many artists as possible, helping offset some of the dire monetary losses artists are facing.

Concern about the pandemic’s impact on artists brought together the coalition organizing this effort. ELEVATOR Artist Resource – a Louisville-based nonprofit whose mission is supporting and advocating for individual artists – is facilitating this timely and vitally important initiative. Coalition partners include: Great Meadows Foundation, Kentucky Foundation for Women, Actors Theatre of Louisville, KMAC Museum, Louisville Ballet, Commonwealth Theatre Center, Louisville Fringe, OPEN Community Arts Center and others, including individual artists and advocates from across the state – uniting artists across Kentucky and creating much-needed financial and community support. 

“Our artistic community needs help right now. ART was created to make sure they get that help and get it quickly,” said ELEVATOR founder and board chair, Alison Huff. “We also wanted to make it easy, with money given directly to artists and no strings attached.” 

Applicants fill out a short online form and submit one link to demonstrate their work. Awards are based on need, though, not a review of artwork, and funds can be used toward any living expenses artists are struggling to cover. Artists in any discipline who reside in the state of Kentucky, or in Clark, Floyd, Harrison, Scott, or Washington Counties in Indiana are encouraged to apply. Awards will be prioritized based on artists’ immediate needs for basic necessities like housing, food, and health care. 

ART is committed to leveraging the $75,000 in seed money to raise even more for artists in need – and is asking YOU to be a partner. Donations large and small can be made through GoFundMe to help make sure our community’s artists get the help they need right now. Anyone interested in more sizable donations or wanting to target certain demographics of artists can contact ELEVATOR for more information.

Culturalyst:

Another way ELEVATOR is helping to create community for artists is through a collaboration with Culturalyst, a New Orleans-based start-up that is building a national network of local artist directories, with Louisville being the first and a beta partner throughout the process. Culturalyst Louisville is an online directory for artists of all disciplines who reside in the Greater Louisville Area. In minutes, artists can create and activate a unique profile of their work including cover and profile photos, Google-indexed artist statement, links to all online properties, and a full gallery of work (songs, images, video). The directory is public and searchable by medium and genre, among other attributes. It also includes a “tipping” tool allowing artists’ fans to send money directly in support of their ongoing work, as well as a social-distancing-appropriate feature where artists can add their live-stream events to a centralized calendar. Artists or arts advocates who are interested in creating a Culturalyst site for other areas of Kentucky or beyond can contact ELEVATOR to facilitate the connection.

How to connect:

Artists can apply for emergency funds from ART and join Culturalyst Louisville at http://ELEVATORarts.org/. Donations to the Artist Relief Trust can also be made through GoFundMe or through ELEVATOR’s website

Get creative with ELEVATOR online using #ARTelevates, and watch out for some surprises on social media. 

About ELEVATOR Artist Resource: 

Developed as an outgrowth of Imagine Greater Louisville 2020, ELEVATOR is a hub for the creators of our community to access resources, professional development, and promotional tools to elevate their economic growth and community engagement. By helping individual artists have a collective voice to advocate for their interests and helping to remove barriers to access, ELEVATOR empowers our creative community to find sustainability in their practice and in their careers – in any discipline.

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

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 an