Category Archives: Arts

Arts

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

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

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

Prologue: End of Hostilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part I: A New Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part II: Scenes From A New Country 

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

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

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

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

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

A drafting table in Sora’s studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part III: Ancient History

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

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

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

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

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

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

She painted every day.

Epilogue: Last Sound

Vian Sora, “Last Sound”, 2018, Mixed media on canvas

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

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

“It’s everything.”

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

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

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

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

Arts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arts

Studio Visit with Carlos Gamez De Francisco: Reconsidering Form

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

commissioned watercolor portraits and abstract painting in-progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miriam Keinle visits Lori Larusso

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

Arts

In Their Own Words

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

Miranda Lash, Speed Art Museum curator of contemporary art

Tatiana Gant, Executive Director, Montana Arts Council

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

Arts

Tunis: Travels With Tim

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

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

Tim Easton Photo Credit: Michael Weintrob

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Michael Weintrob

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Michael Weintrob

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Michael Weintrob

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

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

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

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

Arts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

strawberries and cream and yellow cake
striping a green Formica background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Arts

Emily Ludwig Shaffer at Institute 193

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giotto, Feast of Herod
Fresco, 1320
110 x 177 inches
[source: https://www.wikiart.org/en/giotto/feast-of-herod-1320 ]

The Spy Zambur Brings Mahiya to the City of Tawariq, Folio from a Hamzanama (Book of Hamza),ca. 1570
Attributed to Kesav Das
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on cloth; mounted on paper
29 1/8 x 22 1/2 inches
[source: Met collection https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/447743]

 

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

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

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

Arts

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

Green Room Exchange: Soul of Cuba

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

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Railbird Festival: The Back Story

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

Arts

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

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

Arts

Tunis: liddle’s A Lot

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

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

Brian Krock
Photo Credit: Desmond White

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

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

The liddle things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jazz and Joyce

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

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

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

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

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

The crystalized idea

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arts

Ray Kleinhelter: Riverscapes

Bryan Warren wrote about Martin Rollins’s 2017 “Town and Country Exhibition” at the BDeemer Gallery that “for those of us who make the city of Louisville and fields of Kentucky our home, Rollins’ images are places we know.  The artist uses this familiarity to explore them, revealing a passionate interest in what we know and how we feel socially and historically, while maintaining a strong sense of the present.  They are more than frozen moments. Instead, they are like fleeting memories playing on a loop.” Ray Kleinhelter’s subject matter is the Ohio River, rather than urban and suburban settings, but, like Rollins, Kleinhelter has an preternatural ability to make the familiar unfamiliar and the local transcendent. Warren also extolled “the tension between image and process” in Rollins’s work, and Kleinhelter as well re-orders the immediacy of topographical notation with a rigorous painterly logic and a firm notion of color-space. Both artists provide the special pleasure of re-envisioning for their viewers the local and familiar.

Ray Kleinhelter has two shows on view through May 4th, at the Kleinhelter Gallery at 8thand Culbertson in New Albany, and at Galerie Hertz at 1253 Preston in Louisville.

Riverbank #20, 36×48, Oil

Kleinhelter’s recent evolution has been from a bejazzed jigsaw depiction of landscape with thickly-brushed saturated colors to a very open, bright palette of   startling hue gradations depicting clouds, sky, hillsides, banks and water. The older work had a Stuart Davis-like density and dynamism. Kleinhelter’s 2017 show at Sotheby’s Lenihan Real Estate, (up at the same time as Rollins’s), depicted riverscapes with dissonant color chords and strong light-dark contrasts, for example in “Riverbank #20.” (oil on canvas, 48”x36”). Spare, concise pen and pencil drawings in that exhibition suggested a new direction.

Liveaboard 40×30 Oil

In his current work, Ray Kleinhelter still employs a geometricizing and generalizing translation of visual data into a language of interlocking trapezoids and rectangles, but at a very different tempo.  Sometimes these geometries overlap, as in “Liveaboard,” (oil on canvas, 30”x40”) creating a measured illusion of recession into the distance.  A compression of forms on the left contrasts with the expansive openness on the right. Colliding passages of yellow, orange, beige and mauve occupy the lower portion of this classically paced work and suggest not only the play of light and shade, and the reflection of clouds on the water, but also, the flow of the river’s current, and sun and sky as protagonists of this restrained, languid drama.

Mile 589 14×10 watercolor

The watercolor study for “Mile 589” (watercolor, 10”x14”) is absorbed in describing particularities of place: the delicate inflections of the profiles of ridgelines, the drama of the sky and very intense observation of a range of hues in the landscape. The oil version is bolder and more emphatic, more open and more spacious.   (“Mile 589,” oil on canvas, 30”x40”).  Although a depiction of nature, Kleinhelter’s vocabulary is very much of the moment: the sweep of the view is punctuated with right-angle geometries that evoke a machine part generated by a 3-D printer. Kleinhelter’s secondary and tertiary hues create a progression leading downriver in open water towards discoveries that lie beyond the next river bend.

Mile 589, 40×30, Oil

Ray Kleinhelter converted a cabin cruiser into a floating studio.  He lives riverside and so his subject has a continual presence in his peripheral vision. There is ample art historical precedent for working from a boat: J.M.W. Turner often did views from an offshore perspective, the better to immerse the viewer in Romantic Era subject matter of storms or unusual light effects.  The pre-Impressionist Charles Francois Daubigny converted a ferry to a floating studio from which he made etchings and paintings.  Manet painted Monet and his wife in Monet’s floating studio, and Winslow Homer’s obsession with the power, cruelty and inconstancy of the Atlantic is one of the epic sustained narratives in American art.

What all of these artists’ practices have in common is an undermining of traditional perspective.  The late Don Nice, who focused on the Hudson River in his art, noted, “The old or traditional approach of the Hudson River School painter was to break down the landscape in terms of foreground, middle ground and background.  Painting from a boat eliminates the foreground, which minimizes the notion of Renaissance space.” The watery entry point at the lower edge of Kleinhelter’s compositions is both a field for abstract improvisation and a more accurate plein-airism: less explicit representation leads to a firmer and more complex concept of space, atmosphere and light.  And what extraordinary light it is! Crystalline, lucid, a perfect match for a sense of freedom adrift. Planes of color glide together in different directions, sometimes off-kilter, being and un-being, forming and un-forming, like the motion of daylight itself. W. H. Auden, in his poem “A River Profile,” refers to “water, the selfless mother of all especials.”

Kleinhelter’s geometric generalizing yields, ultimately, an uncanny specificity.

Kleinhelter’s new manner evolved from his works on paper, especially his watercolors aboard his floating studio.  His painting practice was to cover every square inch of canvas, whereas his watercolor practice was exactly the opposite: to leave as much white space as possible. The delicacy of tints in the new oils and their unfinicky, elongated dashes and blocks preserves much of the spontaneity of the works on paper.

Twelve Mile Island 40×30 Oil

Sense of place is a discredited notion in contemporary criticism. Late-stage capitalism seems to be much more about a cacophony of mass-market, standardized erasable nowheres than any particular place.  But Kleinhelter gives his works exact locations: “Mile 588;”  “Mile 581;” “Chute 18 Mile Island;” “12 Mile Island;” “Toward Westport.” (The mile titles are navigational references to locations on the 981-mile stretch of the Ohio River).  Like the work of Martin Rollins, one of its pleasures is its re-definition of the local – but also its carefully crafted tension between artistic methods and ends, abstraction and representation, and the inevitable, deeply freighted, universal conversation about the state of our natural resources and their future.

“Ray Kleinhelter Paintings” is on view at the Kleinhelter Gallery, 701 East 8thStreet, New Albany, Indiana, through May 4th.  “Ray Kleinhelter: Views from the River” is up until May 5th at Galerie Hertz, 1253 Preston Street, Louisville. The Kleinhelter exhibitions are participants in “Afloat: An Ohio River Way of Life.”

Arts

Carolyn Young Hisel: Light to See

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

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

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

Red Piano

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

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

Arrivals

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

Air Walkers

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

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

Girl with Dogs

Riding Instructor

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

The Girl Project Comes to Lexington

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curtain Call, 2018 Voices HEaRd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arts

NorthSide Festival Debuts

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

Ring The Bell, Bethel – LaVon Williams

More information about the NorthSide Festival

Arts

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

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

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

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

Mike Goodlett’s Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We went upstairs.

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

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

Michael Goodlett, Untitled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded my head.  We said goodbye.

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

“Resurrection Fern” starts with these words:

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

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

Arts

Tunis: OTS Features Musical Brothers Tim Daisy & Dave Rempis

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

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

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

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

Tim Daisy and Dave Rempis (Photo by Andrej Chudy)

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

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

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

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

Tim Daisy (Photo by Emma Daisy)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave Rempis (Photo by Geert Vandepoele)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arts

Review: LexPhil’s Verdi Requiem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arts

Studio Visit with Skylar Smith: Her Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ann Taylor, in an article for The Atlantic (March 1, 2013) honoring the 100th anniversary of the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade, recounts the abominable treatment these women received during the march from the men who had deluged Washington, D.C. for President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration to be held the following day. “Marchers were jostled and ridiculed by many in the crowd. Some were tripped, others assaulted. Policemen appeared to be either indifferent to the struggling paraders, or sympathetic to the mob. Before the day was out, one hundred marchers had been hospitalized.”

Smith with her own inventive tribute, Homemakers’ Rebellion, brings these women into the 21st century wearing pink pussyhats as they march out of and back into the picture, essentially saying, “We are here, we are making progress, and we are not going away!” 

Impressive in her resolve, Smith does not try to emulate other artists although she is notably inspired by the works of three contemporaries: Mark Bradford, an African American artist living in Los Angeles, known for his large abstract grid paintings combined with collage representing aerial views of the city’s segregated neighborhoods; Julie Mehretu, an Ethiopian-born New York City abstract artist who creates politically themed works on a monumental scale by using a variety of techniques and media to layer her canvases; and Japanese artist Yoyai Kusami, who works primarily in sculpture and installations and is currently best known for her Infinity Rooms that provide viewers an unparalleled virtual experience with art.

Smith says she never feels limited by her media or content and, even with her busy schedule, she is looking forward to pushing the art side of herself, never losing sight of her goals and purpose, “Because the narrative for me right now is important, I want my current work to be very audience focused. I’m interested in making art where I am connecting with people in  more direct ways, especially in making work that has a political bent to it or effects change so that the conversation doesn’t end right there. The message may be literal but the impact has to go beyond that.”

Smith’s work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, and she has curated several in and out-of-state exhibitions. She has also been the recipient of grants from The Kentucky Foundation for Women, and Great Meadows Foundation Artist Professional Development Grants.

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

Edward Hopper, the great 20th century American Realist painter said, “Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world.”  Skylar Smith is committed to making more art and to additional community involvement as the centennial of the 19th Amendment approaches, reminding us that black women (and men) did not get the right to vote until 1965. Facts like this and continued voter disenfranchisement and discrimination drive her artistic narrative.


UnderMain would like to thank The Great Meadows Foundation for support of our 2019 programming, which will include twelve in-depth studio visits of Kentucky artists. See other submissions related to this project: Dr. Emily Elizabeth Goodman on the work of Melissa Vandenberg, and Hunter Kissel on the work of Harry Sanchez, Jr.

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

Arts

Temporal Slippage at the MS Rezny Gallery

By nature, a palimpsest is a document that collapses time, bringing together two disparate moments juxtaposed one over the other. It is this temporal slippage that is at the center of Martin Beck’s current exhibition on view at MS Rezny in Lexington. Beck’s works function as the titular palimpsest (or Palimpsest 2 in this particular case) by drawing on the historicity associated with the nude in Western art history—both with regard to the long tradition of the nude dating back to antiquity and in terms of its usage in order to create a sense of the past by removing the sartorial markers of a present moment—while simultaneously imbuing the works with an undeniable sense of the here and now.

Taken from life, Beck’s figures contain a certain phenomenological quality that makes them undeniably present, particularly through the tactility of his chosen medium. Moreover, his drawings engage with the present through the inclusion of subtle and simple symbolic objects—including guns and even the hammer and sickle—that remind us of the highly contentious and politicized climate of our current moment. In so doing, Beck draws the viewer into a moment of deep contemplation of the conditions of their present state, both in front of the work and in our society on the whole.

Martin Beck, “Tuesday”, 2019, Mixed media on prepared paper, 29 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches

For all of the works in Palimpsest 2, Beck manages to blur the line between eternal and ephemeral. On the one hand, works like Tuesday engage with the long tradition of the nudes within the western canon. In this work, a young woman appears seated, legs stretched out in front of her as centuries of reclining female nudes have done before. Beck further gives her a sense of timelessness by rendering the setting completely illegible. Abstract coloration has taken the place of any scenery, including whatever implement she is seated upon, providing the viewer with no historical content to understand this appearance. With no such temporal signifiers, we are left with an eternal nude.

At the same time, this eternal quality is undercut by the tactility of the work and the fact that it is drawn from life. While Beck uses a variety of media in creating his drawings, the works are all clearly marked by the hand of the artist in the present moment rendering them not only visually compelling, but also imbuing them with a haptic quality. The gradations in texture and color as well as the clear imprints of the hand used to contour and shade all provide the work with a sense of immediacy and the momentary.

While the subject matter may feel eternal, the works are undeniably the result of an instantaneous and particular interaction. This momentary quality is furthered by the fact that all of the works are drawn directly from life. According to Beck, “working from life, the model and artist reveal the truth of a specific time, place and act. […] Rather than think of these as pictures of people, for me these are authentic depictions of selective experiences.” As such, Beck’s nudes are given an ephemerality and a temporality of the present, despite the lack of signifiers that would tie them to a time or place.

Martin Beck, “Ties That Bind”, 2019, Mixed media on prepared paper, 29 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches

Yet not all of Beck’s works involve the complete disavowal of present-day objects in order to create this collapsing of time within each one. Some works, like the piece Ties that Bind, include clear references to our current moment in the form of specific items, while still maintaining a sense of temporal ambiguity. In this piece, Beck depicts a woman lying on the ground, with her head at the bottom of the composition and her legs propped up on some unknown, wrapped object, holding an assault rifle next to her right hip. Beck unsettles the woman from time and space, not only through her nudity, but again through his abstraction of the background; Beck denies the viewer a concrete horizon line and thus she appears floating and timeless.

At the same time, Beck’s inclusion of the gun works to draw us immediately back to the present. Given the prevalence of gun violence—especially that carried out with assault-style weapons—it is impossible to view the rifle by her side and not consider both the carnage and the contention surrounding these objects in our current moment. As such, Beck uses these objects to further the sense of the present within each work.

Martin Beck, “Material Girl”, 2019 Mixed media on prepared paper 29 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches

Martin Beck, “Home Grown #4”, 2018, mixed media on prepared paper, 29 1/2 x 42 inches

While some of the items included in Beck’s images are unabashed signifiers of our present moment, others have a subtler allusion to temporal “now.” For instance, several of the works, including Material Girl, Lurid Red, and Home Grown #4, all involve nude figures—a singular woman in the cases of Material Girl and Lurid Red and a man for Home Grown #4holding a hammer and sickle. Unlike the assault rifle, the signification of these objects is less immediate; in the almost three decades since the decline of the Soviet Union, the hammer and sickle have become more historic signifiers than anything else.

Yet Beck’s inclusion of these object in works that—which through their tactility involve a sense of immediacy and the present—functions to dust off the historical characteristic of the hammer and sickle and force us to examine their role in the present. Given the current contentious geopolitical situation between the United States and Russia, and the outspoken desire of Russia’s president to return to the glory days of the U.S.S.R., these seemingly outdated objects do have a clear bearing on our contemporary existence.

Furthermore, the continued debates over “Socialism” and its place within the United States is also evoked, albeit not answered, through Beck’s inclusion of these items. In considering his works with regard to the palimpsest, this inclusion lays bare the fact that the same object or text can participate in different discussions at separate moments overtime, wherein traces of the past engage in dialogue withnew iterations in the present.

Moreover, in addition to the multiple temporalities at play in each work, the show evokes the sense of the palimpsest for which it is named when viewing the works in a conglomeration. As documents, palimpsests are multifaceted and often layered works, with newer text interspersed amongst the older. The result is a document that requires both close reading and a sense of distance in order to fully ascertain its full meaning. This oscillation between proximal and detached viewing is underscored in the way the exhibition is curated. Beck’s works adorn not only the surrounding walls of the gallery, but also a smaller, four-sided pilaster and both sides of a false wall.

These two structures divide the gallery so that only some of the works can be viewed from a single, distanced vantage point. Moreover, the placement of the pilaster requires us to get close to the images, and to even be surrounded by them. In so doing, we engage each image, phenomenologically speaking, with a close intimacy of the present while simultaneously being made aware of a larger continuum within the body of work, much as we would while actually reading a palimpsest.

On the whole, Martin Beck’s latest works call our attention to the present and its position within a larger temporal trajectory. The tactility of his medium and his use of live drawing bring us, the audience, into a particular ephemeral and instantaneous moment, while his subject matter—the nude—calls our attention to a longer tradition of history. Similarly, Beck’s use of abstract backgrounds works to remove us from a specific temporality, while the objects he often presents alongside his figures draw us back into our contemporary settings. Beck’s work thus demands both proximity and distance, presence and detachment, from his viewers, creating a layered and multifaceted experience.

Arts

Interview: Green Room Exchange

Music transcends borders, even oceans. What moves a listener in Havana can also stir the soul of a Kentuckian. Making the experience possible in a very intimate, up-close way are the efforts of the couple you see up above, Lee Carroll and Connie Milligan, out and about in Havana, scouting for great music to bring to Lexington. In an interview from WEKU’s Eastern StandardUnderMain’s Tom Martin talks with these founders of the non-profit Green Room Exchange and shares samples of the music they’re bringing to Lexington.

~ THE INTERVIEW ~

Xiamarra and Axel Laugert performing with Jonathan Ragonese conducting a Lexington ensemble at Tee Dee’s

Torgbui Gideon Alorwoyie leading Thunder God drumming at his God Mother’s funeral – Photo provided by Green Room Exchange

Gidi Agbeko – Image from the album Ayeko

UnderMain is an Eastern Standard content partner, providing arts and culture reporting and interviews to the public radio magazine. If you enjoy this kind of thing, help us sustain it by supporting WEKU during this week’s Spring 2019 Pledge Drive. Click here to help make great public radio happen.

Arts

‘The Veracity of Images: Judy Pfaff, Isaac Abrams and Kirk Mangus’ at Carl Solway Gallery


Just across Central Parkway from Find
lay Market, in the West End of Cincinnati, longstanding Carl Solway Gallery currently features three discrete exhibitions of works by multimedia artists Judy Pfaff, Isaac Abrams, and Kirk Mangus.  

Pfaff’s large-scale, multi-layered prints, which occupy the majority of the Solway exhibition space, seem apt for an artist with a reputation for sprawling material-based installations that allow her to define line, color, and pattern within space.  

Judy Pfaff, “Morning Raga”, 2017, Woodcut, hand painted dye, archival inkjet, 44 x 96 inches, Varied edition of 12, 8/12

Likewise, Pfaff’s oversized prints such as the three Morning, Afternoon, and Evening Raga series in this show of new prints demonstrate a delicate, multi-layering of woodcuts and archival inkjet prints of digitally distorted lines, colors, and patterns—in addition to small moments of unique embellishments like colored silver leaf, and hand-painted plastic films and dyes on shellacked Kozo paper.

Judy Pfaff, “Evening Raga”, 2017, Archival inkjet, hand painted ink, clear plastic film 44 x 96 inches Varied edition of 12, 4:12

The Sanskrit word “raga” literally means coloring or dyeing, so there is perhaps even an explicit connection between the artist’s printed layers and this invocation of drapery. Be
they sumptuous bed linens, vaguely opaque window curtains, or the building block of a sari, the life-sized dimensions of the Raga series would be consistent with this implication of the works as textiles.

Judy Pfaff, “+’s & -‘s”, 2018, Chinese book papers, oil stick, encaustic, archival inkjet on aluminum, 69 ¾ x 133 ¼ inches

The artist’s site-specific multimedia installation for the Solway show, +’s & -‘s features small, framed, oil stick and encaustic studies atop archival inkjet photographs on metal of Pfaff’s studio,which the artist digitally distorted with a spinner-like motif that shows up in nearly a dozen of her other works in the show.  It is bright, colorful, and links her previous installation work with her current more two-dimensional works in this show.

Isaac Abrams, “The Triune Reality – I (The Active) It (The Objective) Me (The Subjective)”, 1970, Ink on paper, 25 ½ x 31 ½ inches

Self-taught pioneer of psychedelic art Isaac Abrams’ paintings and drawings feature the artist’s biomorphic landscapes populated by ambiguously undulating living creatures so connected to their environment that they merge with it, exemplified in such works as The Triune Reality – I (The Active) It (The Objective) Me (The Subjective), 1970, and Garden Spirit with Shimmering Eye, 2013.  Everything is alive—teeming with body parts and natural forms—everything is divine.  

Isaac Abrams, “Garden Spirit with Shimmering Eye”, 2013, Acrylic on canvas, 24 x 20 inches

The far gallery features 21 works by the artist, and Abrams’ skill as a draftsman is particularly evident in his work that doesn’t rely on color to limn space, such as the charcoal on paper drawing, Eating Strange Fruit Brings About Strange Dreams, 2014.  In the aforementioned composition, by simply applying pressure upon his instrument, the artist wavers precariously between defining robust and plump volume as well as its dissipation and evaporation.

The work of longtime beloved Kent State Ceramics Professor Kirk Mangus in the smallest gallery at Solway is kind of a mixed bag.  Despite the artist’s charming observations of city life and the ways in which his overpopulated surfaces teem with faces and characters—formally linking his work with that of Abrams in particular—as well as a folk-like approach to carving and painting on clay, some of his pieces teeter precariously upon a fine line of cultural appropriation.  

Posthumous biographies of the artist, who passed away in 2013, frequently speak to his careerlong interest and research in world cultures, including Iga, Oribe, Mayan, Moche Greek, Roman and Silla ceramics, which informed his work.  

Kirk Mangus, “Multi-Eyed Guardian Jar”, Stoneware, colored slips, sgraffito drawing, salt-glazed, 29.5 x 13 x 13 inches

Like many late modernist artists, Mangus’ formal experimentation often involved a suggestion of the “primitive” other:  “Multi-eyed guardians emerge from the surfaces of his wheel thrown, carved and woodfired local stoneware, as well as his paintings in Sumi ink on silk and homemade Korean mulberry paper.

Totemic structures, face jugs, vessels, and amphoras throughout the show elude to ritual and ancient mysteries—so seemingly far removed from the current historical timeline, that they allowed the artist himself (as well as many other emerging artists within Mangus’ milieu in the late 70s) to wrestle with the implications of modernist abstractions, often via a romanticized and reductive view of non-Western cultures.

Kirk Mangus, “Downtown with the Family”, 1988, Sumi ink drawing on handmade Korean mulberry paper, 37.5 x 74 inches

Kirk Mangus, “Multi-Eyed Guardian with Catgirl + Insect Guy”, 1988, Sumi ink drawing on handmade, Korean mulberry paper, 74 x 37.5 inches

To be sure, Mangus’ work is playful and expressive—roughhewn and experimental in his deeply incised clay surfaces, and enchanting in his quick, observational life studies.  For example, his Sumi ink drawing Downtown with the Family, 1988, features dozens of faces of city folk, mostly from the chest and neck up, giving each other knowing sideways glances, carrying tools and lunchboxes, sporting hardhats and baseball caps, smoking cigarettes, and otherwise avoiding interpersonal engagement—all the while encroaching on each other’s personal space.  

It is the perfect embodiment of city life:  avoiding the sideways gaze of your neighbor while going about your own business.  And just as one might people-watch in a city packed with characters, so too, one wants to spend time just looking at Mangus’ assorted cast of people.

Kirk Mangus, “Two Women with Insect Guy Having Tea”, 1980, Porcelain with blue and white glaze, 9.5 x 8 x 8 inches

This cross-cultural experimentation feels the most successful when the contrived narrative is obviously fabricated, and the artist takes no aim at authenticity.  For instance, the porcelain with blue and white glaze vessel, Two Women with Insect Guy Having Tea , 1980, features the face of what appears to be a large mantis (a reoccurring character in Mangus’ oeuvre,) receiving tea from a woman depicted in profile, her hair styled to resemble a headpiece along the lines of something one might encounter in a Mesoamerican relief sculpture.  Both the vessel itself as well as the far-fetched references of cultures within the scene being depicted upon it feel fantastical— not rooted in time or even reality.

Therein lies the magic of art:  whereas depicting reality encourages us to acknowledge specific truths, knowingly depicting fabricated realities can also allow us to reveal valid and substantial facts and discrepancies about the world we live in.  In their current exhibitions at Carl Solway Gallery, artists like Pfaff, Abrams, and Mangus give us some raw materials to do just that.

Arts

Afloat: An Ohio River Way of Life

“Afloat: An Ohio River Way of Life” had its origins in the spring of 2018 with an email from Bill and Flo Caddell, guardians of the reputation and ideals of Harlan Hubbard (1900-1988), artist, writer and environmentalist. Inspired by Henry David Thoreau, Hubbard attempted to live a life as close to nature as possible, and he and his wife Anna subsisted mostly on what they were able to raise, catch or barter. They lived at Payne Hollow, on the banks of the Ohio River, a mile away from the nearest road, in a home without electricity or other modern conveniences.

Hubbard left his artistic legacy to the Caddells, who possess the largest collection of Hubbard’s oils, watercolors and woodblock prints. They asked if I would like to write a foreword to a book on Hubbard watercolors, scheduled for publication in 2020 by the University Press of Kentucky. The Caddells, with Hubbard scholar Jessica Whitehead, were to be the principal authors.

They had originally asked Charles Venable, director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, to write the foreword; he declined but suggested me as a substitute. I told the Caddells that I would like to visit, and asked permission to bring John Begley with me. John had been director of Louisville Visual Art (LVA) and I had been director of the Speed Art Museum; after leaving our executive positions, we both taught in the Critical & Curatorial Master of Arts Degree program at the University of Louisville, often as a two-person team.

John thought he was simply going along to look at some pictures, and I went to make up my mind as to whether I liked the work well enough to want to write about it. We were both strongly smitten with Hubbard’s fresh, improvisatory and spontaneous watercolors, the visual equivalents of the lively, brief descriptions of the natural world in his journals.

Fortuitously, while doing research at the Filson Historical Society, I had overheard that it was planning a show based on Mark Wetherington’s studies of the shantyboat community that had thrived at “The Point” on the banks of the Ohio in Louisville in the 19th and 20th centuries, until mostly wiped out in the 1937 flood. Hubbard is best known for his book Shantyboat: A River Way of Life (1954) chronicling his trip down the Ohio and Mississippi with his wife Anna, so the Filson show would be relevant to Hubbard manifestations elsewhere.

I then went to the Department of Archives and Special Collections at the University of Louisville, which has the largest holding of Hubbard’s manuscripts. Would they consider doing a Hubbard show simultaneously with the Filson’s? The librarians agreed.

Angie Reed Garner, “Shantyboat #7”, oil on canvas, 2018

Shortly thereafter I saw a painting by Angie Reed Garner depicting a shantyboat. She had developed an iconography of shantyboats, Asian carp, mules and other imagery inspired by Hubbard to call attention to recent efforts to destroy the camps of homeless people living outside of the flood wall in the Butchertown neighborhood, close to where shantyboaters had lived a marginal existence in their homemade houseboats at The Point.

With three committed Ohio River/Hubbard-centric collaborators, we held an initial meeting on board the Belle of Louisville in August, 2018, drawing an enthusiastic group of staff from a variety of museums, volunteers, enviromentalists, gallerists and others. From there, the project mushroomed: the Caddells graciously agreed to lend their watercolors to the Frazier for a show that John Begley and I would co-curate.

The Swanson Contemporary Art Gallery agreed to mount “Currents: Contemporary Art on the Banks of the Ohio”, a brilliant show of 14 artists contending with the river, or with the Hubbards as muses. The Commonwealth Center for the Humanities and Society signed on to provide professors to lecture about Ohio River history and culture. We were under way!

We now have nearly 20 academic organizations, galleries, history museums, art museums, outdoors and environmental groups united in focusing on the Ohio River in 2019 and we will continue to add partners throughout the year. We refer to ourselves as a consortium, or a collaboration, but have studiously avoided creating a 501(c3) or having a board. Donations are processed through the Community Foundation of Louisville to ensure deductibility. Our model is deliberately open-ended and fluid.

Over time, a larger purpose emerged:  to call attention, as our elevator speech puts it, to the Ohio River, its beauty, its needs, and its unmet potential.  This new consortium has the ambition of providing a platform for environmental groups in renewing and recasting attention to the Ohio River, and creating dialogue among sectors that do not often come together.

– The Ohio River’s beauty: Hubbard wrote frequently of his prolonged contemplation of the river, and decried those who would ignore the beauty of the everyday.

– Its needs: there are 25 active coal-fired power plants on the Ohio, a source of toxic mercury, and new revelations suggest the precipitous danger of coal ash impoundments and landfills.

– Its unmet potential:  the closure of the Jeffboat shipyard on the banks of the Ohio in Jeffersonville, Indiana, will open a mile of shoreline for development or, ideally, park lands. The Ohio River Recreational Trail proposes a Blue Trailfrom Portsmouth, Ohio to Louisville.  The trail would be a means of promoting ecotourism and increasing opportunities for fishing, boating, paddling and cycling, as well as retail, lodging and food sales.

What are possible impacts? First, Kentucky is second only to Alaska in the number of miles of navigable waterways. Our consortium could be replicated elsewhere in the Commonwealth or “Afloat” could extend its reach.

The second issue has to do with artistic practice. Subjects in art have been viewed with suspicion for at least 75 years.  I grew up in an age in which the best works of art were often titled, “Untitled” or simply numbered, in an attempt to let the work speak directly to the viewer and permit a universality of expression and meaning, leaving the art unbesmirched with words. Implicit in this attitude is ‘art for art’s sake”, a 19th Century notion rejecting art’s utility. In their provocative book, Art as Therapy (2013) Alain de Botton and John Armstrong argue:

The saying ‘art for art’s sake’ specifically rejects the idea that art might be for the sake of anything in particular, and therefore leaves the high status of art mysterious – and vulnerable. Despite the esteem art enjoys, its importance is too often assumed rather than explained. Its value is a matter of common sense. This is highly regrettable, as much for the viewers of art as for its guardians. What if art had a purpose that can be defined and discussed in plain terms? Art can be a tool, and we need to focus more on what kind of tool it is  – and what good it can do for us.

Our multiple exhibitions, events and lectures are not going to soon lead to steps that will increase oxygen levels in the Ohio.  But it may test whether cultural manifestations can influence the collective narrative and spur thought leaders to confront the fraught issue of the water those of us living on the banks of the river drink. Rallying around a single subject does not have to be about a specific meaning in order to be meaningful. Meaning is provided by the context of all of the manifestations of attention to the Ohio River in the “Afloat: An Ohio River Way of Life” consortium.  In  the interim, openings and lectures in the early months of this year have been met with record audiences.

Harlan Hubbard believed in the eventual impact of his fierce determination to live in harmony with nature and in opposition to commercial and industrial forces. In 1942 he wrote:

Against what I thought wrong and false, I have long been conducting a one-man revolution, faint and under cover but growing stronger, and sooner or later it will be revealed. It may as well be now. My case should be presented and stood for, even if by such a small minority. It is a strain of Americanism almost lost. It is the hope of the future.

For more about “Afloat: An Ohio River Way of Life” visit https://afloatontheohio.com/.

TOPMOST IMAGE: Ray Kleinhelter, “Above Grassy Flats”, Oil on Linen, 2019, 40×30″

Arts

Erasing Borders


On February 9
th, 2019, I had the privilege of visiting the studio of artist Harry Sanchez, Jr. During our conversations we discussed Sanchez’s creative interests, the art he has been creating during the last five years, and his journey to becoming a full-time artist. Sanchez works out of his home in Northern Kentucky, and the assessments that follow derive from the interactions we shared and the insight Sanchez was able to provide, delving deeper into nuances of his work that may go unnoticed in his exhibitions or on his website.

Geographical borders seem to dominate headlines, chyrons, and posts nowadays. In America, immigration, electoral redistricting, and boundaries between metropolitan centers and rural communities contribute to the discourse around borders.

Internationally, too, trade agreements are being re-shifted and unions are breaking. As a result, the attention dedicated to the concept of borders is driving individuals and groups to consider how they feel about others who may not necessarily share their perspectives, skin color, or life experiences. Amplified by ratings-hungry television networks and social media, widespread rhetoric about those directly impacted by border debates are arguably at their most contested, violent, and perhaps uninformed, since the end of World War II.

Harry Sanchez, Jr., studio shot with printing press

Harry Sanchez, Jr. strives to critically unpack the images and messages surrounding borders, specifically as they pertain to immigration in the United States. Moreover, Sanchez utilizes a vast array of media to render the impressions of the people, policies, and activist groups tied to immigration in America, subverting familiar narratives and iconography in the process.

Yet his work considers the multiplicity of borders as a term: the sculptures, paintings, and prints he creates make plain the consequences of social regulations and rules, celebrate—for better or worse—difference and sameness, and test the potential of his materials and art’s polarizing nature in general. While Sanchez claims that “the one overarching thing my work is about is abusive power,” the most apparent catalyst for his practice is how borders affect daily life in 2019.

Sanchez is no stranger to borders, at least in the physical sense. During his lifetime, he has lived on the borders of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New York, and Kentucky and Ohio, where he currently resides working as a professor at the University of Cincinnati. The border that resonates most with him as an artist, however, is the one where he was born—in El Paso, Texas, on the border of the United States and Mexico.

Sanchez maintains a dual-identity as a Mexican-American, and his work rebukes the policies and attitudes regarding immigration and people with brown-skin (like Sanchez) being advocated for by the current White House Administration and its support base. Having first-hand experience of life on the Southern border—and having lived in varied locations throughout the country—Sanchez understands the realities facing the groups being oppressed based upon their country of origin and skin color, as well as the myths about them being perpetuated by certain groups. 

The themes of Sanchez’s work are complex and historical. It may be no surprise, then, that Sanchez adopts a range of media and materials, some of which are unconventional, to address the full impact of borders. He also channels his own history. His journey to becoming an artist stemmed from a prior occupation as a cake decorator, so he finds ways to incorporate the skills and tools associated with baking into his art. Notably, he applies paint using decorating bags, squeezing dollops, stripes, and flowers onto his surfaces. When reflecting on how his practice encompasses the notion of borders, he states, “It’s partly a reference to the paint—breaking the rules of painting…How can we make painting sculptural?” With baking equipment, Sanchez pushes the limit of the paint, nearing the boundary of what it is capable of doing.

Harry Sanchez, Jr. with ‘Sheet Cakes’ and ‘Torn Apart’, 2019

Elsewhere, as in Thoughts and Prayers (2016), he arranges .223-type bullets in text of the sculpture’s title on a wall or panel. This work juxtaposes the agency of gun violence with the seemingly distant and automated responses from politicians and civil leaders when acts of violence occur. Using these techniques are advantageous, insists Sanchez. “If I did my Thoughts and Prayers with paint dollops, it’s not the same as using live. 223 bullets, when these are the same bullets that are causing so much death and destruction on a daily basis in America.” Whether using non-traditional materials or not, the artist demonstrates a careful selection of medium, which often assists in generating the intended experience for his audience.

Harry Sanchez, Jr., ‘Sheet Cakes’ (2018-present). From left to right: ‘Deus Vult -Gen. John Pershing’, ‘Just a Fraternity of Social Club’, ‘We Thought He Was Going to Protect our Jobs, and then BOOM!’, ‘I Am The LEAST Racist Person You Have Ever Me’, ‘Why Can’t We Get People From Norway Instead?’, oil on panel.

Harry Sanchez, Jr., ‘Sheet Cakes’ (2018-present)

For instance, Sheet Cakes (2018-present), which visually resemble the kinds of objects Sanchez tended to as a cake decorator, are also indicative of flags, containing a variety of crests, stripes, and emblems. A single white rose rests where two black diagonal stripes overlap in I Am The LEAST Racist Person You Have Ever Met; a black border envelops the rectangular contour of an otherwise white panel. In another titled We Thought He Was Going to Protect Our Jobs, and then BOOM!, a yellow four-pronged pitchfork appears in a circle with studs protruding all around. Like the other cake painting, this work features a decorative border around a solid background. In most of the Sheet Cakes, there are moments when the paint reads as having been applied hastily, a purposeful technical feature paralleled by exposed hardware in the painting’ support frames.

The flags that Sanchez refers to are those hoisted by alt-right protest groups. Among them, he depicts the Confederate flag and the banner of the Traditionalist Worker Party—two flags flown by American groups—as well as the flag of the European-based group Génération Identitaire in Just a Fraternity or Social Club, where dollops of yellow paint form a circle against an expanse of black; a peak juts from the bottom arc of the circle. Normally, these flags and signs can be found at protest events across the world, especially events focused on immigration and border politics. They may also make themselves known to the general public as background imagery during televised rallies or in photojournalism. The intended quality of Sanchez’s craftsmanship accentuates the use of these symbols on picket posts, wherein a sign’s dexterity is often less important than content and visibility.

When asked what it means to create these images, Sanchez replies, “I’m not saying ‘this is what I stand for.’ I’m presenting these with a historical message. Cake decorating has a history of white supremacy and slavery.” He posits that by using decorating tools to produce these flags as cakes (as masses of condensed sugar), his work retains a connection to the history of the sugar industry. Particularly, his paintings recall slavery during colonial America, when slaves labored for long hours harvesting sugar and preparing food for their owners. “I’m just taking [the alt-right group’s] signs and making it what they should be made out of.” By this, Sanchez alludes to the white supremacy advocated by these groups, the palpable legacy of institutionalized racism, and the celebratory capacity of cakes—his Sheet Cakes embody the ideals of racial purity lauded by many alt-right protesters.

Harry Sanchez, Jr., ‘Torn Apart’ (2017-present)

Though the subject matter in Sheet Cakes is arguably inconspicuous, the series is inherently combative towards the people and groups it is about. Sanchez is unabashed in labeling alt-right groups as white supremacists; his mode of delivery—flags as cakes—is both cynical and somewhat irreverent. On the other hand, Sanchez is remarkably empathetic to individuals afflicted by border policies aligned with the ideologies of the alt-right. With Torn Apart (2017-present), a series of prints documenting deportation as political practice, Sanchez is able to express these sentiments. Here, he collects reference images of deported immigrants who have no criminal background and reproduces them in halftone, where the color of the ink is constant but the width and spacing of it vary. The end result mimics the effects of newspaper photographs. With titles carrying the names of the individuals he portrays, the prints of Torn Apart are perhaps the most effective of his artworks at achieving his documentary aspirations. 

Harry Sanchez, Jr., ‘Torn Apart’ (2017-present)

Exactly who Alejandra Juarez is in one particular print is unclear. Three young girls appear to be comforted by an older woman—perhaps their mother—while two men in suits oversee the situation. The print reads as the final moment before at least one of the women is deported, the last opportunity for a good-bye. Sanchez’s heritage, presumably shared with the figures he introduces, is conveyed through the green, white, and red palette—the colors of the Mexican flag. But it is his method of printmaking that he believes denotes his ancestry strongest. On what viewers may not be aware of with this body of work, Sanchez asserts, “You might not know that I’m referencing my heritage as a Mexican-American. You know, the halftone,” an insinuation to his dual-identity. In other prints, such as Maribel, the green and red ink overlap, creating a hue near to black—a formal marker for the dire circumstances these people enter into, at times without warning.

Sanchez achieves the halftone technique by inking a sheet of acrylic plexiglass, then uses Q-tips to meticulously remove sections of ink. He does his best to stay true to his reference images, which have been altered on his computer, then printed from inkjet printers to match the final halftone objective. The halftone is illustrative of what is happening to his subjects, emphasized by the reductive qualities of his process. “It’s the actual erasing that’s causing these images to be made,” Sanchez says, referring to both his erasing of the ink as well as the regulated erasing of immigrants from the United States. The halftone, in a kind of double meaning, is also a surrogate for the border wall in El Paso Sanchez was used to seeing in his youth, which he recalls as being made of vertical slats placed side-by-side, stretching for hundreds of feet. His technique is at once his and his subjects’ shared identity, a reminder of their vulnerability, as well as the tangible object that stands as a testament to racial and ethnic oppression in America.

Harry Sanchez, Jr., Studio shot with his printing press

When Sanchez creates his Torn Apart series, he uses a printing press installed in a room connecting his living room and kitchen that he has converted into a studio. When producing an individual print, Sanchez places a traditional Mexican blanket under the press’s roller to protect and apply pressure during the transfer of ink from plate to paper. Lately, Sanchez’s printing practice has expanded to include plates made from small, laser-cut wood blocks. What’s more, in addition to traditional printing ink, he has begun making prints using resin powder. For Sanchez, his practice navigates the border between traditional and novel modes of printmaking, spurring discovery for himself and his materials.

Sanchez describes his process “like a dance. I try to think it’s like a symbiotic relationship.” By this, he speaks to what he is able to accomplish given the limitations of the media, equipment, and tools he uses. For example, Q-tips that pick up ink from acrylic plexiglass can only be so precise when describing the contours of a face, and so Sanchez must plan for and accept any formal imperfections that arise. Such is the case, too, when handling cake-decorating equipment, which Sanchez admits can be trying on both him and the paint. “I’m asking the paint to do something unnatural. It’s a forceful thing, creating this pressure squeezing the paint out of the bag. I’m putting a lot of pressure on this, [to] hold form, and stand up.” In his studio, any number of materials and equipment are at the ready, allowing him to flow freely between his multiple bodies of work that contain similar conceptual themes.

Indeed, there are certain characteristics shared between Sheet Cakes and Torn Apart. For one, they each address an extreme of present-day border politics in the United States—Torn Apart with those being deported and oppressed, and Sheet Cakes with the groups who publicly demand the removal of specific cultures. Formally, they are both born from work Sanchez created during his time as a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati.

Harry Sanchez, Jr., ‘All for Naught? A Whistleblower Series’ (2016)

Harry Sanchez, Jr., ‘Edward Snowden’ (2016)

His MFA Thesis exhibition presented selections from All for Naught? A Whistleblower Series (2016), a group of portraits of figures who in recent years have exposed abuses of power, like Edward Snowden, who leaked NSA documents regarding global surveillance; Julian Assange of Wikileaks notoriety; and Samira Saleh al-Nuaimi, an Iraqi human rights lawyer captured, tortured, and murdered by ISIS in 2014. Sanchez renders the faces of these icons in halftone generated by paint dollops made with decorating bags. The halftone in All for Naught, in contrast to his newest work, does not necessarily allude to the heritage of Snowden, Assange, and others. Rather, the dual-identity pertains to the actions these individuals take to unmask corruption at the highest levels, which can draw considerable amounts of praise and discontent from different groups across the globe. They are either civil heroes or criminals, depending on you may ask.

Prompted with any risks he may be taking, Sanchez is quick in response. “One of the biggest risks is being an artist,” he claims, “Being an artist is not easy.” Drawing comparisons to his time as a college football player, Sanchez says, “Playing football and getting my ass whooped on the field helped a lot. When you physically get beat down, and you have to physically get back up…I totally understand having to get up and be thick-skinned.” As a graduate student, Sanchez endured public scrutiny with an installation called The Lynching of November 8, 2016 (2016) at a campus gallery. The artwork comprises an American flag balled up and hung from a noose attached to the gallery’s ceiling. A rather simple presentation, Sanchez nonetheless received an ample amount of criticism and local press for the gesture. His reactions to such attention are prelude to the kind of empathetic yet staunch nature fueling his later work.

Interviewed by one media outlet about the installation, Sanchez contends, “One group is so hateful to another group and there’s such a lack of understanding[.] It seems like if we don’t get past this we’re going to crumble as a nation.” The flag installation does not concern the kind of border politics his other works address, nor does it explicitly emphasize the specific (art) historical connotations of the American flag or nooses. Instead, The Lynching of November 8, 2016 explores the boundaries of public consumption—what is most likely to garner feedback?—as well as the kind of imagery that stimulates adverse behavior and marks the threshold that instigates feelings of vulnerability when crossed.  

Harry Sanchez, Jr. 2019

The trajectory to becoming an artist for Harry Sanchez Jr. was, to some degree, unplanned. His story includes time as a construction worker, cinema usher, and cake decorator, the latter igniting his desire to create in such a way that the trade’s techniques are now his preferred methods. His nomadic life along with his upbringing in El Paso are his primary conceptual departure points, yet his practice stretches across a multitude of topics and materials. While divergences between his paintings, prints, and installations are readily apparent, they align in the ways in which they address pressing issues of the zeitgeist, especially with concern to the notions of borders, limitations, and rules. Borders for Sanchez are both subject matter and vehicle for expression. His art underscores competing lived experiences, bringing to the fore the various borders we surround ourselves with, whether consciously or not, to reinforce predetermined ideologies. Sanchez urges his viewers to unlearn their biases and embrace recognizable differences.


UnderMain would like to thank The Great Meadows Foundation for support of our 2019 programming, which will include twelve in-depth studio visits of Kentucky artists. See our January submission related to this project: Dr. Emily Elizabeth Goodman on the work of Melissa Vandenberg. 

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

Arts

Chamber Music For Everyone

The Lexington Chamber Orchestra (LCO) is premiering a new concert on the 2nd & 3rd of March, entitled European Postcards, promising a program that’s accessible to everyone—in both the musical and financial sense.

While classical music is often seen as dense or pretentious for the average listener, or as a pastime of the wealthy, the LCO program is full of pieces that promise clarity and a listening experience that anyone can enjoy. This accessibility is “incredibly important, for both the present and the future of classical music,” according to Eli Uttal-Veroff, the Managing Director of the LCO.

The program consists of three major pieces: the Haydn London Symphony, the Mendelssohn Italian Symphony, and the Vanhal Bass Concerto.

The Haydn London Symphony is one of the defining examples of the symphony as a genre—a genre that Haydn largely invented. While he wrote over a hundred symphonies in his life, the later works are by far the most-performed, and the London is one of Haydn’s most well-known works.

The London, like the other symphonies inspired by his trips to England (and adoration from the English public) is a diverting, witty work, containing hidden surprises, jokes, and tricks designed to keep an audience engaged—and always waiting for the next excitement. Because of this, Haydn is often thought of as a ‘family-friendly’ composer who can engage children in classical music.

The other symphony on the LCO program, the Felix Mendelssohn Italian Symphony, is characteristic of the Austrian composer’s style; he called it “the jolliest piece I have ever done.”

The Italian Symphony is a light, almost dancing bravura piece for the strings section of the orchestra, in which the winds and brass add color to the proceedings. You’ll be able to hear how Mendelssohn orchestrated—arranged which instruments would play which notes—with an eye towards simple and clear expressions of a few straightforward themes.

He maintains this delicate touch all throughout the Italian Symphony, culminating in a finale that’s easy to imagine as a joyous nighttime romp in the streets of Milan or Firenze, given interest by a mischievously swirling minor key. It’s the sort of music that kids and grandparents can enjoy together.

You can hear a performance of the Italian Symphony, performed here by the Berlin Philharmonic, and led by the austere conductor Herbert von Karajan.]

Played next to the Haydn London Symphony, you should be able to hear how Mendelssohn’s technique looks back at the balance and proportion of the Classical era as a model. In each case, the music should maintain a particular set of forms—ways of organizing the music so that the listener can easily understand what they’re hearing—and express a clear, but somewhat restrained and proper mood.

However, Mendelssohn couldn’t help but be influenced by the Romantic trends of his day, which emphasized passion, fury, and excitement beyond all proportion. As a result, a great deal of the fun of the Italian Symphony comes from the way that the music seems to bounce up and down against the bounds of the ‘proper’ Classical forms.

Lexington Chamber Orchestra

The relatively small size of the LCO, at ‘only’ 31 players, will likely help the listener understand this delicate, clear approach to emotive music, which can often otherwise get lost in the clamor of orchestras the size of battalions.

The remaining piece on the program is perhaps the most elusive. Unlike the Italian and London Symphonies, which are mainstays of the performance lists of most classical music groups, the Vanhal Bass Concerto is a lesser-known work by a composer that has been mostly left in the shadow of his contemporaries Haydn, Mozart, and eventually Beethoven.

However, Vanhal wrote some absolutely delightful music, including the Bass Concerto. The double bass is not often a solo instrument, as its normal range of pitches is too low to carry well in a large concert hall. Nevertheless, Vanhal deftly handles the upper ranges of the instrument to make the double sing, almost as though it’s a lyrical cello. In the hands of a talented bassist, the concerto is an experience both unexpected and tickling to the ear.

You can hear a modified performance of the Vanhal Bass Concerto here, by members of the London Symphony Orchestra. You can hear how Vanhal keeps to a Classical lightness of touch, while at the same time exploiting the wide range of the double bass to find emotional contrasts for the audience to latch onto.

Overall, the concert, led by Jan Pellant, Music Director, and featuring David Murray as guest soloist, promises an upbeat and enjoyable introduction—perfect for a curious audience.

If you go: The March 2nd concert will be held at 7:30 p.m. at Tates Creek Presbyterian Church (3900 Rapid Run Drive, Lexington). The March 3rd matinee begins at 3:00 p.m. at the Lyric Theatre (300 E. Third St., Lexington). A brief pre-concert talk will be given by Maestro Pellant 45 minutes prior to each performance. All concerts are FREE (suggested donation $10-$20). For more information, visit www.lexingtonchamberorchestra.com

Arts

Truth(s) and Consequence(s)


The plurals are not insignificant. The artworks included in Eastern Kentucky University’s current exhibition Truths and Consequences – ending February 15th – deal with the complexities of art’s tendency to work in layers.

This is initially the physical layering of materials and images, and finally the layering of meaning. As juror James Grubola explains the ultimate complexity lies in how these processes of layering contribute the broader concept of Truth. These are not the processes of documentation or the recording of things real or perceived. Instead, they delve deeper into the ways in which artwork is able to create and manipulate reality and how this gives power to depiction. Philosophy or sociology might call this the construction of “consensual reality.”

Art and media wield an incredible amount of influence in the spoken and unspoken battles waged to establish how we understand our societies and the broader world  – and how that understanding translates into larger and much more consequential truths.

Following this tendency towards recognizable depiction, one of the more noticeable threads in the exhibition is figuration. Barring a few painted works, recognizable or semi-recognizable figures dominate, even among the several included sculptures. Of course this isn’t limited to the human figure, rather a host of beings and things that can be readily identified. While this might be attributed to the preference of the juror’s selection and taste, it seems to also follow from the exhibition’s larger theme. This is not the preponderance of truths (again the plural is important) but their consequential effects as well. In the ways that art can make statements about the world, these statements are neither passive nor neutral. Instead they reflect back onto the world and exert a potentially strong influence on how the world is perceived, constructed, and understood. 

Martin Beck, “Finished During The Eclipse”, Mixed media on prepared paper, 2017

Barry Motes, “Sibling Rivalry”, Oil on canvas

For example, works like Martin Beck’s Finished During The Eclipse and Barry Motes’ Sibling Rivalry, are weighted with a certain gravity to the choices made in subject matter. Both use people of color as models, one a woman and the other two boys, and temper their depictions with lofty and almost mythological imagery. The history of art and its tendency to silence and make invisible these same people is (intentionally or not) a part of this display. This is one reason why media representation has such a deep and abiding effect on audiences. The figures we see in art, especially when they are people who resemble ourselves, shape our personal and cultural realities. This is most visibly the case with depictions of women, people of color, LGBTQ people and other historically marginalized groups. The ways that art is thought to reflect the world in its broadest sense can also contribute to tangible changes in reality itself. Of the diverse subject matter on display, as well as the diversity of media, there is a shared sense of art’s obligation to representation and its willingness to challenge and experiment in these arenas. 

Devon Horton, “The Swarm”, Oil on canvas

Steven Rasmussen, “In the Ditch”, Digital photography

This relates to another theme present in the exhibition – that of the more banal elements of the material world. Devon Horton’s The Swarm, in which a scattered assortment of dumped trash fills the huge canvas, engages with the ability of painting to potentially transform and elevate its subject matter. Or Steven Rasmussen’s In the Ditch, a photographic print that recalls Cindy Sherman’s late eighties series that depicted the filth and decay of food, objects, and even bodies in overbearing color. Stagnant water and a submerged bicycle loom brightly in front of the viewer, the uprightness of the water threatening to also consume the audience. Both of these work against what was once considered appropriate for depiction as art. Histories of beauty or aesthetics are less besmirched than reevaluated, an effect that redefines art’s purpose against a seemingly stodgy or traditional past.

Along similar lines, the exhibition’s other photographic works proved conceptually compelling. In a myriad of ways these engaged directly with the reality of photography and the photographic image. Photographs often play a very privileged role as a mediator of reality. They are taken as reality, as surrogates of the world we see, and as proof of what we cannot or did not witness. But this is quite problematic, especially considering the ability of photographs to be manipulated and used to manipulate. In this way, most of the works included make concept central to their subjects. Two other photographs play considerably with the medium’s outwardly central tenets: focus, and framing. 

Leah Schretenthaler, “At One Time the Rail Did Not Exist, Laser cut silver gelatin print

Ian Sexton, “Lightscape 044”, Photography

Leah Schretenthaler’s At One Time the Rail Did Not Exist is an image that has been physically and materially edited. The gelatin silver print has had much of its surface removed by laser, making the flattened and burned paper of the print a part of the image. Here a landscape edited by human intervention is reflected by the artist’s own intervention. Similarly, Ian Sexton’s Lightscape 044 pulls the landscape image to the limit of softened color and textured film grain. Landscape is barely perceptible apart from its appearance as melded with the materials of the print. To trace back to idea of layers, there is a sense that both image and object can have a considerable effect on audience perception.

From the minutia of media to the larger concerns of display. I initially found it odd and even distracting that some works (and not all of them) included statements by their respective artists. While these short texts provided context to the works in relation to the theme, they came off as counter to the aims of the exhibition. Yet these sometimes jarring additions ultimately contributed to the conceptual thrust of the collection as a single unit of artwork. Both Art with a capital A and its many individual works take part in the complex dance between what is seen and what is shown. Every single decision, from the choice subject to the media to what the artist might say about his or her own work, to the juror’s selections and the means of display, impacts how this reality is shaped and perceived. Art is not a mirror that reflects the world. Instead, the people and objects we see allow us to discover and make sense of what is ultimately our world.

This exhibition is part of the 2018-19 Chautauqua series at Eastern Kentucky University will explore the theme “Truths and Consequences” through nine lectures by many internationally prominent authors, artists and experts; a special documentary screening.

Joel is a sometimes contributor to UnderMain who always tries to look at things closely. He recently received his Master’s in Art History from the University of Louisiville and has a deep interest in the material realities of photography and other art media, an interest that sometimes comes in handy when taking his own bad pictures.

Arts

Retro Ralph At UK

While preparing to interview UK Art Museum Curator Janie Welker about the forthcoming Ralph Steadman retrospective, UnderMain’s Art Shechet combed through some of the artifacts that will go on display on February 16. And there it was: a sampling of the running, biting humor shared between the world renowned graphic artist and the man whose gonzo journalism he often illustrated, Hunter S. Thompson:

According to Welker, the retrospective will feature more than 100 original works by Steadman, “including his earliest published cartoon from 1956, and drawings seen in publications including Private Eye, Punch, The Observer, and Rolling Stone, to name a few.”

Also on display, illustrations for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and works documenting the 1970 Thompson/Steadman trip to the Kentucky Derby.

Art and Janie discuss the exhibition on this week’s edition of Eastern Standard on 88.9 WEKU. You can listen at 11 a.m. or 7 p.m. on Thursday, February 14, or at 6 p.m. on Sunday, February 17. Download the WEKU app to your device and listen anytime, anywhere. 

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Tom Martin is a co-publisher of UnderMain, producer and host of Eastern Standard on Eastern Kentucky University public radio station WEKU, a columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader, and Student Media Advisor at Transylvania University. 

Arts

Through Line to a Third

The problem with binary thinking is that by reducing the world to a simple either/or proposition, we neglect to see a third option. In most cases, our experiences, identities, and worldviews cannot be simply categorized as one thing or another; more frequently these entities are mutually inclusive, existing on a continuum or in a dialectic, rather than a dichotomy. This third option—wherein two things not only coexist but are interrelated—is at the heart of Melissa Vandenberg’s work as an artist. Vandenberg’s practice brings together elements of right and left; historical and contemporary; North and South; masculinity and femininity; and ephemerality and permanence in such a way that highlights how these polarities reveal a third, interconnected option. Working in a wide array of media and subjects throughout her career, Vandenberg explores the borders of our thinking and makes us aware of the processes therein.

Melissa Vandenberg’s interest in the interconnection of various seemingly polar entities is rooted in her own identity as an artist. When asked if she considers herself a Southern artist, for instance, Vandenberg opts for a more ambiguous identification than offered in a simple yes or no. Rather, she demonstrates both an interest in embracing the moniker and a reluctance to truly identify as such, given her status as a transplant. Born in Michigan and having migrated slowly more southward through her education and work—completing her MFA at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale and having worked in Indiana and Tennessee before settling into a faculty position at Eastern Kentucky University in 2009—Vandenberg is acutely aware of her status as a Northern native living in Appalachia. At the same time, having spent a decade in Eastern Kentucky, she recognizes the influence of the region on her identity as an artist, readily embracing the environment as a consideration in her work. Hers is thus a perspective of both insider and outsider, one who knows the area from having lived here, but whose native identity is tied up somewhere else.

“Homewrecker”, sewing machine, knives, deer hide, chair, brick & mixed media, 42 X 60 X 55 inches (dimensions variable), 2019. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.

Similarly, Vandenberg’s work cannot be defined by a particular medium. Her practice involves sculpture, installation, performance, drawing, and photography, and she readily embraces working in all of these forms. Not identifying with a particular medium, however, has made her feel alienated in many American art contexts until relatively recently. As she notes: “I’ll use video and photography [and I’ll] also draw. I’ll do performance. I’ll do installation. And I didn’t feel like I had a niche or home for a long time and I think that [lack of a particular medium] was frowned upon, not just from commercial venues, but just in general, as if I was indecisive. And I’m like ‘no, I’m equally serious about all these things and it should be my concept that’s leading the material choices anyhow. […] Isn’t that where we went after the 60s?’” Vandenberg’s identity as an artist could be defined as “mixed media” or “intermedia”, but she will also readily admit that there are clear connections between these seemingly disparate entities of her own practice. In particular, she regularly embraces fiber as the basis for her work, making large scale, soft sculpture from sewn textiles, using sewing machines in her performances, and even using cotton rag paper as the basis for her drawings. As such, her practice similarly defies the binary that an artist must either be understood as a medium-specific or multimedia practitioner, offering a third option comprised of both.

“Doublespeak”, match burn on Arches paper, 22.5 X 30 inches, 2018. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.

“Double-talk”, match burn on Arches paper, 22.5 X 30 inches, 2018. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.

Looking at her work, it is readily apparent how her practice similarly engages with the dialectic between seemingly binary entities. In her most recent body of work, Vandenberg has created a series of triptychs comprised of “burn drawings,” which she has created by burning matches directly into Arches paper. In particular, her set of skull drawings, entitled Doublespeak, Double-Talk, and Red Vanitas, examine how two entities that are apparently diametrically opposed can actually merge to become one in the same, or an inclusive third. In each of these three works, two skulls look out in opposing directions, their metaphorical gazes fixed on something the other clearly cannot see. At the same time, their cranial structures overlap, merging them into a singular entity, one that is equally dependent on the form of the other in order to exist.

“Red Vanitas”, match burn and ink on Arches paper, 22.5 X 30 inches, 2018. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.

For Vandenberg, this overlap and the dichotomy it undermines function to critique the extreme prevalence of binary thinking within our contemporary culture, both locally and world-wide. She notes: “I’ve been using conjoined metaphors for a while. I think [of the motif as reflecting] this political climate, the general divisiveness, [and] realizing, you know, the supposed right and left—and this is even a global situation, not just here.” Vandenberg’s skulls do look left and right and, yet, the two are ultimately part of the same entity. These works, therefore, call attention to the fact that the ideological and, even, the physical delineation of left and right are interdependent parts of a single whole. Just as a physical object cannot have solely a left or a right side—as there will always be a boundary on the opposite side—neither can a political ideology exist solely in one camp or another; the limitations of the polar opposite are, therefore,  essential to create a cogent definition. By conjoining the two entities as such, Vandenberg highlights the fact these distinctions in our culture are truly interdependent.

Vandenberg’s skulls not only ruminate on ideological dichotomies, but they also undermine the duality between past and present, or the (art) historical and the contemporary. For Vandenberg, this series of burn drawings offers an opportunity to consider the legacy of historical motifs and objects. The use of the skull makes a clear reference to the Dutch still life tradition of the “vanitas,” wherein the still life painter would include a material reference to death among the sumptuous painted display. At the same time, both materially and temporally, Vandenberg’s skulls convey a particular sense of the present. As previously noted, the conjoined nature of them calls attention to our contemporary historical conditions. Furthermore, the materiality of the burn drawing itself has a clearly instantaneous quality to it, one that is created with a meticulous precision in terms of timing, which imbues the work with a clear sense of the now. Combining the historical references with this notion of the present, Vandenberg’s work thus calls attention to the falseness of the dichotomy between past and present, revealing the continuum upon which both entities exist.

Vandenberg’s interest in combining seemingly dichotomous entities is not solely a recent venture. For years now, she has explored the limits of these distinctions throughout her practice, both literally and metaphorically. Geographic delineations, in particular, have been a consistent theme throughout much of her work. Just as her own identity as an artist has been shaped by time spent in both the North and the South, she has used her practice to explore the differentiation between these two regions. In 2010, for instance, she carried out her Middleland Project, wherein she spent several weeks traveling along the boundary between the Northern and Southern United States. The project offered a reimagining of American borders, highlighting the various identities that emerge within and across these two regions. As Vandenberg notes: “[t]hese are not your usual border states; semantically they are an amalgamation of the Heartland, the Midwest, the Bible Belt, just south of the Rust Belt and flanking the Mason Dixon Divide. They provide a rich yet fractured history as ideologies are constantly challenged from the surrounding North and South.”[1]

‘Middleland Project’, 10X14 digital photographs, 2010

Vandenberg documented her journey in a variety of media, including photographs and a blog  that she maintained during her travels. The resulting project is a series of images and texts illuminating the complicated and multifaceted expressions of regional identities that exist along the borderlands, demonstrating the ways in which people North of the divide share values and lived experiences with those South of it, while also noting the moments in which real differences are apparent. In exploring the line between North and South through this project, Vandenberg highlights the existence of a third possible identity, one that transcends and transgresses the division of the border itself.

“Monument”, US flags, polyester, wood, nylon & hardware, 66 X 26 X 26 inches, 2016. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.

Her practice not only considers the interwoven nature of geographic boundaries, but also the interrelatedness that characterizes gender binaries. In particular, her sculpture practice has, for years, juxtaposed elements of masculinity and femininity in a way that calls attention to the limits of these two categories. For instance, in her work Monument, Vandenberg combines the masculinity associated with militarism and patriotic service with the femininity of textile work. In this work, Vandenberg constructs a portable, stuffed obelisk out of the fabric of several deconstructed flags. As such, the work calls attention to the particularly masculine traits of patriotic duty and military sacrifice, alluding to the cemetery memorials that mark the graves of countless American soldiers. (While women have, for centuries, served in military roles, the vast majority of service members killed in the line of duty have been men, due largely to the exclusion of women from combat roles until 2016.)

At the same time, Vandenberg incorporates clearly feminine signifiers into her monument through her choice of materials. Sewing, and textile work more generally, is unquestionably feminine, having been one of the primary forms of craft practices that have characterized women’s art for centuries. Broadly speaking, within flag culture, women’s roles have historically been as makers, using our talents with needle and thread to construct symbolic objects, the most iconic example of such being the Revolutionary War seamstress Betsy Ross. Therefore, by incorporating this textile tradition and rendering her monument visibly soft—a characteristic often attributed to women both in physical form and in temperament— Vandenberg complicates the masculinity associated with the obelisk and the militaristic culture it represents.

In bringing together two sides of this binary, Vandenberg again demonstrates how these notions are, indeed, interconnected. The softness of the stuffed fabric combined with the rigidity of the form of the obelisk proposes a reconceptualization of gender wherein the dichotomy between manliness and womanhood is replaced with a more nuanced and dialectic understanding. Because this form is neither completely masculine nor completely feminine, it posits the existence of some hybridity between the two, thus illustrating that the binary is false and that some combination thereof is likely more common.

In her practice, Vandenberg has challenged the apparent duality of gender on multiple occasions, including in more recent work like the piece Homewrecker. In this work, Vandenberg has constructed a sewing station precariously propped up on a variety of knives, all of which sit on a flattened deer hide, while a brick placed on the pedal keeps the machine running. Like with her monument, the sewing machine itself is a synecdoche for womanhood.  The metaphorical reference to womanhood is made more apparent through the fact that it is a “homemaker” brand machine, calling to mind one of the central elements of women’s labor and identities for centuries. At the same time, the knives—bowie knives along the base of the machine and throwing knives extending down the legs of the chair—coupled with the skinned deer hide allude to hunting, one of the most traditional and archetypal roles for men going back to hunter/gatherer societies.

And yet even with the clear gender distinctions that are apparent on the surface of the work, the piece highlights the complicated and intertwined nature of gender. For instance, as Vandenberg notes, the deer hide itself can be understood as a feminine form, particularly as deer have held “a lot of symbolism in every religion, […]usually related to purity and fertility.” The masculinity of hunting is therefore undercut by the femininity associated with the deer in various spiritual practices. Through this juxtaposition, Vandenberg continues to complicate binary gender distinctions in her work, highlighting the capacity of objects and individuals to perform both roles simultaneously.

“Homewrecker”, sewing machine, knives, deer hide, chair, brick & mixed media, 42 X 60 X 55 inches (dimensions variable), 2019. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.

The gender dichotomy is only one of the multiple binaries challenged in Homewrecker; the piece also ruminates of the duality of ephemerality and permanence. In particular, the physical construction of the work is both temporary and enduring. On the one hand, the assembled items that comprise the sculpture—the sewing machine, the seat, the knives, the hide, and the brick—are all sturdy and long-lasting items. On the other hand, the permanence of these objects is undercut by the dynamic and mechanical nature of the work. By strategically placing a brick on the foot pedal of the sewing machine, Vandenberg has created an object that will continue to vibrate so long as it is on display, ultimately causing the knives to cut into the deer hide and thus destroy the work as it once existed. In creating a work that appears static but is, in fact, always changing, Vandenberg highlights the interrelatedness between the ephemeral and the permanent. That the deer hide appears permanently whole but is actually being altered moment by moment illustrates how things may appear eternal, but they are never quite that. At the same time, that the fleeting and momentary vibrations of the sewing machine are causing the knives to damage the hide instant by instant also illustrates the impact of ephemerality on more permanent conditions.

Throughout her career, Melissa Vandenberg has used her practice to critically examine multifaceted and complex issues, layering meaning into the various elements of each work to create a totality rife with bold statements and nuanced assertions. Despite working in a wide variety of media, there are clearly remarkable through lines that create wholeness out of what could be understood as disunity. Similarly, though her work addresses a considerable number of disparate ideas, the distinctions among them frequently function to unite her practice and the issues she addresses. Her work challenges us to think in more complicated ways, abandoning reductive logic that seeks to delineate the world in binary forms, offering us instead a way to see a possible interconnected third.

Portrait of the artist by the artist, Melissa Vandenberg

[1]Melissa Vandenberg to Middleland: Artwork and commentary focused on the landscape flanking the Mason-Dixon Divide. , February 26, 2010, http://middleland2010.blogspot.com/?view=magazine.


UnderMain would like to thank The Great Meadows Foundation for support of our 2019 programming, which will include twelve in-depth studio visits of Kentucky artists. See our February submission related to this project: UnderMain critic Hunter Kissel visits Kentucky artist Harry Sanchez, Jr. 

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

Arts

Make your FREE reservation now at reservations@under-main.com

UnderMain invites you to attend Critical Mass III: In The Mid March 15th & 16th. In its third iteration, after being hosted in Lexington and Louisville, the conversation will now move to Northern Kentucky to be held at The Carnegie Center in Covington. The Critical Mass Series is based in a common desire to create a platform for critical thinking in the arts: including artists, art critics, and curators.

CMIII: In The Mid will center on the experience of art professionals living and working outside of the major art centers for contemporary art. The panel-community discussion will also examine the role that written criticism plays in engagement of regional artists and institutions in a national and international dialogue.

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