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Arts

Review: Aaron Lubrick at Pyro Gallery

Aaron Lubrick was part of a two-person new member show during February at the co-op gallery Pyro, housed on Washington Street in Louisville’s up-and-coming Butchertown neighborhood. Lubrick shared the exhibition space with Suzanne Sidebottom. Sidebottom’s works are trompe-l’oeil porcelain transferware, smaller but equally as adroit as Richard Shaw’s well-known transferware constructions.

The gallery is a converted ca. 1900 cottage duplex. Meatpacking still persists in the neighborhood, and the gallery was perhaps built as a home for workers at a local abattoir. The galleries are intimate, but the largest room has a wall of glass letting in a lot of natural south light. The installation interspersed the work of the two new members. Lubrick’s paintings were modest easel pictures (mostly 15” by 18” or smaller), with the exception of two large works executed in his studio. All the others were alla prima, wet-on-wet oils done out of doors. So the show was well scaled to its setting. Subjects included Montana and Florida landscapes, still lifes, and family at swimming pools or in the back yard of the artist’s home. In addition, there were nude studies, views of road work in Louisville’s Cherokee Park, and of groups at Big Rock, a popular family outing spot on Beargrass Creek.

The pressure of reality gives these paintings a grit not seen, to my eye, in paintings based on photographs. There is a Scottish word, clarty, which applies to these oils: conventionally the word means dirty or muddy, but by colloquial extension, it applies to foods that are thickly textured or stick to the roof of the mouth. Think peanut butter, for example, or bubble gum. At times Lubrick’s paintings are so clarty as to attain the status of low relief sculptures in impasto. The clarty goo of oil pigments, how they are blended or spread or applied, is the poetry in the mechanics of these works. The artist’s enjoyment of his medium is evident in Montana Landscape. Two fence posts establish the foreground, followed by a browned-out meadow bordering a copse of woods in the middle distance. The background is a ridge of blue mountains topped by a crystalline blue sky and cumulus clouds. Definition to these different spaces is provided by varying brushwork – broad flat passages for the meadow and blue of the sky; writhing, curling loops for the woods; ridged strokes following the contours of the mountains; and punctuating staccato stabs for the clouds. The intensity of the sky blue, enlivened and activated by the white clouds, contrasts with the neutralized hues below. With the surface orchestration of the brushwork, the resulting effect is a startling sense of the clarity of light and atmosphere in the Rockies. The artist has aptly written about “the primal and freeing sensation…the experience of wonderment and astonishment” that can arise from contemplative observation of “a large body of water or a freshly cleared field.”

Montana Landscape. Oil on Panel, 8.5 x 11.5, 2020.

Montana Landscape shows the influence of the early Western painters like Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran in its composition and sense of discovery. A regard for art historical precedent is also apparent in Lubrick’s depictions of bathers, an artistic commonplace since Greco-Roman antiquity. But Boys Playing by the Swimming Pool is certainly anti-classical: two of Lubrick’s sons stand beside a condo pool. A reclining chair and table at the lower edge of the picture push the other subjects deeper into a stage-like space of repeated rectangles denoting the orange pavement surrounding the pool, walls rising above scattered chairs and swimming paraphernalia, and the blue-green pool itself.

The glaring sun casts black shadows, most extraordinarily on the boys themselves. They are good examples of Lubrick’s method of conveying three-dimensionality with strong black strokes embracing his figures. The artist dismembers the academic notion of modeling in subtle and gradated variations from white to black. In his improvisatory modeling through blotchy marking, he is also eschewing the common modernist methods of conveying the three-dimensionality of sitters (for example, through repeated outlining, or contrasting the figure with its background). In his highly individual approach to light and shade, Lubrick is recovering a displaced mode of picture-making, and reinventing it in his own terms.

Boys Playing by the Swimming Pool. Oil on Panel, 11 x 15, 2017.

Depicting figures is a means of conveying scale and introducing a narrative element, but also provides a means for injecting a psychological or personal element in the depiction. The artist proclaims, “The faster I paint, the better the work.” A sense of urgency and openness to multiple meanings are apparent in Swimming at Big Rock. Water takes on the colors reflected on its surface and provides pattern with the flow of currents or wind rippling the surface. In this instance, Beargrass Creek is by turns a mottled emerald green, greenish-white, and a smeary blend of green and black. The creek is bordered by white boulders at the top denoted by two or three slashes of the brush and a burnt sienna beach along the lower edge. The palette is portentous, unspecified but possibly sinister. There are three figures: two women in bikinis, standing as if at attention, looking over the water at the left-center of the canvas. To the right is a brilliant bit of bravura brushwork, a child in an orange float in front of a red, white, and blue ball.

Swimming at Big Rock. Oil on Panel, 11 x 15, 2018.

Quizzed on that detail, Lubrick responded, “The red, white, and blue was a beach ball in front of the figure. I believe I quickly painted it in without it actually being in that particular place. I remember needing alternative colors other than the very dominant green water. Also knowing that the red color would really pop or have serious visual contrast. I do remember thinking that it was hard to understand that it was a colorful ball but really appreciating the effectiveness of bold color shapes and feeling no more information was needed to define.”

One of the ironies of Lubrick’s work is his use of a quick and spontaneous plein air process – seemingly perceptual – to summon weighty, contradictory themes. In Swimming at Big Rock there are multiple possibilities: the idyll of enjoying swimming in a natural setting, two women staring ahead as if attempting to see into the future, the promise of youth in the child in the float, and perhaps even an ecological warning about the dicey character of the water quality of Beargrass Creek. The artist notes that “landscape is a malleable metaphor” and his work is “part of a long history of narratives that support contemporary dialogue around the representation of land and identity.”

Aaron Lubrick’s backyard paintings were among the finest of his works in this exhibition. The intimacy of family life is conveyed in the private, confined space where the happenstance of toys, small and large, is framed in by fencing and by surrounding buildings. Lubrick maps this territory in three paintings. Two of the paintings are of his sons playing on a trampoline, notable for the interchange between observation and narration. The paintings provide a platform for seeing the children’s bouncings as if they were enacting feats of mythic proportions. This is especially true of Trampoline and Bouncy Ball, in which the foreground is cast in shadow, dramatizing the leap of the boy seen against a smoky lavender sky. The brilliant red disk of the setting sun is juxtaposed with the boy’s head. A hummingbird feeder to the right suggests an analogy to the boy’s energy. There is an offhand nonchalance to the placement of the sun, as if it had no more significance than the location of the bouncy ball to the right of the trampoline. Significantly, Lubrick includes his studio as a backdrop in all three paintings, possibly a proxy for a self-portrait.

Trampoline and Bouncy Ball. Oil on Canvas, 25 x 29.5, 2020.

Bounce House Water Slide during Covid was the clearest example in the show of the liminal space Lubrick prospects between observation and abstraction, and his adherence to Giorgio Morandi’s dictum, “nothing is more abstract than reality.”  The subject is a simple version of a class of fantastic objects characterized by unlikely sculptural form and brilliantly colored plastic. Beneath a sulfurous night sky the bounce house, like an extraterrestrial spacecraft, is lodged in front of the studio, beside the trampoline and other incidental childhood detritus. The orange arms of the slide are set against the complementary blue of the base: boys in yellow provide a light-dark contrast.

The jolting brilliance of the orange and yellow conveys an air of activity in defiance of the night and the pandemic. The underlying strokes of the brush or swipes of the palette knife offer a secondary structure to the molten, lava-like color. Line, as in the broad strokes delineating the peaked roof of the studio, are place-making markers defining the familial precinct.

Bounce House Water Slide during Covid. Oil on Panel, 18 x 24, 2020.

In a previous article for UnderMain (“Studio Visit: Aaron Lubrick”), I proposed that his practice could be roughly described through four aspects or principles:  observation, the life of the medium, the artist’s heritage, and private narratives.

Observation: Lubrick’s empirical approach to his visual field is like a jazz musician’s improvisation on a familiar tune, that is, a departure point for further invention.

The Life of the Medium:  While painting, Lubrick declares “what happens, happens.” Visual fact is subordinated to a loosened structure that foregrounds discoveries and reverberations during the painting process. Lubrick does not disguise the resistance of the oil medium to realism, but celebrates it.

The Artist’s Heritage:  Aaron is engaged in art historical precedents, and in conversation cites Velazquez, William Nicholson, and George Bellows among other painters who were masters of close tonal relations or rugose impasto.

Private Narratives:  Finally, the show at Pyro was intriguing in terms of personal meanings. Lubrick is a twin and the recurring depiction of pairs of figures may be germane to the artist’s meditations on that status. A likely subtext to the backyard paintings is the complexities of contemporary parenthood.

The Pyro show was a grand introduction to the artist’s ambitious program and his trust in an instinctual, improvisatory method of artmaking. Most of all, it provided occasions for delight in the many ways the artist gave transcendent importance to scenes conventionally local and familiar.

Top Image: Boys Jumping during Covid. Oil on Panel, 15 x 19.5, 2020.

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Arts

Tunis: Year of the Plague, Live Music Edition

It was everything one could have wished for on a downtown Saturday night.

The surroundings were sublime – a cloudless sunset with air cool and clear enough to fortify the spring that was very much unfolding. The streets around Broadway and Short were as full of people in motion as they would have been during a weekday rush hour. But the pace was markedly calmer. Some were heading to dinner, others from it. Many stopped and engaged in the sort of unhurried conversation that only seems to commence on a weekend. The lighting was a collage – a mix of the changing blue Mother Nature brought on with the dusk with an artful glow of man-made illumination that included the striking new marquee that greeted Opera House audiences at its Broadway entrance.

Photo Credit: Walter Tunis

A large evening was planned inside the Opera House. Country music renaissance man Marty Stuart and his scholarly trio The Fabulous Superlatives were back in town for their first performance since playing across the street 16 months earlier, also on a Saturday night, as part of a sold-out Rupp Arena bill with Chris Stapleton and Brent Cobb. The room was going to be smaller for Stuart tonight, but he was the only act on tap. The night was to be all his.

Outside the Opera House, the mood was engaging. A major concert performance on a Saturday evening with spring in evidence – pretty hard to beat, right? Then something curious happened. A friend walked up to me who I had not seen in some time, but his greeting was unexpected. He didn’t offer his hand. He leaned his left elbow toward me, expecting to me nudge mine to it in response.“I won’t ask you to shake hands, because, well… you know.”

I knew alright. So did the three people in my company and my friend’s wife, who was standing to his right.

Word was already spreading about COVID-19, about its devastating effects in China and its rapid tear throughout the rest of the world. With it came the grim understanding of how contagious the coronavirus could be. A simple handshake, a casual hug, any form of physical intimacy could spread it. But it still seemed far away. Everyone I knew was taking it seriously, but the general feeling was COVID was going to do its damage from a distance. So my friend and I jokingly rubbed elbows, went inside to watch Stuart and the Superlatives bust the place up with two hours of country roots romps, folkish confessionals, bluegrass standards and even a surf tune.

It was quite a night. March 7, 2020.

Photo Credit: Walter Tunis

By the following weekend COVID had exploded, the world locked down, and live music, as we knew it, was extinguished.

Curtain down
Within days, the realities of COVID’s arrival grew rapidly grimmer, as did the extremes of what was going to be needed to combat it. Live music, and all performing arts activities, began evaporating. The total effect didn’t hit all at once, although it seemed like it. Live music still had a few hits left. In Lexington, two fell on the following Tuesday. Both, oddly enough, were jazz performances. Ironically, COVID, in something of a tease, was actually responsible for one of them happening.

Grammy nominated guitarist Julian Lage and Bad Plus drummer Dave King had been touring overseas as a duo. When a series of Japan concerts dates were scrubbed in the wake of COVID’s invasion there, the two high-tailed it home and quickly assembled as many makeup dates before the coronavirus hit Stateside. One such performance fell into the lap of the Lexington-based Origins Jazz Series, which quicky booked Lage and King into The Apiary on Jefferson Street with roughly a week to promote the show. The concert drew well, amply satisfied those in attendance and brought Origins’ third season to an abrupt and unplanned conclusion. It stands as, quite possibly, the only artistic gift COVID has given our city.

Over at the Niles Gallery on the University of Kentucky campus, the long-running Outside the Spotlight series (OTS), which leans more to free jazz and improvisational music, was welcoming an old friend, Chicago saxophonist Dave Rempis, back to town. Over the previous 18 years, OTS had presented Rempis at a variety of Lexington venues in the company of roughly a dozen different duo and band configurations.

What brought Rempis back to OTS and Lexington this Tuesday night was a trio called Kuzu that placed him alongside guitarist Tashi Dorji and drummer/percussionist Tyler Damon.

I had already made plans to attend the OTS show when the Lage/King performance was announced. From my Kuzu review: “The room acoustics played a role in this merry chaos, too. The natural echo of the Niles Gallery seemed to magnify the clarity and volume of sax and drums. Curiously, electric guitar, the only amplified instrument of the three, struggled to be heard above its acoustic counterparts. But the ensemble sensibility, full of vigor and invention, never waned.”

Kuzu. Photo Credit: Walter Tunis

That was the last graph of the last review of the last full public performance I have attended. A full year ago.

Sounds lost
What we have lost over the past year is now immeasurable. There have been the artists – most notably John Prine – who have been taken by the coronavirus. There have been the venues, the most locally notable being Cosmic Charlie’s, that have closed in COVID’s wake. There have been the performances, including every major summer festival from the Festival of the Bluegrass to the anticipated second year of Railbird, that were lost.

It goes without saying that there have been valiant and welcome efforts to present at least some level of live music during the ensuing months. A special nod goes to The Burl, which continued to present socially distanced outdoor concerts in its parking lot as late as November. But even with all available precautions being taken, potential patrons had to weigh the risk of exposure. With the COVID vaccine not publicly available through the end of 2020, many music enthusiasts reluctantly stayed home. Being very much in the at-risk category, I was one of them. In most cases, though, the decision was made for us. Many touring acts that attracted arena, theatre or even club-sized audiences remained off the road. The grim forecast of what many venues were predicting was coming to pass.

“We were the first to close. We will be the last to re-open.”

So what now? With the number of vaccinations gradually growing, there is at least some hope for live music’s grand return. But it probably won’t occur soon. Clubs like The Burl are again starting to offer small, socially distanced shows. Anything larger will probably still have to wait. That means more postponements (a Buddy Guy concert at the Opera House is now on its third rescheduled date) with the potential of more summer cancellations very much a possibility. Summer festivals are up in the air at this point, but the decision whether they go on or not may not even be in the hands of their promoters. If acts don’t tour, nothing happens. Beyond that, at this point, it’s wait and see.

One of the sadder and more recent postscripts to the year we have lost was the recent passing of jazz titan Chick Corea. His death on February 9 wasn’t due to COVID but to a rare form of cancer that advanced rapidly after diagnosis.

Chick Corea. Photo Credit: Associated Press, Courtesy Wall Street Journal

What makes Corea’s departure especially sad was that during the earliest days of the pandemic, he maintained an unexpectedly high profile online. For roughly six weeks, he propped up an iPhone in his home studio and let audiences watch him practice at the piano. These weren’t performances, although the playing was often of performance quality. It was instead, a means of simple, honest connection to an audience that felt abandoned by the loss of live music and in shock over a COVID-dictated lifestyle change that demanded isolation.

All of those sessions remain viewable online and serve as some of the most casual yet powerful artistic affirmations to surface during a year that tuned so much music out.

“Keep the spirit up,” Corea said at the end of a practice session he streamed on Easter Sunday. “We’re going to get over this. I know we’re going to get over this.”

Top Image Photo Credit: Cosmic Charlie’s Facebook Page

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Arts

Studio Visit: Lawrence Tarpey

The world of Lexington artist Lawrence Tarpey’s paintings is at once dark and macabre, funny and playful. In a typical scene, crowds of strange figures, humanoid or animalistic or both, congregate and chatter; if you were standing among them, you feel, there would be a cacophony of crosstalk, jibberjabber and bleak jokes. They occupy murky landscapes that might serve very well as expressionist stage sets – for the witches in Macbeth, say, or the forlorn clowns of Waiting for Godot – under crepuscular, sepia-toned skies. Some of the creatures seem to grow up out of the ground, bulbous and solid as boulders, while others float overhead, translucent and ethereal like angels or ghosts. They seem to bicker a fair amount, but are more like large extended families than warring clans. Theirs is a shared DNA, monstrous, certainly, but no more monstrous than you or I, and sometimes a good deal less.

In “Lawrence Tarpey: Subconscious States,” the artist’s new solo exhibit at Institute 193 showing works from the past two years, these odd beings are the dramatis personae in various dramas that are constantly afoot. The show, which continues through March 6, includes “Back Seat Driver,” in which a hulking fellow with the paws of a wolf seems to be preventing the passage of a wheeled carriage chauffeured by some near-relative of Daffy Duck. In “A Much Better View,” a host of creatures on land and in the air appears to be eavesdropping on a heated argument, presumably over nothing very important, that has broken out between a trio of hotheads. In “Tic Tac Joe,” the conflict seems more serious, with a bear-like beast squaring off against a man brandishing a knife worthy of Crocodile Dundee. But the high stakes are undercut by another scene playing out at their feet, in which another animal with the face of a reptile serenely chomps a different man’s entire head in the manner of a cow chewing its cud.

Lawrence Tarpey, A Much Better View, 2020, oil and graphite on gessobord, 8 x 10 inches.

Elsewhere the exhibit features at least three different apparent references to settings and elements associated with death, burial, and/or the afterlife. “The Excavators,” featuring a central figure holding a digging tool, is set in what might be an archaeological site or a graveyard. “Catacomb Central,” easily the most visually dark piece in the show, is a Dantesque vision of what could be an ancient underground crypt or, perhaps, a circle of the Inferno itself. On a lighter note, the denizens of “They All Worked Together” include what could be a floating mummy case and a wafting little fellow who could be Casper the Friendly Ghost’s helpful sidekick; if this is the underworld, life goes on here, nonetheless.

Lawrence Tarpey, Catacomb Central, 2021, oil on claybord, 7 x 5 inches.

The alert reader will have spotted a plethora of “seem,” “could be” and “might be” references in the above paragraphs, a mark of how Tarpey’s richly ambiguous paintings refuse to be pinned down. Certainly most if not all specific readings of his work are mostly unintended, at least consciously, by the artist, until well into the process of creating each piece. And even then – despite his suggestive, sometimes cheeky titles, which he describes as “mostly afterthoughts,” conceived quickly and after the fact – he largely leaves interpretation to the viewer, and is fully prepared for the fact that many viewers may interpret the work as darker and more foreboding than he intends.

“I don’t think my art is congruent with my mindset,” Tarpey – a genial, barrel-chested man of 63 who retains the head of dark thick hair and the physical vigor of the punk-rock band frontman he also still is – says in an interview at Institute 193. “A lot of art critics have talked about the mysterious, dark nature of my work, but when I’m making it, I’m not thinking of it that way. I’m just doing what comes naturally to me. Sure, it has a darker palette. But more than a foreboding vibe, I’m almost more interested in conveying humor. Maybe it’s a combination of the two.”

Photo Credit: Kevin Nance

In a tour of the show at the gallery and a subsequent, lengthy Zoom interview, during which we discussed his art, his artistic process and his life, Tarpey repeatedly emphasizes his art’s composition and other formal concerns over its thematic content. It emerges, he says, not from some intellectually pre-planned intention or creative vision but, rather, from his physical art-making process, which involves laying down blobs of dark oil paint and graphite, often with a sponge, on a pristine surface, usually clayboard or gessoed wood panel. He then works and reworks the paint – dabbing, mopping, scraping, scumbling, etching, sanding – until some evocative shapes emerge. At that point, and only then, he begins to develop and evolve those initially amorphous shapes into what have become his trademark human, semi-human, animal and hybrid figures, most of which eventually sprout limbs, heads, faces and, crucially, eyes and mouths.

It’s in that last step, of course, when the creative magic happens. The result is a weird and sometimes wacky dreamscape in which a vast cast of outlandish characters from the artist’s overpopulated subconscious romp, unfettered by reason, rules or anything else except the properties of paint and the typically tight confines of their frames.

But getting there is an intuitive process, not a cerebral one, into which Tarpey chooses not to inquire too closely.

“They just pour out of me,” he says of his frolicking figures and their shadowy stomping grounds. “I have no idea how it happens; I just know when it’s come together. Sometimes that happens right off the bat. Other times there’ll be maybe ten incarnations of a face. I work it and rework it until I go, hey, that’s pretty cool. And I leave that alone. And boom, there it is. There’s no explanation. And that’s what makes it exciting for me, frankly, because I have no idea what’s going to happen.”

Pressed, Tarpey likens his generative process to starting a fire in the woods. “You have to have wood, it has to be dry, and you have to understand friction,” he says. “It’s a process of putting all these elements together to create the fire, the fire being the painting.” Another analogy, he says, can be found in the once-popular childhood pastime of lying on your back looking up at the shape-shifting clouds: “Look, mom, an elephant!”

I suggest to Tarpey that this could be because he’s concerned that if he examined or interrogated the deepest origins of his art-making, it might disrupt his access to his subconscious, where all those little creatures live, waiting to be sprung.

“Exactly,” he says. “You’ve hit the nail on the head.”

*

Tarpey maintains a home studio in his small house in the west end of downtown Lexington, but he rarely paints there. That activity happens mostly in his living room, sitting comfortably on his sofa, almost always at night, often while watching TV, listening to podcasts or cranking up punk, rock and pop tunes, with occasional forays into the worlds of Frank Sinatra and Count Basie. (It’s a welcome respite from his other job, as a waiter. “When I’m waiting tables, I’m on my feet for eight hours. When I get home and want to work on a painting, I want to sit down,” he says with a laugh.) His favorite painting surface for more than twenty years has been clayboard. “It absorbs the oils, so your drying time is dramatically sped up, but not so sped up that everything sets prematurely,” he explains. “That gives you a nice little window of time where you can work the paint on the surface, scrape, etch, draw.”

In keeping with his free-associational, go-with-the-flow method of allowing his subject matter to materialize from the act of painting itself, Tarpey rarely makes studies. But once the imagery has bubbled up out of the paint, the artist dials in and begins to refine and sculpt the piece, often scratching and scumbling his surfaces with a utility razor of the type used in box-cutting tools. (“I’ve never cut myself,” he reports with a smile.) Generally monochromatic, most of the paintings feature foregrounds and backgrounds rendered in somber earth tones or shades of black and gray that recall the aquatints of Francisco Goya. “Subconscious States” does feature a few more colorful works, but these seem like the exceptions that prove the rule. The finished paintings are sealed in multiple coatings of varnish, giving them a pristine, polished quality that makes these hot-off-the-easel pieces feel like they might have been painted centuries ago.

The artist’s work sells well – he has several highly enthusiastic collectors who own many of his paintings – but that doesn’t seem high on his priority list. “I want people to like my work,” Tarpey says, “but it’s not for everybody, right? I’m not doing equestrian art, beautiful paintings of horses. I don’t have commercial concerns, really. It’s not part of the equation when I’m making art. I’m not thinking, how can I make this more marketable?”

He does make one commercial concession, in the area of size and scale. While he has occasionally painted large pieces, including murals, Tarpey is on balance a committed miniaturist, mostly for practical reasons.

“Large paintings are hard to sell,” he says matter-of-factly. “Sometimes people are intimidated by the size. Plus your material costs shoot up dramatically with large pieces, especially if you’re using good quality oil paint. And then, you know, it’s a matter of space. I live in an 1,100-square-foot house.” Accordingly, most of his paintings, including the ones in “Subconscious States,” are quite small, generally 5×7 inches (which currently sell for about $1,200), not including their bespoke frames, or 8×10 inches ($1,500). “The Excavators” was also included in notBIG(5), a 2019 group show at the M.S. Rezny Studio/Gallery that showcased works no bigger than 12×12 inches including the frame. Tarpey also creates limited editions of similar-sized digital prints, based on scanned bits and pieces of some of his paintings, that sell for $100 or less.

In a seemingly counterintuitive yet perhaps inevitable way, the constrained dimensions of Tarpey’s paintings might be a key factor in their being so heavily populated. In “Subconscious States,” for example, all but two of the works, “Gingus Kong” and “Profiles 2020,” are jam-packed with multiple figures and faces, as if in compensation for their small size.

Lawrence Tarpey, Gingus Kong, 2021, oil and graphite on claybord, 7 x 5 inches.

“The scale is important – he has more ideas per square inch than any artist I know,” says Lexington artist Ron Isaacs, who owns 25 paintings by his friend (“the largest collection of Tarpeys in captivity,” he says) and is, like Tarpey, represented by the Momentum Gallery in Asheville. “There’s so much going on in his work, and so much of it is surprising. I like the wit, the pure invention, the general nuttiness of it. I don’t try to think too hard about what his little figures are doing or feeling, or what the mood is. Of course, I have a high tolerance for ambiguity, and I think he does, too.”

*

Tarpey’s career as a mostly self-taught artist began when he was 11 or 12, doodling on his beige laminate desktop at Lansdowne Elementary School in Lexington. “That Formica surface was perfect for a No. 2 pencil,” he recalls. “I would sit in the back of class and start drawing on my desk. The bell would ring, and then I’d come back the next day and the drawing would still be there, and I’d keep working on it. Of course, I wasn’t paying attention to whatever the hell was going on in class.”

Over the years, Tarpey kept on doodling – “Sitting in a bar with my buddies drinking beer,” he says, “I’d always be drawing on a napkin” – and the paint application process he uses for his mature work can be seen as a natural evolution of those early desktop drawings. But the journey from there to here was a long and circuitous one, slowed but also shaped by his ADD (attention deficit disorder), which kept him from excelling scholastically, and, he says, by growing up in Lexington in the ’60s and ’70s. “Being in Kentucky, it can be somewhat of a disadvantage, culturally,” he says. “You’re not getting much encouragement, really, and you don’t have the cultural resources that you have in a larger city.”

Tarpey did take a few studio art classes at the University of Kentucky, which he attended briefly, but otherwise relied on subscriptions to Art in America and other art magazines to inform himself about the world of contemporary art. “At one time I thought about applying to the Art Institute of Chicago or the Pratt Institute, but I kind of dropped the ball on that,” he recalls in a wistful tone. “Then I got involved in music when I was in my early 20s, so that took up a lot of my creative time, writing and performing in punk and rock bands.” As a lead singer and lyricist, Tarpey has been a key figure in several bands over the years with names like Active Ingredients, The Resurrected Bloated Floaters, Born Joey and Rabby Feeber, whose music he describes as “aggressive, testosterone-fueled stuff.” His two current outfits, The Yellow Belts and The CRISPRS, have been sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic but hope to begin performing live again later this year. “Here I am, 63 years old,” he says, “and I still love it.”

“One of the reasons I gravitated to punk rock was that it was a democratic expression,” he explains. “A lot of the early punk rock bands, they didn’t even know how to play their instruments – they couldn’t put two chords together. But I just like the DIY, anti-establishment spirit of it. Anybody could start a band.” His process of writing song lyrics, he says, in some ways mirrors and perhaps even influenced his visual art. “The genesis of a lot of my song lyrics is kind of stream-of-consciousness, but then I sit down and actually write, which is where the hard work comes in. A lot of my lyrics are not real literal. They have one foot in reality and one foot in the stratosphere, which makes them a little bit ambiguous.” Just like his paintings, he might have said.

Back to those art magazines. It was in those pages, Tarpey says, where he first encountered many of the artists who influence him to this day. They include Philip Guston, whose oddly stylized figures and jowly faces, often staring balefully out from abstract backgrounds, seem genetically linked to some of Tarpey’s (a good example being “Gingus Kong” at Institute 193). Even more foundational for the artist was the Chicago Imagists painter Jim Nutt, whose antic, often testosterone-fueled work melds surrealism, Pop art and underground comic-book art in a way that made Tarpey feel as if he’d found an artistic forefather.

“I immediately gravitated toward Jim Nutt’s work because it’s hilarious and pristine,” Tarpey says in words that, it strikes me, could be used to describe his own work. “He was one of the first artists that I was really intrigued with, and have been ever since. First of all, I like the bizarre imagery. I kind of gravitate toward psychedelic weirdness, and he checks all the boxes. Plus, the meticulous nature of the way he works. His images are just crazy, but at the same time exquisite; you can tell he spends hundreds of hours on one piece. There’s definitely a cartoony, underground kind of vibe going on in his work, which is another thing that attracted me to it. He’s not a traditionalist at all; he’s made his own path in the art world.”

Today, in addition to Nutt and Guston, Tarpey cites a host of artists as influences, including Hieronymus Bosch, Goya, Picasso, Rothko, Franz Klein, Cy Twombly, Milton Avery, Wayne Thiebaud, Kim Dorland, Matthew Monahan, and Nicole Eisenman. (“She’s in my top 10.”) It’s a telling list, spanning styles and centuries, with all but Rothko bridging and joining the figure with some aspect of abstraction or dreamlike imagery. “My work is always planted in the real world – there’s always recognizable imagery, although it’s mostly expressionistic,” Tarpey says. “At times I’ve tried to go into the world of nonrepresentational, purely abstract painting, but I always have gravitated back toward figuration.”

It was the artist’s combination of expressionism and his interest in the figure that caught the eye of Heike Pickett and her husband, Irwin. Heike is the veteran Central Kentucky art dealer who represented Tarpey for many years at her now-closed galleries in Lexington and Versailles. “We’ve always been drawn to his figurative work,” she says in a recent interview. “It’s a fascinating and very original process that he’s come up with all on his own – the way he doesn’t come up with an idea and then try to express it. He just starts painting, and then things somehow evolve out of that. Subconsciously, I think, he has all this in his head, but it can’t come out until he starts working. It’s extraordinary, like a high form of doodling.”

It’s been a series of short hops, then, from that Formica desktop at Lansdowne Elementary to those napkins in smoky Lexington bars to the pristine white clayboards on Lawrence Tarpey’s sofa. A high form of doodling, out of which comes a universe.

Top Image: Lawrence Tarpey, The Excavators, 2019, oil and graphite on claybord, 5 x 7 inches.

Images of art courtesy of Institute 193.

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Review: “It is What is Not Yet Known”

In the Louisville gallery scene, Quappi Projects is unparalleled for offering complex and challenging exhibitions. As curator and owner, John Brooks has pushed to promote both local and national contemporary artists in the small but nimble white cube space tucked away on Market Street.  Its latest exhibition, and first solo sculpture show, is titled “It is What is Not Yet Known,” featuring works by Kiah Celeste.

Celeste, a New York-born, Louisville-based artist has been making sculptural works with discarded items, construction materials, and found objects since early 2019. Celeste assembles Louisville’s discarded artifacts like latex tubing, glass, pigment, and steel pipe into a delicate balance of humor, wit, aesthetics, and beauty. Blue and pink hues, deliberate signature colors, create a patchwork as you visually scan the sculptures in the exhibition.

‘Set’, wood, steel pipe, plastic, pigment, 40” L x 37” H x 4.25” W

As you enter Quappi Projects, you encounter “Set,” a piece of precarious balance. It is made from wood found curved in a half-moon that the artist painted a muted pink, and a steel pipe bent at a near 90-degree angle. The wood piece leans into the steel almost as if it created the shape by impact. This work sets the tone of the exhibit, giving you a first taste, piquing your curiosity about how these seemingly contradictory forms and materials could have found each other.

‘Baker’ on left, steel pipe, vacuum hose, pigment, 50” L x 67” H x 13” W

‘Serpent in the Sand’, fluorescent lightbulb, vacuum hose, pigment, 22” L x 48” H x 28” W

‘When the Window Cracked’, glass, microfoam, 70” L x 33” H x 12” W

The intimacy of Quappi Projects almost feels overwhelmed by the sculptures, not because of their size, but from the minimal gallery space to work in. Despite this, the show remains light, atmospheric, and cerebral. Celeste’s ability to play with physical space, not just objects, shows through specifically in works like “Baker” and “Serpent in the Sand.” This may reflect her study of photography and her understanding of the relationship between human form and space.

“When the Window Cracked,” a sculpture made from what looks like discarded glass shelves stacked with blue microfoam in a clean-cut triangular form, gives a nod to the lineage of the field of contemporary sculpture itself. Celeste’s work finds guideposts in Richard Serra’s ability to change the physical weight of steel into something experiential and light; the often overlooked and underappreciated canon of feminist critique crafted by Eva Hesse’s short-lived life and career; and the simplicity of form and careful selection of site in the environmental earthworks of Nancy Holt.

Not one of the works in the exhibition seems dense in gesture and form, nor monumental in size in the traditional field of sculpture. It makes one wonder how Celeste’s sculptures might evolve on a larger scale and scope, even beyond her previous works “Rounded Corners, Pointed Curves” and “Of Few Words” at the Josephine Sculpture Park in Frankfort, Kentucky.

Celeste’s search for the right materials and their transmigration speak to an approach similar to the frameworks of great Southern practitioners like Thornton Dial and Lonnie Holley. And you can feel the intention and purpose – these are actively pursued material transformations. Each piece of discarded material offers its own narrative and lived experience. Celeste takes the time to balance materials which seem distant in nature yet are familiar in form.

Her materials are informed by the city in which she works, reflected in the type of discarded articles that others deemed unusable. Celeste’s pieces in this exhibition are part of a larger body of work entitled “I Find This Stable.” This specific series is concerned with the physical embodiment of sustainable practices and our collective environmental crisis. But the artist’s ability to see potential within the outcast gives us a glimpse into the transformative power of sculpture. Repurposing these materials provides a framework to reimagine the temporality of material in a capitalist system.

‘Bound to Bend’, sheet metal, exercise balls, latex tubing, pigment, 40” L x 48” H x 26” W

In “Bound to Bend,” perforated sheet metal is torqued, collapsed, and compressed onto exercise balls wrapped in latex tubing. Exercise balls were also a material of choice in a Quappi Projects group show “A Sort of River of Passing Events” last summer. Celeste explores the relationship manifested by the weight, shape, tension, and color of these rubber orbs and their physical tension against things like glass and concrete. Celeste has no fear of discovery and refinement.

Sadly, Celeste’s contemporary and globally influenced art-world vernacular has the potential to be lost on the Louisville public. There are few spaces to experience an entire exhibition of sculpture. Sculptural works remain foreign and little space is given to the discipline within the Louisville gallery scene which most often favors ceramic, glass, and painting. Happily, John Brooks’ curatorial vision continues to create robust, more refined, and complex shows like “It is What is Not Yet Known.”

The exhibition is energetic, exciting, and accessible in a variety of formats and gestures. Quappi Projects and Kiah Celeste’s bold and ambitious work make great strides in bringing Louisville into unfamiliar territory.

“It is What is Not Yet Known” is on view till March 6th.

References and Reading

Richard Serra

Eva Hesse

Nancy Holt

Thornton Dial

Lonnie Holley

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The Legacy of Lige: Kentucky-Born Gay Rights Activist Elijah Clarke

In an interview for WEKU’s Eastern Standard, Stephanie Lang, editor of the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, talks with Jonathan Coleman. Dr. Coleman is the co-founder and director of the Faulkner Morgan Archive, home to more than 100 works of art, along with photographs and ephemera, by Kentucky-born painter and sculptor Edward Melcarth. The works were gifted to the archive by enthusiastic Melcarth collector and friend Malcolm Forbes. Along with previously acquired pieces, the Faulkner Morgan Archive has become the largest repository of works by this Kentucky artist.

In this conversation, Coleman and Lang focus on another icon of the Kentucky LGBTQ community, Elijah “Lige” Clarke. Born and raised in Hindman, Kentucky, Clark was a prominent gay activist in the 60’s and early 70’s.

(Photo: Fire Island Pines Historical Preservation Society)

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Good Paintings of Bad Bitches: A review of Patrick Smith’s “The Intimacy of Others” and “Face Off: Patrick Smith with Victor Hammer”

As you enter Institute 193, you come face to face with Kiki. The portrait depicts a voluptuous woman lounging in a plane of matte black nothing; her long brown hair accented by caramel strands. She is nude, careful attention paid to the way light and shadow travel across the flesh of her thighs, pubic area, stomach, breasts, chin, and face. The most striking parts of this image are her red-lipped smirk, as if she is caught in mid-laughter, and her cat-eye sunglasses. Her shades and makeup serve as the only clues to the viewer of who she might be. She is laid bare yet still withholds information from the viewer. Because we cannot clearly see her eyes, her gaze belongs to her. Why is she smiling? Could she be playing a joke on the viewer? This small painting serves as an introduction to Patrick Smith’s 2020 show “The Intimacy of Others”. The show is comprised of a series of portraits that span Smith’s career and are exemplary of his contemporary academic realism. However, to try and label Smith is to try and name the ineffable. Smith’s set-up delivers a different punchline, often one you weren’t expecting. 

Patrick Smith, “Kiki”, 2019, acrylic on Arches paper, 15.25 x 19 inches

As Institute 193 director Elizabeth Glass writes in the press release for Smith’s show, “Patrick Smith’s paintings appear to capture glimpses of personal, private moments meant to be seen by a single person, or no one at all.” 

Smith’s portraits challenge the viewer to see his subjects in another way. They are his friends, people who (if you’re a Lexingtonian) you have probably passed on the street, seen at their jobs, or followed on Instagram. I first became familiar with Smith’s work when he painted a portrait of my friend Armani. Armani, a 2018 painting, depicts the titular subject nude save for a pink-puce shroud draped around their head and shoulders. The draping invokes something virginal about Armani, implying a certain Madonna-esque status. Like many of Smith’s paintings he relies on accessories and decoration to give clues to the viewer about who they are. Armani’s eyeliner serves as a hint about who they may be beyond the frame of the painting. Unlike Kiki, Armani gazes directly into the eyes of the viewer. Their face held in a soft expression that is at once seductive and oppositional, Armani dares the viewer to look, and they look back.

In bell hooks’ 1992 collection of essays “Black Looks: Race and Representation” she coins the term “Oppositional gaze”.

“Looking at films with an oppositional gaze, Black women were able to critically assess the cinema’s construction of white womanhood as objects of phallocentric gaze and choose not to identify with either the victim or the perpetrator.” (hooks, 1992, 122) 

In Smith’s portraits his subjects confront the viewer, they are seductive, vulnerable – and by exuding these qualities, powerful. 

Patrick Smith, “Armani”, 2018, acrylic on Arches paper, 18 x 15.75 inches

Two of the most compelling images in the show are Armani II and Alyssa II. Like Kiki, these images depict a playfulness. So rarely do we see images, or hear stories of, Black leisure, pleasure, and joy. In Alyssa II the subject has her hands above her head, her hair in twists cascading down her back, barely visible to the viewer. Her eyes are closed, and she smiles. The light caresses her face and side. Although she is positioned in a color field of magenta, the viewer could easily imagine her resting on a bed, a sofa, or lying in the grass on a warm summer day. Her guard is down, she is not threatened, she is safe.

Following the 2020 murder of Breonna Taylor by Louisville Metro Police Department officers Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison, and Myles Cosgrove, global outcry about the systemic mistreatment and killing of Black women made headlines and ignited engagement in Black Lives Matter and the defunding of police. In Alyssa II we see something so rarely depicted in the media, a Black woman at peace. 

Patrick Smith, “Alyssa II”, 2019, acrylic on Arches paper, 19 x 17.25 inches

In Armani II, we are treated to some of the playfulness present with Smith’s work. Gone is the virginal Madonna from the previous picture of Armani, now in a sea of royal blue we see Armani up close and personal. Their tongue is stuck out as if to tease us, or express disgust. The focal point of the image is the small surgical steel bead shining from the center of Armani’s tongue. While many of Smith’s subjects bear tattoos and piercings, I find the single visible tongue piercing in Armani II to be one of the most striking aspects of the image, and the show. This single piercing positions them as rebellious, alternative, unique; however, if they close their mouth this insight to their character is lost. Armani II dares us to look and see what’s hidden. 

Patrick Smith, “Armani II”, 2018, acrylic on Arches paper, 15 x 12.75 inches

Showing concurrently with “The Intimacy of Others” is “Face Off: Patrick Smith with Victor Hammer” at the University of Kentucky Art Museum. The exhibition is comprised of Smith’s paintings and prints by Austrian artist Victor Hammer (1882-1967). Like Smith, Hammer’s images are of his friends. However, Hammer’s subjects (affluent individuals and diplomats, living in the complex and dangerous context of 1930s Europe) serve as a stark contrast to the subjects of Smith’s paintings: the working class, people of all genders, and people of all races. 

A moment in “Face Off” features Smith’s 2018 Self Portrait in Fur next to Hammer’s 1926 Portrait of Albrecht Graf von Bernstorff. This moment showcases some of the cheekiness of UK Art Museum director Stuart Horodner and curator Janie Welker. The facial similarities between Smith and the subject of Hammer’s painting, Albrecht, are uncanny. This pairing of the two images is evocative of the feeling of time travel. And, in a way, so is Smith’s work. His attention to detail, color, light, and composition are reminiscent of the masters. The portraits are timeless; without the nods to contemporary life (the tattoos, piercings, and styling of his subjects) his work could very easily exist in another century. 

Left: Patrick Smith, “Self Portrait in Fur”, 2018, acrylic on paper.  Right: Victor Hammer, “Portrait of Albrecht Graf von Bernstorff”, 1926, mezzotint on paper. Gift of Mrs. Carolyn Reading Hammer.

The timelessness and the timeliness of Smith’s work are their strongest qualities. Smith’s paintings utilize the tools of the masters to question the very hierarchies that created mastery. His subjects exhibit agency, a self-directedness. They dare the viewer to not only look, but to see them as the fierce bitches they are. Most importantly they challenge subjectivity. Whose image should be painted? As Smith’s figures take on poses from classical paintings, they insert themselves into history – often in places where they would not be allowed.

References

  • hooks, bell. 1992. Black looks: race and representation. Boston, MA: South End Press.
  • Title Art: Patrick Smith, Christina, 2020, acrylic on Arches paper, 18.5 x 22.5 inches.
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A Persistent Body: The Work of Yvonne Petkus

“All I ever really want to know is how other people are making it through life – where do they put their body, hour by hour, and how do they cope inside of it.”
—Miranda July

“Where does the pain live in your body? Your disappointments? The things you’re too ashamed to name? And your joys, hopes and longings – where do they live?”
—The Rev. Adam Bucko

I.

It startles me how much the painting recalls the dream I had last night, the one where I am being pursued and trying to run, only I can’t get my legs to move, can’t will any kind of forward motion. And the woman on the canvas, naked and warm and fleshy in apricot and ochre, stretches her arms out alongside her, pulling back with a mighty effort as she moves through this dense fog of a landscape, this otherworldly vista. Like me in my dream, her legs seem to be constrained below her knees, engulfed by strokes of midnight blues and blacks that feel weighted and heavy despite the large swaths of white, icy teal and robin’s egg blue that color the canvas. Small marks of red-orange paint sear through the turbulence that surrounds her and mark her skin as she stares out at a distance far beyond us, an unknowable place.

Yvonne Petkus, “Tensile/Release”, oil on canvas, 42″ x 42″ x 2″, 2020

The piece, ​Tensile/Release, i​s a 2020 painting by Yvonne Petkus that typifies much of the artist’s work over the past decade. They are variations on a theme in which a figure, often alone, often unclothed, moves through an ethereal expanse of brushstrokes in a palette that recalls the writhing greys and blues of the sea in its darker and more mysterious manifestations. Most often working in oil on canvas or board, Yvonne tends to favor square ratios for her pieces, which creates a subtly voyeuristic effect: in paintings that are so dominated by the physical landscape, her square frame focuses the attention on the figure, on the intense psychological landscape that lies within.

Detail, “Tensile/Release”, oil on canvas, 42″ x 42″ x 2″, 2020

“My work has always been about what we carry in our bodies, the residues of trauma and abuse that we carry,” she says. “Not the hit or the blow or the psychological abuse in the moment, but how it feels ten years later, 15 years later, 30 years later. And the way I paint is about finding that – finding what emerges in each scenario from that sense of what we carry.”

Yvonne describes herself as a process painter and an incremental painter, drawing from many different inputs and experiences and working on multiple pieces at a time, working and reworking canvases with each one informing the others. She often takes months to complete a work; she sometimes alters a piece once it comes back from a gallery. Each begins as an underpainting that responds dynamically to the surface and allows her to find the initial gestures and movements that are influenced by her other works. These will naturally evolve as she adds layers of paint; visual references and cues in the underpainting may become entirely obscured or hidden by the time the work is finished (if such a thing is ever really possible).

What follows is a process of adding and subtracting layers and images, working something in, taking something out, adding a figure, subtracting an element. Painting, for Yvonne, is “a medium of thought and invention.” And if an image comes too easily or is too recognizable, she says, she has to break it and find the question about it: “It’s very much about this intense questioning, this directed struggle across the surface, and working it back and forth until it congeals and finds its presence or looks back at me and is itself.” Much like the figures and the landscapes she paints, Yvonne’s work has the sense that it’s always becoming, a restlessness that resists any final state.

“Her paintings are intense, which is exactly like her. Intense, layered, but there’s also a warmth to them, and a desire for connection and conversation,” a colleague tells me. Kristina Arnold heads the Department of Art at Western Kentucky University (WKU) in Bowling Green where Yvonne has taught for two decades, and has worked with her as a teacher and an artist since 2005. Kristina reconsiders her comment. “Warmth may be too light of a word. It’s intense and it’s searching, in that very human way that we all do. It’s a serious and intentional quest to connect with the other.”

II.

Yvonne and I connect over email and Zoom. It is late autumn 2020 and the pandemic threat has drawn everyone back inside, heightened precautions and anxieties. Yvonne has been teaching at the university in-person and virtually, ten hours on Mondays and Wednesdays, less on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Evenings are reserved for her personal practice. A nocturnal animal, she works deep into the night, when the clamoring of the day’s emails and deadlines and committee meetings fall quiet and time seems to stand still for her. It is a time, she says, when she can breathe and be present.

Yvonne Petkus, “Holding Pattern”, oil on board, 12″ x 16″ x 2″, 2020

In the window of my laptop’s video conferencing app, all I can glimpse of this world is a small frame in which there is a figure – the artist – amid a swirling mass of oil on canvas. Yvonne is affable and open; she tells me about her formative childhood years frequenting the museums in New York, standing in awe in front of Anselm Kiefer works at MOMA and being drawn again and again to Rembrandt’s self-portrait at The Frick. She talks about her parents, both teachers, and her close but complicated relationship with her father, the son of Polish and Lithuanian immigrants, a strong, self-made man who served as Dean of Education at a college in New Jersey, where she was raised. He was a huge presence in her life, she says, and his death this past year was a tremendous loss.

Yvonne is engaging and enthusiastic, especially when she talks about her students and teaching, a practice that invigorates her personal work. Her methodologies are largely influenced by her time at Camberwell College of Arts in London, where she studied for a year as an undergraduate. At the time, she says, the British system of art education was focused on mentorship and self-motivation, and encouraged students to seek out