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)
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.
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.
“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.”
“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
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, is 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.”
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 feedback and instruction on their own.
Yvonne Petkus, “Processing the Scape: Resistance”, oil and acrylic on Mylar, 25″ x 40″, 2016
In much the same way, Yvonne wants her students to be self-directed. “The way I teach isn’t just showing someone how to do something, but also how to think, how to process, how to look for possibilities over outcomes. And for me that way of helping others find their expressive means and a sustainable practice is extremely energizing. I feel so connected to my students. There’s a lot of time involved, but it’s also very energizing for my work.” Yvonne was too self-effacing to mention it, but I later learned she had recently been recognized as a University Distinguished Professor at WKU, the highest honor bestowed by the institution.
I thank her for her time, and we agree to meet at her studio the weekend before Thanksgiving. Later, she emails me and apologizes but asks if we could reschedule for the following week – after realizing she would have an entire week free from her teaching obligations, she wanted to spend the time hunkered down in her studio. Already, I recognize this intensity of focus that was evident even in our first conversation, a relentless searching through her work, combined with a tendency to seek out the most extreme conditions in order to discover something about herself, and about us as human beings, about how we relate to each other and how we understand our place in the world.
“One of the things that’s most impressive about her body of work is how persistent it is,” Kristina later told me. “And how persistent she is. Some of that is through her prolificness. But there is also a persistence of discovery.”
The island country of Iceland is the most sparsely populated in Europe; it is dominated by a vast and wild terrain of mountains and glaciers, rivers, volcanoes and lava fields. The weather can alternate between raging hailstorms and blinding sunshine many times during the course of a single day and roads often close abruptly (there are, indeed, multiple apps for that). Its capital, Reykjavík, is characterized by extreme lengths of day and night, and its coastal location makes it prone to gale-force winds. About 75 miles to the north, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula is even more remote, providing the setting for 13th century Icelandic sagas as well as Jules Verne’s science-fiction novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. This is where Yvonne wanted to spend her 2016 sabbatical.
The artist installing work for the SÍM International Artist Residency Program in Reykjavík, Iceland, 2016 (Photo: Sarah Yasdani)
This alone, some might find formidable. But Yvonne deliberately chose to go to Iceland in February and March, when the seasons shift from one extreme to another, from near-total darkness into almost ceaseless light. And then to use that time not just to paint, but to train for a marathon. And not just any marathon, but the Boston Marathon, one of the hardest to qualify for and also the most prestigious. And to do it barefoot. (Yielding slightly to the island’s dangerous terrain and weather, Yvonne did wear a minimalist sole while adhering to the principles of barefoot running. But still.)
“I think that as an artist and a person, I make things as hard as possible on myself,” she tells me, in case this fact had been lost on her interviewer. And yet beneath the dogged rigorousness of her pursuits, there exists an abiding beauty and heartfelt intention, an aching desire to discover what it means to be human and to be vulnerable, to feel what it means to be at the mercy of forces greater than yourself.
“Going to Iceland and training for a marathon in those conditions, it was intense,” she concedes. “But I intentionally did that because it affected how I relate to nature. I got to feel and experience struggle within a landscape. To be running through the national park and have people tell me that someone died there a year ago because of the winds. You were constantly aware of your own mortality and your vulnerability, but also your strength.”
The dramatic landscapes fed her work in other ways as well, the water and mountains and fog familiar to her earlier work now appearing in different forms and tones. Her palette expanded to include more brilliant whites and lighter teals and sky blues, her brushstrokes became broader and her figures smaller, sometimes to the point of nearly disappearing into the landscape altogether. And her canvases opened up, not only revealing more white space but also allowing her to break from the confines of the square and sprawl out in extravagant horizontal expanses.
In preparation for her trip, Yvonne had begun painting on plastic, knowing she couldn’t ship her canvases across the Atlantic and back again. The plastic enabled her to work larger and lighter (both in the sense that it weighed less and that it allowed more light to come through the images), empowering her to capture a land she describes as “extreme and subtle at the same time.” The work conveys a sense of terror and ecstasy in equal measure, that realization of one’s smallness and insignificance within the vast landscape of time and nature.
Installation shot of the artist’s solo show, “Arctic Residues – Sightings,” at the Downing Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky, 2017
On the island, Yvonne sat each day and watched the fishing boats as they sailed back and forth across the horizon, feeling an unspoken kinship with these workers as they went about their daily routines. When she exhibited her work in a solo show at the end of her residency, she was delighted to discover that some of the visitors were those very same people who had been aboard the boats. “We see our Iceland but in a way we’ve never seen it before,” they told her. They recognized and understood, she says.
“I don’t think she intentionally makes work thinking about the viewer in the back of her brain,” Kristina tells me. “She goes into her place and makes work. But at some level she’s very conscious of making that connection with an audience, even if that’s just one person to pull out and have a conversation with through her work.”
When she returned from Iceland, Yvonne had the opportunity to apply for a fellowship in Bosnia, an experience she had been seeking in order to understand more fully the struggle her father’s mother had endured as a young girl living in Poland during the early part of the last century – running from enemy forces, hiding in the woods, escaping an abusive first husband.
Yvonne Petkus, “Holding”, oil on plexiglass, 36” x 48” x 1/2”, 2019
In 2017, Yvonne became one of eight WKU faculty members selected to participate in the Zuheir Sofia Endowed International Faculty Seminar (ZSEIFS) in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the six months leading up to their travel, Yvonne and her fellows engaged on an intensive study of the country, sharing learnings across the various disciplines they represented. Yvonne’s expertise in visual art was augmented with briefings by professors in history, law, journalism, folk studies, and social work, giving her a rich and multi-faceted understanding of the region before she even arrived.
Paints, sketches and works in progress. Yvonne works on multiple pieces at a time, using each to inform the others.
Once there, the group met with everyone from representatives from the Dayton Accords and the Missing Persons Commission to concentration camp survivors and people working within the schools to foster resolution. All the while, Yvonne was also doing her own research, visiting museums and meeting with artists and curators. She saw her grandmother everywhere, she says: in the cheekbones of the Bosnians she spoke with, in the photographs in museums, in the bones and the skin of the people she sketched.
Notes and sketches. Although Yvonne does not paint from photographs, she often sketches them to use as inputs for new works.
“In Bosnia, it became about this other type of awareness of the body. You could feel that idea of what we carry in our bodies,” she says. “People were so generous and immediate with you in terms of sharing experiences, sharing coffee, sharing everything. It was so much about human-to-human interaction – about sharing and understanding and empathy.”
Other figures began to appear in her paintings – clothed forms locked in struggle, ominous shadows, disembodied faces. Canvases resumed their tighter ratios as if closing in on the figures; the return to a darker palette took on the weightier burden of the subject matter. Faces now appeared in close-up, startling and disarming as they filled the frame, displaying an abjectness at the same time they almost dared the viewer to ignore them, ignore their suffering. And the naked woman’s gestures took on a new futility, her attempt to run becoming a seemingly impossible maneuver through the swirling mass of dark brushstrokes that now swallowed her above her knees, above her hips, above her chest.
“Everywhere I went, I sketched,” Yvonne says. “As a runner, I felt like I understood the gesture of a run and I’ve used it in my paintings for many years. But then when I saw these photographs of people dashing across the street, knowing that there were snipers that could kill them – and just did kill that person lying there in the street – there became this existential weight to the gesture of the run that I’ve been working with ever since, to try to understand.”
Back at home, Yvonne’s own work and her curatorial work (an exhibition of 12 artists of Bosnian and Balkan origin) was shown as part of WKU’s International Year Of… program, of which the 2017 focus was Bosnia. Bowling Green is home to nearly 5,000 Bosnians, many of them refugees from the war. One of them, a woman, approached Yvonne at the show, crying and telling her, “My neighbors knew where I was from, but this is the first time they understand.”
“She felt seen for the first time,” Yvonne says. “That’s as meaningful to me as getting into any Biennale.”
Yvonne Petkus, “Endurance (Nocturne)”, oil on board, 18” x 24” x 2”, 2018
One cold but bright Saturday in early December, a curator friend and I meet Yvonne at her home and climb the steep wooden steps to her attic studio, a comfortably claustrophobic space where shades are drawn to the outside world. Walls are covered with canvases, boards, sketches and photocopies. Tables are littered with paints and brushes and books, large envelopes of photos and clippings, black Moleskine sketchbooks with neatly printed labels that identify the contents as “BOSNIA 2019 (KUMA INTL & SARAJEVO)” or “AIDA SEHOVIC – wkshp.” And nestled amidst it all is one small, smooth, dark rock given to her by a fisherman in Iceland.
Yvonne is generous with her time, speaks passionately not only about her work, but also about her students, the nurturing artistic community in Bowling Green, and a book she has been reading called The University of Disaster. Published in conjunction with the Bosnia and Herzegovina pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale, the essays in the book center on the concept of a larger human project, an idea that Yvonne says gives her a sense of relief:
“Every time I paint I have this intense, almost overwhelming, desire to do it all, to say it all. One writer talks specifically about artwork as sketches of your partial extent of the larger measure. That I can offer a partial extent to this larger measure not only feels like, okay, I can handle that, but it also feels like I’m connected. I’m not just in here doing my own thing, I’m connecting to this larger project. And through the Bosnian work and people and connections and dialogs I’ve been able to have since 2017, I feel like it’s true.”
My friend and I had packed sandwiches for lunch, knowing restaurants would be closed due to COVID restrictions, and Yvonne graciously offers us the table on her front porch and brings us mugs of hot coffee. The three of us sit distanced and chat casually about museums and shows, holiday plans – and, of course, the pandemic, this collective psychological trauma that we were all experiencing to some degree, that will leave its residue long after a new normal has evolved. An orange tabby cat wanders over and jumps on my lap, sniffing the smoked salmon on my sandwich. Her tiny, sharp teeth nip at my hand, leaving little marks on my skin that I will carry with me back to Louisville, the faint physical residue of this sunny afternoon.
One corner of Yvonne’s studio. A self-described process painter, Yvonne uses inputs such as sketches, readings and other works (both hers and others’) to build her paintings.
In the underpainting for “Tensile/Release”, Yvonne incorporated the images of two cats and a bird as a tribute to her late father.
The next day I awaken to an email from Yvonne, who has realized I haven’t seen any of her work in the underpainting stage. She attaches a photo, a painting she had started just after her father had passed away; in this first layer she deliberately included two cats and a bird, as a memory of him and as a way of working through the loss. They were visual cues of happier days, a reference to her ink rendition of Goya’s Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuniga that her father had kept on his wall for years. Many layers and months later, the work became Tensile/Release, and in its final stage, the animals are visible in only the most abstract way, in the way that only we know our own residues of trauma and loss, these secret joys and longings we carry with us.
Yvonne’s research was supported through the SÍM Artist Residency Program in Reykjavík and by the Hvítahús Artist Residency on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, as well as through grants and awards from the WKU Office of International Programs, Potter College of Arts and Letters, and a 2019 Great Meadows Foundation Artist Professional Development Grant.
“This is America*” at the University of Kentucky Art Museum makes its first and best move right at the start. As you walk into the gallery from the ticket counter, the first thing you see is a pairing of two artworks whose explosive juxtaposition becomes more and more highly charged as you look at it. On the left is Gilbert Stuart’s iconic portrait of George Washington (c. 1795), so central to the concept of American identity that you probably have a miniature copy of it – on a dollar bill – in your wallet right now. On the right is “George Floyd (Blackout Tuesday),” Michael Wong’s time-release recording of his iPad drawing of the black man killed on video by Minneapolis police this year, setting off social justice protests around the world.
This is America*, wall grouping. L to R, Gilbert Stuart, 1795 (after), ‘Portrait of George Washington (Atheneum Type C)’, oil on panel; and, Michael Wong, 2020, ‘George Floyd (Blackout Tuesday)’, iPad drawing time-lapse recording. Photo credit: Kevin Nance.
It’s impossible not to draw an invisible line between these two Georges. It’s a timeline of sorts, jagged like an EKG, on which we see both how far we’ve come as a nation – which is to say, not very far at all in key respects – and how much farther we have to go. For all its high-flown rhetoric, the American experiment was riddled with contradictions from its inception. The Father of Our Country, so benevolent and wise in Stuart’s portrait, enslaved other humans for over half a century, calling for the abolition of slavery in his later years but never in his lifetime practicing what he preached. (Unlike most of the other founders, he did make arrangements for the emancipation of some of his slaves after his death.) And can anyone doubt that the legacy of slavery includes, on that jagged timeline, what happened to Floyd? As his face – currently rivaling Washington’s in familiarity and symbolic potency – slowly coalesces over and over in Wong’s drawing, we see in it the nation itself stuck in a loop, still engaged in the Sisyphean act of realizing the Pledge of Allegiance’s vision of “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
These are the sort of thoughts you have while viewing “This is America*” (yes, the asterisk is intentional). Shrewdly curated by Museum Director Stuart Horodner, this exhibit packs a considerable aesthetic and political punch, with a mutually illuminating mix of works by nationally known and local artists. According to Horodner’s unsigned wall text, the exhibit was initially envisioned to coincide with the 2020 presidential election but took on additional layers of meaning in light of the protests that erupted worldwide in the wake of the Floyd killing. Dedicated to U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights leader who died in July, the show is a rare opportunity for a museum to respond to events in something like real time, using politically conscious artwork of the recent past to reflect the present and recontextualize the iconographies of earlier American art. This up-to-the-minute aspect of the show, by the way, is reflected in a gesture – the gallery walls have been roughly painted in a way that evokes urban streetscapes, painted-over graffiti and protest art – that may strike some viewers as too clever (or perhaps too half-hearted) for its own good. It’s subtle enough not to do any real harm, however, and effective enough to connect us, however subliminally, to the jarring events still unfolding just outside the pristine white walls of every museum and gallery in America.
Appropriately, much of the art – not all of it, more on that later – focuses on race, racism and the struggle for social justice. Just to the right of the Stuart/Wong pairing is Mike Howard’s massive acrylic painting, “Charlottesville A Crime Scene” (2017), a vivid depiction, almost in the style of graphic novels, of a white supremacist plowing his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of peaceful protesters. (This event, you’ll recall, was made doubly infamous by President Trump’s insistence on there being “very fine people on both sides” of an attempted, partly successful, massacre.) It hardly needs saying how relevant this event continues to be in this country, how long a shadow it still casts. Yes, this is America. Making your way along the gallery to the right, you find yourself confronting a magnificent trio of iconic pieces: Gordon Parks’ photograph “Invisible Man, Harlem, New York” (1952), Frank Weathers Long’s woodcut “John Henry” (1941), and David Alfaro Siqueiros’s lithograph “Dama negra” (“Black Woman,” 1935), all of which capture aspects, concrete and ineffable, of the black experience. These too are America, this and this and this.
This is America*, gallery wall view. Mike Howard, 2017, ‘Charlottesville A Crime Scene’, acrylic on canvas. Photo credit: Kevin Nance.
Across the gallery on the facing wall is another striking lineup of works that Horodner has placed together, like the host of a formal dinner with assigned seats at the table, in lively, fruitful, perhaps heated dialogue. To consider John Wesley’s eerily vacant “Portrait of Daniel Boone” (1962) in the same field of vision with Andy Warhol’s “Cowboys and Indians (Sitting Bull)” (1986) is to traverse an art-historical Trail of Tears, the myth of American exceptionalism colliding with the reality (to borrow another Trump phrase, uttered in a different context) of American carnage. Two smaller works that separate Boone from Sitting Bull – “Flag” (2003), Bulgarian-American artist Daniel Bozhkov’s video of an immigrant answering citizenship questions, and “I Pose Problems” (2010) by the writer-turned-painter Wayne Koestenbaum, known for his literary explorations of LGBTQ identity – reinforce the show’s overall conception of a national chorus of multiple voices crying out, meekly or angrily or stoically, to be heard.
This is America*, wall grouping. L to R, John Wesley, ‘Portrait of Daniel Boone’, oil on canvas; and, Daniel Bozhkov, 2003, ‘Flag’, single channel video; and, Wayne Koestenbaum, 2010, ‘I Pose Problems’, acrylic on canvas; and, Andy Warhol, 1986, ‘Cowboys and Indians (Sitting Bull)’, screenprint on Lenox Musuem Board. Photo Credit: Kevin Nance.
“This is America*,” like the country it seeks to define, is far from perfect, demographically speaking. Women’s voices are egregiously underrepresented in this chorus. Most galling is the fact that two of the best pieces in the show by artists of either gender – Barbara Kruger’s prophetic “We Will No Longer Be Seen And Not Heard” portfolio (1985) and Carolyn Young Hisel’s electrifying deathbed scene “Passage” (1987) – hang not in the main gallery but in an outer hallway next to the elevator. They deserved better. Then there’s the matter of the physical and thematic overstuffing of the show, which seems to want to include everything and the kitchen sink, too, including “Pieces of String Too Short to Save” (1998), Donald Lipski’s sledgehammer indictment of American wastefulness, and Joseph Peragine’s “Hand” (2010), a series of four oil paintings depicting hand-washing. The Peragine paintings now seem prescient in light of the coronavirus pandemic, among other things, but their cumulative effect is diluted by the puzzling decision to break them into two pairs hung on different walls.
On balance, however, “This is America*” (which continues through February 13) is a powerful dot-connecting mechanism, showing, as the best museum exhibits do, how works of art speak not only to us but to each other, and how we can benefit from eavesdropping on those conversations. We see Sheldon Tapley’s tranquil street scene “Midwestern Alley” (1987), for example, in a new way when it’s paired with Elliott Erwitt’s photograph “Segregated Water Fountains, North Carolina” (1950). There’s much to be gained, as well, from the non-hierarchical display of works by Kentucky artists – including Tapley, Hisel, John Lackey, Louis Zoellar Bickett, Frank X Walker and others – alongside some of the biggest names in American art, past and present. If the hairs on your forearms prickle at various points along the way as mine did, it’s a sign, I think, that (a) you’re alive and (b) this is an unusually fine art show. My advice is to go and see it.
Top Image: Sheldon Tapley, 1987, Midwestern Alley, pastel on Stonehenge paper. Courtesy of UK Art Museum.
“This is America*”, curated by Stuart Horodner at the University of Kentucky Art Museum, is on exhibit through February 13, 2021. More information is at https://finearts.uky.edu/art-museum.