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Melissa Watt: Symmetry Breaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arts

Grabbing a Drink with James Lyons

I met up with artist James Lyons at Bar Ona located on Church Street in downtown Lexington for our studio visit. This was the first place I’d met James and just one of the several bars where he works. It’s a gray and rainy Sunday evening. I knock on the front door and peer through the window into the dark bar. James sees me from behind the bar and lets me in. It’s an hour before opening. James is blaring music and the bar is filled with a distinct perfume. I ask him if he’s burning incense, “It’s sage” he replies; perhaps he is trying to fend off any bad omens in anticipation of my visit. Beers lie in crates on the floor waiting to replenish the coolers beneath the bar. The bar has been recently decorated for the holiday season, Christmas lights are strung above and adorn various plants. I start with a simple “How are you?” to which James replies “Tired.”

When approaching James about a studio visit he insisted we meet at Bar Ona. “I don’t really have a studio right now,” James admitted. As a young working artist myself, I really related to this statement, and knowing James through bartending at an adjacent bar myself it felt only appropriate that we meet at Bar Ona. 

In our text exchange prior to the visit, James had confessed to me that he was very nervous. “I can be pretty quiet about my art.”

“Bring a shovel and DIG” he said. 

So, with both of us exhausted from our weekend shifts, I began digging. 

Photos from James Lyons’ studio

James is a Lexington native who hails from the Cardinal Valley neighborhood, a predominately black and Hispanic neighborhood tucked away near Red Mile. James describes himself as a “mean kid” and expressed to me struggles he had growing up with peers, the administration and most importantly his faith-based community. Growing up as a queer person of color within the Seventh-Day Adventist faith was not easy for James but would prove to be an incredibly formative experience, leading him to pursue art.

“It’s fucking crazy this bitch gets hit in the head in third grade, with a rock, she passes out…and then the next thing you know she writes 127 fucking very well written books about her visions…her real slapper was called the Great Controversy and there’s a passage that’s very, very close to September 11th.” James was referring to one of the instrumental figures in Seventh Day Adventism, Ellen G. White, whose visions inspired her writings  – still held in high regard in the church to this day.

It was James’ upbringing as a Seventh-Day Adventist that would land him at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Andrews University, the first higher-learning institution founded by Seventh-Day Adventists, would provide struggles as well as opportunities for James. “It was so frustrating, here I am trying to find myself and there are all of these new rules. I had to sign a contract that basically signed my life away, I wasn’t even allowed to smoke.” However, Andrews also provided James with an underground network of young queer men, which allowed him freedoms he had yet been able to experience; more importantly, the university provided their photo department. Although James had been pursuing photography since high school, it was his time spent and the resources provided by Andrews that allowed him to hone his craft and provided him with the environment in which to develop his practice. 

Photo from James’ ‘Bus Tub’ series

Following his graduation from Andrews University, James spent time in Chicago before returning to Lexington. Upon his return to Lexington James expressed to me both a frustration and passion. “I wanted to find the artistic community here and connect.” James began by publishing a photo portfolio, a book that was met with backlash and attempted censorship. “The company had a policy against printing nude pictures…there was this lady that worked there who was so helpful, I feel bad because she probably got fired for helping me print that book.”

Photos from James Lyons’ studio

The complexities of societal relations with the nude image are nothing new to James or his work, and in fact are central to his best known body of work Frank. Frank, a show consisting of a collection of Instax photographs of flaccid penises, debuted at Parachute Factory in 2018. The show was met with equal parts praise and disdain. James once relayed to me a story about a group of teenage boys who came in and after spending a few moments with the show loudly proclaimed with disgust “Ugh, it’s just dicks.” When I got the offer to interview and write about James, I was most excited to discuss Frank with him.

Photo from James’ ‘Frank’ series

On Frank, James had to say,

 “I started reading the Male Nude in Contemporary Photography by Melody D. Davis on the same day I got my Instax mini in the mail, so I went downstairs to a house party and started taking pictures of people’s dicks.” James said. 

Davis’ critique of the representation of the phallus in photo inspired James to produce this body of work.

“I wanted to create the antithesis of a big hard cock.”

In our current political climate and the age of #metoo, Frank asks questions about consent, anonymity and celebration versus exploitation of the body. I was curious about James’ process and how he went about approaching the subjects of his photographs. 

“I started the project as a way to learn to be a ‘good boy’ and meet new people.” James says when I asked him about his motivation for the project.

The subjects of James’ photographs came from all walks of life (bar patrons, friends, and lovers) and many were complete strangers. “It’s easy, guys are really proud of their dicks.”

Photos of local drag performers from James Lyons’ studio

James attributes a bulk of the photographs to nights spent at Crossings, a local gay dive bar. Many of the photos were taken outside of the bar and in the bar’s restrooms. “The bouncer got mad at me and tried to kick me out but once they realized we were just taking pictures and not, like, doing coke, they left us alone.”

Frank is both intimate and anonymous. The close cropped images draw the viewer in close only to provide them with very limited information about the subject beyond what lies within the 46x62mm frame. The series brings to mind Andy Warhol’s Polaroids, his glamorous subjects exposed and vulnerable, frozen for eternity within the frame and elevated to superstar status by Warhol’s hand. Lyon’s subjects are stripped of their identifying features but presented in a way which elevates them beyond just a phallus.

At this point in the interview the bar began to fill up, many passers by stopping to speak to James. James’ position as a bartender allots him a front row seat to the personal lives of so many, and through his career he has woven a web of subjects, muses, and companions who serve as constant encouragement, support and inspiration. 

We step outside to have a cigarette.

“I love that you insisted on meeting at Ona,” I tell James. 

“This IS my studio,” James replies. 

“These people have taken care of me. They took me to Spain and paid for my trip. I ate at one of the top restaurants in the world and translated for one of the top chefs in the world.”

I bring up the magic of bars, especially gay bars, to James. We discuss the openness and vulnerability that can exist within these spaces. “I always feel this presence when I am at certain gay bars, especially places like Crossings and Bar Ona that have alot of history. They feel alive or haunted in this really unique way.” I say to James.

Photo from James Lyons’ studio

James’ work provides us with a peephole into his world but more broadly the rich and varied queer culture within Lexington, Kentucky. We discuss how many young people are unaware of Lexington’s long gay past and its position as a gay mecca for the region. As we speak, artist Bob Morgan walks past; Bob dressed to the nines in his usual patterned attire stops to say hi and we talk briefly. James and I laugh about it, what are the odds of three gay artists all being in the same place at the same time in Lexington? 

James is working to continue a legacy of queer art making in Lexington. Henry Faulkner, Stephen Varble, Edward Melcarth, Mike Goodlett, Bob Morgan and Louis Zoellar Bickett (a close friend of James’) and many more are joined in their efforts by James as he creates in his own way, documenting and preserving his experiences as a queer man of color in Lexington. James is paving a way for himself and others to follow if they choose to do so.

“I can’t even tell you how nervous I’ve been about this,” James confesses to me towards the end of the interview. I assure James he’s in good hands to which he replies “Alright, then I’m getting you a beer.”

 

Arts

Intimately Legible: A Review of Amy Pleasant at Institute 193

Institute 193 is an intimate place; it is a small, one-room storefront gallery space that pulls viewers in from Lexington’s Limestone Street for a different kind of consumption than they might find in the neighboring bars, restaurants, and coffee shops. The intimacy makes this venue the perfect site to view painter Amy Pleasant’s work, now on view in the exhibition “Someone Before You.” The show is simply arranged, comprised of a handful of drawings and ceramic sculptures alongside a single painting. Yet the works allude to the highly prolific nature of Pleasant’s practice, which is further affirmed in the companion artist’s book, The Messenger’s Mouth was Heavy. The proximity to the work in both the space and in the book offer an opportunity for the viewer to deeply consider how and what each work communicates. 

Amy Pleasant’s use of minimal and reduced forms in her paintings, drawings, and sculptural works evoke questions of symbolism and legibility. The flattened and monochromatic surfaces of the forms she creates remove many of the elements necessary for signification, yet the works remain legible as bodies due to the subtlest inclusion of the curve of a neck, the curve of a knee, or the point of a nipple. At the same time, just as these tiny hints suggest a body, the incompleteness of that form – due to the absence of heads, torsos, and a variety of appendages – decouples the notion of the body from any specific individual, rendering abstract a corpus that more frequently denotes a particular identity. 

Installation view: Amy Pleasant: ‘Someone Before You’, Institute 193

The questions of legibility are clearly manifest in her drawings and paintings, four of which occupy the gallery walls in this show. Her serial Repose drawings consist of a monochromatic disembodied black torso on a faintly grey background. Yet because these forms are so heavily uniform in color and the various other bodily elements are either removed, such as the head and neck, or are completely obscured, like the hands, their reference to the human body must be inferred from the scantest of evidence. And yet, it is still remarkably clear from the way Pleasant outlines the curve of the chest, the shoulder, and the biceps, and from imperfect triangle formed by the bending of the elbow in these three works, that these are, unquestionably, bodies. 

Amy Pleasant, ‘Repose X’, 2018, ink and gouache on paper

The abstraction of these forms – specifically the absence of shading, contours, and modeling so often used to render in two dimensions the curvature of our three-dimensional figures – connects them to a broader history of abstract painting in general. Pleasant uses the allusion of the body to explore the implications of color and the painterly gesture, aligning her work with a broader corpus of abstract painters, drawing on the legacy of artists like Willem and Elaine de Kooning. At the same time, the gestures of Pleasant’s figures, particularly the reclined feminine torsos that populate so much of her work, call to mind the canonical figuration of the female nude dating back to the Renaissance. As such, her works read as a part of two distinct yet interrelated traditions in painting, but she does not engage in either of them completely, since her pieces are not complete abstractions, nor are the completed nudes. The fragmentary nature of her forms, as well as their inclusion of minimal signifiers, thus raises the question: what is the minimum of information that we need as viewers to understand a work? 

Installation view: Amy Pleasant: ‘Someone Before You’, Institute 193

This exploration of signification is also apparent in her sculptural pieces. Like her drawings and painting, these works are also comprised of monochromatic disembodied corporeal forms: torsos, necks, shoulders, and arms. And similar to her other body of work, these pieces play with both the history of figurative art as well as that of abstraction; their paired down geometry is reminiscent of the abstract sculptures of artists like Louise Nevelson, Louise Bourgeois, David Smith, and Anne Truitt, yet the allusion to the body calls to mind the longer history of sculpture from the curvature of Bernini and Michelangelo’s expressive marbles to the solidity of Greek bronzes. 

Yet the sculptural work, more so than the paintings and drawings, engages with the organic nature of these shapes due to the materiality. Sculpted from clay and resting atop custom wood plinths, these works remind us that the materiality of the human body is not so distinct from the environment around us. Moreover, the malleability of clay and its eventual coalescence into a single shape parallels the journey of the human body as it transforms over time into an eventual final body, one that will eventually return to dust. This rumination on the body is made possible because of Pleasant’s fragmentation thereof. In focusing in and abstracting specific elements of the human form, we are able to consider in greater depth what a body is and how it ultimately exists within the world. As such, these works demand the kind of intimacy that Institute 193 provides for them. Arranged in this close space, we as audience members can approach each piece and consider Pleasant’s fixation on each form. 

Installation view: Amy Pleasant: ‘Someone Before You’, Institute 193

Amy Pleasant, ‘The Messenger’s Mouth was Heavy’, 2018

An intimate engagement with Pleasant’s rumination on the body is further facilitated through the book The Messenger’s Mouth was Heavy, published by Institute 193 to accompany this show. Whereas the exhibition invites the viewer to consider the main ideas of Pleasant’s practice by closely reading a few pieces, the book provides a more intimate understanding of the prolific volume of Pleasant’s works. Page after page of this volume is littered with images of monochromatic body parts. Whereas the works in the exhibition largely focus on a single form, many of the images replicated in the book involve numerous iterations of the body on a single page, illustrating the hyper-focused nature of Pleasant’s practice, both literally and figuratively. Moreover, the medium of the book facilitates a closer reading of Pleasant’s work, as we are provided innumerable opportunities to view and return to each work, not to mention the physical proximity that books, as objects, allow in a way that painting, drawing, and sculpture do not.  

Issues of legibility are also present in the book and are made even more apparent through the translation of her figures into an actual font, used to title essays and transcribe specific quotes throughout the volume. As such, this volume demonstrates another level of Pleasant’s engagement with the question of signification; not only are her forms both abstract and bodily, they are also representational and verbal, challenging us as viewers to read them in several distinct yet interrelated ways. 

On the whole, in both the exhibition “Someone Before You” and the book, His Messenger’s Mouth was Heavy, we are provided an opportunity to ruminate on simple forms, and in so doing consider the significance and symbolism therein.  

Arts

Emily Ludwig Shaffer at Institute 193

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Arts

“Stephen Varble: An Antidote to Nature’s Ruin on this Heavenly Globe” at Institute 193

Stephen Varble is best known for his loud, disruptive, and public performances. During the 1970s and early 1980s, Varble staged several guerilla performances across New York City, all of which were notable for their garish, over-the-top displays of defiance and their provocative agitation, such as in his 1976 Chemical Bank Protest, wherein in protest of a fraudulent withdrawal from his bank account, Varble wearing “condoms filled with fake blood as breasts under a gown of fishing net adorned with sequins and fake dollar bills” handed a check for “none million dollars” to the tellers at his branch, signing the check in the fake blood that adorned his chest.

Unknown photographer, Stephen Varble during the Chemical Bank Protest, 1976. Collection of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art (Gift of Geoffrey Hendricks in memory of Stephen Varble).

This performance, like many others of Varble’s, involved garish gestures and over-the-top costuming that challenged the construction of gender, the obscuring of (queer) sexuality, and the social fear of the bodily, issues that remained central to his art practice throughout his entire short life. 

Yet while attention has been placed upon Varble’s public performances, these large scale displays were only part of his entire art practice. Now on view at Institue 193 in Lexington, the exhibition “Stephen Varble: An Antidote to Nature’s Ruin on this Heavenly Globe” — curated by David Getsy in conjunction with an exhibition at the  Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art — offers a more intimate view into Varble’s life and work. Comprised of 26 Xerox drawings, one etching, and his “epic and operatic video titled Journey to the Sun,” this exhibition offers a more static and subdued vantage into Varble’s practice, inviting the viewer to engage personally and individually in a way his performances never really could. 

Varble’s drawings explore several of the same themes as his performance works, including issues of gender, sexuality, and the body, but they do so in a softer, more personal way. Like the gender non-conforming costumes he dons in his performances, Varble’s drawings — all of which focus on individual or groups of human figures — construct ambiguously gendered figures, highlighting a possibility of alternatives to the binary construction of man and woman. Several of his figures have feminine features — like defined breasts, hips, and legs — coupled with typically masculine broad and muscular shoulders, strong jaws, and facial hair. As such, these forms are neither exactly man nor woman, and thus call attention to the limits of such categorical distinctions.

Not only does Varble explore the issues of gender in his drawings, but he also examines the limits of the body in these works. The visceral processes of a living body emerge over and over in several of the works. In one drawing, Varble presents another ambiguously gendered figure sitting on a toilet, pulling a long line of toilet paper over their head. We can see solid forms floating freely in the bowl, as if the figure is in the process of or has just completed a bowel movement, although the white, circular forms look more like eggs than feces. The inclusion of the toilet is thus a reminder of the liminal nature of human bodies; on the one hand, we often walk around feeling like solid, impermeable entities, but several times a day, we viscerally spill over our physical boundaries and produce something external to ourselves. Like his depictions of gender, Varble’s inclusion of references to the process of excretion along with other visceral processes highlights how our conception of the body is defined by arbitrary distinctions, ones that are easily and readily crossed all the time. 

Varble’s work also examines the liminal nature of the body through his portrayals of sexuality in his drawings. Several of the pieces focus on pairs or groups of lovers engaged in various states of embrace. These displays of lust and affection highlight the limits of the body, as sexual expression often involves the convergence of two bodies within liminal spaces, lips, genitals, and orifices. 

Moreover, Varble’s exploration of sexuality in these drawings is a further rumination on the relationship between gender and queer identity. For instance, in one work, Varble has constructed two simple and yet amorphous figures in profile, both with the strong jawlines and broad shoulders of men, although the ambiguities of the rest of their bodies make their gender impossible to discern. Their eyes have been replaced by the profile image of two other individuals, who gaze at each other. The two figures face each other, with their noses almost touching, lips pursed as if about to kiss. Between their mouths, Varble has made the outline of a heart and he has added a line connecting their brow ridges so that their noses form an upside down triangle, likely a reference to the Pink Triangle that was originally sewn on to the clothes of Nazi prisoners who were interned and executed for their homosexuality. Varble’s inclusion of the triangle is most likely a nod to queer liberation in his own time, since the symbol was reclaimed as a symbol of pride in the years following the Stonewall Uprising and especially in the early years of the A.I.D.S. crisis by the LGBTQIA community. 


The symbolism of the downward pointing triangle is only further underscored by the band of pink that lines the gallery walls behind each of these works, offering a solemn reminder throughout the show of Varble’s life and death as a gay man in America in the 1980s. This pink line stands out against both the white of the walls and the black and white drawings, providing both a counterbalance to the curatorial convention of the white cube while also connecting the work to the longer history of LGBTQIA arts activism. As such, this simple band ties Varble’s work to the longer history of A.I.D.S. activist groups like Gran Fury and ACT UP and serves as a reminder that Varble, like so many queer men of his generation, was senselessly lost to what has become a manageable chronic disease.  It should be noted that while medical advancements have made management of the virus possible, differential access to healthcare and resources both in the US and outside of it means that many people still live with and die from HIV and AIDS-related complications. 

The somberness that this pale pink line brings to the exhibition is echoed in the color content of Varble’s works. Each drawing is rendered solely in black and white, providing them with a sense of seriousness and solemnity. Their subdued nature then provides the viewer the opportunity to engage quietly and contemplatively, an experience directly opposed to the over the top and vibrant displays of his performance practice, facilitating a more intimate view into Varble’s life and work. 

Not only does the color palette create this intimacy, but the simplicity of their compositions makes them feel as if Varble is merely doodling these imagined images into creation, allowing a process akin to the Surrealist practice of “automatic drawing” to take over his hand. As such, these works feel personal and private, like they comprise the familiar world of Varble’s mind. 

Moreover, the fact that these drawings were reproduced through Xerox copying and freely distributed further underscores their abilities to facilitate a personal connection to the work. Instead of being singular works seen only from a distance, Varble wanted them to be widely disseminated, allowing the viewer to engage with each work in their own time and in their own space; that Varble wanted these drawings to be held and owned by individuals offers the viewer — at least originally — the opportunity to have a more intimate relationship with his art objects.  

The intimacy of these works is further underscored by the curation of the show. Arranged in a single line in the small single room gallery of Institute 193, the exhibition invites us to look closely at each individual work. There is no vantage point from which we can see the features of each work except for by slowly and meticulously walking along and beholding them one by one, requiring us, as viewers, to get “up close and personal.” 

This sense of familiarity and closeness also resonates in how the show explores elements of Varble’s own history. While Varble is best known for performance works he created in New York City, he is, at heart, a Kentucky native. Born in Owensboro, Varble studied at the University of Kentucky and was a fixture of the Lexington queer community, returning often until his untimely death in January 1984. His performance work in New York was largely influenced by his time in Kentucky, and he even included close friends and relations from the area in his operatic video Journey to the Sun, which is also featured in this exhibition. In focusing on Varble’s Kentucky connection, the exhibition makes the work feel more relatable and at home to a Lexington audience. We know the streets he once walked and the culture he is drawing upon in his work, imbuing the work with a sense of familiarity and comfort.

On the whole, “Stephen Varble: An Antidote to Nature’s Ruin on this Heavenly Globe,” facilitates a personal engagement and intimate understanding of the life and work of Stephen Varble’s short life and prolific career. Both the works and the space they are in invite the viewer to look closely and consider each piece and the messages embedded within.

Read more: “Rubbish and Dreams” in Kentucky’s Queer Archives: A conversation with David Getsy on researching Stephen Varble

Arts

New Masters Against Mastery: Melissa Carter at Institute 193

A multitude of voices resonate from the paintings in Melissa Carter’s exhibition New Masters at Institute 193. The large-scale, vibrantly colored compositions recall the works of well-known Fauvist, Abstract Expressionist, and Neo-Expressionist artists. Some are abstract, others figurative. Their painted surfaces range from think and fluid, to flat and constrained. Fleshy natural tones contrast with sharp synthetic hues, and bold geometric patterns lay adjacent to patches of ambiguous organic form. In short, Carter’s works fails to cohere. And I mean that in the best possible way. The new masters, as it were, refuse mastery.

Against a male-dominated culture that valorizes authority, autonomy, and self-assertion, Carter’s paintings stress the value of incongruity, relationality, and lack of control. This feminist stance is reinforced by the artist’s decision to directly tackle the sexist and misogynistic terms that structure the art historical canon. Appropriating the objectified female bodies and exoticized spaces that characterize much modern figurative painting from Henri Matisse to David Salle, Carter transforms them into inscrutable figures set in dreamlike-spaces of their own making. Trans and gender non-conforming figures like the ones found in Chess Master with Blue Gown (2018) and The Snake Charmer (2018) resist the stabilization and consolidation of gender and sexuality into hierarchical normative categories. Gazing out confidently at the viewer (often from behind sun glasses), Carter’s figures compel us to look at them, but also refuse full disclosure. As the curator Emma Friedman-Buchanan perceptively states in the text that accompanies the exhibition: “In Carter’s representations, the one-sided power dynamic between artist and model dissolves through her literal repositioning of women in art.”

In her abstract compositions, Carter challenges the masculinist terms of sovereignty, virility, and force that have characterized much modern painting, particularly abstract expressionism. In her work I’m an Oil Man (2017), for example, the amorphous sea-green subject at the center is bound with stark bands of red and black paint at the top and bottom edges. Unlike paintings by Jackson Pollock or Willem De Kooning the gestural marks do not appear as free and authentic expressions of the self, but instead as polyvocal and ambivalent responses to the constraints of the frame. Spoken from the non-dominant position of the female artist, Carter debunks the myth of unfettered self-expression. As the title suggests, patronage from captains of industry (such as wealthy oil men) has historically tethered itself to notions of artistic genius that tout the virtues of independence, self-reliance, and self-aggrandizement, thus marginalizing artists whose experience does not align with their world view.

In an art world in which women still do not receive equal compensation, professional recognition, critical acclaim, or gallery and museum representation (with work by women artists making up only 3-5% of permanent collections in the US and Europe), exhibitions of work by feminist artist like Melissa Carter are desperately needed. They not only combat aesthetic biases and discriminatory canons, but they also point a way forward to new approaches to the artistic process.

New Masters will be on view at Institute 193 until October 13th. For more information about the show, as well as gallery hours and location, go to the Institute 193 website.

Installation photograph of Melissa Carter: New Masters at Institute 193 with The Snake Charmer (2018) to the left and I’m an Oil Man (2017) straight ahead.

Melissa Carter, Chess Master with Blue Gown (2018), Oil on Canvas, 72 x 48 inches.

Melissa Carter, I’m an Oil Man (2017), Oil on Canvas, 60 x 48 inches.

Miriam Kienle is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Kentucky.

Arts

Fragment of Another World: Eddie Owens Martin and Pasaquan at Institute 193

About two hours south of Atlanta in Buena Vista, one of America’s prominent folk art destinations and environments showcases brightly painted buildings, walls, and other structures, decorated with iconography borrowed from religions and spiritualties of all kinds. It is called Pasaquan and was created by artist Eddie Owens Martin (1908-1986), also known as St. EOM (pronounced like the Hindu “Om”).

“St. EOM: Pasaquoyianism,” installation view, May 4 – June 22, 2018, Institute 193, Lexington Kentucky. Courtesy Institute 193.

At Institute 193, Pasaquan is enshrined and sampled in an exhibition called “St. EOM: Pasaquoyanism.” The organization has transformed its gallery space to offer a taste of Martin’s compound, most vividly by painting the longest gallery wall sky blue, radiating to passersby on Lexington’s North Limestone street where 193 rests. The gallery is adorned with paintings, drawings, and other objects that, in tandem, emanate the kind of images, craftsmanship, and experience visitors to Pasaquan may encounter. As a system, the artworks in “St. EOM” function less as a presentation of select examples of an artist’s output and more as an archive or record of their creative trajectory.  

“St. EOM: Pasaquoyianism,” installation view, May 4 – June 22, 2018, Institute 193, Lexington Kentucky. Courtesy Institute 193.

According to the exhibition statement, Martin moved to New York at the age of 14 and spent his early adulthood working as a hustler, gambler, oracle, and drug dealer. He was sent to the Federal Narcotics Prison Hospital in Lexington in the early 1940s after it was uncovered that he ran a small gambling and drug enterprise out of his home in Harlem. Martin began painting frequently upon returning to New York in 1943, notably creating scenes of ancient cultures out of discarded woods and other materials, but also developing a traditional skillset, as illustrated by the presence of a small oil painting of a home interior.

Eddie Owens Martin, no title, no date, oil on canvas. 12” x 16”. Courtesy Institute 193.

The inspiration for his paintings derived from visions he had experienced since his twenties. In them, Martin claimed to speak with spirits who took the form of tall, elongated, androgynous humanoids. These beings appear in many of the works at 193; they have ambiguous skin tones and hair colors, are depicted in groups, and, in some form or other, are surrounded by geometric patterns.  These figures instructed Martin to return to his native home of Georgia in 1957 to build Pasaquan, which still functions today and is scattered with shrines, pagodas, temples, and other structures.

The culmination of Martin’s visions, his life experiences, and the construction of Pasaquan led to the formation of Pasaquoyanism, a religious doctrine that combines elements of Eastern and Western faiths and spiritualties from multiple centuries. Perhaps more of a lifestyle than anything, Pasaquoyanism—the exhibition’s namesake—is succinctly documented in “St. EOM.”

“St. EOM: Pasaquoyianism,” installation view, May 4 – June 22, 2018, Institute 193, Lexington Kentucky.

The notion of the archive is bolstered by the unifying power of the blue wall. Two pedestals are placed against it are also painted blue, practically going unnoticed if not for the single objects that sit atop each: a beaded necklace with alternating wooden cylinders and spheres, and a gourd whose bulging and elongated shape could easily spur a critical reading with sexual implications. Both objects are presented as if they were votive. In concert, they, as well as the nearby paintings and the bright wall, embody the kind of symbolism and participatory elements of Pasaquoyanism.

“St. EOM: Pasaquoyianism,” installation view, May 4 – June 22, 2018, Institute 193, Lexington Kentucky

The centerpiece of the exhibition is a mesmerizing, brilliant constellation of dots, diamonds, triangles, and rings orbiting around a single vermillion circle, the full diameter of the work as tall as the blue wall on which it is painted. It is a beacon for visitors, indicating the arrival to the sacred land. The pattern is reminiscent of Mesoamerican calendars, marking the passage of time cyclically and precisely. Despite most works in the exhibition lacking dates and titles, the mural is the conjoining factor in “St. EOM,” connecting all themes, palettes, and subjects. The mural amplifies the spirit—indeed, Martin’s spirit—that runs through every object on display.

The mural is a duplicate of another located at the Pasaquan compound. These kinds of images are rampant there, populating the interiors and exteriors of buildings, concrete fences, totems, and a vast array of other surfaces. The design at 193 may be unique, but it is far from the only mandala-like shape Martin painted. Yet its singular nature in the gallery may prompt a moment of pause for viewers, not only due to its size and striking color. With three paintings and a pedestal to either side, the mural is the moment of balance within the exhibition. It is the equalizer. Without it, the works included in “St. EOM” would seemingly lose their grounding as interconnected revelations.

Eddie Owens Martin, no title, no date, oil on plywood, 22” x 39”. Courtesy Institute 193.

The figures that visited Martin in his visions are described in many paintings in “St. EOM,” including in a red and violet dreamscape containing six incomplete faces, four snakes, four floating pairs of lips, and a penis that appears to be attached to a figure’s forehead. The work carries obvious phallic invocations. Yet the symmetry, color, repetition of the same facial features, and association with animals suggest this figure is deeply connected with the world around them—a deity, perhaps. It could be that they are someone Martin knew or dreamed up. In any case, the portrait functions as a representation of a force larger than a single human—could this be an embodiment of nature that Martin offers? If it were, the fleeting qualities of the painting, such as the isolated eyes, lips, and genitalia, likely imply that the figure is not wholly human and thus something else altogether.

Another figure is the focus of a different painting; their gender, ethnicity, and age are undetermined. The shirt they wear possesses a rigid interspersion of triangles, rectangles, and circles in bright turquoise that matches the color of the figure’s hair and pupils. They are haloed by fire-like streaks of orange and interlocking diamonds. 

Eddie Owens Martin, no title, no date, oil on canvas, 25” x 33”. Courtesy Institute 193.

Unlike the six-faced painting, this work peers at the viewer, as if it were inviting them into Pasaquoyanism, much like a separate painting of three sitting figures in a pyramid formation. Both paintings are of figures who acknowledge the viewer with their stares, ignoring the setting—whether atmospheric or scenic—in which they are placed. Visitors to Institute 193 are their main focus, and they seem intent on drawing them into their world. These paintings, like “St. EOM” itself, are a preview of what Martin’s religion looks like and how it visually behaves—as a lively, enigmatic mode of living, made manifest in the beings and landscapes Martin portrayed. 

“St. EOM: Pasaquoyianism” is on view until June 22, 2018 at Institute 193 in Lexington, Kentucky. 

 

Arts

Illuminating The Underrepresented: Presenting Edward Melcarth

Two recent exhibitions in Lexington, Kentucky operate as a collaborative undertaking that sheds light on an artist left to historical obscurity, yet one whose creative fervor and technical skill equate with his contemporaries. Edward Melcarth: Rough Trade at Institute 193 and Edward Melcarth: Points of View, on view at the University of Kentucky Art Museum through April 8, delve through the canon of American Modernism and uncover a lost gem: Edward Melcarth (1914-1973).

Melcarth left his hometown of Louisville in his youth for New York, where he would spend most of his adult life and made the majority of the paintings in the two exhibitions. And it shows—Melcarth’s canvases describe the nuanced intersections of maritime industry, physical labor, and leisure time experienced by the working class in many of America’s booming coastal hubs during the mid-1900s.

On view are an abundance of portraits and figurative scenes created during a historical moment when abstraction reigned as the premier American style. Yet a visitor who enters Institute 193 or the UK Art Museum is sure to detect traces of certain methods employed by abstract painters, especially in the expressiveness and vitality of Melcarth’s brushwork and handling of paint.

​Installation View, Edward Melcarth: Rough Trade, ​​​​​Institute 193, Lexington, KY. Courtesy Institute ​​​​​​193.

Indeed, Melcarth depicts his subjects with an apparent responsibility for the preservation of their individual identities. At Institute 193, a display of thirteen solo portraits indicates the nature and implications of Melcarth’s identity as a homosexual man living during an era when overt, often physical demonstrations of masculinity domineered nearly every social realm (recall Hans Namuth’s photographs of Jackson Pollock in his studio forcefully flinging paint onto canvas in 1950).

As for Melcarth’s paintings, rarely are the men looking directly at the viewer. In “Man Leaning on a Windowsill”, a shorthaired, shirtless man folds his arms as he diverts his stare downward out of a white frame. He is muscular and young, and Melcarth captures the light that hits his skin in a rich spectrum of warm tones. The man is literally and figuratively undressed, removed from labor and the outside world; here he is himself, and Melcarth is seemingly cognizant of the man’s identity as well as the potential for his painting to serve as reflection of the artist’s own sexuality.

Edward Melcarth, “Man Leaning on Windowsill”, oil ​​​​​on canvas, 20 x 16”.

Not all of the men featured in Rough Trade, however, are as evasive or exposed as the subject in “Man Leaning on a Windowsill”. The majority are clothed with their heads raised, and Melcarth utilizes numerous formal elements to evoke the social pressure he—and presumably the men he paints—endured to conceal their homosexuality from the public eye, not least of which is the application of stark lighting.

Light in Melcarth’s portraits frequently discloses, whereas shadows are vehicles for concealment. In addition, Melcarth at times positions the bodies of his figures away from the viewer, as if to represent the pressure he and the men he painted felt to shutter their identity from the public realm. The man in “Blond Youth with Brown Jacket” turns his head over his back towards the viewer, careful not to make eye contact. He whistles, denying conversation, and his reversed position implies his intention to move beyond the scene. Although his stature is unmoving in the painting, he signals uneasiness or perhaps surprise, seemingly taken unaware by the viewer’s presence.

Edward Melcarth: Points of View, Installation view, University of Kentucky Art Museum

Edward Melcarth: Points of View, Installation view, University of Kentucky Art Museum

At the UK Museum, themes shift from intimate portraiture to Melcarth’s life and vast capabilities as an artist. In Points of View, Melcarth’s breadth of expertise is showcased in paintings, sculptures, and drawings of still lifes, physical labor, bar scenes, and more. The array of artworks exemplify why, according to the exhibition’s statement, collectors during and after Melcarth’s life, such as Peggy Guggenheim and Steve Forbes, were drawn to his divergence from the periodic norm of abstraction. Melcarth’s ability to work in large-scale is arguably the focal point of Points of View; his monumental paintings marry classical themes and mid-twentieth century ways of life.

In “Excavation”, two men tend to a sea vessel’s floor. One man holds a large rope in his hands that is seen snaking over the boat’s edge in the background, while another man in a white sleeveless shirt rushes to his shipmate’s aid. The painting, like many other artworks in the exhibition, focuses on men engaging in a physically demanding activity, the contours and motion of their bodies exaggerated to the point of fascination. What’s more, what “Excavation” shares with it’s neighboring objects is a unique, inward looking viewing angle. Melcarth’s expert translation of this seafaring task is compelling in both its simplicity and accuracy, but “Excavation” is most intriguing as an indication of the artist’s capability to mold a remarkable composition.

Edward Melcarth, “Excavation”, oil on canvas. Collection of Timothy Forbes, New York

Melcarth pursues visceral movement as subject matter throughout Points of View, as evinced in works like “Rape of the Sabines”. The title of the painting refers to a well-known Roman myth that carries motifs of abduction and calamity; artists throughout history, including Giambologna and Picasso, have employed the myth as inspiration for their art. The iteration on view at the UK Museum, which contains figures twisted amongst themselves rendered with anatomical accuracy, is a testament to Melcarth’s dedication to precision when illustrating the human form.

Edward Melcarth, “Rape of the Sabines”, oil on canvas. Collection of Steve Forbes, New York

Where Melcarth breaks from other artists’ versions, however, is the portrayal of men—not only women—as victims of violence committed by other men. Possibly a subtle invocation of suppressed sexuality Melcarth and some of his subjects endured during their lives, “Rape of the Sabines” stands as a definitive expansion of timeless material.

​Edward Melcarth, “Last Supper”, c. 1960s, oil on ​​​​​​canvas, Collection of Steve Forbes, New York.

But it is Melcarth’s “Last Supper” that draws considerable attention in the museum. Painted on a canvas that is elongated horizontally, Melcarth’s take on Jesus’s final meal before his crucifixion allows viewers to act as witnesses to a crowded bar of young, working-class men in bustling conversation, dodging other bar patrons, and attempting to hail the bartender. The countertop is scattered with bits of food and spilled mugs, and viewers are able to peer into the shelf below the bar’s surface accessible only to servers, which contains a range of food and dishes.

Historically, many artists make clear which disciple is Judas when describing the Last Supper, usually by turning him from the viewer or filling his hand with a sack of coins. In Melcarth’s scene, the man in the yellow shirt, with his left tricep flexed toward viewers, potentially fits this mold, but his role as bartender—the one serving others—arguably positions him as Jesus.

Melcarth, here, appears to imply that good and evil function not as a binary but as a spectrum in which the difference between the two is difficult to detect. An insight to his personal experiences, perhaps: Melcarth was an outspoken communist during his life whose sexual orientation and political views combined for reason enough for the FBI to keep a close eye on his activity, as noted by the exhibition statement at Institute 193.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s interpretation of the Last Supper is possibly the one that resonates most in public consciousness. In it, Jesus is situated at the center of the table, arms spread in an upside-down “V” formation. In the far right of Melcarth’s painting, a man in a red shirt mirrors Jesus’s position. Although he overlooks the scene, rather than frontally facing the viewer as Jesus does in Da Vinci’s work, his arms descend in the same arrangement. Were this hunched man in red Jesus, Melcarth’s scene would only simulate half of Da Vinci’s composition—viewers are only able to see the left half of the famed Renaissance fresco. Under this reading, Melcarth omits a crucial section of a dominant trope. His work is, inevitably, incomplete. Totality is withheld—a recurring theme as it pertains to the representation of identity in both Melcarth exhibitions.

The statement for Points of View calls the project a “homecoming of sorts, a chance to assess and appreciate” Melcarth’s work and career. Although the forces that have omitted Melcarth from the history of art are called into question with a critical eye, exhibitions at Institute 193 and the UK Museum function most pertinently as a joint celebration that posits Melcarth as an artist deserving of substantial recognition. As Rough Trade and Points of View indicate, Melcarth necessitated a conceptual break from popular forms of mid-century artmaking. These exhibitions are departure points for exploring why Melcarth diverted from abstraction, ultimately reexamining what we know about the trajectory of art.

Edward Melcarth: Points of View runs through April 8, 2018 at the University of Kentucky Art Museum. Edward Melcarth: Rough Trade showed at Institute 193 from January 13 – February 17, 2018. Both institutions are located in Lexington, KY.

Arts

A Blueprint for What?

President Trump’s proposed Make America Great Again Budget Blueprint eliminates funding for both the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Both entities – created by the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965 – are being lumped into a category of programs ‘that just don’t work’, according to White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney.

“A lot of those programs that we target, they sound great, don’t they? They always do. They don’t work. A lot of them simply don’t work. I can’t justify them to the folks who are paying the taxes. I can’t go to the autoworker in Ohio and say ‘please give me some of your money so that I can do this program over here, someplace else, that really isn’t helping anybody.” – Mick Mulvaney.

Also included in the list of programs that ‘just don’t work’ are the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

For the moment, let’s focus on the NEA. According to Americans for the Arts, the NEA’s annual appropriation supports a $730 billion dollar arts and culture industry, 4.8 million jobs and a $26 billion trade surplus for the nation. For Kentucky, the elimination of funding for this entity would result in a cut to programs supported by the Kentucky Arts Council – which, according to Nan Plummer, President and CEO of LexArts, would mean “a dramatic overall decrease in funding for the arts in Lexington, Kentucky.”

The Kentucky Arts Council (KAC) receives state partnership funding from the NEA (the only agency that so authorized). The KAC grants a combination of state monies and these NEA funds in the form of unrestricted operating grant to support to fifteen Fayette County organizations:

  • Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning
  • Central Kentucky Youth Orchestra Society
  • Central Music Academy
  • Explorium of Lexington
  • Headley-Whitney Museum
  • Institute 193
  • Kentucky Ballet Theatre
  • LexArts
  • Lexington Art League
  • Lexington Ballet Company
  • Lexington Chamber Chorale
  • Lexington Children’s Theatre
  • Lexington Philharmonic
  • Lexington Singers
  • and the Living Arts & Science Center.

Plummer further notes that while “these are not necessarily large percentages of these organizations’ budgets, a typical KAP grant of about $20,000 represents half a salary, which may represent an entire position. No people, no programs.”

Plummer acknowledges that we have been fortunate here in Lexington to have received a number of direct grants from the NEA. “In the last few years LexArts has been the successful applicant for funding for public sculpture and creative place-making like NoLI CDC LuigART Makers Spaces.”  Other area organizations receiving NEA funds directly in recent years include Central Music Academy and Lexington Children’s Theatre.

The influence of art and the humanities is seen, heard and felt throughout the economy. An example is the Lexington marketing and branding company, Bullhorn Creative. Brad Flowers is its co-founder (along with Griffin Van Meter) and oversees day-to-day operations. He spoke with UnderMain’s Tom Martin:

Jane Chu is the 11th appointed Chair of the NEA nominated by Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate in 2014. She states, “We are disappointed because we see our funding actively makes a difference with individuals of all ages in thousands of communities, large, small, urban and rural, and in every Congressional District in the nation.”

Apparently, a number in Congress feel the same. As noted in ArtForum, a bipartisan group of 24 Senators submitted a letter to the President calling for continued support of both the NEA and the NEH.

“Access to the arts for all Americans is a core principle of the Endowment. The majority of NEA grants go to small and medium-sized organizations, and a significant percentage of grants fund programs in high-poverty communities. Furthermore, both agencies extend their influence through states’ arts agencies and humanities councils, ensuring that programs reach even the smallest communities in remote rural areas.” -from the letter written by twenty-four bipartisan United States senators

The NEA and NEH cannot advocate for themselves as independent agencies of the federal government. We must do it for them. Arts professionals around the world are uniting in protest to Trump’s Make America Great Again Budget Blueprint. Americans for the Arts has issued a ‘Save the NEA’ Action Alert, encouraging each of us to contact members of Congress and reminds us that it takes only a few minutes of our time to do so.

President and CEO Robert L. Lynch states, “President Trump does not yet realize the vast contribution the NEA makes to our nation’s economy and communities, as well as to his own agenda to create jobs ‘made and hired’ in America. We know that the work on the FY2018 budget will continue until at least October 2017. Along the way, there are many points in the process where Americans for the Arts, with arts advocates and partners from across the country, will be united in communicating with Congress and the American people to make sure they know the impact of the arts in their states and districts and in our nation.”

The American Association of Museum Directors (245 art museum directors in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico) has also put out a statement in support of cultural organizations for whom these funds are vital.

“The arts are a shared expression of the human spirit and a hallmark of our humanity. Art touches people throughout their lives—from toddlers first learning about the world, to those with Alzheimer’s disease reconnecting with someone they love. Museums offer art programs to help teachers and homeschoolers prepare lessons, to train medical students to be better doctors, to ease the suffering of veterans with PTSD, and to share with people across the country the best of creative achievement.” – AAMD.

UnderMain is interested in your thoughts and comments, particularly if you are an arts professional working in Kentucky. Here are just a few additions; we will update as they arrive.

“Trump’s plan to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, directly reflects his careless treatment of our country and all that we hold dear. The Arts provide an important space where diversity, inclusion, creativity, innovation, and risk-taking are celebrated and encouraged. Art is a reflection of our country and all of its people in the purest form. To cut funding for the Arts, is a statement on what this administration values, as they try to eliminate the very source of brilliance that has defined civilization since its very beginning.”  – Stephanie Harris, Director (Lexington Art League)

“For half a century the American government has been using the NEA to fund and promote our best artists, writers, musicians, dancers, performers, filmmakers, educators, and an ever-widening class of creative thinkers. It is an honor to receive support from the NEA, which has helped to foster generations of artists who admire the US government for contributions toward strengthening American culture. The agency is a vital tool for maintaining positive relations with our most imaginative citizens. It would be a massive loss to our cultural legacy to see it lay dormant” – Joey Yates, Curator – KMAC (Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft)

NEA

Naked existence again.

Night encourages aggression.

Nothing engages anthem.

Nipple event announced.

Nausea exhibition anticipated.

Never endure absence.

New entertainment atrophies.

No excrement available. 

Nudge abstract eating.

Nitwit executive asphyxiated.

Now eagerly applaud.

Stuart Horodner, Director, University of Kentucky Art Museum

Arts

Congratulations Phillip!

UnderMain sends heartfelt congratulations to Phillip March Jones on his appointment as the new Director of the Andrew Edlin Gallery.

Edlin and Jones have a long working history with ties to Lexington, Kentucky where Jones opened the Jones Shop in 2006. “The Jones Shop, a curated exhibition space and retail store, existed only briefly on Maxwell Street in Lexington but culminated in an exhibition at Andrew Edlin’s Chelsea gallery in 2007. I’ve worked with Andrew in different capacities since that time: as an artist, curator, consultant, and now director of his new space which opened this past week at 212 Bowery. It’s a long way from Maxwell Street but feels like a very natural place to be working on new ideas and engaging a wider audience.”

In all things, Jones remains dedicated to the notion that important work in the field of contemporary art happens in many places be it New York City or Lexington, Kentucky – where he remains Editor-in-Cheif of Institute 193.  As Phillip March Jones continues to build connections in art markets hither and yon, UnderMain and Lexington wish him well.

The Andrew Edlin Gallery is located on 212 Bowery between Prince Street and Spring Street.

Institute 193 is located at 193 North Limestone Street in Lexington, Kentucky.

Photo Credit: Louis Zoellar Bickett