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Scattered Seeds: the First KMAC Triennial

The inaugural KMAC Triennial features twenty artists who live or have roots in the state of Kentucky. Selected by jury from a pool of over 200 applicants, the variety of work attests to the vitality of creative practice currently happening in or loosely stemming from the state, but stops short of defining or locating any thematic or conceptual lenses through which to understand the state of contemporary Kentucky art. 

The show uses the title Crown of Rays, referring to a particular genus of the Goldenrod, the state flower of Kentucky. The gallery text makes allusions to ceremonial headwear and deifying haloes tied to the flower as well as pollination and ecology, using the flower’s botanical and symbolic properties as what curator Joey Yates sees as an elastic concept for grouping such a diverse array of artists and practices. Sadly, an image of the flower appears nowhere in the galleries, either as a visual reference point or botanical metaphor, severing any coalescing work the title could perform and leaving the disparate selection of artworks to each stand on their own with little conceptual or formal connections between them. 

Philis Alvic, ‘City Windows’, woven collage, 72″ x 42″ x 3″, 2012

Philis Alvic, ‘Vienna Window’, woven collage, 69″ x 42″ x 7″, 2012

Fortunately, there are a number of strong pieces in the show, particularly those that engage with the museum’s historical engagement in craft, but with the contemporary art sensibility KMAC currently pursues. Philis Alvic’s handwoven panels evoke windows from all over the world, creating a tension between the accumulation of pattern and fabrics on a rich, tactile surface and the illusionistic picture plane. Hunter Stamps’ ceramic pieces, which hug columns, seep out from walls, sink into the floor, or plop down as undignified specimens on a hospital gurney, similarly make process and craft evident through their surfaces and biomorphic forms, while at the same time viscerally alluding to open wounds and sores on the body. 

Hunter Stamps, ‘Utterance’, 2019, Ceramic sculpture

Installation View, KMAC Triennial with floor sculptures by Melissa Vandenberg (foreground) and Mary Carothers (middle ground). Multiple works by Rachel Frank (background). Photo credit: Ted Wathen

On another floor, different craft traditions coalesce into compelling installations. Rachel Frank’s tabletop display of stoneware, video, and plant assemblages against the backdrop of her hanging fiber and beadwork Pattern for a Yurt III (2016) makes the most explicit reference to Kentucky ecologies in the show (albeit sans Goldenrod) through new and old media. Melissa Vandenberg’s Shed (2019) alludes to the animal world through multiple genealogies of craft, featuring two sets of intertwined, snakelike legs reminiscent of Sarah Lucas’ work. These forms appear to be molting an aging and deteriorating quilt as they sprawl across the second-floor gallery space, capped with boot-shaped glass components completed during the artist’s residency at the Corning Museum of Glass. 

Vinhay Keo, ‘Kissing Kissinger’ (Portrait of a Nobel Peace Prize Winner), 2019, Acrylic paint, photograph. Photo credit: Ted Wathen.

Not wanting to be limited by an at-times parochializing focus on traditional craft forms, the jury chose a selection of artists spanning a number of different media. Two conceptual works that traverse the stairwell of the vertically-oriented museum’s three gallery floors best realize the potential of KMAC’s space, though perhaps at the expense of working formally or conceptually with the other works in the show. Vinhay Keo’s Kissing Kissinger (Portrait of a Nobel Peace Prize Winner) (2019) entails a photographic portrait of Kissinger from 1973 surrounded by a sea of individual red body prints of the artist’s lips. Running down a wall that cuts through the gallery’s main floors and fading just before hitting the floor, the sea of lip stains produce a performative, punning, and queer re-reading of Kissinger’s name while also darkly alluding to the millions of Cambodian lives lost or displaced due to the former Secretary of State’s policies. Complementing Keo’s installation is a site-specific sound piece by Aaron Rosenblum, High, Low, and In Between (2019). Merging pure tones with urban and rural field recordings, these sounds move up and down speakers set throughout the open stairwells and resonate throughout the gallery spaces. 

The geographic push and pull generated by the two site-specific works in the stairwell carries throughout most of the show, but without much rhyme or reason. On the second floor, dizzyingly complex conceptual black and white photography of the KMAC gallery spaces by Casey James Wilson lies between Sean Satrowitze’s somewhat ideologically muddy installation of a proposed funerary ritual for the decapitation or removal of Confederate monuments in the region and Vian Sora’s Max Ernst-inspired abstract paintings responding to the artist’s traumatic experiences in her native Baghdad. From the hyper-local to the geopolitical, and the coldly conceptual to the intensely internal, these works benefit little from proximity to each other, and possibly need more conceptual room to breathe (particularly Starowitz’s, which would benefit from further research and a socially-engaged public component).

In the following room, Elizabeth Mesa-Gaido’s assemblages and prints juxtapose the playful forms and textures of piñatas with images from revolutionary Cuba and toiletries and essentials commonly unavailable on the island, where her family has roots. Complementing Mesa-Gaido’s meditation on need and abundance through mass-produced commodities are Lori Larusso’s sign-painted still-life installation Pastiche of Good Intentions (2019) and Kristin Richards’s Donald Judd-inspired vats of a rainbow of Dawn dishwashing soap that sit oddly atop a paneled wood staircase, a work that similarly needs some air, possibly as two components in a larger installation.

Next to this gallery are perhaps the show’s two biggest misses: a horizontal installation of Jimmy Angelina’s pop culture-inspired black and white drawings, which work much better in the coloring book form available in the KMAC gift shop, and the only primarily moving image-based work in the show, Sarah Lasley’s Totality (2019), a kitschy panorama of dramatic National Park scenery overlaid with individual karaoke singers belting different songs in street clothes. Lost in the shuffle are Andrew Cozzens’ interactive and conceptual meditation on art consumption and forms of biological and cultural extinction, which is unfortunately tucked away in a rear gallery and was not functioning when I visited, and Harry Sanchez, Jr.’s compelling prints of families torn apart at the U.S.-Mexico border, a work whose urgent tone and direct politics are effective but feel out of place with the other works in the show.

Biennials (and by extension triennials) are tricky, but they have come to dominate the contemporary art world in the past three decades, for better or for worse. Spreading out from former art world centers in order to keep pace with an increasingly globalized world and afford smaller cities—like many in this region—the chance to elevate their artists or local creative economies onto a higher and more visible platform, these recurring exhibitions ideally function as barometers of the contemporary art world. More often than not, however, they merely add to the noise. The KMAC Triennial, with its small size and (somewhat) regional roster, departs from the sprawling city-wide scale and superstar artist list of Front in Cleveland or FotoFocus in Cincinnati, smartly focusing on artists who the curator and jury feel deserve a broader platform. Once raised on this platform, however, the artists seem to be each belting their own tune, echoing the confusing soundscape of Lasley’s video and retreating to the dangerously forgettable form of the open call, juried group show. 

Lacking a thematic consistency or coherent dialogue among the works, I wonder about the show’s ability to present these artists to new audiences, which, in the end should be the goal of evoking the biennial format. As an inaugural event, the 2019 KMAC Triennial shows great promise in its ability to attract and showcase important work by artists with ties to Kentucky, though those ties are at times weak. With a clearer concept and focus, either through the selection of work or roster of artists, hopefully future versions will advance beyond merely shedding light on important practices in the region. My hope is that future iterations of the triennial will not only showcase artists but ignite important discussions and generate lenses through which to understand their work, or—ideally—prompt us to re-imagine the broader contemporary art landscape entirely.

About the Author: Annie Dell’Aria is Assistant Professor of Art History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Her research concerns the intersection of contemporary art, moving image media, and public space. Her writings have appeared in Afterimage: Journal of Media Arts and Cultural CriticismInternational Journal of Performing Arts and Digital MediaPublic Art DialogueMoving Image Review and Art Journal (MIRAJ)Millennium Film Journal, and other venues. She is currently working on her book, The Moving Image as Public Art: Sidewalk Spectators and City Screens.

Arts

Too Much Information: KMAC Museum’s Inaugural Triennial

One of the showcase pieces in KMAC Museum’s inaugural triennial survey of contemporary art in Kentucky (up through December 1, 2019) is a trio of sumptuous, pretty, scary paintings by Vian Sora, an artist currently living and working in Louisville, and originally from Baghdad, Iraq. According to the wall-text, in the three paintings Sora “employs expressive painterly abstraction as a means to convey the emotional and psychological trauma brought on by her time living in and fleeing from her home in war-torn Baghdad.”

Installation view, KMAC’s Triennial “Contemporary Art of the Commonwealth: Crown of Rays”; pictured on right wall is Vian Sora’s “Last Sound”, 2018, Mixed media on canvas, 60″ x 85″

All that’s true, I’m sure, but witnessing the gorgeousness of the three paintings on site is an altogether aesthetic experience, not exactly free from trauma, but stubbornly transcendent, referencing what art can do when it’s not tethered to actuality, even though it is made in response to what has actually happened.

The wall-text helps you navigate the reasons why Sora has created what’s on the wall, but it can’t explain the moment when you first see Sora’s work and have your own thoughts woven into its blasts of color and form, its Matisse-on-fire urgency and just plain corrosive prettiness. The meaning, in other words, is a negotiation outside of biography and intention: it’s the meeting of memories and ghosts on both sides, the viewed and viewer.

Installation view, KMAC’s Triennial “Contemporary Art of the Commonwealth: Crown of Rays”; pictured in center on the column is Hunter Stamps, “Engulf”, 2019, Ceramic, 96” x 18” x 24”

To me, that’s what makes visual art so necessary now in a world where every cultural idea/pose/construct/narrative seems to be explained ad nauseum, thanks to social-media posts and pundits, the saturation of explanation becoming the way we not only take in but respond to “the world around us,” even our own biographies and struggles. Visual art, like Sora’s paintings, need to exist outside of information for them to truly register, to foment meaning beyond intention, that moment when you as the viewer see what’s been made, disconnected from root causes, and make the match in your own head.

The wall-text, in other words, just becomes gravy, biography a beautiful afterglow.

“Nothing exists until or unless it is observed. An artist is making something exist by observing it. And his/her hope for other people is that they will also make it exist by observing it. I call it ‘creative observation.’ Creative viewing,” William Burroughs wrote.

I’ve been reading Burroughs’ fiction and non-fiction lately, as his teeming, satirical, scatological takedowns of addiction and language and America all speak directly to our current times. He was vitally interested in how all forms of art try to get at experience while also dislocating it, finding meaning outside of actualities, so that what we see and read and hear blur reality to the point of it escaping and learning from the escape.

What Burroughs seems to be pointing out in the above quote is that merger of making and observing, creating and taking, an ongoing metaphorical and ontological pollination that gives art its main function, to uncover routes of escape, that impulse to make meaning once the art is outside of the artist’s control, even the artist’s resolve.

Installation view, KMAC’s Triennial “Contemporary Art of the Commonwealth: Crown of Rays”. Pictured here is a series by Bette Levy.

“Pollination” is at the center of KMAC Museum’s triennial, subtitled “Crown of Rays,” according to more wall-text introducing the whole gig: “In 1926, Kentucky lawmakers adopted the Goldenrod as the official state flower. From meadows and prairies to polluted city environments, it flourishes, heartily, among wide ranging conditions and soil types.” It turns out “the Crown of Rays is one of over a hundred cultivated plants within the Goldenrod genus, distinctive for its spears of clustered tiny yellow flowers that jut out like sunrays and that recall the halos of saintly iconography.”

“Iconography” is at the core of another triennial artist’s work, in direct contrast to Sora’s abstract-expressionist forms. Jimmy Angelina pulls out cinematic images and poses and places them outside of themselves in a series of itchy, R.Crumb-like drawings all done in black ink and installed horizontally on a banner of black paint. The fractured dramatic moments Angelina depicts erase the meaning of their origins, and transform into a parade of ghosts without progenitors, floating through space like celluloid in search of a projector.

Lori Larusso’s wall-haiku, “A Pastiche of Good Intentions,” is an amazing assortment of food and other iconographies stolen from billboards and magazines and other media. The materials she uses (ribbons and flat acrylics on polymetal panels) lend the whole piece hilarious authenticity while also providing sweet little moments of total smart-ass side-eye. It’s a tour-de-force of meaninglessness finding meaning, kind of like an e. e. cummings poem turned into a Barney’s window display.

Kristin Richard’s installation right across the way from Larusso’s piece, titled “gentle platinum antibacterial essential botanical escapes” is made up of Dawn dish soap, water, glass, laminate, wood, lighting, and form, and pushes forward a sort of laboratory elaboration on the strangeness of what is already there, always there: cabinets, Mason jars, Formica, shelves, all crystallized into a sci-fi moment, an altarpiece to boredom churning into worship. The colors of cleansers become the aesthetic impulse that pulls us through. You can attach all kinds of meanings to Richard’s gorgeous constellation, but at the end of the day it all seems to be orbiting Burroughs’ idea of existence created by observation. Taking banality and transforming it into otherness by simply displaying it outside of its purpose and premise.

“Narrator”, 2019 Oil, acrylic, sand on canvas 30” x 42”

John Harlan Norris’ series of phosphorescent portraits (done in oil, acrylic and sometimes sand on canvas) take banality and dance it into surrealism, abandoning seriousness in favor of play and ingenuity and punchlines that don’t have jokes to go with them. They are basically pictures of ghosts made up of fashion fragments and plastic doodads, all completed in those cold glow-in-the-dark colors that encapsulate pop-culture and pop-art memories of the early 1980s. Each painting is a fever-dream album-cover for synth-pop masterpieces that never got made, and yet still linger in the collective unconscious. “I want my MTV” becomes beautiful oblivion.

Another sort of playfulness, completely serious, comes to fruition in Harry Sanchez, Jr.’s two portraits, both acrylic on Styrofoam, from a series of prints in which he appropriates media images of deported immigrants. The images are distorted somehow into clarity and create meaning without being embedded in it. Sanchez chisels those pictures into Styrofoam, pulling mundane portraiture into a game of insight and integrity. His work in the show provides a witty moment of silence, while also forming the best kind of protest: saying something very clearly without contributing to the overall noise.

“Hiss”, 2019, Match burn on Arches paper (96” x 24” x 33”) and “Shed”, 2019, Vintage quilt, polyester, glass (12′ x 3′ x 28″).  Special thanks to the Rockwell Museum and Corning Museum of Glass for making the sculptural glass components possible while Melissa Vendenberg was artist-in-residence at CMoG.

Two snakes intertwined in the middle of the second floor is what I want to end with. Melissa Vandenberg’s “Shed” is a sculpture produced from an old stuffed quilt with what look like glass booties on each end. Snakes of course are so symbolic they almost short-circuit their own symbolism; they can signify associations with all kinds of institutions, religions, nations, myths. What Vandenberg’s piece gets at is a moment of poetry outside of all that chuffah: the symbol is the thing, and the thing is almost terrifying enough to make you want to retreat into symbol. However, the piece has an inherent innocence about it, a Holly-Hobbie texture and context that slides the intertwined reptiles into glassmuzzle dream.

“Dream” is a loaded word and term of course. Historically visual art has often retreated into “dream” during turbulent and insane times, but many of the artists in KMAC Museum’s first triennial take the concept of “dream” and find a way to both comment on and satirize how “meaning” in our meaning-saturated times can sometimes become a way out of literalness and into something entirely outside of a news-feed.

TOPMOST IMAGE: Installation view, KMAC Triennial. Work by Philis Alvic in the foreground.

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