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Review: “It is What is Not Yet Known”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References and Reading

Richard Serra

Eva Hesse

Nancy Holt

Thornton Dial

Lonnie Holley

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Arts

Our Latest UMGram: Many Helping Hands

Photo courtesy of Sarah Heller

This Mighty Lexington Art Teacher Joins the COVID-19 Fight
Armed with a home 3D printer and a Maker’s can-do attitude, Sarah Heller, an art educator at The Lexington School in Lexington, Kentucky, brought a unique set of skills to the design of a face shield prototype for frontline healthcare workers. As part of the maker movement the project was a great fit for Heller, but also represents a forward-looking way to think about art education as basic and essential.

Arts Resilience Initiative
LexArts and the Bluegrass Community Foundation in Lexington have teamed up with a generous core of foundation and other donors to offer financial relief funds to individual artists and arts organizations in the LexArts/BGCF service area impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The one-time grants are being provided on a first-come, first-served basis. You can read more about it on our website. Here is a link to more information about grant eligibility.

Photo by John Brooks of woman viewing Dorthea Lange exhibition at MoMA.

John Brooks: The Art World After COVID
We’ve invited a group of folks in the arts and culture world to write brief essays responding to a recent piece in Vulture by art critic Jerry Saltz, “The Last Days of the Art World… and Perhaps the First Days of a New One.” John Brooks, a Louisville artists, gallerist, and poet is our first featured response piece contributor. Brooks’ art practice was featured in a recent piece by Miranda Lash on UnderMain.

Artist Relief Trust
Led by the Great Meadows Foundation, Kentucky Foundation for Women, and private donors, and facilitated by ELEVATOR Artist Resource in Louisville, the Artist Relief Trust (ART) has been established to help support individual artists who live in Kentucky or several contiguous Indiana counties who are facing dire financial straits due to the COVID-19 shutdown. ART is funding rapid-response microgrants of $500 to as many artists as possible. Click on the above image to learn more about the effort. Here is the link to the easy-to-complete ART application.

ETC.,

The wonderful donor funds highlighted in this newsletter are generous, remarkable, and timely. In this catastrophic time so many Americans are accessing online arts and cultural content of all kinds from so many different sources to help them deal with their drastically changed circumstances. We are struck by the relatively paltry dollars allocated to the arts and culture sector in the relief package passed by Congress and signed by President Trump. According to a report by Americans for the Arts, the arts and culture sector represents 4.3% of national GDP and generates $166 billion of economic activity. In Kentucky, the sector contributes 2.5% of the state’s economy equal to $4.9 billion, and generates significant revenues for local and state governments. We think this is the right time to start considering how the arts and culture sector can have a significant seat at the table when political decisions are made about allocations of government funds. Some strategies that could be employed will be highlighted in future newsletters.

Our friends at the Lexington-focused Infinite Industries, a free cultural events promotion site, have moved to promoting remote events. The site, free to event creators and end users, was founded by Dmitry Strakovsky, who was interviewed recently on WEKU’s Eastern Standard, hosted by UnderMain’s own Tom Martin. Infinite Industries also now features online resources for all ages and is encouraging event creators and promoters to use the site to disseminate event information.

George Herman “Babe” Ruth, New York Yankees, from the Goudey Gum Company’s Big League Chewing Gum series (R319), The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Are you missing the start of baseball season like we are? Remember that box of baseball cards which included a Mickey Mantle rookie card that your mother gave away? You can at least do a deep dive into the most extensive collection of baseball cards outside of the Baseball Hall of Fame, a thirty-thousand-plus card collection donated by Jefferson Burdick, a Syracuse, New York, electrician who apparently never attended a baseball game.

Pay Nothing Until April, 2003, Edward Ruscha, born 1937. ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/AR00047.

The Tate Modern offer a terrific online survey exhibition of the work of influential American American artist, Ed Ruscha. The artist, known for his work in which text is superimposed over landscapes and often idealized images, talks about his practice in this excellent video.

We’re always interested in hearing what you think about UnderMain. You can send comments, suggestions, and pitches to UM@under-main.com.

Food, housing, health, safety; so many vital needs to be met right now. If you are able, please consider providing needed assistance to organizations supporting our neighbors in our communities. Please also consider, if you are able, donating to one of the financial relief efforts highlighted in this newsletter, or arts and culture organizations and institutions, most of which are in survival mode and trying to find paths to reopening their doors after the crisis.

Most of all, please stay safe.

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Uncategorized

John Brooks: The Art World After COVID

We’ve asked a number of people to write brief reaction pieces to art critic Jerry Saltz’s recent piece in Vulture,“The Last Days of the Art World … and Perhaps the First Days of a New One”. The writers were also asked to comment about the effects the virus and resulting mitigation steps have had on their work. We will be publishing these pieces over the next several months.

On February 28th, Quappi Projects opened an exhibition featuring nineteen artists from around the nation and world. Two days later, I flew to New York to exhibit at SPRING/BREAK during Armory week. I was in the city for eleven days; the New York fairs were well attended, but with each successive day the mood grew more worrisome. I left the city shortly before the quarantine began. After returning to Louisville, I honored a handful of appointments at the gallery until Governor Beshear’s directive to shutter all non-essential businesses. Our opening reception was well attended, but it is disappointing for both the artists involved and the viewing public that the show has been seen by so few people. This, however, seems a small concern when lives are at risk.

The current exhibition was scheduled to close April 10th, but will hang indefinitely for the time being. That sounds contradictory, but with no way to know what is to come, planning is impossible. Our next exhibition has been cancelled. The artist’s concept had a meaningful tie-in to the Derby and with its postponement we can’t simply wait for reopening. Moving forward, the rest of the schedule is up in the air. While I do feel utterly unmoored by the current reality, there is positivity in even the idea of future exhibitions. I am holding on to that hope.

Regarding my own painting practice, I still have studio access. Traveling there requires only a short drive, after which I work in isolation. It seems safe and I have spent a few days each week painting.

Photo by John Brooks of woman viewing Dorthea Lange exhibition at MoMA.

None of us know what the post-COVID landscape will look like – any prediction is just conjecture – but something will unfold. Saltz writes that Chef David Chang expects 90 percent of restaurants to close and “surmises the food world will return to the pre-internet days of the 1990s.” I can’t speak to that industry, but with regard to ours, a return to the “pre-internet” era is simply inconceivable. The internet and social media have connected us in previously unimaginable ways, and there is no disengaging from that. I have developed immensely rewarding relationships with so many artists – mostly young, mostly queer – and we support each other professionally and personally; this has felt even more meaningful throughout this collectively endured isolation.

Saltz is right that this crisis could exacerbate inequalities between winners and losers. “Losing” may now be synonymous with nonexistence. Those of us who have been functioning – and surviving – outside the art world’s uppermost echelons must continue to support each other however we can. As we always have, artists and gallerists will advocate for our position in a culture that often sees us as extraneous, but perhaps a greater appreciation for our contributions will emerge since so many have turned to the arts for solace. After this period of societal crisis and existential introspection, I hope more value and attention will be placed on complex work in lieu of the clever, flippant, and depthless. Undoubtedly, art and artists will adapt, abide. Collectors, too.

Top photo by CDC on Unsplash

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Arts

John Brooks Unknows Through Painting and Poetry

When visiting John Brooks’s studio on Lytle Street, one must pass through several rooms before arriving at the inner sanctum of Brooks’s creative practice. First, one enters the ground floor of the Lytle Street building, an industrial warehouse in the Portland neighborhood of Louisville. Then, up the stairs to the second floor, one finds a cluster of different studio spaces occupied by the loose collective of artists who, like Brooks, occupy Lytle Street, among them Letitia Quesenberry, Chris Radtke, Denise Furnish, Dominic Guarnaschelli, Rosalie Rosenthal, and Jacob Heustis. Through a foyer of second-hand furniture and down the hall, there is a door to the first location of Quappi Projects.

Brooks founded this gallery in 2017 with the aim of furthering the artistic conversation amongst artists and art-lovers in Louisville. Named after the affectionate nickname of painter Max Beckmann’s second wife Quappi (a derivation of Kaulquappe, German for “tadpole”), Quappi Projects hosted numerous exhibitions at Lytle Street before moving during the summer of 2019 to its current space on Market Street. Brooks now operates Quappi Projects out of Market Street and continues his studio practice on Lytle. There, tucked within the bright, white-walled space of the former Quappi Projects, one finds a curtain. And behind that curtain is Brooks’s studio: an enclave for his paintings, collages, easels, and gathered sources of inspiration.

John Brooks, studio view.

As an artist Brooks is at home with the unknown, the ambiguous, the subtle, and the fleeting. His education had various chapters, from studying politics at the University at Charleston, to studying art at the Central St. Martins College of Art & Design and the Hampstead School of Art while living in London, England. The most lasting conceptual impact, however, came from his time spent visiting Berlin over the years and a summer spent studying under the figurative painter Norbert Bisky in 2015 at Berlin’s AUTOCENTER Summer Academy. Brooks’s admiration for Germanic artistic influences and Germany’s sensitivity to its own dark history finds its way into many aspects of his practice. He often returns to the Max Beckmann quote: “All important things in art have always originated from the deepest feeling about the mystery of Being.” He explains, “I came across that quote some years ago and it stuck with me because that is how I look at the world. We understand a lot, but there is also so much that we don’t understand. Or can’t comprehend…I aim to imbue my work with that sense of unknowing. My creative impulses come from that place, and from a place of longing or missing. There’s a great German word for this feeling: Sehnsucht.”

Brooks’s promotion of expansive thinking connects to his work in curation (as the director of Quappi Projects he steers the gallery’s exhibition program), and to his interest in poetry. He describes himself as “a person who writes constantly in my head as I move throughout the day.” Though it felt natural for him to eventually connect his painting to his poetry practice, the result was nonetheless transformative. The titles for his most recent body of paintings are all drawn from his poetry. His series of work, “A Map of Scents,” on view at Moremen Gallery during the summer of 2019, employs this strategy of poetically titling his pictures, as well as a fresh aesthetic that Brooks explains came from integrating his process of collage-making into his painting. Brooks previously felt he could create more freely in the medium of collage, without the historical weight of painting upon him. He had a breakthrough moment when he realized he could combine his collage and painting techniques: “After nearly a decade of almost exclusively creating expressive faces, my painting practice had reached a standstill. I did not see a way forward until it occurred to me to utilize my collages—during the making of which I do not suffer from compositional frustrations—to help facilitate composition in my painting. Through this change in method and approach I feel unbounded.”

Whereas in recent years a dreamy haziness surrounded Brooks’s figures, in his most recent works he articulates a more defined aesthetic of modeling people in light touches of black paint, with striking clarity in their gazes. These newer figures reside in a world of free-floating images pulled from magazines, websites, social media, and gestural textures of paint.

John Brooks, You Were a Night Owl But it Doesn’t Matter, 47 x 39.5 inches.

Collage allows for unexpected juxtapositions. We see this in the layering of eyes, body, faces, and limbs in Brooks’s paintings, as well as distinct swaths of color: a zone of pink, a backdrop of green, an abstracted touch of olive. Collage’s unprescribed form also allows for the use of empty space. Brooks compares the deliberate, blank areas of his canvases to the restraint used in poetry. “Good poetry says the most it can with as few words as necessary,” he reminds us. As readers we must fill in the gaps between words, accordingly there are unpainted areas between the images in Brooks’s paintings. These gaps allow the poetic elements to breathe.

John Brooks, Dark Breakfast, 47 x 39.5 inches.

This “push and pull” between the extravagance of oil painting and the discipline of poetry parallels another abiding question in Brooks’s work: how much narrative and explicit (i.e., political) content to include? While the meanings of his paintings might seem open-ended to his viewers, for Brooks the politically motivated inspiration for the work is clear. He cites making works about subjects as diverse as the legacy of World War II (Hürtgen Forest; Berlin is a Dirty Mirror), spousal abuse (Elizabeth in the Same Hour), polyamory (An Abyss of Thighs), and the consequences of queer sexuality in our culture (Constant State of New Sorrows (Orlando Boldewijn)). In the Boldewijn painting, Brooks captures the tragedy surrounding his subject’s death in the penetrating melancholy of Boldewijn’s eyes. Only nineteen years old, the Dutch teenager Boldewijn was found murdered in 2018 following a Grindr date. Violence experienced by young queer men carries a personal significance for Brooks, who lost a friend in 2014 under circumstances to similar to Boldewijn’s (foul play following a Grindr date). Brooks explains that the name “Orlando” also reminds him of the horrific mass shooting in 2016 at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida. While friends and family inspire many of Brooks’s themes, not all the subjects in his painting and poetry are autobiographically inspired. Some works (and texts) speak more generally to the state of our country, society, and the environment, aspiring to the time-honored tradition of the artist articulating universal truths.

Studio view with Constant State of New Sorrows (Orlando Boldewijn) in foregound.

Brooks’s calculations in deciding what to reveal and not reveal through the titles and content of his work reminds me of contemporary painter Keltie Ferris’s approach to sharing parts of her queer identity. (Ferris, coincidentally, was also raised in Kentucky.) Regarding her body prints she explained, “There is something about disclosing and not disclosing, or revealing or not revealing: the unfolding…You see everything, but you don’t. That kind of controlled unfurling is queer.”

Growing up in Frankfort, Kentucky, Brooks describes espousing “a certain timidity as a way to cope and make my way through small town life in Kentucky in the 80s.” As a practicing artist, however, he argues that his work “has never been apologetic.” It’s all there for those who care to probe deeper. He describes wanting to take his stance further, saying, “Moving forward with my practice I plan to continue integrating politics and political ideas and current events into my work, but I want to do it in a way so that the work functions in a variety of ways, that it touches not just on ideas of politics but also ideas of art, too.”

Paul Valéry once described poetry as a “language within a language.” Poets nestle ideas into words in ways that defy literal and succinct description. Continuing with my Russian doll theme of rooms within rooms and languages within languages, I’d like to conclude by calling attention to micro-passages of paint that Brooks pointed out to me within his paintings. Within his newest works he inserts shapes and color that are influenced by the painters he admires. “I am thinking about specific artists when I’m pondering colors,” he explains. “Max Beckmann and Marlene Dumas with black, Cy Twombly and Ferdinand Hodler with white, Kirchner with purple and green (and Hockney) and Peter Doig, Matisse and Guston with pinks.” Floating within the paintings Bisky Says Joy Comes from the Action and The Collectors are small, variegated strokes of color comprising green leaves, crafted in the style of David Hockney. It’s a quiet, knowing gesture, an intimacy born of looking and (as Bisky says) joy.

The following three poems by John Brooks are published here for the first time, on UnderMain:


November

Morning is ministry,
birdsong homiletic.

Finespun bruise
of autumn on this

newest day. You slip
into a susurrus

of fog, become
indigenous, mute

to the now.
Leaves are lime

of Osage orange,
drop without

gasping. In rain
this slope is slick,

full of snakes aching
not to be seen

scraping in the dregs
of summer’s last

honey. Heron, Snowy
egret, Sandhill crane

forage and hover
as a trio in a shy

pond. Departing geese
are a cadent scene

in four acts. You exult
in the urgent quality

of this dying light.
Tomorrow is already

another goodbye, almost
the deep black lake

of November when
winds get wild,

hailstones cover
the road, and dark

is a song stuck
in your head

or the mood
as you head

to the polls.


Alarm

Wojnarowicz said
what’s happening

now is cause for
alarm. And that

was then. We
are even more

entrenched
in our comfort

now. You know
where I live out

in the middle
of nowhere

all sunsets look
like bad paintings.

My kids think
I’m pretty

at least. I float
on blue song.

Joni resisted
guile, gave into

vivid Ellingtonia.
She was nocturnal;

for me morning
is always a hymnal

but by midday
I remember

who we are. Empires
collapse out of fear.

It’s uniform in a Kubrick,
it’s uniform in a Hitchcock.
I can’t get the monarch
to agree; he’s after

milkweed, goldenrod;
a guest in my garden

or is it the other
way around?

Who belongs
and who leaves

and who remains.
Even friendships

sour into
oblivion

so of course
a culture does.

This is kind of
an old story

but we thought
ourselves immune.

Our coal trucks, our
cobalt plunderings;

we have cornered
ourselves into erasure.

Rockets red glare
in an elephant eye.

Rain hopes to be oil,
oil hopes to be oilier.

I don’t think
the future will be

careful with us.
The present, obviously

not. Today we are
weeping; tomorrow

we are empty.
Where I live

a monarch is a
summer thing.

To summer is
a moonview

of twilight.
David said

keep close
to dark so

it can’t
surprise or

he might
have if he

had lived.


Elizabeth in the Same Hour

In a forest daylight is
melodrama, distance

a drawback. Here is this
photograph of Elizabeth

in the same hour, head
encircled by hair as

black as wood char.
She called herself

an Indian, hesitated
to marry. Marriages

are the regrets
of spooky girls.

What tribe had
she wed? Bill

spoke to horses,
came on foot

from Missouri, drank
too much, went blind

from bile. She learned
how good touch

and bad touch
were parallel

but never touched.
Her children seized

the river in her
and gave it one

noiseless dress.
She kept it spotless,

whether in town
or picnicking.
For generations,
her women had known

how to silo scars
and trespasses;

they understood
just how to manage

difficulties. Disappointments
were chiseled into and out

of their lore. Her own
mother liked to say

she looked beyond
weather to commune

with a musical future.
After Bill, she could see

in total darkness
while carrying only

a vacant lantern.

All Photo Credits: Miranda Lash

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