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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

Arts

In Their Own Words

Listen to interviews gathered for our segments on Eastern Standard, the weekly public affairs radio magazine on WEKU.  Click on the images to listen to UnderMain’s Art Shechet, in conversation with Speed Museum contemporary arts curator Miranda Lash; Tatiana Gant, executive director of the Montana Arts Council discussing with Sky Marietta the value to rural artists of their “Artrepreneur” program; and Wendy Barnett sitting down with Ave Lawyer, co-founder of Lexington’s unique On The Verge theatre company, and actors Kevin Hardesty and Rachel Lee Rogers to discuss the production of Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part Two.

Miranda Lash, Speed Art Museum curator of contemporary art

Tatiana Gant, Executive Director, Montana Arts Council

Kevin Hardesty, Rachel Lee Rogers in A Doll’s House, Part II

Arts

Speeding Towards Impact: A Conversation with Miranda Lash

Visual arts in Lexington are in an exciting and reinvigorated phase. Lexingtonians are eagerly anticipating the opening of 21c Hotel, with its presentation of provocative contemporary art. The bold and exciting repurposed building for the UK School of Arts and Visual Studies, under the leadership of Rob Jensen, faces outward towards the community and holds great promise for increased university and community dialogue and interaction. Stuart Horodner has, not without some discordant voices, taken complete charge of UK Art Museum and turned around the museum with exciting programming, an open and inviting spirit, and increased attendance. And the Lexington Art League has refocused and reenergized after several years of crisis, and is presenting a signature show, Artist:Body, curated by Julien Robson, former contemporary curator of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville.

With increased commercial and not-for-profit gallery activity, such as the LexArts gallery at ArtsPlace, more frequent and well-attended Gallery Hops, and the still-to-open breathtaking new Living Arts and Sciences space, the visual arts in Lexington are, indeed, on a major upswing.

However, what will be, undoubtedly, the most important and impactful news on the visual arts scene in the region will occur in a few short weeks with the reopening of the Speed Art Museum after a more than three-year major renovation and expansion. Funded by a highly successful $60 million capital campaign, the new Speed Art Museum will be poised to move beyond a role as a regional art museum of some significance to becoming an essential cultural institution on a national level.

Closed since late 2012, the central elements of the expansion of the Speed involved the demolition of the often-controversial 1972 addition, the construction of a three-story north building and two-story south building, and connecting the two to the original temple of high art built in 1927. The design of the new buildings emphasizes light and transparency, inviting the public into the new museum. Surrounded by redesigned outside spaces that include an art park, plazas and patios, and a large, shallow pool, the openness of the museum is a marked contrast to its somewhat foreboding, pre-expansion past.

Speed4

Of equal importance to the expansion and redesign, is the new leadership at the Speed. Ghislain d’Humières was hired as Director of the Museum in 2013, succeeding Charles Venable who left for the Indianapolis Museum of Art. D’Humières, formerly Director of the Fred Jones Jr. Museum at the University of Oklahoma, and prior to that Assistant Director of San Francisco’s Museum of Fine Art, headed up the major expansion of the latter museum. His successful leadership of that project clearly made him a very appealing candidate to lead the Speed.

Since assuming his new position, d’Humières has made several critical hires to help him usher in the new era of the Speed Art Museum. Included in those new leadership posts is Erika Holmquist-Wall, formerly assistant curator of paintings at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, hired in 2014 as Mary and Barry Bingham Sr. Curator of European and American Painting and Sculpture. In that same year Miranda Lash, formerly curator of modern and contemporary art at the New Orleans Museum of Art and one of the young rising stars of the curatorial world, joined the Speed as Curator of Contemporary Art.

Lash’s departure from NOMA was much lamented in the Crescent City, where she had arrived in 2008 in a city recovering from Hurricane Katrina. Known at NOMA for deep engagement with the artistic and broader community culture, and for commissioning site-specific works for the museum by local artists, Lash deepened that institution’s commitment to a broadened range of contemporary art and helped to make it a more accessible and popular cultural space. Her hiring by the Speed was seen by many as a real coup for the museum.

Lash

On a rainy afternoon turned sunny last summer, UnderMain went on a tour of the still-under-construction museum with Lash and the Speed’s Director of Marketing and Communication, Steven Bowling. The boldness of the design of the expanded museum and of the vision for the new Speed came through loud and clear on the tour and in a delightful early evening dinner with Lash. A place for the Speed in the conversation about great American museums is clearly on her radar.

Much of the expansive new gallery space of the Speed will be dedicated to contemporary art and will enable Lash to bring a wide range of exhibitions to Louisville. She clearly is eagerly anticipating what that square footage will allow her to do programmatically. The new outside spaces are also allowing her to commission a number of site-specific works for the Art Park and newly landscaped areas.

Significantly, the increased gallery spaces inside the museum will allow more of the Speed’s permanent collection, numbering over 13,000 works, to be shown. The museum’s reopening exhibition, A Celebration of the Speed Collection, will show more of the permanent collection than the museum is likely to show again in one exhibition for the foreseeable future.

Deeply interested in art as a portal into themes of culture, identity, and history, Lash resonated to and was inspired by the vivid, multicultural, free-flowing, tragicomic New Orleans story and vibe. It will be interesting to watch how she responds to a more buttoned up, nearly-Southern, nearly-Midwestern city. It’s clear that Lash will use her position at the Speed to deepen visitors’ engagement through contemporary art with the broader world and with issues and questions that resonate beyond the confines of our Kentucky space.

As a follow-up to our visit and conversation, Miranda Lash generously agreed to respond in writing to a number of questions that were posed to her.

UM: After, by all accounts, a successful tenure at NOMA, what in particular appealed to you about the position at the Speed?

Lash: First and foremost I was attracted by the opportunity to build something new. The Speed is on the verge of embarking upon a renewed era of innovation in contemporary art largely enabled by three factors: 1. the opening of a new wing for the contemporary collection in beautiful, large-scale galleries designed by Kulapat Yantrasast; 2. A substantial commitment made by the Speed to support the commissioning of site-specific pieces by leading international artists. These commissions will populate the new Art Park and the interior of the building; and 3. A commitment on behalf of the Speed to support the generation of nationally relevant contemporary art exhibitions and publications that will circulate around the country.

UM: Give our readers some idea about the breadth and depth of the Speed’s permanent collection in contemporary art. With the museum renovation and expansion, will there be opportunities to see more of the contemporary collection?

Lash: The Speed’s contemporary collection spans from wonderful examples of Abstract Expressionism from the 1950s to video artworks made just in the last few years. Visitors will be able to contemplate a large range of work, from great paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, Frank Stella, Alice Neel, and Sam Gilliam, to more recent pieces by Yinka Shonibare, Ghada Amer, Carrie Mae Weems and The Propeller Group.

Once the Speed opens at least 8,000 square feet of gallery space will be dedicated to the contemporary collection, and from time to time there will be opportunities to display parts of the collection in additional galleries. For the opening exhibition in March 2016, the Speed will dedicate two floors (the equivalent of 16,000 square feet) to the display of the contemporary collection. This is an enormous amount of space, and I am encouraging visitors to come see this display (which will be on view through August 2016), first because this will be the most expansive display of the contemporary collection that the Speed has ever had in its history, and secondly, it may be years before the Speed is able to display the collection in such a comprehensive manner again.

UM: How has the role of museum curator evolved over the years to this point in the early part of the 21st century? Is a curator a tastemaker, interpreter, promoter, entertainer, carnival barker? How would you describe your developing role as curator of contemporary art at the Speed?

Lash: Museum curators, now more than ever, are encouraged to think globally about trends, innovations, and relevant artists and exhibitions. It is not enough to know what is happening in your region (although a curator should know this well), you are also expected to keep current on a large number of national and international art biennials, fairs, and major touring shows. Thanks to the Internet and the rapid expansion of biennials and triennials across the globe during the last thirty years, we have more access than ever to currents of activity transpiring all over the world. With this explosion of information the need for filtering, as well as constant travel and looking, becomes all the more important.

Secondly, due the shrinking of state, city and federal funds made available to the arts over the past few decades, the development and fundraising responsibilities assigned to curators can at times demand as much time as actual content development. If you believe that curators should pursue sound and thorough scholarship, and maintain their editorial independence apart from commercial and private interests, I encourage you to support museums through your tax dollars and museum admissions.

Sometimes we are tastemakers, interpreters, and promoters, but most of all I think of us as storytellers, educators, and advocates for artists.

UM: What are some of the ideas, issues, perspectives, and questions that drive your curatorial decisions about exhibitions and programs?

Lash: I look long and carefully at the artworks in my collection and I think about the narratives that are embedded within it and how I can flesh these stories out.  I think about trends and conflicts in the world, and questions we are struggling with as a nation, and ask, how can art help the us navigate the complexities of these issues? Often I think about what is bothering me and why. For example, for years I was amazed and confounded by the way both “Northerners” and “Southerners” would talk about the “North” and the “South” in the United States, using broad generalizations, assumptions and stereotypes to communicate their point. For every assumption that was made, I would find a vast number of exceptions, and no clear consensus at the heart of any of these Northern or Southern stereotypes. So, as way of working through this, now I am working with a co-curator Trevor Schoonmaker on a large group show that aims to explore, essentially: what do we mean when we talk about the South and why?

UM: What obligation does a museum have to be of its place, reflective of its surroundings, it’s culture, environment, people?

Lash: This depends on the stated mission of the museum, which varies greatly between institutions. At the Speed, we take our role very seriously as an important (and for some the only) point of contact visitors may have to artistic trends and ideas going on in other countries. We want Louisvillians to be educated and excited about what is happening in Mexico City, Berlin, and Ho Chi Minh City, and we have more capacity than any other museum in Kentucky to provide this global perspective.

At the Speed we also have an obligation to present artwork that is relevant to Louisville. As a curator I look for topics and concepts that will have resonance with this region. For example, during my time here I have noticed that Louisville as a city has a huge interest in local food cultivation, sustainable agriculture, and food activism (helping people from all economic strata have access to healthy food). As a result I have been talking with artists who focus on this in their practice to see if they could be a fit for our site-specific commissions. The Speed has and will continue to collect and exhibit outstanding artworks by artists who are living in (or have lived in) this region. The structure for this continuing endeavor will be based on the strengths and merits of the artists’ work and their chosen subject matter rather than their regional orientation.

UM: At NOMA you were known for reaching into the local community including making frequent visits to local artists’ studios. Will you be doing the same in your current position and how should an artist prepare for a visit?

Lash: Yes, I love doing studio visits. Some tips:

1. Decide what you (the artist) want to get out of the visit: feedback on a particular direction? Advice on galleries and contracts? Advice on how to package and present your work to collectors? I can help with all these things. Please don’t hesitate to ask.

2. If this is my first studio visit with you, it is helpful to get an overview of your practice, which can be efficiently done nowadays with digital images on a laptop, tablet, or phone, or even color printouts (if the artworks themselves are not readily available). At least 75 percent of the visit however, should be dedicated to your most recent work – What are you thinking about now? What do you want to do in the future? Remember, it is my job to seek out new ideas and trends that most people have not seen before. Keep in mind that most studio visits will generally last no longer than one hour, so please budget your time in terms of what you want to cover. Again, having questions or topics planned in advance can help with time management.

3. Remember that the main goal during a studio visit is for me to get an overall sense of who you are as an artist. Feel free to talk with me about big picture concepts, overarching goals and ambitions, and what techniques and discoveries you are most excited about. This is not a time to ask for money, patron contacts, or to voice complaints about other artists, local politics, etc. Exhibitions and acquisitions are often the fruits of many visits and conversations over time, and can take years to develop. Instead of focusing on what I can do for you in the immediate future, think of it as a relationship that we can potentially develop over time.

4. I often stress the importance of being “studio ready.” This means, if a curator, critic, or patron were to come through town on short notice, I know I can call you or email you and you will be able to give a polished presentation on whatever is in your studio now. If my studio visit goes well and I sense that you are capable of making a clear, succinct presentation, I won’t hesitate to send other people your way.

UM: Over the next three to five years what are your main goals and ambitions for contemporary art at the Speed?

Lash: Overall I aim to put on good looking, provocative shows and get people excited about art. If I’m doing my job right, in three to five years Louisville will be present in the minds of my colleagues in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and beyond.  Really though, I do this job for the thrill of seeing an artist’s project come together really well. It is never guaranteed to happen, but when it does the result is euphoric.  A truly successful project can take on a life of its own, spill out onto the streets, and assume a magical quality. I’ll be grateful and pleased if I can make that happen here.  Please stay tuned for more.

A Celebration of the Speed Collection opens March 12 with the reopening of the museum.