Tag Archives: University of Kentucky Art Museum


A Reflection: Return to the Museum

On April 6, 2021, I set foot in a museum for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Seeing art in person was one of the last things we did before the world shut down in March 2020. My husband, baby, and I went to Washington, D.C. for the exhibition Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery over spring break.

Given the timing and significance of that most-recent museum visit, I knew that returning to an art gallery would be an emotional experience. I waited until I was fully vaccinated and two-week ‘proofed’, and until I could give the works the attention they deserved. I expected the experience to be different, but I could not have anticipated the intensity of my physical and emotional reaction.

As an art historian, curator, and critic, going to museums is not only an enjoyable pastime and a professional obligation but, more than that, looking at artworks in museums and galleries is what I do, fundamentally. I feel comfortable and at home in galleries. The first public place I took my newborn child was an art museum, strapped to my chest at six weeks old, because I wanted to both review an exhibition and be with my baby. I have, on more than one occasion, spent most of my waking hours camped out in a gallery while installing a show. Being in a gallery and seeing art in person has been an essential activity for most of my life.

Museums are holy spaces to me. As someone who struggles with an anxiety disorder, standing in front of art calms me, makes me be present. Romantic landscapes, minimalist sculpture, and abstract expressionist painting all provide me with a sense of my own embodiment that takes me out of the spirals of my own brain. Being in a gallery is the perfect blend of public and private. The hush of the space allows me a place to be alone, but be around other people, all from a distance and quiet.

Emily Elizabeth Goodman at UK Art Museum. Credit: Emily Elizabeth Goodman

But that same anxiety disorder combined with having an essential-worker partner and a small child to care for meant I had to sacrifice visiting museums, at least until I was vaccinated. From March 2020 until March 2021, I retreated into the small world of my house, logging onto Zoom for endless meetings and only venturing out into public for a weekly grocery shop.

This past year was not, by any means, a year without art.  I teach my students that art does not only exist in museums and galleries. Art can be found literally everywhere, from the graphic design of soup cans in your pantry to movie posters and internet memes. I have actually taken pleasure in finding art where I can in our home. We have “real works” like the Lori Larusso diptych I finally got around to hanging in my living room, and the collage by Mike Calway-Fagen that hangs in the background of my office on Zoom. Our house is also filled with little works, like my Guerilla Girls mug, my Van Gogh Irises face mask, and the never-ending stream of crayon, marker and fingerpaint pictures my toddler creates.

I have taken a lot of joy in looking at art in my child’s books, not just the illustrations of works like Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love or Raphael Lopez’s images in The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson, but the ones that showcase famous works of art, too. My child has recently gotten into the book Lola Dutch by Kenneth Wright and Sarah Jane Wright. In this book, the eponymous Lola discovers the great artists on a trip to the library and makes her own versions of Picasso’s Blue Guitarist, Monet’s Japanese Footbridge, Klimt’s The Kiss, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, Matisse’s paper cut collages, and Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. Similarly, a close friend gifted us Parker Looks Up: An Extraordinary Moment, written by Parker Curry and her mother, Jessica Curry, about the young Parker’s transformative experience standing before Amy Sherald’s portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama, one of the last works my child and I saw together in person before the pandemic.

And, of course, I have found art in digital spaces as well. From the outset of the pandemic, I have been attending virtual exhibitions, harnessing their capacity to bring art from far corners of the globe into my online classrooms as a part of my teaching. I have spent countless hours poring over the digital collections of museums and watching archival footage of performance and video work as I write my forthcoming book. I have continued to consume art on social media, since I follow many different artists and institutions, and I have taken joy at finding the little incorporations of visual art in even my guilty pleasure TV shows, like when I binged all of Gossip Girl and took great joy every time the Elmgreen and Dragset Prada Marfa sign appeared on screen. For 13 months, these experiences with art sustained me, all the while knowing that eventually I would venture back in person.

Like all things pandemic, the decision to return to the museum was quite personal. I know that museums have been open since Summer 2020 and that they are generally very safe when proper protocols are followed. They are generally larger rooms with good ventilation/climate control and where the natural crowd patterns involve distancing. But I needed the extra layer of my own vaccine-induced immunity before I could undertake a non-essential venture into a public site. When the vaccination rate in Lexington surpassed 1 in 4 people and the COVID positivity rate dipped below 3%, I decided it was time. I made a reservation and donned my mask to go to see some art.

Entering the University of Kentucky Art Museum during a pandemic felt the same as entering almost every other space in the pandemic. I had to stop by the desk, give my name, and get my temperature checked. In spite of the check-in protocols, masking, and hand sanitizing, entering an art gallery felt splendidly normal, a feeling I had apparently been aching for.

Upon entry, I was drawn immediately to the series of untitled hanging pieces by Jessie Dunahoo, consisting of collaged and quilted scraps of discarded plastic and cloth. In pre-pandemic times, I would have approached this piece and focused on the visual elements, the little details like the Kroger and Bounty logos emblazoned on the plastic quilts, or the vacillation between sheerness and opacity consistent in each piece. I would have ruminated on what Dunahoo was saying about the disposability of items in our culture, the environmental impacts of plastic, and the questions of mundaneness that a display such as these quilts calls to mind.

Jessie Dunahoo, Untitled (detail), circa 2010-15, plastic bags, fabric samples, paint, and thread. Courtesy of the Estate of Jessie Dunahoo and Institute 193. Photo courtesy of UK Art Museum.

Of course I had these thoughts. I have internalized art historical methods to the point that my brain generates this kind of analysis automatically.

But having been starved of an in-person viewing experience for over a year, I was struck by the phenomenology, the sensorial nature of being up close to a work of art, to something that someone else made with their own two hands. I found myself wholly aware of my own size in relation to Dunahoo’s works suspended above me. I could experience the line of my eyes moving in a way that was both foreign and familiar, scanning each piece from top to bottom, noting the shadows they cast as they hovered a foot or so above the ground, and taking in how each piece related spatially to the others. This was a stark contrast to how my eyes have functioned for the last 13 months, staring straight ahead, apprehending only what is at eye level in order to stay engaged in a video call or other aspects of my remote work. In standing next to these works, I began to take in the whole space.

I then moved to Elana Herzog’s Shifting Ground and was even more overwhelmed by the evidence of someone else’s touch. In Herzog’s floor piece, she juxtaposes different scraps of carpet, layering them to create shapes and textures wholly unlike the rugs from which they derived. Walking around the edges of these pieces, I was tempted to brush them with my toe, and even to bend down and run my fingers over them, although I know the latter move was not a safe one in the pandemic (and as a curator, I know better than to touch the art in someone else’s show). Both Herzog’s floor pieces and Dunahoo’s hanging collages brought back the thing that I love about seeing art in person – the thing that cannot be replicated through digitization, no matter how hard you try – the truly physically material nature of an art object.

Installation view, Sew What: Jessie Dunahoo, Elana Herzog, Ben Venom, University of Kentucky Art Museum. Photo courtesy of UK Art Museum.

As I walked through the gallery space, the tactility of the works overwhelmed me, especially since the exhibition Sew What is all about textile. I found myself tearing up at Ben Venom’s heavy metal quilts, overcome by the handmade, singularity of each one, a sensation that overrode any displacement that the kitschy nature of this particular imagery would have otherwise elicited. I felt drawn into the materials, particularly the printed t-shirts in Don’t Wake Me Lucifer, which drew me back into the patchouli scent of Hot Topic in my childhood mall, where I would have bought similar shirts as a teenager, all the while reminding me of my eternally metal friends, who would shudder at the thought of purchasing a shirt like these in a store like that.

Ben Venom, Don’t Wake Me Lucifer!, 2010, quilted heavy metal T-shirts, cotton, batting, and thread. Courtesy of Scott Ingram, Atlanta. Photo courtesy of UK Art Museum.

I moved into the next gallery space, which also felt immensely tactile. The exhibition Come Together: Assemblage and Collage from the Collection was full of objects whose handmade quality was apparent, primarily because they consisted of found items, repurposed and repositioned. There were small works of assemblage sculpture, like the one by Louise Nevelson’s Untitled, and more elaborate paper works, like Christo’s Manhattan Wrapped, which combined lithographic images with collage.

And then, there was the 6’ by 6’ square assemblage, Night Rain, by Judith Page, which swallowed me whole. Comprised of individual twigs creating a pattern of vertical lines mimicking the downward trajectory of raindrops, this work was everything I had been missing about seeing art in person. It was massive, especially in comparison with computer-screen or smartphone-scaled images my eyes had grown accustomed to. It was physically material, comprised of tiny pieces of wood that can only fully be apprehended up close. And in that monument of tactility, I found myself looking closely in a way that I couldn’t when examining works from my desk chair, a way I always do when faced with a large-scale work of art: physically getting closer and further away from each section, all the while attending to the parts of the work at my periphery, and being aware that in looking closely, I am only seeing part.

Judith Page, Night Rain, 1981, twigs, acrylic, celluclay, Elmer’s wood glue, and black paint on plywood. Collection of the UK Art Museum. Photo courtesy of UK Art Museum.

This sensation was altogether different from zooming in on individual details. Technology let me see, in clearer detail, elements of artworks that would require a proximity that no museum guard would ever be okay with. However, the photographic detail is revealed at the expense of the whole work; to make such a detail, the rest of the image must be cropped. But close looking in person means that you are present with both the detail and the complete work simultaneously. The tension therein is electrifying.

As I continued on, I was grateful that I began my foray back into the museum with works of textile and assemblage, objects that are unquestionably unique, even when they are made from items that are not. These two media have always felt the most approachable to me, since the objects within them are ones we are physically familiar with. Viewers know the feeling of a trash bag, a carpet, a t-shirt, or a piece of wood. We know what different textures of paper feel like, and we can appreciate the physical gesture of cutting fabric or newsprint in order to create a collage or a quilt. As such, looking at assemblage often involves a sensorial memory, an understanding of what an object feels like, just looking at it. Tactile recollection helps imbue the new work with meaning.

Installation view, Come Together: Collage and Assemblage from the Collection, University of Kentucky Art Museum. Photo Courtesy of UK Art Museum.

Yet, while I have always looked at quilts, collages, and assemblages as items with which viewers are familiar, what was unique about this viewing experience was that for the first time I was overwhelmed by the notion that these objects were the product of someone else’s touch, that the feeling of familiarity I had with their materials was shared by the person who made them, and that we were now connected through this artwork. Granted, I have had this feeling in archives before, gripped by the sense of historical purpose and connection upon the realization that, for instance, Julia Child and I have touched the same physical papers. But in the case of these artworks, I myself did not touch; I merely looked. I got close and I looked, but in that closeness of looking, I felt connected.

I have, of course, always understood that art has the power to connect people. I am one of those who cry in the presence of a Mark Rothko painting, especially when I consider how he intended his works to be an extension of an essential need to communicate with others. But my feeling of connection during this visit was different. Instead of being consumed with the question “what is this artist trying to say,” I was instead seized by a need for “how can I connect to this person.”

This change is surely a result of the pandemic. In the last year, my social interactions shrank from interacting with scores of people on a daily basis to perhaps seeing one other family a few times a month. While I have been connected with colleagues, students, friends, and family over Zoom/Facetime/Google Meet since last March, these interactions, like the digitized artworks, never felt the same as being face to face.

Having spent so much time alone in the reclusive safety of my home – which, admittedly, for an introvert, had its perks – I had forgotten, on a visceral level, that even I am, by nature, a social creature as all humans are. We live collaboratively and we need to connect with one another. One of the biggest challenges of the pandemic has been that at the time when we need the care and support of other people the most, it has often been too risky, and even life-threatening, to be together. And so, for survival, we have adapted, culling down our social circles to small pods or family units and replacing the shared experience with the phone call or the video chat. But even having adapted, the need to connect, to really share an experience with another individual is still there.

In many ways, I know that my response to returning to the museum was unique to me. I have the privilege of feeling like all gallery spaces are there for me to access, that they are designed for an audience that includes me. I have a knowledge base that allows me to access artworks that others may find off-putting. But the feeling of standing before something touched, felt, and crafted by another person, the connection through items that have memories in my life and that clearly captivated another person, all of that can be felt by anyone. And I must say, that feeling, even if it was tinged with the grief for all the things I have missed in the last year or so, was truly a sensation worth having.

Seeing art in person again rekindled something that had been suppressed in the name of survival for the last year, and the spark engulfed me in a way I could not have anticipated. It likely will be a while until I pack up my whole family and fly us to a distant city with the goal of seeing an exhibition, but to go back to the museum and feel the presence of art again was a welcome reminder that what I had once taken for granted is far more important than ever before.

Sew What: Jessie Dunahoo, Elana Herzog, Ben Venom, and Come Together: Collage and Assemblage from the Collection, are on exhibit at the University of Kentucky Art Museum, through July 10, 2021.

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It Just Kinda Dawned on Us

..and the sun keeps comin’ up…

This venture has been a long and healthy haul – and now our future is even more robust. When we (my Co-Publishers Tom Martin, Art Shechet and I) first launched UnderMain in 2014, we were simply having fun. We enjoyed uncovering what we thought was hidden in the shadows or living under the main thoroughfares of the then-present consciousness of art and culture in our region.

That was the way this all started: With caffeine and laughter, many morning meetings turned to their adjacent afternoons full of new ideas. Sitting at the same table at Le Matin Bakery, one Wednesday after the next, we came up with the title of our ad-free, visually rich digital magazine: UnderMain. We decided then that its primary mission would be to shine a light on artists, writers, gallerists, creative spaces and ideas, collectors, curators, and critics who work hard everyday and struggle to be heard and seen.

I am not sure why we were searching the darkened spaces or if we just felt there was not enough visibility in print publications, but no matter – because now we’ve flipped the switch in this little digital space. Whether it was passion, fatigue, frustration, ideation, or the simply act of creating, we had it and found enough of it mirrored in you to thrive all these years.

So, as your UMPrez, I am delighted to announce that UnderMain has received a three-year commitment from the Great Meadows Foundation (GMF) to continue our programming.

It should be noted that the generosity of the Great Meadows Foundation is supported by a near equal match of anonymous donations and in-kind contributions from so many. The writing, management, coordination, editing, curation of our content is brought to you by an undying commitment from our contributors and editors, many of whom work in an entirely philanthropic manner. Together we have remained consistent and fresh over the last five years and, with this three-year commitment, all that we have done means all the more there is to do.

As I elaborated in our proposal to the Great Meadows Foundation, UnderMain must now move beyond our light-and-shadows naiveté into a more prominent place of advancing the level of discourse in Kentucky about visual art and culture. These three programs are at the heart of that effort:

Studio Visit Series 

In 2014, we ventured out and into area artists’ studios. I was privileged to write and publish a few of those first visits  (“Ron Isaacs: Shelf Life”and “Dark Dualities: David Kenton Kring”) and now I spend more time connecting writers with artists and publishing their stories. There comes with that a certain reward, a specific joy in connecting two individuals who learn from one another as these writers and artists did: Keith Banner visits Michael Goodlett and Jim Fields visits Skylar Smith. Jim’s own words might say it best:

I began writing exclusively for UnderMain three years ago with a primary focus on artists, their work and what inspires them. For me, ‘the blank page is both exhilarating and intimidating and, like creating a work of art, writing is a process that requires both vision and revision. It is about making certain choices, being aware of various connections, and synthesizing information in order to give my ideas shape and meaning. Working with artists in their studio settings requires implicit mutual confidence and trust, with equal vulnerability, and being ever mindful to not be blinded by the obvious. I am honored to have been selected as one of the writers to participate in Under-Main’s Studio Visits Series under the auspices of The Great Meadows Foundation. While I am grateful for the stipend I received, my real reward for writing ‘A Studio Visit with Skylar Smith: Her Story’ came from the artist herself when she emailed me shortly after the article was published: “You gave voice to things I have not been able to articulate, yet resonate for me—thank you for this.”

In 2019, with our first funding commitment from the GMF, our focus has narrowed to Kentucky artists and we have thus far published eight studio visits, those above and the following: Miles Turner visits Mia Cinelli, Emily Elizabeth Goodman visits Melissa Vandenberg, Hunter Kissel visits Harry Sanchez, Jr. , Miriam Keinle visits Lori Larusso, Sso-Rha Kang visits Carlos Gamez De Francisco, and Natalie Weis visits Vian Sora.

Upcoming is a visit by the Speed Museum’s Miranda Lash with Louisville artist John Brooks, Paul Michael Brown’s visit with Lexington artist Robert Beatty, and Cooper Gibson’s visit with James Lyons.

In 2020, UnderMain will organize thirteen studio visits with Kentucky artists and our writers will not only be paid a stipend for their work, but – at the request of Sso-Rha Kang – I have included a small amount for travel expenses as I have always tried to connect artist and writer from different areas of this region.

Critical Mass Symposium

In 2016, we launched the Critical Mass Series, a symposium intended to advance critical thinking in the arts and promote further discussion about Kentucky’s position as it relates to the broader art community.

Critical Mass I  took place in 2016 at the University of Kentucky Art Museum and was moderated by Stuart Horodner. Then in 2018, we followed that with Critical Mass II at KMAC with Joey Yates moderating – fully intending the symposium as a biennial. The discussions however, generated such enthusiasm that it led us to rethink that idea – and in 2019 Matt Distel of The Carnegie in Covington held Critical Mass III.

Critical Mass IV is being planned for March of 202o and will feature the GMF Critic-in-Residence Koan Jeff Baysa.  So, please watch our site for upcoming details.

Critical Reviews of Local Exhibitions 

Since inception, we have held this as one of our highest priorities and, at year end, we are encouraged by the impact these reviews have had. They have exposed the curatorial work of many institutions in Kentucky and the Central Kentucky region, including: The Moreman Gallery and KMAC in Louisville; 21c Museum Hotel, Mary Rezny Gallery, Institute 193, and the University of Kentucky Art Museum in Lexington; the Solway Gallery in Cincinnati, Ohio; and the Kleinhelter Gallery in New Albany, Indiana.

Engaging critical writing from both within and outside of our state has helped to advance the level of critical discourse about contemporary art and its role in defining our regional identity. With the support of the Great Meadows Foundation, UnderMain will increase the publication of these reviews to twenty per year with an increase in pay to our writers.

Thanks to all who support our endeavor. The UnderMain concept is growing, and with new programming like UMRadio – a recurring feature of the weekly program Eastern Standard on WEKU, a local NPR station, and UMDingers, a surprise treat coming in 2020 – we continue to aim higher. And, when that big ball hits the top, we’ll move into the dawn of the dusk knowing full well how to light the way.

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A Review: “Off the Menu: Looking at Food” at the UK Art Museum

Food and art are ubiquitous entities within any culture. Both incite the senses and provide nourishment for the body and mind. Both are derived from particular traditions, passed down from various generations with successive additions and alterations made with each iteration. Both involve creativity and mastery at the highest levels, and yet both are common within our homes and our daily lives. Considering the prevalence of food and art and the status of each as markers of culture, it is no wonder that artists throughout the ages have ruminated on food in their practices.

This contemplation of the form and function of food provides the basis of the exhibition “Off the Menu: Looking at Food,” currently on view at the UK Art Museum. In particular, this show gathers together a variety of different works by artists from across the country and spanning a wide range of ages and abilities—from school children to world-famous masters—to explore the complex issues that arise when we consider deeply the role of food in our world today. While we consume food on a daily basis by necessity, we may not often consider how the food we prepare and eat exists within larger systems; by looking at food practices in art, we can attend to the more subtle aspects of food as an expression of our identities. 

“Off the Menu: Looking at Food “(installation view), UK Art Museum, June 1 – August 11, 2019.

While the show is organized around the idea of how food and art are generally intertwined, the exhibition offers a particular snapshot of 20th and 21st century notions of food and food practices within the United States. In particular, the exhibition focuses on the politics of preparation, commodification, and consumption within our lives today. Bringing together artists from across the country – including a considerable number of local artists of a variety of ages – this exhibition highlights the ways in which food is central to who we are as humans, while also demonstrating how what we eat shapes and is shaped by the culture in which we exist.  

Desire is central to how and what we eat. While we need food to sustain our lives, we crave food to nourish and comfort ourselves. It is this process of desire that is central to Julia Jacquette’s paintings. In particular, Jacquette explores the force of explicitly capitalist desire in her series “If I Could Only,” an 8-panel polyptych in which she juxtaposes the phrase “If I could only touch your perfect body” with aestheticized images of mid-century American dishes, like meatloaf and ice cream sundaes. These dishes, sourced from vintage publications including Life, Ladies Home Journal, and The Saturday Evening Post, are clearly designed for presentation—trimmed with an excessive amount of garnish and decoration and cleanly arranged on particular serving dishes—and appear visually perfect, and thus desirable. The words thus highlight the subtext of these mass cultural images of food, stating clearly how they are meant to stoke our desire as consumers, both literally and figuratively. In so doing, she makes apparent the way that advertisements and other works of mass culture conflate sexual desire with consumption, highlighting the coercive forces that make us want food.

Julia Jacquette, “If I Could Only”, 1997, enamel on wood panels. Courtesy of the artist.

Lori Larusso’s painting “Imminent Danger” also involves the tension of a single moment to call attention to particular elements of food culture, specifically its relation to gendered labor and bodies. In the painting, Larusso depicts a three-layer yellow cake with a slice removed, decorated with white frosting, lines of piped red icing, and four miniature American flags, precariously perched on the edge of a kitchen counter, teetering over a garbage can. Yet, like Jacquette’s piece, there’s an ambiguity about what might be the actual danger suggested in the title. The fall of the cake is one perceived imminent danger, further underscored by Larusso’s use of foreshortening to create a steep angle to the countertop. In this case the danger would be the ruination of a considerable amount of effort, most likely that of a woman, since baking is, by and large, a gendered practice. Alternatively, the over-consumption of the cake is the possible danger, a danger more acutely felt by women given the societal expectations on women’s figures. Either way, by ruminating on this single instance of a cake on a counter, Larusso raises several issues around gender by looking at food.

While Jacquette’s and Larusso’s paintings focus on meticulously crafted individual dishes, several of the works in this exhibition explore the mass production of fast food. The ubiquity of American fast food is central to Steve Aishman’s 2007 photo series “Throwing Fast Food”. In this series, Aishman purchases and then tosses a recognizable menu item from a variety of fast food restaurants —a Nathan’s hotdog, sandwiches from Subways and Arby’s, a filet-o-fish from McDonalds, and a Frosty from Wendy’s—capturing the ensuing flight in a single still frame. There is humor in the precariousness in which these items appear; they fly through the air about to cause a mess that has not yet happened, spilling their contents as they go as if they are engaged in some kind of slapstick pratfall. At the same time, seeing these items separate into component parts midair makes these foods rather unappetizing and even inedible, and yet these items comprise a large portion of the American diet.

Steve Aishman, “Throwing Fast Food”, 2007, archival digital prints. Courtesy of the artist.

Sally Davies’ “Happy Meal Project” takes this rumination further, ultimately challenging the notion that these items are even food to begin with. For this on-going project, Davies purchased a Happy Meal from her local McDonalds on April 10, 2010, and has continued to photograph said Happy Meal daily for the last 9 years. Over that time, the meal has neither degraded nor decayed, as is natural for all foodstuffs. Instead, it has continued to look the same, day after day, year after year. Davies project of documenting the progress of this single burger and kid-sized fries, has drawn considerable media attention overtime, and an assortment of stills of the omnipresent meal are presented below a row of media clippings about Davies’ project. That the burger remains the same and media attention keeps returning to Davies’ documentation of it speaks to the staying power—both literal and figurative—of fast food within the American diet; even though it is clear from the documentation that this Happy Meal is, at the very least, full of preservatives, and, at worst, not food at all, McDonalds still persists as a mainstay of food culture in the U.S.

Sally Davies, “Happy Meal Project”, begun April 10, 2010, and ongoing, digital prints. Courtesy of the artist.

In addition to exploring shifting diets in the form of historical and present dishes (or in the case of Davies’, past meals persisting in the present), “Off the Menu” also considers how tastes change over the life of an individual by focusing on the preferences of children. For instance, Jennifer Coates’ painting “PBJ” focuses on the ubiquitous childhood staple of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Coates enlarges the form of the sandwich and depicts it open face—or more likely in mid-construction—highlighting the smearing together of the two viscous substrates that form the basis of the dish. In so doing, she renders the sandwich as a painterly and almost abstract image, making the tactility of the process of spreading peanut butter and jelly on a slice of bread almost palpable. The shift in scale and the attention therefore afforded to it, provides the audience with the opportunity to consider this simple and commonplace meal, allowing us to consider all the ways in which we have engaged with PB&J as cooks and eaters, adults and children.

This attention to the eating patterns of children is further explored in the section of the gallery dubbed “Kid’s Table,” which brings together work by local children under the guidance of Jarah Jones at ArtPlay and Georgia Henkel at Sayre School. These projects include drawings, paintings, and sculptures of particular foods done either individually or collaboratively, as well as a project wherein students constructed their own imagined restaurants out of boxes and other craft supplies. For the latter project, students also created menus for their restaurants, often including mainstays of childhood like pizza, pasta, and ice cream. Taken together, these projects serve as a reminder of the origins of our tastes as eaters and highlight the fact that food consumption is a learned process.

Kids Table (installation view), UK Art Museum, June 1 – August 11, 2019.

Moreover, the collaborative nature of these projects prompts us to remember the social and shared aspects of food practices in general. From the very beginning, we are dependent on others in order to eat and what and how we eat is deeply tied to the practices of our caretakers. While children are acutely aware of the power of food as a form of caretaking, as we get older we tend to forget that we began eating as a social exchange between ourselves and those who fed us. As such, this section allows us to consider more than simply what a chili pepper or a strawberry looks like when rendered by a child, but also to contemplate the multifaceted ways in which we have engaged with food over our lifetimes.

These are just a few of the myriad issues raised in “Off the Menu: Looking at Food.” Food’s position in our culture is so ubiquitous and our relationships to food practices are so complex and multifaceted that it is impossible to fully ascertain all of them in a single exhibition. That said, this show makes a clear effort to incite deeper thought and reflection on the subject of foodways than we typically allow in our daily interactions. By stopping to look at food, and literally regarding what we eat, we can see how the substances that nourish us reflect our broader social and cultural identities. Through this exhibition, we get a glimpse at the various forces that shape our consumption, be they historical antecedents, the ubiquity of fast food, or the process of learning to eat in the first place.

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Psychology of Image: “Ralph Eugene Meatyard: Stages for Being” at the University of Kentucky Art Museum 

Black-and-white images of leafless trees in cold forests, masked figures in suburban neighborhoods standing next to ambivalent children, family portraits taken in the rubble of abandoned homes – these are the haunting scenes captured by photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard. In Stages for Being, the University of Kentucky Art Museum has put together a series of photographs by Meatyard that best represent his unique vision. Meatyard’s work is comprised of images of children, families, abandoned homes, and stark landscapes through which he explores how the outer world works as a stage on which imagination and inner life act.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard was born in Normal, Illinois in May of 1925 and raised in the neighboring town of Bloomington. After serving in the navy in World War II, he entered college where he briefly studied dentistry before deciding to become an optician. Shortly after marrying, he and his wife moved to Lexington in 1950. Here he worked as an optician, raised a family, and spent the rest of his life.

It’s in Lexington that Meatyard became involved with the Lexington Camera Club; a group of Kentucky creatives and intellectuals active from 1954-1974. Meatyard also maintained friendships with photographers such as Van Deren Coke and Minor White, and writers such as Wendell Berry and Guy Davenport. These figures would have a lasting impact on Meatyard’s work. 

Ralph Eugene Meatyard,” Untitled”, 1962, gelatin silver photograph. ©The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery

Stages for Being is a broad survey of the photography of Ralph Meatyard. Working with many pieces that have never been on exhibit before, the curator has organized the works not by chronology, but by subject matter. The exhibit fills the entire second floor of the Museum, a space normally reserved for the permanent collection. There’s a brief introduction to the life and works of Meatyard, and from there the photographs are divided into five categories: Masks, Interiors, Dolls, Nature, and Exteriors. This grouping doesn’t show the evolution of Meatyard’s work so much as it demonstrates how he used space and subject matter to explore various themes. It also demonstrates Meatyard’s consistency.

Within a twenty-year period, Meatyard developed his style. He didn’t do this simply through print size and camera model, but through his use of light, shadow, and composition. A Meatyard photograph can be distinguished by intense shadow offset by bright whites, as well as their theatrical and surreal nature. 

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, “Untitled”, circa 1967-68, gelatin silver photograph. ©The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery

A discussion of Meatyard would be incomplete without looking at one of his Masked pieces. In these images, Meatyard would pose members of his family in various settings (often abandoned homes, or country landscapes) and have the subject(s) wear a mask. These masks were often grotesque, gargoyle-like versions of an old man or woman’s face. The masks are unnerving. The wearer’s identity is concealed, and the photograph is no longer a simple portrait or group photo. By donning the mask, the wearer becomes the mask. On some level the viwer is aware that there’s an identity behind this mask, but through Meatyard’s lens, the mask is the person.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, “Lucybelle Crater and Peanut Farmer Friend from Port Royal, Ky., Lucybelle Crater”, 1969-71, gelatin silver photograph. ©The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery

In Lucybelle Crater and Peanut Farmer Friend from Port Royal, Ky., Lucybelle Crater (1969-71), a man and woman sit outside of an open building with a large tray of peanuts placed before them. The woman Lucybelle Crater sits on a bench to the right of the man. Her arms are crossed and she’s wearing a skirt with a collared shirt and wool sweater. Her face is concealed behind the mask of a deformed old woman, a mask that can be found in many of Meatyard’s images. To her left sits the peanut farmer from Port Royal. He’s a whole head lower than Lucybelle, seemingly sitting on the floor. His face is hard to read, not because he’s wearing a mask, but because he’s wearing a ball cap and sitting in the shadow of the building. Lucybelle sits slightly forward of him, just enough that she’s clearly visible. The peanut table before the sitters is the brightest part in this scene, sitting directly in the sunlight.

Similar to other works in the exhibit, the table acts as a divider of the frame and distances the viewer from our two subjects. Meatyard often uses objects to divide and bisect his photos; a wall might separate two individuals, a tree branch might obstruct a landscape, windows act as barriers between viewer and subject. 

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, “Lucybelle Crater and her 12-year-old daughter Lucybelle Crater”, 1969-71, gelatin silver photograph. ©The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery

This photo is part of a larger series: The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater. The photo is reminiscent of photographs in old family albums. Like pictures of people we’re related to but whose identity is lost. Using masks, Meatyard is commenting on issues of identity and image. On one level, the mask functions as a way to hide. Hidden one masks vulnerability. By masking one of the subjects, they take on a more relaxed, solid role in the scene. The masked person appears to truly be “a part” of the photograph. They ground the work. Their identity is firm and unchanging. An unmasked person must construct their identity without an aid. Unmasked, identity fluctuates. How does a photographer capture the mask as not just object, but idea? 

Ralph Eugene Meatyard,” Untitled”, 1967, gelatin silver photograph. ©The Estate of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery

Issues of identity are also explored in interior photographs in similar ways. The interior of a home often conjures up feelings of warmth, family, and place. It’s in the home that we first construct our identity. In the family home, the identity of mother, father, and child are perhaps the most solid roles we ever have. Using his own family as subject, Meatyard explores the concept of “family.” In Untitled (circa 1967) a young Mother and her two children (a boy and a girl) are shown standing in an abandoned house. The boy is around five and the girl around three. They’re all dressed in clothing typical of the sixties; the mother wearing a long skirt with a white blouse, the boy wearing a white button-up with dark pants, and the youngest wearing a little girl’s dress. Each figure stands in isolation, without acknowledgement of each other. The mother stands in the very back of the frame, with her eyes and face looking away from her children. If not for her light clothes, she would disappear into the shadows of the room. The little girl stands in the middle ground, with her hands tucked behind her and her body completely fontal.  She’s the only person in the image to acknowledge the camera. In the foreground, standing in front a door that separates him from the others is the little boy. He’s not even in the same room as his family. The door that separates him divides the frame evenly in two, further distancing us from the mother and daughter. The boy’s face is blurred, as if he was shaking his head at the moment the photo was taken. Meatyard hasn’t photographed a family, but three individuals united by the implication that a woman in a picture with two young children must be a family. In this scene, they are divorced from their roles, and stand as three independent persons. 

This image offers multiple avenues of analysis. The separation of the boy from his mother and sister examines gender dynamics, while the distancing of the mother from her two children raises questions surrounding motherhood and independence. But what unites these interpretations is identity. Meatyard, like many of his contemporaries, had an interest in Zen Buddhism. Its minimal aesthetic and mindful approach to life, coupled with its teachings on self and identity clearly informed his practice. Zen Buddhism asks us to quietly observe the world around us, and in the process, revelations about our own self will become apparent. In this observing, we begin to discover the deeper part of ourselves that is beneath the role of mother or father or spouse or child. This is what Meatyard is getting at through his photos; an exploration of personhood that runs deeper than familial or societal roles. 

On one of the panels at the exhibit, Meatyard’s work is compared to Ansel Adams. I was struck by the comparison that while Adams photographed nature as a subject that elicits in the viewer an emotional response, Meatyard photographed nature as a stage onto which our emotions act. This is what Stages for Being explores. In his photographs, we consider the different stages on which our being acts. Meatyard’s photography reminds us of the masks we wear, the parts we play, and the identities we take on.

Stages for Being is on view at the University of Kentucky Art Museum until December 9, 2018. This exhibition should not be missed. Admission is free, and the exhibit is a rare chance for the audience to get a quiet, intimate experience with works that haven’t been shown until this viewing.

Aaron Reynolds is an Art History and Visual Studies major at the University of Kentucky. He’s fascinated by the function of art and design as tools for communication

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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.

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Dredging Memory and Disaster

As its name implies, Alison Saar’s Breach, currently on display at the UK Art Museum, offers insight into the collective memory of tragedy through ruptures in the narrative strands of history that are equally lyrical and horrifying.

While an artist-in-residence in New Orleans in 2010, Saar’s experience in the still-ravaged city, five years after hurricane Katrina, provided the initial impetus for a body of work that investigates the historical and cultural linkages between disaster and African-American experience. The works in Breach draw from an event nearly eighty years before Katrina, the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927. Saar’s works attempt to explore the way this disaster, like Katrina, had an obscenely disproportionate effect on poor African Americans. Most African Americans were prevented from evacuating affected areas, forced to seek refuge on levees, and were forcibly conscripted in rebuilding efforts. The long-term effects of this disaster and its outcomes were not simply material, but had broad and enduring implications on the shared cultural experiences of African Americans.

Alison Saar, Breach, 2016, installation view.

Entering the main gallery, the walls are lined with portraits whose figures, their eyes pupil and iris-less, stare out at the audience in the throes of ecstasy and terror. Water rises around them, they gather up possessions above their heads as their bodies, some clothed and some nude, are variously submerged in the tide. Many of Saar’s works feature charcoaled images on found objects such as sugar sacks, denim scraps, drawers, and trunks, that dually function as physical objects and images and so take on iconic and even fetishized importance within Saar’s visual lexicon. Not unlike the practice of her mother, artist Betye Saar, Alison Saar’s assemblages blur the distinctions between memory and experience embodied in physical objects extracted from practical use and installed in the gallery.

Alison Saar, Breach, 2016.

In Breach (2016), the exhibition’s namesake and centerpiece, Saar hammered together tin ceiling tiles to form a life-size figure crowned with possessions saved from floodwaters. The figure, drawn from the mythological imagery of Greece and the African Diaspora, becomes an entirely new mythic sign, one though which Saar attempts to represent history as embodied experience.

Alison Sare, Hades D.W.P. II, 2016.

In fact, all of the works in the exhibition display direct traces of black bodily experience of disaster. Beyond the Great Flood and Hurricane Katrina, works like Hades D.W.P. II (2016) explore other systemic breakdowns that have disproportionally affected African American communities, namely the recent Flint, MI water crisis.

A shelf displays five large glass containers that hold vile looking liquids, eerily lit, whose fronts are etched with black body parts. The etched figures appear to drown in their glass enclosures, an effect that recalls both the violence of enslavement and the misery of black experience in light of persistence of racism and poverty. Saar’s works, that blend and blur the distinctions between both media and bodily experience, portray these recurring motifs of racist subjugation in a frank and visceral way. Muddled with mythological significance, words like “Hades,” “Lethe,” or “Mami Wata,” an African water spirit, tinge the works with a cosmological gravity that penetrates deep into the present. Death and suffering are present in the multitudinous signs Saar deftly weaves and layers together.

Alison Saar, Muddy Water Mambo, 2015.

The exhibition, split into two main spaces, establishes the content of Saar’s works beyond their physical presence, but extended into history and its practice. Saar draws on both the experience of the Great Flood and the effect it had on black culture, as it imbibed art and music in the 1930s and beyond with the traces of the Flood’s disastrous effect on black consciousness. Saar also reflects these traces back onto her works as well. Sluefoot Slide (2015) and Muddy Water Mambo (2015) both feature black figures, painted on bits of sacks, cloth, and denim, dancing and gesticulating in rising water, their ambivalent reactions to a disaster unfolding around them perhaps not uncommon to communities who have long suffered violence and oppression. Such ambivalence often manifested itself in the music of the Blues, traces of which can be found in Saar’s imagery.

In the second gallery, a film plays on a screen, where Saar narrates historical accounts of the Great Flood interspersed with explosive footage of her studio practice. Like the musicians and artists of the 1930s, Saar also contributes to the slippery space where art, history, and experience mingle. Printed works, which constitute a large portion of the exhibition, exemplify this practice. In fact, a majority of the works might be classed as prints, as they present the viewer with surfaces imprinted with the historical and bodily experiences of African American communities devastated by watery disaster.

Alison Saar, mami wata (or how to know a goddess when you see one), 2016.

Another kind of narrative chronicle hangs across from the screen where the film plays. mami wata (or how to know a goddess when you see one) (2016) takes the form of an artist’s book, the pages a single long sheer sheet that flows out goddess’s mouth. It is this speech, the markings of experience on history and culture, that Saar’s work so forcefully elucidates.

Saar’s success is not just in the works themselves, but in the way she investigates the language of black cultural experience that has been marked through a history of violence and destruction. Standing in front of the monumental Breach, one cannot help feel the weight of both the colossal load the figure bears and the significance of history embodied and marked on its surface, transformed into an icon, and speaking its experience.

Photo Credit: Joel Darland

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Patrick Adams: Light’s Mystery

Art, poetry, and music are basically cut from the same cloth—a fabric of the imagination inspired by the “real,” a concept as impalpable as any of the artistic processes that strive to represent it (reality). Goethe wrote that “Music is liquid architecture; Architecture is frozen music.” While this expression may make our wheels of cognition wobble a little, it is comprehensible, it is imaginable, and it is poetic. If you listen to Debussy’s The Sunken Cathedral, or if you look at any of Monet’s several paintings of Rouen Cathedral, the beauty, the emotion, and the lyricism that Goethe’s words and these great works of art share become magically palpable. So the formidable and rewarding task of any successful artist, regardless of the discipline, is to internalize his or her perception of the world and deliver it to us in a way that helps deepen our own experience and understanding of our place in it, of what it means to be human. 

Lexington artist Patrick Adams has stood on the cliffs of his imagination and stepped up to this easel many times. He lives and breathes his art as he continuously endeavors to explore the parameters of possibility and to realize the full extent of his creative potential.

30" x 22" acrylic on paper, 2013

Etude No. 206 – 30″ x 22″ acrylic on paper, 2013

Adams grew up in the rural farming community of Worthington, Minnesota, a landscape that ignited his spirit and became the dominate subject matter of his work with its “tall-grass prairies, vast horizons, dramatic light and thousands of natural lakes.” Since moving to Lexington over two decades ago to obtain his MFA at the University of Kentucky, he has come to recognize and acknowledge an equal love for the Kentucky landscape as well.

In a recent article published in The American Scholar (March 20, 2017), Adams says of his work and process that, “When people ask me, ‘Are these real places?’ I say, well, yes and no. They begin there, but where they end is somewhere else . . . The memory is part of my process. I like what the memory does to the image. I want the details to slip away . . . I like how the memory distills or exaggerates things, or remembers in the landscape something really essential, just the dominant essence of the scene.”  

Hilltop and Lavender Sky is an awe-inspiring example of what Adams is aiming for. And it hits the mark. Everything about this composition epitomizes the “essence of the scene” from the soft shapes and ethereal hues of lavender, yellow, and green to the sparse, deeper terrestrial tinges of white, red, and blue. Its subtle power and strong spirit make it an extremely important work of art because each time we look at it, it speaks to us in a different way, deepening our appreciation of it and strengthening our connection to it. It speaks of something beyond the physical world, of something eternal within nature and hence within ourselves. It enables the soul to take flight. For me, it brings to mind the countless times I climbed the hilltops near my childhood home looking at the layers of mountain ranges stretched out before me and standing in awe of the infinite space above me thinking this is probably as close to heaven as I will ever get.

60" x 40" oil on two canvases, 2016

Hilltop and Lavender Sky, 60″ x 40″ oil on two canvases, 2016

This piece was a part of Adams’ diptych series, In Two Worlds, exhibited at the Ann Tower Gallery, January – March (2016), a body of work that probably best represents his poetic and abstract concept of art as metaphor. Each diptych incorporates two canvases of equal size placed flush one above the other, doubling the surface space of the painting. But Adams explained in his artist statement for this show that the idea behind the diptychs goes far beyond the materiality of the canvases: “I have divided the landscape image along the horizon into two physically separate paintings: the lower half (earth), representing the physical realm, and the upper half (sky, the ‘heavens’) representing the metaphysical, or spiritual realm. These two parts, seen separately, appear flat and incomprehensible, but once brought together, they form an image that acquires an unexpected unity of light, depth and meaning . . . the physical and spiritual worlds are brought together as one, each illuminating and clarifying the other.” 

Meadow Stream succinctly illustrates this point. The individual sections are completely abstract but as with all the paintings in this series, when combined, they are like the yin and yang of art—complementary elements coming together to create a harmonious whole.

Meadow Stream, 24" x 36" oil on two canvases, 2015

Meadow Stream, 24″ x 36″ oil on two canvases, 2015

My first encounter with Adams’ artwork was at an earlier exhibit, Real Presence, at the Ann Tower Gallery in 2004. From that point on, I was sold although I couldn’t really afford to buy. A couple of years later, though, I lucked out and was able to purchase a small matted and framed oil on paper, Prelude 23, at a silent auction for the annual Art in Bloom event at the University of Kentucky Art Museum. Then, as either serendipity or synchronicity would have it, about a month ago I managed to meet with him in his studio for an interview and to learn more about what lies behind his prolific and successful career as an artist and the philosophy and influences that govern his approach and style, a little of which we have already touched on.

Patrick Adams with Work in Progress | Photo by Jim Fields

Patrick Adams with Work in Progress | Photo by Jim Fields

Adams went to school at the height of post-modernism, but said it did not have a big impact on his painting because he felt it would not sustain him for very long. It appears he took the high road—and the open road—by absorbing specific concepts, subject matter, and technical nuances of some of the greats: “The kind of artists I’ve been responding to over the last 20 years have been somewhere between late romanticism and impressionism all the way up to contemporary artists. Corot (French) and Kensett (American) paid a lot of attention to light and atmosphere and even though they were romantics (mid-19th century), that’s where the seeds of impressionism and expressionism were sewn.” While both these artists still have a strong influence, Adams says, “Abstract expressionism (abex) pretty much describes my work. If you put those two ideas together, that’s really what my work is. If you took these two words [abstract and expressionism] and put them in a bag and shook it, my work would come out.” He admits a partiality to Van Gogh because his own markings, which he characterizes as jittery or fragmented surfaces are sometimes quite similar. This can easily be seen in his diptych, Pleasant Hill. Yet it is distinctly his own.

Pleasant Hill, 40" x 40" oil on two panels, 2015

Pleasant Hill, 40″ x 40″ oil on two panels, 2015

Here Adams draws on the tremendous energy generated from the good earth and the big sky. The scene vibrates with motion and color and the elements are bold, and the gestures grand and striking. The luminosity and atmosphere that emanate from this painting can only be revealed by natural light, or the memory of it, regardless of where it was painted—in the studio or outdoors (plein air). The reality of this landscape has been deeply internalized, merged with the artist’s inner self, and he has allowed this integration to charge his imagination and guide his brush and his palette knife over the canvas time and again, layering the scene into existence. It is abstract expressionism simultaneously contained and gone wild. It is a landscape that refuses to stand still.

Besides giving a lot of credit to his former professors for helping him see and be, Adams did not ignore the influence of Monet’s later, more abstract and heavily textured works with which few of us are familiar, the ones we don’t see in art history books. He also paid homage to the late modernist Richard Diebenkorn (American colorist and structuralist) as well as the images of the contemporary Danish geologist, artist, poet and filmmaker, Per Kirkeby. One of Adams’ most abstract and most recent small pieces, Break, speaks volumes as an amalgamation of these influences and his own experience—a synthesis where the conscious and subconscious work in tandem to create a presence that is one thing when seen up close, but quite another when viewed from a distance. A genuine mark of artistic vitality.

Break, 10” x 10” oil on canvas, 2017

Break, 10” x 10” oil on canvas, 2017

Adams explains, “I use a ton of paint and paint over a lot of other good paintings that I’m not satisfied with to create this effect.  I lose a lot of good paintings to get to the one I eventually keep but I think this approach is pretty indigenous to the abex genre.”  And he remarks that regardless of the canvas size, “the landscape for me is an arena to address other things such as light, space, movement, color, and even smells and feelings.”

The sentiment he expresses in his artist statement is congruent in all his work and he challenges anyone who looks at his paintings to see the poetry too: “I want people to see the natural world not as a backdrop to their lives, but as the very heart of their lives. The beauty of these forms is not just to delight us (though it does), but also to give us life. Beauty is not simply an ornament, a surface phenomenon, but the essence and power of being. And, if beauty is accompanied at all times, as many great thinkers both ancient and modern have asserted, by goodness and truth, then we ignore it to our peril.”  Then let us not ignore the beauty, goodness, and truth of Ascent of Light.

Ascent of Light, 48” x 48” oil on canvas, 2013

Ascent of Light, 48” x 48” oil on canvas, 2013

Light is a crucial element in all of Adams’ work, as many of  his other titles suggest: Light Under Pressure, Light and Fog, Shaker Light, Veil of Light, Where Light Dwells, First Light, Uplight, and most important—Goethe’s Light. His philosophy that inquisitiveness is vital to being a creative person led him to the German poet and artist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s treatise on Theory of Color published in 1810, in which he (Goethe) hypothesizes on color as an interaction between light and darkness, why we see color, how we experience it, and how it affects us psychologically and emotionally.

Maria Popova in Goethe on the Psychology of Color and Emotion, observes that “One of Goethe’s most radical points was a refutation of Newton’s ideas about the color spectrum, suggesting instead that darkness is an active ingredient rather than the mere passive absence of light.”

“Light and darkness, brightness and obscurity, or if a more general expression is preferred, light and its absence, are necessary to the production of color,” noted Goethe. “Color itself is a degree of darkness.” Goethe’s Light may not contain the stirring brilliance you see in Ascent of Light, but it faithfully renders the more obscure “active ingredient” of color not uncommon in abex art.

Goethe's Light 30" x 30" oil on canvas, 2016

Goethe’s Light 30″ x 30″ oil on canvas, 2016

When he was working on Goethe’s Light, Adams said he saw a different kind of light, a luminescence emerging from darkness:

For Adams, these forces also include music – he plays a number of instruments and composes as well.  While Pythagoras’ theory on harmonics is more exact than Goethe’s on light and color, the effect that music has on us is just as powerful. So I asked Adams to elaborate a bit on the connection between his art and music, and he jumped right in.

He has been painting (and selling them) since he was ten years old, and his interest in music at this young age was also well beyond that of a neophyte. He was awarded both an art and music scholarship (trumpet performance) his first year in college at Winona State University in Winona, Minnesota. But because of an injury he received while playing in college marching band, he had to quit playing for a while.  He says that hiatus was actually fortuitous because it he made him focus more on his art, eventually allowing him to pursue a Masters of Fine Arts degree at the University of Kentucky where he was awarded a full scholarship and a teaching assistantship. And he hasn’t looked back.

In considering his love for making music and its connection to his art and creative process, it’s easy to see how one inherently feeds the other, even though he has chosen painting and teaching as a profession.  He emphatically states, “If I had another career, I would like to write film scores because there’s a direct link between the music and the image.”  As for his painting, he muses, “The ideal show for me would be where I would write a soundtrack for it that would be atmospheric and simple and spacious, similar to a landscape where you are the thing in the space.” I say go for it!  It may not be a new concept, but it is most definitely a rare experience for gallery goers to be engulfed visually and aurally by the work of a single artist.

As we listened to some of his compositions in his studio, Adams pointed out that both his paintings and his music “are the result of a very intuitive and improvisational process where an idea begins to assert itself and is then embellished and refined, yet neither is without structure. Just as paintings derive from the landscape, the songs are structured in a traditional jazz format . . . The intended result is simplicity.” Because he plays each of the instruments himself, he records his music in layers (or tracks) similar to the way he constructs a painting: “Same process. I am building different layers and colors and textures, and the way they interact lets you ultimately see a single image or hear a single piece of music.” Take a listen to the title cut from his album, Solipsis, while viewing his Etudes (201 – 206) and experience it for yourself.  Before you start, though, keep in mind that the titles have a bearing on the processes involved as the work was created.

Solipsis relates to the inner mind, thought, voice, feeling, and wanderings, in this case, as expressed through Adams’ individual and yet integrated performance on the electric piano, organ, drums, acoustic bass, and trumpet. Etude, a term mostly applied to a short musical composition that helps a player become more proficient on a given instrument, also refers to small studies that artists create as they formulate ideas for a larger work. Adams, again, hits the mark on all counts and here is a rare opportunity for you to get inside his head and bask in the reverie.

View Patrick’s work and listen to his composition, “Solipsis.”

From having worked on this piece for the last several weeks, the association of music with Adams’s painting has become fully ingrained in my psyche. With Harbor, for instance, I can see the interconnected layering and I can hear the music—music that I am creating in my own head as I stare at the essence of what a harbor looks like under particular circumstances or with its reality broken down into its basic components that become abstract, unrecognizable to my cranial dictates in relation to what I think a harbor should be or how I think a piece of music should sound simply based on its title. This is the beauty of the challenge in all of Adams’ work. It requires that you be with it, allowing it to permeate your senses. 

In his words:

Harbor 36" x 84" acrylic on canvas, 2016

Harbor 36″ x 84″ acrylic on canvas, 2016

Despite his musical accomplishments, painting comes to the fore as Adams’ first love and he is very forthright with what sustains his creative spirit: “I love to paint. I like the physicality of it combined with the images I create. I’ll never get it perfect and that’s what keeps me going. There’s also something about the struggle and not knowing where you are headed.  When I start painting [or composing], it’s like bumbling around in the dark and the more I can stay in the dark and stay lost, the more I like it in the painting [and the music]. Within certain boundaries, it’s exciting and to be lost in a work is good. The poetry of the creative act is in the struggle. The struggle makes art and art redeems the struggle.” Sounds a little like life, doesn’t it?

And then, there is the matter of the medium:

Through the on-going cycles of redemptive struggle necessary to the creative process, Adams has built up an impressive CV and portfolio.  He has been a professional artist for over 25 years and is currently an Adjunct Professor of Art at the University of Kentucky, Asbury University, and Eastern Kentucky University teaching courses in drawing, painting, art appreciation, art theory and criticism, and others as his schedule permits.  He is a two-time recipient of the prestigious Al Smith Fellowship in the Visual Arts awarded by the Kentucky Arts Council, and his past is awash with major exhibits (solo, two-person, and group), all over the country dating as far back as 1999. You can check out the details and his spectacular portfolios on his website, patrickadamsart.com.

His most recent exhibit of New Work was at Aberson Exhibits in Tulsa, OK last month, and he is participating in an upcoming group show (May 4-19), Dirty Pictures, at the Atrium Gallery – Studios on the Park in Paso Robles, CA.  I bet that got your attention, didn’t it?  Chill.  It’s all about landscapes—the good earth! We wouldn’t expect anything less from Patrick Adams since many of his paintings can be found in a number of private and corporate collections, such as the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (Columbus, OH), Mayo Clinic (Jacksonville, FL), Hilliard Lyons (Louisville, KY), and Gaylord International Convention Center (Washington, DC).

I don’t think we have to worry that these successes will prompt Adams to stop painting and composing. He couldn’t if he wanted to because he seems to subscribe wholeheartedly to the idea in T. S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men that “Between the conception / And the creation / Between the emotion / And the response / Falls the shadow.”  Without both darkness and light, between which that shadow lies, there can be no color, no landscapes. Adams’ knowledge of this means he can look forward to a great future—struggle and all! He himself declares, “My plan is to keep throwing paint at my canvases until something sticks that I can call good. I will likely die trying.”


(All images and music courtesy of the artist)

Related in UnderMain: Other Lexington artists who mix mediums

Ron Isaacs: Shelf Life (Painting, sculpture)

Patrick McNeese (Painting, music)

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