Ways of Validation: Lawrence Tarpey at the University of Kentucky Art Museum

Standing alongside one of the region’s most distinguished research universities, the University of Kentucky Art Museum is as an educational resource whose exhibitions are more than just presentations of artworks—they are institutional endorsements that can spearhead an artistic career. When an institution like the UK Art Museum, located inside of the Singletary Center for the Arts, selects an artist for a one-person exhibition, particular questions arise regarding its conception: Why this artist? What is it about their practice that is worth investigating? Why now?

Lawrence Tarpey: Figures and Ground, a solo exhibition featuring works made by Lexington-based artist Lawrence Tarpey, answers these questions primarily through the stark presentation of selections from Tarpey’s most recent body of work. With little accompanying wall text, Figures and Ground relies on the ambiguity of the artist’s methods, the peculiarities of Tarpey’s subject matter, and neighboring exhibitions to illustrate Tarpey’s uniqueness amongst his contemporaries and cement his rightful place in broader conversations about current art world trends.

Tarpey is currently represented by Heike Pickett Gallery in Lexington and his paintings and drawings—he refers to them as “etchings” because the aesthetic he achieves evokes modes of printmaking—are typically shown in small numbers as parts of group exhibitions. As Figures and Ground demonstrates, however, his works are best viewed in large collectives and without a thematic umbrella, for Tarpey is a world-builder who uses his art-making to create dense scenes that explore notions of rebirth, apocalyptic anxiety, and dreams, as well as the nature of art-making itself. By surveying a generous selection of Tarpey’s etchings, secondary motifs, such as systematic ordering and the quotidian, also become clear.

In Figures and Ground, some eighteen of Tarpey’s etchings taken from the artist’s studio, Heike Pickett Gallery, and local private collections are hung in a row at eye level in one of the museum’s most conventional gallery spaces. This string of images keeps one’s attention with all-over compositions, human and animal subjects, as well as bulbous—almost venereal—shapes and forms. Moreover, Tarpey’s miniature objects distinguish themselves from many other works in the museum based on size alone: The average dimensions for all works in the exhibition measures at 9.5 x 12.6”–Tarpey’s figures and shapes from his body of work are consistently scaled across pieces. Although specific narratives in Figures and Ground are altogether missing from the works on display, the exhibition’s design helps articulate a connection between each image.

Yet there is one break in the otherwise continuous line of works, which almost serves as a modest suggestion from the curatorial team as an entry- and exit-way into the exhibition’s scope. On the wall to the left of the gallery’s entrance, Back to School (2013) floats above Another Fly By (2010-2013), wherein the exhibition’s standard for eyelevel is found within the few inches of exposed wall between the two similarly dimensioned images. But this break goes unnoticed until one is fully inside the gallery and does not function as a visual rupture from the exhibition’s evenness. Rather, by taking two etchings with comparable blue-tones and stacking them without interfering with the show’s design, this unquestionably emerges as one of the exhibition’s more successful moments. This covert pairing is a checkpoint for the viewer’s trajectory.

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Lawrence Tarpey (American, b. 1957), Creation Demonstration, 2015, oil and graphite on clayboard. Courtesy of the UK Art Museum.

Once inside Tarpey’s world, a viewer will encounter Creation Demonstration (2015), a monochromatic scene filled with humanoids cohabiting within the same atmospheric space. But without a definitive foreground or background for the multitude of its figures to recede into, Creation Demonstration fails to privilege any one figure over another. Instead, the etching’s lack of depth combined with the horde of faces—all of which seem to stare in different directions but never at each other—insinuates a kind of spatial and temporal disorientation. Indeed, Creation Demonstration, with detailed inclusions of UFOs and floating heads, maintains an uneasiness that prompts notions of physical embodiment and unfamiliarity.

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Lawrence Tarpey (American, b. 1957), Rush Hour, 2009, oil and graphite on clayboard. Courtesy of Ron and Judith Isaacs.

Like Creation Demonstration, another etching by Tarpey, Rush Hour (2009), features an asymmetrical, all-over composition. But whereas the former is crowded with discernable faces and bodies, Rush Hour is a staging of abstract forms that leads to an uncertainty of the scene at hand. This work stops short of affirming a decisive foreground or background, ground or sky, and some of the forms depicted will surely inspire anthropomorphic readings (this could very well be what Tarpey intended). But without an accompanying label to guide one’s viewing or an apparent focus point, it is impossible to know for sure if these are more than just shapes floating in an unspecified space. Here, Tarpey allows the visitor to determine what exactly is going on. Rush Hour, with its heightened sense of ambiguity, can be framed as a test of perception—our viewing habits inform our ability to generate meaning. Artworks that challenge traditional conventions of looking undoubtedly belong to creative trends developed in the 20th and 21st centuries, and Rush Hour is yet another example that does just that.

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Lawrence Tarpey (American, b. 1957), Tex Mex, 20176, oil and graphite on gessoed plywood. Private Collection.

Tarpey’s world also includes nods to popular culture. Tex Mex (2016) contains a highly stylized map partially blocked by figures in the foreground, one of whose forehead is labeled with the latter of the work’s title. Tex Mex personifies the relations between the United States and Mexico but—in a manner similar to Creation Demonstration—Tarpey only provides the beginning of a story. He allows the viewer to complete the narrative based on how they interpret what is presented. In a less representational setting, the meaning implied in The Weather Channel (2016) hinges on the obsessive use of blues. It could be that Tarpey means for feelings associated with rain—gloominess, melancholy, and cleansing—to be appropriate implications upon seeing the etching. But as the figures in The Weather Channel interact with the content from other works in the exhibition, it becomes just as plausible that Tarpey’s titling methods are only gimmicks that further the sense of ambiguity linked with the world the artist creates.

The objects in Figures and Ground were made by drawing, painting, and scraping on panels, making for both additive and reductive techniques—a true push-and-pull process. Tarpey is constantly taking and giving, destroying so that he can create again. By allowing a substantial amount of Tarpey’s objects to occupy the same space, Figures and Ground highlights the degrees in which Tarpey’s renderings allude to more than their depicted scenes. With the endorsement of a solo exhibition, the subtleties of Tarpey’s art are able to reveal themselves in ways they could not had only a few of his works been included in a group exhibition.

Lawrence Tarpey: Figures and Ground is positioned alongside an exhibition featuring works made by Natalie Frank, a notable contemporary artist who also incorporates fantastical elements and figurative subjects into her art-making, as well as a two-person show that pairs the staged photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Duane Michals. Tarpey’s validation as a noteworthy artist is enhanced by the accompanying presence of these three artists whose careers are marked by exhibits at major museums and galleries. While Figures and Ground serves as an endorsement of a cherished local artist, it is also a means of situating Tarpey amongst the broader art community.

Lawrence Tarpey: Figures and Ground runs from May 6th to July 31st, 2016 at the University of Kentucky Art Museum, Lexington, KY.

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