Category Archives: Arts


Through Line to a Third

The problem with binary thinking is that by reducing the world to a simple either/or proposition, we neglect to see a third option. In most cases, our experiences, identities, and worldviews cannot be simply categorized as one thing or another; more frequently these entities are mutually inclusive, existing on a continuum or in a dialectic, rather than a dichotomy. This third option—wherein two things not only coexist but are interrelated—is at the heart of Melissa Vandenberg’s work as an artist. Vandenberg’s practice brings together elements of right and left; historical and contemporary; North and South; masculinity and femininity; and ephemerality and permanence in such a way that highlights how these polarities reveal a third, interconnected option. Working in a wide array of media and subjects throughout her career, Vandenberg explores the borders of our thinking and makes us aware of the processes therein.

Melissa Vandenberg’s interest in the interconnection of various seemingly polar entities is rooted in her own identity as an artist. When asked if she considers herself a Southern artist, for instance, Vandenberg opts for a more ambiguous identification than offered in a simple yes or no. Rather, she demonstrates both an interest in embracing the moniker and a reluctance to truly identify as such, given her status as a transplant. Born in Michigan and having migrated slowly more southward through her education and work—completing her MFA at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale and having worked in Indiana and Tennessee before settling into a faculty position at Eastern Kentucky University in 2009—Vandenberg is acutely aware of her status as a Northern native living in Appalachia. At the same time, having spent a decade in Eastern Kentucky, she recognizes the influence of the region on her identity as an artist, readily embracing the environment as a consideration in her work. Hers is thus a perspective of both insider and outsider, one who knows the area from having lived here, but whose native identity is tied up somewhere else.

“Homewrecker”, sewing machine, knives, deer hide, chair, brick & mixed media, 42 X 60 X 55 inches (dimensions variable), 2019. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.

Similarly, Vandenberg’s work cannot be defined by a particular medium. Her practice involves sculpture, installation, performance, drawing, and photography, and she readily embraces working in all of these forms. Not identifying with a particular medium, however, has made her feel alienated in many American art contexts until relatively recently. As she notes: “I’ll use video and photography [and I’ll] also draw. I’ll do performance. I’ll do installation. And I didn’t feel like I had a niche or home for a long time and I think that [lack of a particular medium] was frowned upon, not just from commercial venues, but just in general, as if I was indecisive. And I’m like ‘no, I’m equally serious about all these things and it should be my concept that’s leading the material choices anyhow. […] Isn’t that where we went after the 60s?’” Vandenberg’s identity as an artist could be defined as “mixed media” or “intermedia”, but she will also readily admit that there are clear connections between these seemingly disparate entities of her own practice. In particular, she regularly embraces fiber as the basis for her work, making large scale, soft sculpture from sewn textiles, using sewing machines in her performances, and even using cotton rag paper as the basis for her drawings. As such, her practice similarly defies the binary that an artist must either be understood as a medium-specific or multimedia practitioner, offering a third option comprised of both.

“Doublespeak”, match burn on Arches paper, 22.5 X 30 inches, 2018. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.

“Double-talk”, match burn on Arches paper, 22.5 X 30 inches, 2018. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.

Looking at her work, it is readily apparent how her practice similarly engages with the dialectic between seemingly binary entities. In her most recent body of work, Vandenberg has created a series of triptychs comprised of “burn drawings,” which she has created by burning matches directly into Arches paper. In particular, her set of skull drawings, entitled Doublespeak, Double-Talk, and Red Vanitas, examine how two entities that are apparently diametrically opposed can actually merge to become one in the same, or an inclusive third. In each of these three works, two skulls look out in opposing directions, their metaphorical gazes fixed on something the other clearly cannot see. At the same time, their cranial structures overlap, merging them into a singular entity, one that is equally dependent on the form of the other in order to exist.

“Red Vanitas”, match burn and ink on Arches paper, 22.5 X 30 inches, 2018. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.

For Vandenberg, this overlap and the dichotomy it undermines function to critique the extreme prevalence of binary thinking within our contemporary culture, both locally and world-wide. She notes: “I’ve been using conjoined metaphors for a while. I think [of the motif as reflecting] this political climate, the general divisiveness, [and] realizing, you know, the supposed right and left—and this is even a global situation, not just here.” Vandenberg’s skulls do look left and right and, yet, the two are ultimately part of the same entity. These works, therefore, call attention to the fact that the ideological and, even, the physical delineation of left and right are interdependent parts of a single whole. Just as a physical object cannot have solely a left or a right side—as there will always be a boundary on the opposite side—neither can a political ideology exist solely in one camp or another; the limitations of the polar opposite are, therefore,  essential to create a cogent definition. By conjoining the two entities as such, Vandenberg highlights the fact these distinctions in our culture are truly interdependent.

Vandenberg’s skulls not only ruminate on ideological dichotomies, but they also undermine the duality between past and present, or the (art) historical and the contemporary. For Vandenberg, this series of burn drawings offers an opportunity to consider the legacy of historical motifs and objects. The use of the skull makes a clear reference to the Dutch still life tradition of the “vanitas,” wherein the still life painter would include a material reference to death among the sumptuous painted display. At the same time, both materially and temporally, Vandenberg’s skulls convey a particular sense of the present. As previously noted, the conjoined nature of them calls attention to our contemporary historical conditions. Furthermore, the materiality of the burn drawing itself has a clearly instantaneous quality to it, one that is created with a meticulous precision in terms of timing, which imbues the work with a clear sense of the now. Combining the historical references with this notion of the present, Vandenberg’s work thus calls attention to the falseness of the dichotomy between past and present, revealing the continuum upon which both entities exist.

Vandenberg’s interest in combining seemingly dichotomous entities is not solely a recent venture. For years now, she has explored the limits of these distinctions throughout her practice, both literally and metaphorically. Geographic delineations, in particular, have been a consistent theme throughout much of her work. Just as her own identity as an artist has been shaped by time spent in both the North and the South, she has used her practice to explore the differentiation between these two regions. In 2010, for instance, she carried out her Middleland Project, wherein she spent several weeks traveling along the boundary between the Northern and Southern United States. The project offered a reimagining of American borders, highlighting the various identities that emerge within and across these two regions. As Vandenberg notes: “[t]hese are not your usual border states; semantically they are an amalgamation of the Heartland, the Midwest, the Bible Belt, just south of the Rust Belt and flanking the Mason Dixon Divide. They provide a rich yet fractured history as ideologies are constantly challenged from the surrounding North and South.”[1]

‘Middleland Project’, 10X14 digital photographs, 2010

Vandenberg documented her journey in a variety of media, including photographs and a blog  that she maintained during her travels. The resulting project is a series of images and texts illuminating the complicated and multifaceted expressions of regional identities that exist along the borderlands, demonstrating the ways in which people North of the divide share values and lived experiences with those South of it, while also noting the moments in which real differences are apparent. In exploring the line between North and South through this project, Vandenberg highlights the existence of a third possible identity, one that transcends and transgresses the division of the border itself.

“Monument”, US flags, polyester, wood, nylon & hardware, 66 X 26 X 26 inches, 2016. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.

Her practice not only considers the interwoven nature of geographic boundaries, but also the interrelatedness that characterizes gender binaries. In particular, her sculpture practice has, for years, juxtaposed elements of masculinity and femininity in a way that calls attention to the limits of these two categories. For instance, in her work Monument, Vandenberg combines the masculinity associated with militarism and patriotic service with the femininity of textile work. In this work, Vandenberg constructs a portable, stuffed obelisk out of the fabric of several deconstructed flags. As such, the work calls attention to the particularly masculine traits of patriotic duty and military sacrifice, alluding to the cemetery memorials that mark the graves of countless American soldiers. (While women have, for centuries, served in military roles, the vast majority of service members killed in the line of duty have been men, due largely to the exclusion of women from combat roles until 2016.)

At the same time, Vandenberg incorporates clearly feminine signifiers into her monument through her choice of materials. Sewing, and textile work more generally, is unquestionably feminine, having been one of the primary forms of craft practices that have characterized women’s art for centuries. Broadly speaking, within flag culture, women’s roles have historically been as makers, using our talents with needle and thread to construct symbolic objects, the most iconic example of such being the Revolutionary War seamstress Betsy Ross. Therefore, by incorporating this textile tradition and rendering her monument visibly soft—a characteristic often attributed to women both in physical form and in temperament— Vandenberg complicates the masculinity associated with the obelisk and the militaristic culture it represents.

In bringing together two sides of this binary, Vandenberg again demonstrates how these notions are, indeed, interconnected. The softness of the stuffed fabric combined with the rigidity of the form of the obelisk proposes a reconceptualization of gender wherein the dichotomy between manliness and womanhood is replaced with a more nuanced and dialectic understanding. Because this form is neither completely masculine nor completely feminine, it posits the existence of some hybridity between the two, thus illustrating that the binary is false and that some combination thereof is likely more common.

In her practice, Vandenberg has challenged the apparent duality of gender on multiple occasions, including in more recent work like the piece Homewrecker. In this work, Vandenberg has constructed a sewing station precariously propped up on a variety of knives, all of which sit on a flattened deer hide, while a brick placed on the pedal keeps the machine running. Like with her monument, the sewing machine itself is a synecdoche for womanhood.  The metaphorical reference to womanhood is made more apparent through the fact that it is a “homemaker” brand machine, calling to mind one of the central elements of women’s labor and identities for centuries. At the same time, the knives—bowie knives along the base of the machine and throwing knives extending down the legs of the chair—coupled with the skinned deer hide allude to hunting, one of the most traditional and archetypal roles for men going back to hunter/gatherer societies.

And yet even with the clear gender distinctions that are apparent on the surface of the work, the piece highlights the complicated and intertwined nature of gender. For instance, as Vandenberg notes, the deer hide itself can be understood as a feminine form, particularly as deer have held “a lot of symbolism in every religion, […]usually related to purity and fertility.” The masculinity of hunting is therefore undercut by the femininity associated with the deer in various spiritual practices. Through this juxtaposition, Vandenberg continues to complicate binary gender distinctions in her work, highlighting the capacity of objects and individuals to perform both roles simultaneously.

“Homewrecker”, sewing machine, knives, deer hide, chair, brick & mixed media, 42 X 60 X 55 inches (dimensions variable), 2019. Image Courtesy of Maus Contemporary.

The gender dichotomy is only one of the multiple binaries challenged in Homewrecker; the piece also ruminates of the duality of ephemerality and permanence. In particular, the physical construction of the work is both temporary and enduring. On the one hand, the assembled items that comprise the sculpture—the sewing machine, the seat, the knives, the hide, and the brick—are all sturdy and long-lasting items. On the other hand, the permanence of these objects is undercut by the dynamic and mechanical nature of the work. By strategically placing a brick on the foot pedal of the sewing machine, Vandenberg has created an object that will continue to vibrate so long as it is on display, ultimately causing the knives to cut into the deer hide and thus destroy the work as it once existed. In creating a work that appears static but is, in fact, always changing, Vandenberg highlights the interrelatedness between the ephemeral and the permanent. That the deer hide appears permanently whole but is actually being altered moment by moment illustrates how things may appear eternal, but they are never quite that. At the same time, that the fleeting and momentary vibrations of the sewing machine are causing the knives to damage the hide instant by instant also illustrates the impact of ephemerality on more permanent conditions.

Throughout her career, Melissa Vandenberg has used her practice to critically examine multifaceted and complex issues, layering meaning into the various elements of each work to create a totality rife with bold statements and nuanced assertions. Despite working in a wide variety of media, there are clearly remarkable through lines that create wholeness out of what could be understood as disunity. Similarly, though her work addresses a considerable number of disparate ideas, the distinctions among them frequently function to unite her practice and the issues she addresses. Her work challenges us to think in more complicated ways, abandoning reductive logic that seeks to delineate the world in binary forms, offering us instead a way to see a possible interconnected third.

Portrait of the artist by the artist, Melissa Vandenberg

[1]Melissa Vandenberg to Middleland: Artwork and commentary focused on the landscape flanking the Mason-Dixon Divide. , February 26, 2010,


So much about ourselves can be discovered by exploring the history of a place. That certainly is true of an 8-mile stretch of a beloved creek that winds its way through part of central Kentucky. From the WEKU current affairs program Eastern Standard, listen to Tom Martin’s conversation with Richard Taylor, author of Elkhorn: Evolution of a Kentucky Landscape.

Click to listen


UMRadio Debuts on Eastern Standard

UnderMain joins forces with WEKU’s weekly current affairs program Eastern Standard to bring you regular coverage of the arts in central and eastern Kentucky. You can listen to our first contribution to the show on this week’s edition (88.9 WEKU at 11 am / 7 pm Thursdays, 6 pm Sundays. You can live stream Eastern Standard from or, download the WEKU app from your device app store and listen live, or find our podcast on NPR One, iTunes, Google Play or Stitcher.)


Slices of the Peculiar: Deborah Whistler at Moremen Gallery

Deborah Whistler believes fear should be confronted—and she’s not afraid to use knives. In a showing of her work entitled “Follow the Rabbit”at Moremen Gallery in Louisville, Whistler literally dissects the kinds of myths and fairytales that may incite unease. Copies of Alice in Wonderland are delicately sliced, drawings of creatures are finely trimmed, and a gamut of other figures and art historical allusions are collaged and paired. All told, the exhibition stands to interrogate the concept of linearity, and Whistler’s treatment of material generates an aggressive, yet reverent, approach to her subject matter.

The exhibition is stationed in three rooms conjoined by two narrow hallways. Bookending one side is While We Wait (2015), a graphite and cut paper drawing mounted on four hinged pieces of plexiglass whose middle panels jut out from the wall in a convex fashion. Moreover, the work is backlit and remnants of the drawing creep onto the wall. Whistler intricately combines decoratively lacerated paper with lively illustrations of abstract shapes and portraits, some of which are likely to be recognized by viewers, including Caravaggio’s Medusa, Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, and selections from Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez.

“While We Wait”, 2015, pen, ink, & paper cutting in plexiglass, 9.5’ x 4’ x 2’.

The physical characteristics of While We Wait become metaphors for the exhibition’s guiding themes. Panels of the hinged drawing hang upside down, and the dramatic sense of movement suggested by Whistler’s mark making, incisions, and placement of shapes and characters make for a whimsical visual experience. Reality has been contorted and twisted; the familiar has become obscured.

These notions continue throughout “Follow the Rabbit.” Whistler is keen in her ability to draw from already eccentric subjects, identifying their unsettling qualities and utilizing them to create dreamlike situations, which are abundant in the exhibition. Whistler’s intention is to embrace the unknown.

It is clear she hopes viewers will too. There are multiple works in “Follow the Rabbit” that call for close scrutiny. Among them, a 2008 rectangular sculpture bearing the exhibition’s title is littered with secret compartments and populated with scenes from Alice in Wonderland, drawn with segmented excerpts from the book that Whistler has deliberately arranged. The drawings that the excerpts create are parallel to the words Whistler has chosen. For example, “Alice opened the door.” appears above a depiction of the curious title character peeking into an entryway.

A copy of the book is opened atop the pedestal—from it spouts a paper chain of the books pages, carved to take the identity of young women. Alice herself has stepped out of Wonderland and entered our world. At the same time, the sculpture’s compartments, often small doors or drawers and may require viewers to bend in order to fully see them, offer breaks from reality. They are filled with mirrors, letterpress blocks, small drawings, and other objects that are capable of distorting or enabling perception.

Together, the text, drawings, and found objects, as well as the sculptural rectangle that holds all of these components, offer inventive ways to reintroduce recognizable material—in this case a well-known piece of literature and the viewer’s own self—as unusual. What’s more, Whistler breaks with expected modes of art consumption by asking the viewer to kneel, squat, and stare into her sculpture.

“Tears of Alice”, 2010, wood and steel installation, dimensions variable.

Life-size versions of Alice are the centerpiece of the exhibition in an installation called Tears of Alice (2010). A doorframe divides the work into two near identical realms, each featuring a steel cast of Alice. The contours of her head and dress are gestural. She appears to hold her decapitated head in her hands, while a head attached to her neck remains faceless. A mobile extending from the doorframe sprinkles illustrative heads, organic swirls, and wisps over the installation. The door contains a large piece of glass so that all details are exposed from any viewing angle. The doorframe and steel casts stand upon a checkerboard pattern formed by wooden slats and the gallery floor.

Tears of Alice reads as a mirror image, wherein the glass in the door can be thought of as reflecting one side of the installation, rather than providing a lens into the other side. However, as the Wonderland tales would have it, the glass functions as both a reflection of the space we occupy and a gateway into a new environment altogether. The door bolsters this kind of reading. Alice—and the viewers near the installation—peer into a separate arena, able to enter if they so choose. Or perhaps they see themselves staring back at them. In either case, Tears of Alice is meant to offer a range of interpretative possibilities through a rather simple presentation of parts, and visitors to the gallery should be unafraid of any that may materialize.

“Last Breath”, 2005, paper cutting and graphite rubbing, 8.5’ x 6’.

Mirror imaging persists at different moments in the exhibition, such as in Last Breath (2005), a diptych drawing of an abstract composition fabricated from cut paper on the one hand and graphite rubbing on the other. The two versions of the image are not identical, but are similar in shape—an elongated, vertical oval form—and value. Whistler juxtaposes finely chiseled white paper on a black backdrop, and develops a dense graphite drawing on standard paper. They are almost inverses; it is apparent they were made to function as a single work. It is unclear, however, which one would be the negative to the other’s positive.

Perhaps it can be either possibility, or maybe none at all. Whistler creates objects that are not concerned with determinants. Instead, they are grounded in the mystical, or at least Whistler overloads viewers with text, content, line, and materials such that even the most recognizable forms read as incomprehensible. Such is the case in Siren’s Revenge (2018), an eight foot long cut paper drawing on plexiglass that may initially appear entirely abstract, but with close examination features numerous organic forms, human faces, and snakes made using a small blade.

This is surely a thread in “Follow the Rabbit.” Whistler meticulously selects portions from notable works, framing them as unknowable through a combination of collage, drawing, and cutting. She welcomes viewers to learn again, even if it means trekking into the dark.

“Follow the Rabbit” is on view until January 19that Moremen Gallery, located at 710 West Main Street in downtown Louisville.

Arts, Beauty

The Night They Stole a Racehorse

For a full appreciation of what was lost in a mystery that began on a cold and foggy February, 1981 night in County Kildare, Ireland, it’s instructive to first watch the video of an event that occurred two years prior.

Shergar wins the 1981 Derby - rare commentary by Peter Bromley for BBC Radio 2

Now that you’ve witnessed the astonishing capability of the thoroughbred Shergar, hear the story of his disapperance.  Tom Martin, host of Eastern Standard on WEKU, interviews Milton Toby, author of Taking Shergar: Thoroughbred Racing’s Most Famous Cold Case.

Taking Shergar is a publication of the University Press of Kentucky.

Tom Martin is co-publisher of UnderMain, host of WEKU’s Eastern Standard, a columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader and Student Media Advisor at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky.


Habitat Benefit Brings Out Big Local Stars

For the second year in a row now, a motley group of local musicians is heading to the dark side of the moon for a good cause. On Friday, December 14th, at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center Black Box Theatre, an assortment of local musical luminaries will play two sets – one from Pink Floyd, covering their seminal years and another paying tribute to Big Star, an incredibly influential and acclaimed group that never quite seemed to mate that influence to commercial success. All of these efforts are to support Lexington Habitat for Humanity, a cause near to organizer Dr. Scott Whiddon’s heart (more on that here).

This year’s show features an enormous cast of musical characters from such local staples as Joslyn and the Sweet Compression, Johnson Brothers, The Twiggenburys, OTTO, Palisades and Bear Medicine. The event has an equally substantial group of local sponsors: WEKU’S Eastern Standard, Smiley Pete Publishing, CD Central, Black Lotus Yoga, Desperate SpiritsJ. Gumbo’s, and West Sixth Brewing.

Keyboardist Kevin Holm-Hudson, member of The Twiggenburys and a second-year alumnus of this event, finds an added benefit in the charitable aspect of the gig:

“Music is something we do together. It’s a communal, bonding experience, so making music to benefit the community really adds to my enjoyment.”

“Art in general, and music, in particular, are great communication tools,” adds Guitarist Jim Gleason of the Johnson Brothers and another second-year alumnus. “In this case, the show is a way to get the word out about Habitat through a different channel than something typical like an ad or brochure.  If that helps point a light on the good work they do, I’m excited to help.”

The doors open at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, December 14th, with the music starting at 8:30. Tickets are available here, and an event page for more information is available here.  


Something More

Something Pretty at Transylvania’s Morlan Gallery means to complicate that idea. The artwork does so in a way that is both literal and conceptual, dealing with the viewer’s experience and judgment of the objects on display and the baggage brought to ideas of beauty, aesthetics, identity, and power by the act of looking and the often-trivializing effect of prettiness.

The works shown present an emphatic statement that they are more than nice things to look at. Instead, these works and their artists reach out to the viewer in ways that are deeply affective and lend a great deal of depth and complexity against the often patronizing and dismissive designation of what is called pretty. As Curator Dr. Emily Elizabeth Goodman explains, the word “renders anything associated with the term solely superficial and without any intellectual or cultural significance.” It usually plays on surfaces and appearances, concerned with outward expressions that can be categorized and hierarchized according to things like class, gender, and racial and sexual identity. But Goodman presents a means to complicate this process, a means to challenge the viewer’s own perceptions and biases in regards to art, artists, and their subject matter. It is an opportunity to examine the ways beauty can be a tool of erasure rather than visibility.

Loosely grouped by media, the works are displayed in several sectors within the gallery. Dominating a single walled-off area is a projection of HuiMeng Wang’s video work You Are Beautiful You Should be Seen (2015). As a kind of introduction that immediately grabs attention when entering the gallery space, the video shows the artist on a windy and overcast beach. She washes large exposed driftwood tree trunks and attempts to dig them out even as the blowing sand encroaches and reburies them. A narrator recounts the story that spawned the footage, and explains how such a situation and the beauty it holds is fleeting and often comes up against what one expects it to be. The narration is spoken with a generic male voice and its tone curtly matter-of-fact. As the video loops this disconnect between image and story seems to grate against deeper implications of visibility and beauty. Though a glossy sheen is provided by the narration, Wang’s nuanced meditation on beauty and depiction does not remain hidden.

Angela Dufresne, ‘Listen to Me You Idiot’, 2013

This engagement with pretty surfaces and what lives beneath them (or outside them) is reiterated as the viewer shifts to the exhibition’s sector of painted works. The painted surface was long a modernist preoccupation and here two of the artists artists penetrate the concept of surfaces through an engagement with images and content. Angela Dufresne’s works play with the multifarious conceptions of being painted. It’s Like This (2012) and Listen to Me You Idiot (2013) feature bright and thickly applied swathes of paint combined into grotesque hybrid animal-human faces. But these are not monsters, their expressions are complex and conflicted, and their colors worn like masks. Similar to the idea of being painted up, the concept of expression is both an affectation and a way of staking out and claiming identity. In these paintings, the surface is inextricably tied to both the painted object and painted body. In both cases there is a striking amount of depth.

Likewise are Tiffany Calvert’s painting investigations into the nature of surfaces, application of paint, and complex engagements with the tenuous nature of beauty. Her largest work, Untitled #305 (2018), is a deconstruction of an old Flemish still life. The image is digitally processed and printed on canvas and painted over with bold, wide, and flat strokes of blended color. The painted strokes sit on top of and next to similar digitally produced effects. Together they bring out the constructed nature of the painting, not just in its materials, but in the connection between images and reality. Two other works, Untitled #297 (2017) and Untitled #290, allow the viewer full access to the illusion. Frescos applied to roughly shaped insulation boards, the painted objects only hide their front and back surfaces. The banal material in-between shatters the paintings’ ability to easily inhabit the space of artistic objects and artistic beauty. Instead they teeter on the conceptual edge between art and just pretty objects.

Justin Favela, ‘Ahuehuete de la Noche Triste (After José María Velasco)’, 2017.

A bridge between materials and beauty is further stressed in the art objects of Justin Favela. Here expectations and identities clash. With images drawn from the oeuvre of 19th century Mexican painter José María Velasco, Favela’s “paintings” reappraise Velasco’s concepts of land nationalism through the application of media heavy with racial and class implications. Velasco’s lofty nationalist propaganda, in the form of idealized landscapes, is reimagined in Ahuehuete de la Noche Triste (After José María Velasco) (2017) with the cut paper of the Mexican piñata. The landscapes are abstracted to the point that they lose cohesion and become much more fluid patterns of shape and color. No longer tied to often-overtly racist nationalism, Favela’s objects create new spaces for engagement and exploration where the viewer might be free to encounter identities and experiences with a depth and through materials not before considered.

Subjective ideas of beauty and prettiness are often used to close off certain identities, bodies, or experiences from deeper engagement. The complexity and ambivalence of beauty is a common thread in the overall experience Goodman has curated. All these artworks have a depth that seeks to muddle the pleasurable and powerful implications of looking. This is a call to reexamine what it means to look. This seems most complete in Stephan Rolfe Powell’s glass objects. They begin as playful and aesthetically interesting but reveal much more in the implications of their forms. Two colorful glass objects, Cracking Frenetic Glare (2006) and Twilight Curiosity Buns (2000), are playful, erotic, presented as pseudo-bodily spectacles. Yet below their surfaces runs an anxiety about such bodily comparisons, especially as the objects sprout long phallic tubes from suggestively shaped bulbous forms. They reflect back on the viewer the subjective of the gaze.

Installation view with works by Stephen Wolfe Powell, Photo by Tristan Osby

Installation view with works by Stephen Wolfe Powell, Photo by Tristan Osby

This anxiety becomes more acute in Powell’s two large curved plates of glass. These one-inch thick glass walls, beautifully backlit, stand on low pedestals and tower above the heads of most visitors and confront the viewer with complex, patterned forms that dip and flow through the depth of the glass. The complex tangles of colorful tubes seem to inhabit their own world within the glass, locked inside but on the verge of escaping outward. At first pleasing to look at, the forms grow more sinister the more they are considered. What could be flowers or simple geometric shapes might be mouths or other orifices attached to long squirming creatures or phallic organs. Like with Powell’s other works, there is a transformation in the experience of looking as the surface-level beauty deepens into more complicated and even unsettling territory.

In this exhibition, the viewer is confronted and must likewise confront what it means to look at, see, and appraise things and bodies. The power dynamics of expectations versus experience can be reconsidered and rerouted. In the end these works demand more than a passing a glance but a more critical and compassionate look.


The Gift of a Good Book

Books make the best gifts. They’re easy to wrap. Travel well. Ship cheaply. And best of all for Lexingtonians, you can shop local from an amazing list of new books written by authors who live just down the street or are published by presses located here in Kentucky.

This year’s local book list is particularly fine, with several nominated for prestigious awards or recommended by NPR, O, the Oprah Magazine, Southern Living, Refinery29, Good Reads, and Town & Country.

Here’s a quick shopping list filled with local books with lots of buzz. There are many others, too. Stop by your local bookstore for more suggestions.

The Carrying by Ada Limón (Milkweed Editions)

Lexington resident Ada Limón is the author of five poetry collections, most recently The Carrying, named a best book of 2018 by NPR and Publishers Weekly. In its starred review, Publishers Weekly wrote that “Limón demonstrates her aptitude for making readers attend to the world in ways they likely never imagined. This is an emotionally versatile collection in which the struggles and joys of the body, the oddities and wonders of nature, and the pains and pleasures of the social coalesce with verve.”  Limón’s 2015 collection Bright Dead Things was named a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named one of the Top Ten Poetry Books of 2015 by The New York Times.

Southernmost by Silas House (Algonquin Books)

Silas House’s latest novel travels from the familiar territory of Appalachia to the beaches of Key West on a journey that reshapes a preacher’s beliefs in love and faith. In the aftermath of a flood that washes away much of a small Tennessee town, evangelical preacher Asher Sharp offers shelter to two gay men. In doing so, he starts to see his life anew and risks losing everything including his wife, his congregation, and his young son, Justin, caught in the middle of what becomes a bitter custody battle. The timely and powerful story portrays each character with complexity and empathy. Southernmost has been named a Best Book of 2018 by Southern Living and Garden & Gun, longlisted for the Carnegie Medal, and shortlisted for the Weatherford Award.

Whiskey & Ribbons by Leesa Cross-Smith (Hub City Press)

Set in contemporary Louisville, Leesa Cross-Smith’s mesmerizing first novel about the death of a police officer is a requiem for marriage, friendship and family. Evi—a classically-trained ballerina—was nine months pregnant when her husband Eamon was killed in the line of duty on a summer morning. Eamon’s adopted brother Dalton moves in to help her raise six-month-old Noah. Whiskey & Ribbons was named A Best Book of Summer by O Magazine. Cross-Smith lives in Louisville.

The Gift of Color: Henry Lawrence Faulkner – Paintings, Poems, and Writings by John Stephen Hockensmith (Fine Art Editions Press)

This beautiful book tells the story of Lexington’s legendary Henry Faulkner, an artist, poet, designer, animal lover and style icon who was a familiar face in the Gratz Park area. John Stephen Hockensmith has produced a coffee table-style book that is visually rich and substantial in content, sure to please the art collectors and local history buffs on your list.

Patchwork: A Bobbie Ann Mason Reader by Bobbie Ann Mason (University Press of Kentucky)

Patchwork collects outstanding examples of Mason’s award-winning work from throughout her writing career and provides a unique look at the development of one of the country’s finest writers. Patchwork contains short stories first published in The New Yorker and other magazines; chapters from Mason’s acclaimed novels, including In Country, An Atomic Romance, and The Girl in the Blue Beret; excerpts from her eclectic nonfiction; and her recent explorations in flash fiction. Mason grew up in Mayfield, Kentucky, and lives near Lexington.

Weedeater: An Illustrated Novel by Robert Gipe (Ohio University Press)

Weedeater picks up six years after the end of Robert Gipe’s award-winning first novel, Trampoline, and continues the story of the people of Canard County, Kentucky, as they live through the last hurrah of the coal industry and battle widespread opioid abuse. Gipe combines humor, honesty, and dignity in his portrayal of life in eastern Kentucky. He lives in Harlan. 

The Mentelles: Mary Todd Lincoln, Henry Clay, and the Immigrant Family Who Educated Antebellum Kentucky by Randolph Paul Runyon (University Press of Kentucky)

The cultured Parisian couple Augustus and Charlotte Mentelle may have felt displaced in their adopted hometown of Lexington, a settlement that was still a frontier town when they arrived in 1798. Through the years, they often reinvented themselves out of necessity, but their most famous venture was Mentelle’s for Young Ladies, a school that attracted students from around the region and greatly influenced its most well-known pupil, Mary Todd Lincoln.

Hope Never Dies: An Obama Biden Mystery by Andrew Shaffer (Penguin Random House)

Former President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden team up in this high-stakes thriller that’s part bromance and part escapist fantasy for those who need a break from reality. Shaffer is a New York Times-bestselling author who lives in Lexington.

Elkhorn: Evolution of a Kentucky Landscape by Richard Taylor (University Press of Kentucky)

Flowing across four counties in central Kentucky, Elkhorn Creek is the second largest tributary of the Kentucky River and has been a touchstone for Richard Taylor, a former Kentucky poet laureate and English professor at Transylvania University. A beautiful blend of creative storytelling and historical exploration of a beloved waterway, Elkhorn celebrates a gem in the heart of central Kentucky.

Visible Empire by Hannah Pittard (Houghton Mifflin)

On a humid summer day, phones in Atlanta begin to ring after a Boeing 707 bringing home more than 100 of the city’s most prominent citizens from a European jaunt crashed in Paris shortly after takeoff. Overnight, the city of Atlanta changes. Left behind are children, spouses, lovers, and friends faced with renegotiating their lives. Visible Empire is Pittard’s fourth novel and was a New York Times Book Review New & Noteworthy Selection. The author lives in Lexington where she directs the University of Kentucky MFA in Creative Writing Program.

Forty Minutes to Glory: Inside the Kentucky Wildcats’ 1978 Championship Season by Doug Brunk (University Press of Kentucky)

For the sports fan on your shopping list, give the untold story of Joe B., Goose, Robey, Macy, and the rest of the legendary 1978 NCAA championship team. You know, the ones who beat Duke.

The Leper Dreams of Snow by Sean Corbin (Finishing Line Press)

This book is a double-double with a local author and local publisher. Sean Corbin, a graduate of the first class of the new MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of Kentucky, has a new poetry chapbook, The Leper Dreams of Snow, published this year by Finishing Line Press.

Taking Shergar: Thoroughbred Racing’s Most Famous Cold Case by Milton C. Toby (University Press of Kentucky)

On a cold and foggy night in 1983, a group of armed thieves crept onto Ballymany Stud in County Kildare, Ireland, to steal Shergar, one of the thoroughbred industry’s most renowned stallions. They demanded a hefty ransom, which was never paid, and the horse was never found. This true story reads more like a mystery novel. Milton C. Toby is an award-winning author, journalist, and attorney.

In Praise of The Useless Life: A Monk’s Memoir by Paul Quenon, O.C.S.O. (Ave Maria Press)

The humble peace, routine and simplicity of monastic life, as well as its counter-cultural wisdom, come alive in stories told by Br. Paul Quenon, who has lived more than five decades as a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani. As a novice, his teacher was Thomas Merton. His chapter about receiving word of Merton’s accidental death in Asia is particularly compelling.

Mend: Poems by Kwoya Fagin Maples (University Press of Kentucky)

J. Marion Sims is celebrated as the father of modern gynecology and a memorial at his birthplace honors “his service to suffering women, empress and slave alike.” These tributes whitewash the fact that Sims achieved his surgical breakthroughs by experimenting on eleven enslaved African American women. Lent to Sims by their owners, these women were forced to undergo operations without their consent. In Mend: Poems, Kwoya Fagin Maples gives voice to the enslaved women and challenges the lies.

The Supernormal Sleuthing Service #2: The Sphinx’s Secret by Gwenda Bond and Christopher Rowe (HarperCollins)

For middle-grade readers on your list, check out this sequel to The Lost Legacy, the first book in the Supernatural Sleuthing Service series by Lexington writing spouses Bond and Rowe. The mystery is based around the lions in front of the New York Public Library which are actually sphinxes that guard a secret treasure trove of magical objects.

Klondike, Do Not Eat Those Cupcakes! by Amanda Driscoll (Penguin Random House)

For 3-5-year-olds on your list, look for this picture book by Kentucky author and illustrator Amanda Driscoll in which a hungry seal attempts the impossible task of waiting until his sister’s party to eat a delicious birthday cupcake. Her previous books include Duncan the Story Dragon and Wally Does Not Want A Haircut.

Jayne Moore Waldrop is a Lexington writer, attorney and literary arts liaison at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. Her poetry chapbook, Retracing My Steps, will be released in March 2019 from Finishing Line Press.


“Rubbish and Dreams” in Kentucky’s Queer Archives: A conversation with David Getsy on researching Stephen Varble

In Fall 2018, David Getsy curated two exhibition on Kentucky-born artist, Stephen Varble, “Rubbish and Dreams: The Genderqueer Performance Art of Stephen Varble” at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York, NY, and “Stephen Varble: An Antidote to Nature’s Ruin on this Heavenly Globe, Prints and Video from the Early 1980s” at Institute 193 in Lexington, KY.

These exhibits offered the first scholarly examinations of this iconic performance artist, who gained notoriety in New York during the 1970s for his irreverent and unauthorized events, staged in galleries, banks, boutiques, public streets, and private apartments. Although his wild performances and elaborate costumes made of debased and discarded materials inspired many of his contemporaries, until now Varble has been written out of history because of his rejection of the art market and its institutions, and also his untimely death from AIDS in 1984 which cut his promising career short.

In this conversation, David Getsy describes the task of researching this under-considered figure and the many Kentuckians who helped him to uncover lost stories, works, and archival documents.

Clipping from the front page of a 1975 Village Voice showing Varble wearing the Dream Dress he made for his return to Kentucky and holding a loaf of Wonder Bread.

MK: You have spoken about how your research on Stephen Varble was distinct from other projects, as much of it did not take place in libraries and official archives, but rather by sorting through boxes of material in his friend’s attics, porches, and garages. Some key research took place while you were visiting Kentucky last Fall. Could you talk a bit about how that trip impacted your research and some of the insights that you gained by meeting with Varble’sfriends and collaborators and looking through their material?

DG: One of the remarkable things about the work on this project is how generous Varble’sfriends and collaborators have been.  As the project started to take shape (and have an online presence), there were many who reached out to me. In particular, after a lecture I gave on Varble was posted online a couple years ago, I became connected with a few people in Kentucky who were active in Kentucky LGBT history.  Robert Morgan, in particular, has been a great help and a wonderful resource. As well, I got connected with Paul Brown of Institute 193. Both of them directed me to Jean Donohue’s 2013 documentary The Last Gospel of the Pagan Babies.  After watching it I realized I had to continue the research on the ground in Kentucky.  

Charles Rue Woods in costume at Stephen Varble’s apartment, ca.1982. Photographer: Stephen Varble.

This led to many fruitful collaborations, first with the University of Kentucky which brought me to Lexington to give a talk.  It was then that I was able to meet people in person and do some research interviews and archive work in Lexington and Louisville.  At that time, as well, conversations with Paul Brown coalesced into the plan for the current Varble exhibition at Institute 193. As I talked with Kentuckians like Robert Morgan, Charles Rue Woods, and Rebecca Henderson, it became clear to me that Varble’s story couldn’t be told without understanding the complex trans and queer history of Lexington or without the story of the long-established interconnections and movements of people between Kentucky and New York City.

MK: Yes, Lexington’s LGBT art scene is particularly deep, and we are so lucky to have the Faulkner Morgan Archive to do the important work of collecting, preserving, and giving visibility to that history. I wonder if you might describe some particularly salient stories and/or archival objects that you found during your research in Kentucky and elaborate on how you see the interconnections between Kentucky and New York City materialized in Varble’s work.  

DG: Well, some of Varble’s longest-running friends were those from Kentucky.  He returned to Kentucky throughout the 1970s on regular trips. By taking this seriously, I was able to get a better sense of where his priorities and style came from.  I think the most interesting story for me was of a performance that was done in Lexington on New Year’s Eve in 1974. It was a transitional time for Varble. He had just broken with his partner, Geoffrey Hendricks, and he was struggling to find a new direction without that collaboration.

He made his first costume sculpture that more directly played with gender transformation. He called it his Dream Dress, and it was made of seafoam colored crepe that he had found on the streets of New York.  It was through this dress that he really began to claim the female identity of Marie Debris, and it heralded a period of gender exploration for him. He made it for his triumphal return to Kentucky, and he conceived of the headdress for it at his friend  Rebecca Henderson’s kitchen table in Lexington. She was making Christmas cookie ornaments, and he declared that he could create a wig out of them. He snatched a colander, and they baked cookie-dough curls with it as a skullcap base. He tied twigs and plastic roses to the heavily-crimped dress and wore his cookie curls during the night-long performance at a large near-abandoned house in central Lexington.  He toasted 100 loaves of white Wonder Bread (as a means of toasting in the New Year), with Henderson dancing around to drop honey on the pieces that fell to the ground. It was an intentionally obscure ritual created to mark time and signal the New Year, and it overtook the drafty ground floor of this large house. After the bars had closed, people arrived, thinking it was an afterparty, only to bebefuddled by Varble and Henderson’s choreographed absurdity.

Varble’s performances were often such bewildering provocations, and he was less interested in providing a specific or singular meaning than he was in demonstrating how everyday materials could be transformed into something more mysterious and symbolic — into something greater than themselves.  That’s the core theme of his costumes made out of trash and his inversion of systems of value. There was no documentation of this performance, and I was only able to reconstruct it only after talking with a few people who were at this performance (such as Morgan and Henderson). Not only did the Dream Dress signal the deeper identification as female that would underwrite his later work, the Lexington performance also set the terms for the costumes and actions that would make him notorious when he returned to New York City.  

MK: Wow, that performance sounds amazing! So that trip to Lexington was really pivotal for Varble. I’m struck by how that story in-and-of-itself inverts the value ascribed to New York by art historical narratives, which so often position it as “the place” that transformative work gets made. It’s also striking how radical that performance must have been in Kentucky in 1974. From your interviews and archival research, did you get a sense of the reception of this work in Kentucky, or how artist here inspired Varble and/or were inspired by him?

DG: Well, like I said, I learned so much from Jean Donohue’s documentary and from talking to Robert Morgan.  Varble was young and in college when he lived in Lexington in the late 1960s, and he was part of a whole queer and genderqueer scene that had coalesced in Lexington.  It was out of the same milieu that the Pagan Babies formed and did their remarkable performances (both live and for the camera). Morgan told me a story about how he would regularly hitchhike to New York City to try and catch John Waters’s Pink Flamingos, which was only screening on the East Coast once a week—at midnight).  

It was regular for them to think about New York as a place with which they were in dialogue, and like I said there was a network of Kentuckians in New York either visiting or living (like the famous Rollerena!).  So, Lexington already provided a unique base, and I think Varble’s performance was part of a larger set of experimental practices going on in Lexington at the time. It’s my sense that Varble’s attitude toward the use of costume was influenced by his exposure to the queer performance and nightlife scene here, and I don’t think he would have done the same things without that foundation.  

MK: Do any of his costumes remain, or do you only know about them through photographs?

Video still showing Stephen Varble as the Peacock, from Stephen Varble’s Journey to the Sun, 1978–83. U-Matic videotape transferred to digital (2018).

DG: Unfortunately, most everything has been lost or destroyed.  Sadly, this is the case for many artists who died during the first years of the AIDS crisis.  As you can see in the video in the exhibition (titled Journey to the Sun), Varble filled his apartment with drawings all over the walls and used his repertoire of costumes for their improvisations and scenes.  When his partner, Daniel Cahill, passed away a year or so after Varble, everything was put out onto the curb to be taken away as garbage.

There was one costume (the Sky God costume from his 1973 play Silent Prayer) that was destroyed in Hurricane Sandy.  So, none of the costumes survive, save for a few minor fragments.  There is, however, a rich photographic record of Varble’s costumes and performances that, until now, was largely unpublished.  Photographers such as Jimmy DeSana, Peter Hujar, and Greg Day captured Varble’s performances and outfits, and the retrospective exhibition in New York relies on these images alongside video and ephemera.  Journey to the Sun, Varble’s video epic that is being shown in both the Lexington and New York exhibitions, is one of the best records of his many costumes, which he would recombine and adapt regularly.

MK: That really re-affirms what you have said about queer history’s struggle against erasure and how archives serve as a “compromised necessity” that requires an “on-going aggregation of queer attachments.” Given the constraints upon researching Varble, it’s truly impressive how much material you have uncovered and brought to life with these two exhibitions. In terms of the show at Institute 193, I read that the xerographic prints came from Charles Rue Woods. Could you talk a bit about how you came to know Woods, his relationship to Varble, and that part of your research?

DG: It was all through Kentucky connections.  I’d have to look through my notes to remind myself of who introduced me to whom, but when I started investigating Varble’s network, I was able to find friends of his like Henderson, Woods, Ree Wilson, and Susan King — each of whom connected me to other friends and collaborators. Most of the research for the project took the form of multiple oral history interviews, the first of which I did in 2011. I initially connected with Woods over email in early 2017 and then went to interview him at his home in Queens, New York.  Originally from Kentucky and an alum of UK, he moved to New York in 1975 initially to work in theatre and then worked as an editor.

He became connected with Varble through mutual friends from back home. In 1979, he went on tour as a member of the entourage of the Village People. He then returned to New York in the early 1980s and began a lifelong career as a significant designer of book covers for a number of publishing houses. Soon thereafter, Charles became a central member of Varble’s group of collaborators (called “The Happy Arts School of Manuscript Illumination”).  He appears in Journey to the Sun and its prelude Lady Hercules(where he does the opening monologue).  Charles was very close to Varble and his partner Daniel Cahill, and he was a regular participant in the weekly meetings of their group.  

He was also instrumental in caring for Varble as he struggled with AIDS in his final year. With great foresight, Charles safeguarded video tapes, manuscripts, and a group of precise photocopies that Varble made from drawings intended to be reproduced.  I’m working with Charles to find appropriate archives for these materials. He donated a few things to the Leslie-Lohman Museum for inclusion in the New York exhibition, and he donated a full suite of xerographic prints to the Faulkner Morgan Archive. Without him, so much from these years would have been forgotten.  He’s been so generous with his memories and his energy, and I’ve learned a great deal from him.

MK: What a gift to have met him, and how fortunate for all of us that he preserved those works. It also seems wonderfully fitting that a suite of Varble’s xerographic prints will not only be donated to the Faulkner Morgan Archive, but also that they will be widely distributed through the catalogue that you produced with Institute 193. As you explore in your essay catalogue essay, Varble became increasingly interested in art that could be easily reproduced and broadly circulated in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Could you talk a bit about the role that you see reproducible media, such as photocopies and videotapes, playing in Varble’s aesthetics?

Stephen Varble, flier for ‘Gutter Art’ [verso], 1975. Xerographic print on paper.

DG: Varble had long pursued the inversion of hierarchies of value.  He embraced the gutter and transformed trash into glamor. In 1977, he receded from his confrontational relationship with the New York art world because he grew increasingly weary of finding new ways of resisting attempts to co-opt and commodify his spectacular interventions and protests.  He met Cahill in this year, and he became more uncompromising in his anti-capitalist pronouncements. He began doing private performances in the apartment, the walls of which he filled with drawings and poems. By the late 1970s, he turned to new technologies in a search for way to circumvent the commercial world of galleries and advertising.  

He started making videos with the aim of producing “video books” that he could distribute widely, and he purchased an early home computer and music synthesizer. His video epic, Journey to the Sun, was the driving reason for these efforts. (At some three and a half hours, it nevertheless remained 70% incomplete at his death in early 1984). In these years, he also embraced the photocopy machine as an artistic tool.  He used it to create collages, and he made drawings with the purpose of reproducing them xerographically. Varble had long used the Xerox machine to make fliers, mail art, and press releases, but he now understood it as a way to make cheap, reproducible works of art.  He labored over the original drawings, and corrected them with Whiteout to make sure they reproduced perfectly.

This is why I call the resulting works “xerographic prints.” They have a level of deliberation and care that is more akin to the printmaker preparing his plate.  As can be seen in the Institute 193 exhibition, they are fully fledged works of art — but they are made through accessible technologies of reproduction so they could be distributed freely and widely. This use of the cheap (but now also precious) photocopy was another way of Varble flipping high and low.  He took the denigrated and elevated it, much like he used rubbish as the material for his awe-inspiring DIY costumes.

MK: The utopian ambitions of Varble’s project and all that he accomplished in his short career is pretty astounding. As a final question, I wonder if you might comment on the traces of Varble’swork that you see in contemporary artistic practice.

DG: When I started showing people this work, so many of them said to me how timely Varble’s practice was.  He embraced the idea of a recombined, non-binary gender for his performance costumes, his work voiced suspicions of commodification and capitalism, and he made DIY dresses out of found, stolen, and recycled objects.  His performances didn’t wait to be authorized by an institution. Instead, he took to the streets to confront new viewers with his disruptions of the business of art and luxury commerce.

All of these things make Varble’s work relevant and revelatory to a new generation of viewers, and I’ve been so encouraged by how young artists, in particular, have looked to Varble’s provocations and seen an attitude similar to their own.  Throughout his short career, Varble vexed the ways in which art and performance had become a matter of commodity exchange, and instead he sought to find a way to make art that did not require art’s conventional pathways and institutions. From his street performances to the delicate xerographic prints and operatic videos, Varble believed that his work could offer an alternative to the debased world of capitalism and exploitations.  He was utopian, irreverent, and sometimes escapist, but he believed that his work could demonstrate to the public that the downcast could be elevated and transformed into the marvelous.

Resources Referenced:

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David J. Getsy is the Goldabelle McComb Finn Distinguished Professor of Art History at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  His books include Abstract Bodies: Sixties Sculpture in the Expanded Field of Gender (2015), Scott Burton: Collected Writings on Art and Performance (2012), Rodin: Sex and the Making of Modern Sculpture (2010), and, most recently, the collection of artists’ writings, Queer (2016). He is the curator of 2018-2019 retrospective exhibition Rubbish and Dreams: The Genderqueer Performance Art of Stephen Varble for the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York.

Miriam Kienle is an Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Kentucky. Her current book project examines the artist Ray Johnson’s role as the initiator of the international “mail art” or “correspondence art” movement through the lenses of queer theory, network studies, and the history of interpersonal communication. Her writings have appeared in Media-N, Art Papers, and Artl@s Bulletin, among others. She is also the curator of Pushing the Envelope: Mail Art from the Archives of American Art, on view at the Fleischman Gallery in the Smithsonian American Art Museum until January 4, 2019.


Kentucky Artists at the Elaine de Kooning House

This past summer, I had the opportunity to work with the curator Phillip March Jones, a dedicated and tireless ambassador for regional artists as well as Outsider Art, that genre of self-taught makers with limited contact with and access to commercial galleries and institutions. Over the past nine years, Jones has fostered a community of artists, writers, and musicians around Institute 193. The relationships formed have resulted in new bodies of work and collaborative projects that we were excited to exhibit at the Elaine de Kooning House.

Guy Mendes,” Marble Creek Nude”, 1998, gelatin silver print, 16 X 20 in.

“The Plant Portrait Series”, Elaine de Kooning House, installation view with works by Lina Tharsing

He and co-curator Maia Ferrari’s exhibition proposed both local and universal notions of community, demonstrating the effects that a space dedicated to the exchange of ideas can instill upon a group of individual talents. Their show entitled Summer Song: Institute 193 at the Elaine de Kooning House featured works by Robert Beatty, Jessie Dunhaoo, Mike Goodlett, Lonnie Holley, Shara Hughes, Guy Mendes, Adam O’Neal, Aaron Skolnick, Lina Tharsing, and Mare Vaccaro. A selection of Institute 193 publications was also on view.

“Summer Series”, Elaine de Kooning House, installation view with works by Michael Goodlett

Our collaboration was conceived of and tailored for the Elaine de Kooning House, the artist’s historic home and studio in East Hampton.

In 1975, when artist Elaine de Kooning was reconciling with her husband, Willem, she purchased a traditional saltbox house on Alewive Brook Road in East Hampton, N.Y. Elaine later added the studio where she created her final series of paintings, “Bacchus” and “Cave Walls”. During this time she also made portraits of her sister, Brazilian soccer player Pelé, and art dealer Aladar Marberger. Her work had been featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Young American Painters (1956-58).” She continued to make portraits during a formative period of American postwar art when, for the first time, the most radical new painting was happening in New York. Back then, the thought of an Abstract Expressionist concurrently adhering to a traditional genre was considered taboo by many tastemakers and the paintings themselves retrograde. Today, her studio practice seems prophetic: Many artists are able to create divergent bodies of work without the constraints of dogma or critical mandate.

“Summer Series”, Elaine de Kooning House, installation view with works by Adam O’Neal, left, Aaron Skolnick, right.

After de Kooning’s death in 1989, the sculptor John Chamberlain purchased the house, followed by painter Richmond Burton. Each artist made changes and modifications to its design. In order to capture the light at a specific time of day, Elaine would often work in the sunroom. Chamberlain used the ground floor studio as a darkroom and for archival purposes. The main studio has 18-foot ceilings with angled skylights, a private entrance and is connected to the house. When I bought the house and studio in 2010, it seemed animated with stories about renowned artists from previous generations. Elaine’s well-documented generosity toward other painters, curators and writers was legendary.

It was inspiring to be showing in a place where some of our greatest artists lived and worked. Thanks to Institute 193—specifically Phillip Jones and Maia Ferrari– we were written up in Hyperallergenic, and our work was posted on the Art News website. I’ve been exhibiting and publishing for 50 years, but I’ve never had a photograph reproduced by Art News before. Just as it has for nine years now, the Institute gets the word out. – Guy Mendes

Since 2011, the Elaine de Kooning House has hosted events, exhibitions, and informal artist residencies with the artists Charles Andresen, Aaron Aujla, Katherine Bernhardt, Lizzi Bougatsos, Joe Bradley, Jessie Dunahoo, Chris Duncan, Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe, Mike Goodlett, Sedrick Huckaby, Kim “Mudman” Jones, Laura and Rachel Lancaster, Sadie Laska, Jose Lerma, Liz Markus, Adam Marnie, Scott and Tyson Reeder, John Riepenhoff, Celeste Dupy-Spencer, Jerry “The Marble Faun” Torre, Michael Williams, and Anke Weyer.

The painter and photographer Katherine McMahon has made the ground level space her permanent studio. Katherine is ARTnews’ Creative Director and her presence has allowed each of the visiting artists to feel at home and become acclimated to their new environment quickly. (I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing her own work develop and projects come to fruition.) While the residence still functions as a private home, its main purpose, both now and in the future, is to nurture artists and the groups that support them.

“Summer Series”, Elaine de Kooning House, Installation View with work by Jessie Dunahoo

Our hope was to foster this spirit by making the space available to Institute 193’s artists, all while preserving the original structure and its history. Summer Studio has served as a resource for many of the activities at the house. We were happy to host a benefit for the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit as well as the launch of Art21’s new streaming experience

In July, the Beach Painting Club (co-founded by Scott and Tyson Reeder) painted together on Sammy’s Beach, located just down the road from the Elaine de Kooning House. This annual event gathers artists and friends to paint together, followed by a cocktail reception and display of the resulting work at the house. Our guests have included the art historian Gail Levin, Jess Fuller, foundation director Helen Harrison, the collectors Anne and John Mullen, and painters Laura Owens, Chuck Webster and Joe Bradley.

As Institute 193 collaborates with artists, musicians, and writers to produce exhibitions, publications, and projects that document the cultural landscape of the modern South, our goal was to create and merge with a larger network. The installation became an opportunity for these artists to gain well-deserved broader media exposure, initiating connections across the globe. We look forward to continuing and fostering these relationships.

More about Phillip March Jones: A native of Lexington, Kentucky, Jones graduated from Emory University in Atlanta but also attended Auburn in Alabama and the Sorbonne in Paris (his French translating skills helped subsidize some early aesthetic endeavors). In 2009 he started Institute 193, a small project space near the University of Kentucky with the intention of exposing contemporary artists from the interior who were unknown on the coasts. Two years later he became the inaugural director of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Souls Grown Deep was a labor of love for collector Bill Arnett, who had a missionary zeal to preserve, document, display and promote the expressions of living self-taught African American artists in the Southeast and elevate them to the level of the blue chip insiders. He succeeded. Works from the foundation are now in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. One of Jones’ most anticipated upcoming projects is his organizing of the Atlanta Biennial with Atlanta Contemporary Art Center curator Daniel Fuller.

About the author: Chris Byrne is the author of the graphic novel The Magician (Marquand Books, 2013). He is co-chair of ART21’s Contemporary Council and serves on the board of directors of Institute 193, Dallas Contemporary, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.


“Stephen Varble: An Antidote to Nature’s Ruin on this Heavenly Globe” at Institute 193

Stephen Varble is best known for his loud, disruptive, and public performances. During the 1970s and early 1980s, Varble staged several guerilla performances across New York City, all of which were notable for their garish, over-the-top displays of defiance and their provocative agitation, such as in his 1976 Chemical Bank Protest, wherein in protest of a fraudulent withdrawal from his bank account, Varble wearing “condoms filled with fake blood as breasts under a gown of fishing net adorned with sequins and fake dollar bills” handed a check for “none million dollars” to the tellers at his branch, signing the check in the fake blood that adorned his chest.

Unknown photographer, Stephen Varble during the Chemical Bank Protest, 1976. Collection of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art (Gift of Geoffrey Hendricks in memory of Stephen Varble).

This performance, like many others of Varble’s, involved garish gestures and over-the-top costuming that challenged the construction of gender, the obscuring of (queer) sexuality, and the social fear of the bodily, issues that remained central to his art practice throughout his entire short life. 

Yet while attention has been placed upon Varble’s public performances, these large scale displays were only part of his entire art practice. Now on view at Institue 193 in Lexington, the exhibition “Stephen Varble: An Antidote to Nature’s Ruin on this Heavenly Globe” — curated by David Getsy in conjunction with an exhibition at the  Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art — offers a more intimate view into Varble’s life and work. Comprised of 26 Xerox drawings, one etching, and his “epic and operatic video titled Journey to the Sun,” this exhibition offers a more static and subdued vantage into Varble’s practice, inviting the viewer to engage personally and individually in a way his performances never really could. 

Varble’s drawings explore several of the same themes as his performance works, including issues of gender, sexuality, and the body, but they do so in a softer, more personal way. Like the gender non-conforming costumes he dons in his performances, Varble’s drawings — all of which focus on individual or groups of human figures — construct ambiguously gendered figures, highlighting a possibility of alternatives to the binary construction of man and woman. Several of his figures have feminine features — like defined breasts, hips, and legs — coupled with typically masculine broad and muscular shoulders, strong jaws, and facial hair. As such, these forms are neither exactly man nor woman, and thus call attention to the limits of such categorical distinctions.

Not only does Varble explore the issues of gender in his drawings, but he also examines the limits of the body in these works. The visceral processes of a living body emerge over and over in several of the works. In one drawing, Varble presents another ambiguously gendered figure sitting on a toilet, pulling a long line of toilet paper over their head. We can see solid forms floating freely in the bowl, as if the figure is in the process of or has just completed a bowel movement, although the white, circular forms look more like eggs than feces. The inclusion of the toilet is thus a reminder of the liminal nature of human bodies; on the one hand, we often walk around feeling like solid, impermeable entities, but several times a day, we viscerally spill over our physical boundaries and produce something external to ourselves. Like his depictions of gender, Varble’s inclusion of references to the process of excretion along with other visceral processes highlights how our conception of the body is defined by arbitrary distinctions, ones that are easily and readily crossed all the time. 

Varble’s work also examines the liminal nature of the body through his portrayals of sexuality in his drawings. Several of the pieces focus on pairs or groups of lovers engaged in various states of embrace. These displays of lust and affection highlight the limits of the body, as sexual expression often involves the convergence of two bodies within liminal spaces, lips, genitals, and orifices. 

Moreover, Varble’s exploration of sexuality in these drawings is a further rumination on the relationship between gender and queer identity. For instance, in one work, Varble has constructed two simple and yet amorphous figures in profile, both with the strong jawlines and broad shoulders of men, although the ambiguities of the rest of their bodies make their gender impossible to discern. Their eyes have been replaced by the profile image of two other individuals, who gaze at each other. The two figures face each other, with their noses almost touching, lips pursed as if about to kiss. Between their mouths, Varble has made the outline of a heart and he has added a line connecting their brow ridges so that their noses form an upside down triangle, likely a reference to the Pink Triangle that was originally sewn on to the clothes of Nazi prisoners who were interned and executed for their homosexuality. Varble’s inclusion of the triangle is most likely a nod to queer liberation in his own time, since the symbol was reclaimed as a symbol of pride in the years following the Stonewall Uprising and especially in the early years of the A.I.D.S. crisis by the LGBTQIA community. 

The symbolism of the downward pointing triangle is only further underscored by the band of pink that lines the gallery walls behind each of these works, offering a solemn reminder throughout the show of Varble’s life and death as a gay man in America in the 1980s. This pink line stands out against both the white of the walls and the black and white drawings, providing both a counterbalance to the curatorial convention of the white cube while also connecting the work to the longer history of LGBTQIA arts activism. As such, this simple band ties Varble’s work to the longer history of A.I.D.S. activist groups like Gran Fury and ACT UP and serves as a reminder that Varble, like so many queer men of his generation, was senselessly lost to what has become a manageable chronic disease.  It should be noted that while medical advancements have made management of the virus possible, differential access to healthcare and resources both in the US and outside of it means that many people still live with and die from HIV and AIDS-related complications. 

The somberness that this pale pink line brings to the exhibition is echoed in the color content of Varble’s works. Each drawing is rendered solely in black and white, providing them with a sense of seriousness and solemnity. Their subdued nature then provides the viewer the opportunity to engage quietly and contemplatively, an experience directly opposed to the over the top and vibrant displays of his performance practice, facilitating a more intimate view into Varble’s life and work. 

Not only does the color palette create this intimacy, but the simplicity of their compositions makes them feel as if Varble is merely doodling these imagined images into creation, allowing a process akin to the Surrealist practice of “automatic drawing” to take over his hand. As such, these works feel personal and private, like they comprise the familiar world of Varble’s mind. 

Moreover, the fact that these drawings were reproduced through Xerox copying and freely distributed further underscores their abilities to facilitate a personal connection to the work. Instead of being singular works seen only from a distance, Varble wanted them to be widely disseminated, allowing the viewer to engage with each work in their own time and in their own space; that Varble wanted these drawings to be held and owned by individuals offers the viewer — at least originally — the opportunity to have a more intimate relationship with his art objects.  

The intimacy of these works is further underscored by the curation of the show. Arranged in a single line in the small single room gallery of Institute 193, the exhibition invites us to look closely at each individual work. There is no vantage point from which we can see the features of each work except for by slowly and meticulously walking along and beholding them one by one, requiring us, as viewers, to get “up close and personal.” 

This sense of familiarity and closeness also resonates in how the show explores elements of Varble’s own history. While Varble is best known for performance works he created in New York City, he is, at heart, a Kentucky native. Born in Owensboro, Varble studied at the University of Kentucky and was a fixture of the Lexington queer community, returning often until his untimely death in January 1984. His performance work in New York was largely influenced by his time in Kentucky, and he even included close friends and relations from the area in his operatic video Journey to the Sun, which is also featured in this exhibition. In focusing on Varble’s Kentucky connection, the exhibition makes the work feel more relatable and at home to a Lexington audience. We know the streets he once walked and the culture he is drawing upon in his work, imbuing the work with a sense of familiarity and comfort.

On the whole, “Stephen Varble: An Antidote to Nature’s Ruin on this Heavenly Globe,” facilitates a personal engagement and intimate understanding of the life and work of Stephen Varble’s short life and prolific career. Both the works and the space they are in invite the viewer to look closely and consider each piece and the messages embedded within.

Read more: “Rubbish and Dreams” in Kentucky’s Queer Archives: A conversation with David Getsy on researching Stephen Varble


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


Ashley Hunt: Degrees of Visibility

To consider the prison today is to consider matters of deep political urgency, but few institutions are more obscure. More than 2 million people currently live in American prisons, and over twice that are in “the system” (awaiting trial, in jail, on parole, etc.). These numbers have skyrocketed since the 1970s, but as this has happened, the prisons themselves have moved out of sight to the hinterlands of the late capitalist landscape. They now occupy the edges of cities alongside factories and office parks, and they offer salvation to rural communities in the throes of economic decline.

Ashley Hunt’s exhibition Degrees of Visibility at the University of Kentucky’s Bolivar Gallery surveys this new landscape of confinement. The main focus of the show is a recent series of photographs depicting jails, detention centers, and prisons in every U.S. state and territory. These images are accompanied by a series of text pieces and found objects that address the prison system in conceptual and activist terms. The back room of the gallery showcases his documentary film series, Corrections, made in the years between 2001 and 2008.

The photographs are often most revealing when the prisons are concealed. Hunt photographed them from public places and, as a result, the images sometimes offer only the scantest glimpses of guard towers, concertina wire, or even less than that. His image of a federal prison in Oakdale, Louisiana, for example, features little more than the stretch of earth between chain-link and picket fences. Likewise, in his image of Blackburn Correctional Complex in the northern part of Lexington, houses and condominiums bookend a length of fence and a cluster of trees just beyond a sprawling but unremarkable expanse of suburban lawn. Such images speak to the ordinariness of incarceration; prisons are now, in the words of Georges Bataille, objects of our “daily inattention.”

Many of these images feature captions with backstories and contexts. In one instance, we learn that San Rafael in Marin County, California, buried its jail in a massive tumulus and covered it with vegetation to preserve the bucolic splendor of a Civic Center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. In several captions, these bits of context offer ironic rejoinders to an optimism that still clings to the American landscape.

We read that Taylor, Texas was settled by immigrants from Eastern Europe, but now hosts a detention center to imprison migrant women prior to their deportation. And we read that California’s Colonel Allensworth State Park commemorates an African-American farming community and experiment in self-governance, but now the site is surrounded by nearly 20 prisons, jails, and detention facilities.

Many of these landscapes suggest antecedents from the history of photography. Upon seeing these images, I can barely resist comparing them to works by Joel Sternfeld, Robert Adams, and even Thomas Struth, but the exhibition’s installation often undercuts this impulse to aestheticize. Many of the photographs are unframed; Hunt clamps some of them to pieces of plywood, and he stacks others on top of wooden shipping crates. These loose leaf pieces feature quadrille-ruled borders, and often this minimalist-cum-bureaucratic device suggests an analytic rather than aesthetic context for these images even as it seems to extend the prisons’ chain link fencing all the way to the edges of the paper. A few of the framed photographs hang like signposts on the slender columns that break up the space, and they echo all the road signs reading “prison area” or “no trespassing” in photographs that surround them.

In addition to the photographs, Hunt includes works that document and describe the history of the prison system in the United States. A small diagram, for example, chronicles the growth of the American population in prison over 165 years, beginning with 1 in every 3,442 people in 1850 and concluding with 1 in 132 in 2014. Tellingly, those numbers spiked dramatically in the wake of the Civil War and after the Civil Rights movements.

Another panel offers context for these vastly increased incarceration rates: “Replacing chattel slavery with penal slavery,” it reads, “the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution moved slavery out of its explicitly racial discourse and into the sanitized discourse of criminality and crime control.” Later the text describes the contemporary prison as “an institution of counter-insurgency against internally colonized, jobless, displaced, and rebelling populations.”

Among the show’s most significant inclusions are a series of displays that shift our attention from documenting the prison system to activist efforts against the social and political forces that sustain it. Placards foreground the activism of the California-based prison abolitionist group Critical Resistance, for example, or the Atlanta-based groups Project South and Southerners on New Ground, dedicated to LGBTQ rights. Tables and pedestals display T-shirts opposing mountaintop removal mining or migrant prisons.

These installations, especially the pedestals, have a distinctly museal character compared to other works in the exhibition, but they do the vital work of connecting opposition to mass incarceration to other activist causes. Bundles of newsprint piled onto the floor of the gallery and stacked on top of wooden crates feature conversations with activists that flesh out these connections. In one conversation, Hunt talks to members of Critical Resistance, and in another, he speaks with Kentucky-based activists Judah Schept and Debraun Thomas.

These conversations elaborate on the many intersections between the inequities of contemporary society and the rise of the contemporary prison system. Through these aspects of the show, Hunt demonstrates that mass incarceration is implicated in almost every other social and political problem today, from racism to drug abuse to economic inequality; it represents one of most insidious consequences of an endemic social violence.

In all these ways, Hunt’s exhibition goes far beyond a prevalent model of documentary photography—a kind of fascination photography—which catalogs recurrent features of our landscape and miseen-scène. This mode enjoins us to revel in commonalities and variations, whether they occur in architecture or commodities or the natural world. In Hunt’s work, this archive of images becomes part of a political economy of incarceration, and it pushes past fascination and towards a critical engagement with both prisons and the forces that sustain them.  His work offers an indispensable guide not only to the prison industrial complex, but to a society that treats so many of its inhabitants as the expendable—and often invisible—refuse of a punitive social order.

Tom Williams is assistant professor of art history at Watkins College of Art. He is a graduate of the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program, and his writings have appeared in Art in America, Grey Room, and other publications. Since 2013, he has co-facilitated the art workshop in Unit 2 (the Death Row unit) of the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, and he co-organized (with Robin Paris) a number of exhibitions of prisoners’ art, including Life After Death and Elsewhere at Apexart in New York City.


Scene&Heard: Blind Corn Liquor Pickers

The sound of the Blind Corn Liquor Pickers is the sound of the rowdiest of hootenannies in the biggest barn full of dancers, singing along to the music. Yet, they blur the traditional, swirl it around with the modern sound of electric guitars, the haunting voices of Beth Walker, Jory Bowling and others for a unique fusion of amazing music.

Filling the stage with eight members, the Blind Corn Liquor Pickers creates a massive sound, each musician masterful in his skill.

Beth sings most of the songs, with harmony from Jory and some other members. The full band consists of Beth Walker on vocals, Joel Serdenis on mandolin and vocals, Travis Young on banjo, Ben Vogelpohl on drums, Will Rush on bass, Jeoffrey Teague on electric guitar, Thomas Usher on percussion and vocals, and Jory Bowling on guitar and vocals. Together they create an impressive wall of sound.

Their songs, like their sound, varies from song to song and between singers. Beth and Jory carry most of the leading vocals, both having incredibly powerful and unique voices. Jory’s deep voice resonates, and Beth wails with a strong, steadfast voice. Others take some songs too such as Joel. The music, like the band’s long career, has changed and shifted as members change, as their genre is hard to define. Somewhere where Prog grass, bluegrass, country, rock and blues all mix together with the culture of the hills of Kentucky.

“The sound shifts and changes as new people comes in,” says Travis Young, one of the original members of the band that started eighteen years ago. Over two decades the lineup has changed often and their five CD’s vary from each other quite a bit. This latest CD, The Sentence, is strongly influenced by the addition of Jory Bowling and his songwriting. The different members take turns with songwriting as well, including Travis, Joel, Beth and Jory.

The Blind Corn Liquor Pickers CD release show at the Burl

The Blind Corn Liquor Pickers are a testament to the love of making music. Anyone who knows about music performing knows it is not easy to get eight musicians in the same place at the same time. And dividing the spoils by eight makes no one wealthy, for certain. Weekly rehearsals, with several members of the band driving hours from their homes outside of Lexington so they can give their fans a high-quality performance, is a devotion. Their passion shows as soon as the show starts. “We put lots of time and energy into making a set we are very proud of,” says Beth.

The room was full that Saturday night at The Burl. Warmed up well by the Solid Rocket Boosters, followed by Senora May and Johnny Conqueroo, the Liquor Pickers took to a welcoming stage by 11 that night.

Filling the stage with the band and the room with their sound, the excited fans were amped up and ready to enjoy the gift of music the band offered. The new CD was six years in the making, many in the crowd knew the words to the songs and sang along with joyful devotion.

Representative of their diversity as musicians, The Sentence is a tapestry of the various musicians in the band, and no matter who is singing lead the rest of the band often joins together in a chorus that inevitably is joined by the crowd, and the entire room resonates with the pleasure everyone is having. That is the joy of the Liquor Pickers, the inevitability of moving your feet and dancing along, because that is what this music is made for. Singing of moonshine and mining and the trials of life as you journey down its road, the band creates the rhythm of working folks, and exactly the jubilation you need to dance it off on a Saturday night surrounded by a hundred or so of your fellow kinfolk dancing by your side, singing along to those hillbilly blues.

That is the sound of the Blind Corn Liquor Pickers, that blend of the old ways and the modern reality, and the folks trapped in the in-between.

From the devotion of their fan base, their “family” as they call them, the Liquor Pickers took it upon themselves to create the Moonshiner’s Ball five years ago, as a way to celebrate the music of Kentucky, back before Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and Tyler Childers put recent Kentucky music on the map.

A celebration of local talent is the foundation of the Blind Corn Liquor Pickers. They are a celebration of music, and their festival is the result of that love of music, love of Kentucky, and love for their fans who have loyally cheered them on for two decades.


31 Flavors of Horror Offered up in “31: An October Collection”

It was dark and she was playing dead. Not sure of how to get out of this. Her shallow grave. Her lover’s grasp.”

Last October, author Bridgett Eve Howard began writing short vignettes of horror – one a day – her own spin on the new tradition of Inktober. This year, she published these works alongside some genuinely creepy art by illustrator Flannery Grace Vaught in the book 31: An October Collection.

Like all the best horror, these stories tap into deeper fears and vulnerabilities. It isn’t just the monster that is frightening, but also the human condition.

Bridgett Eve Howard

For the protagonists of many of the various stories in this collection, the horror began long before the narrative; these are survivors of loss, of illness, and myriad other traumas. In one story, the end of a romantic relationship coincides with the literal stopping of the world. In another, a survivor of mental illness fights a toxic version of herself in a self-destructive manner. Yet another sees suicidal thoughts become a physical monster, chasing a young woman her entire life, only to overcome her the moment she’s happy and feels she’s finally free of him for good.

“I like when the trauma comes throughout,” said Howard. “I really feel like that’s a real reflection of life. Most of the time you don’t just wake up like this.

The writing is, at times, a bit rough and in need of polish, but that adds to the charm and authenticity of a document that was built out of complete short stories written in quick fashion.

“I’m more of a storyteller than an author,” said Howard. “I do think the tradition of storytelling is more ‘we’re gonna focus on what the person is saying,’ instead of how well they said it.”

This is a small, personal affair, not a product of a literature machine, but of a determined individual putting her own vulnerabilities on display. That is to say, there is more blood on the pages than in just the scary tales. The stories and the protagonists are more than thin creations from an active imagination; these stories are informed by Howard’s own trauma, laid bare on the paper.

“I lost my mother to cancer at 15. It was a very quick process. She was diagnosed on October 29, 2009. She didn’t tell me until November 1st, because she knew Halloween was my favorite holiday,” said Howard. “She was dead the day before Thanksgiving that year – November 25th – so it was three weeks since she had been diagnosed that she passed away.”

The devasting experience took a toll on her psyche.

“It was awful. Her skin turned black. She turned into something very difficult to see. It really ended up playing on repeat in my life for a long time.”

Writing a horror anthology turned out to be a form of coping with demons.

“Almost every single story is a reflection of trauma, of grief, loss, mental illness. Delving into that was the most therapeutic thing I think I’ve done for it,” said Howard. “I felt like I was in a good enough place to finally reflect on a lot of things in my life.”

The Rabbit | Drawn by Flannery Grace Vaught

In one striking example, a story about a decomposing rabbit in the road takes real-life inspiration from the moment she remembers seeing her mother pick up a dead turtle in the road outside her restaurant.

“She picked it up thinking it was fine, and all these maggots poured out of it,” said Howard.

The elegant and macabre rabbit illustration with that story, as with all the illustrations in the book and cover, is the work of artist Flannery Grace Vaught, a friend of Howard’s from their time at Transylvania University who was tasked with bringing the stories to life.

“This is the first time I feel like I’ve gotten to go in this direction,” said Vaught, praising the free rein given to her to create suitably creepy images in the medium of her choosing. She used ink and gesso and a photocopier to create the images, drawing and then copying the layers of the image to degrade them.

“It gives them that gritty, faux lo-fi quality. I like that grit – that layer of dust and dirt that gives a story beyond the story it’s illustrating.”

She wants her work to get inside the mind of the viewer, bringing an added element of darkness to everything she does.

This is not Vaught’s first go-round with horror, however.

“Most of the stuff I do has some darkness in it,” said Vaught. Much of her work involves agrarian life, which is fraught. On a farm, Vaught said, “You encounter life and death all the time.”

There’s a deeper, layered horror in the stories of 31: An October Collection – one that will ring all too familiar for unfortunately too many: many of the protagonists in these stories experience some form of past or present trauma, violence or horror that is specific to women.

“When I was a kid, I didn’t get to watch scary movies,” said Howard. “My mother constantly watched Lifetime in front of me, which was honestly more traumatizing than watching It, or The Shining, or something, because it was always women in danger. And my mother was also somebody who experienced a lot of violence in her life.”

He is always with me in window | Drawn by Flannery Grace Vaught

A first-time female hitchhiker in danger reflects on how her brother was able to effortlessly make his way cross-country. A teenage girl plays possum while her abusive lover buries her, believing her to be dead.  A woman faces down a possibly supernatural stalker. Many of the monsters in this book are scary not because they’re superhuman or supernatural, but because they are the monsters women face every day of their lives. 

“That’s always been reflective of me – I’m a woman, I have to be on edge because I’m a woman,” said Howard. “There’s an experience in being not-male that is just vulnerable and unfortunately opens you to more fears. You feel the need to protect yourself more. You feel the need to be on that edge.”

That edge finds its way into the characterization in the stories, a great many of which are told from a first-person perspective.

“I like to have that connection,” Howard said of her protagonists. “I try to make every character its own character, but ultimately it’s just me with different wigs on.”

She hopes that others can relate to the stories she has written.

“But I also decided that if they didn’t…if it wasn’t good, if nobody enjoyed it, then it still served its purpose for me,” said Howard. “Luckily, that’s not been the case.”

31: An October Collection is available via or at


Reclaiming the Melting Pot: A Preview of You, Me, and Rumi

Lyric Theater ~ Friday, Oct. 12, 7 p.m.

At a time when the United States is more divided than ever, one woman is bringing people together to celebrate the many ways we share in our relationship with nature.  Lakshmi Sriraman, a Lexington, Kentucky-based Bharatanatyam artist (Indian classical dance), along with Sandhya Raman, a Textile artist and curator from India, is leading the collaborative project ‘You, Me and Rumi.’ 

Sriraman and Raman sought out a diverse, multicultural group of performers and artists.  They will be sharing art representing five elements: earth, fire, wind, water, and space in varied forms, from dance, theater, Native American flute and singing tradition, fashion design, cello, poetry, glass installation, and fabric exhibit. Sriraman describes the effort, “By bringing different cultural backgrounds and art forms together, we hope to build a community that continues to support and host such artistic events.  This will be a template for building collaboration and developing performances by bringing diverse artists on to a common platform.”

When discussing the inspiration for the collaborative art, Sriraman shared this passage: 

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing

and rightdoing there is a field.

I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass

the world is too full to talk about.”

  • Rumi

Rumi is one of the most popular poets in the world today, and the bestselling poet in the United States.  One of the reasons for the popularity is that Rumi is considered a poet of love and joy.  The vast work is often uplifting and thought-provoking as well as beautiful.  We are a nation in need of love, joy, and beauty. 

Sriraman further explains the inspiration for this collaborative art as “What we need in the current state of humanity and the environment is a radically fresh relationship to nature.  All spiritual traditions approach nature with great reverence. Such reverence is the result of contemplating our place in this universe, our inextricable position in this web of creation. Such reverence is informed by love, intimacy, awe, respect, and the intuitive understanding that we are not separate from nature. Earth, Water, Wind, Fire, and Space are considered five primordial elements out of which all of creation is built. In performance art, these five elements of nature have been dealt with in abstract and awe-inspiring terms.  We live in a pivotal time in history and we hope to use art to not only grab attention but also to inform and inspire.” 

Many recognized regional artists are part of this rich effort, including Partick J. Mitchell, Landra Lewis, Dan Ward, Mark Lenn Johnson, Soreyda Benedit-Begley, Suzanne McIntosh, Yolantha Harrison-Pace, Shuling Fister, Sandhya Raman and of course, Lakshmi Sriraman.

You, Me & Rumi from Under Main on Vimeo.

While Sriraman will share dance representing the elements, Sandhya Raman, a textile artist from India, will curate and share large backdrop panels from her own exhibit of Textiles and the Five Elements.  Raman also created the costumes for Sriraman’s dances and the music was specifically commissioned for this work from a script developed by Sriraman and Aniruddhan Vasudevan.  The original music was then composed and recorded by award-winning composer Praveen D Rao.  Individual artists will also express the elements; earth – theater by Patrick Mitchell, fire – poetry by Yolantha Pace, wind – dancing Shuling Fister with costume by Soreyda Begley, water – Native American singing by Landra Lewis and Native American flute by Dan Ward, glass art installation by Mark Johnson, Space – cello by Suzanne McIntosh.

Never more than the present has the need to find common ground felt more urgent.  While this effort seeks to ground both observers and participants to and with the earth, it also seeks to bind us together in mutual respect and appreciation.    

Art has long served as a catalyst to unite. During World War II, Winston Churchill was asked to cut funding for the arts and he famously replied, “then what would we be fighting for?”  As a society and as a community, art represents who we are and who we strive to be.  When we look back, alongside history, we look to the art of the era to give context for the lives of the people that era.  If history is our backbone, then art is our soul.  A multicultural collaborative is exactly the right way to forge ahead and reclaim the melting pot of America. 

Gena Bigler is a former columnist for Kentucky Forward, author of Frugal Spending for Rich Living, and the founder of She Wolf Publishing.


Clear Outlook

Matthew Metzger’s new collection of paintings and sculptures at Moremen Contemporary straddles a difficult line between past and present. These works embrace an approach to materials and process that echoes tradition while carving out a place to thrive and reassess that tradition in new and immediate contexts.

At first glance Metzger’s paintings are highly polished snapshots of dense and misty skies. They recall Constable’s or Turner’s nineteenth century studies of voluminous cloud formations, or Whistler’s later atmospheric images of night skies obfuscated by titles that referenced music or color. Such images of the sky already blur distinctions between the abstract and figurative. To this extent a hazy sunset and similarly hued color field might only be distinguished by a descriptive title or logically placed line that imitates a horizon.

Metzger’s paintings oscillate between these divisions very subtly. Paintings of similar luminous mists or fog feature diverse titles that describe mountains, seas, people, and colors. There is a sense that each painting’s depiction of atmosphere is much more complex than a simple record of weather conditions. The word “atmosphere” can describe both a cloudy landscape and its pervading emotional effects. Metzger’s paintings suspend these dual prongs in such a way that the viewer’s experience engages both definitions in a direct, meaningful, and very present way.

“Seascape Series”, natural pigments and oils on canvas, 2017

It is probably unimportant that these images, to the extent that they are only images, have a basis in observations. The atmospheres that Metzger has created in and on his paintings exist wholly in the paintings themselves. The way he has combined constituent parts, pigments, oils, canvas, linen, and wood, results in objects with a tangible presence that can be readily perceived by the viewer.

An example is seen in Metzger’s Seascapes series. Each of the five small square paintings show (vaguely) views of dense and foggy skies over similarly colored water. Four of these paintings are arranged in a line creating a sense of both commonality and atmospheric development. In the fourth painting, on top of its swirling mists and faint luminous light, a sharp nearly three-dimensional line abruptly cuts across the painting’s lower half. What initially appears to be a horizon cutting between water and sky actually pokes outward towards the viewer. This breaks both the illusion of the image and the viewer’s own illusions about what the picture might purport to be. This cut is a reminder that canvas presents a tenuous bridge between object and image, one that can be quickly shattered by a single line. The suggestive nature of their titles and the viewer’s ready acceptance are deftly questioned by this subversion.

“Water for Jim Harrison”, natural pigments and oils on linen, 37×37, 2018.

It seems that the most important part of these paintings is Metzger’s interest in his media. He produces his own paints and mixes them from sourced pigments. Again this recalls tradition, where painters of the past put great effort into the preparation of their paints. But here the deliberateness of Metzger’s choice has deep ramifications in the finished products. The colors swirled throughout Water for Jim Harrison pull the atmosphere away from an initially recognizable image of land and water towards the reality of its paint, canvas, and even colors as a mixture of very real materials.

Even the colors are like objects in their own right, molecules of pigment deftly smeared across the painting’s surface. Even though it is one of the more recognizably figurative paintings, the atmospheric reality of Water for Jim Harrison protrudes into the viewers space, this time through several textured masses of paint that interfere with the totality of the painting’s illusionistic wholeness.

This blurring of image and object is the same with the artist’s sculptural works. Like the paintings hinting at skies or clouds, the sculptures have forms that hint at the human body. They recall malformed yet still recognizable busts or figures. Yet this is never conclusive especially when close examination reveals connections that move beyond the concept of bare depiction.

“Adams (Cantos LXIV)”, isocyanate and polyol resin, oil, iron, bronze, acids, 2017.

“Adams (Cantos LXIV”, isocyanate and polyol resin, oil, iron, bronze, acids, 2017.

Two of the sculptures, Jefferson (Cantos XXI) and Adams (Cantos LXIV), derive their titles from Ezra Pound’s long and fragmentary poem The Cantos. Pound’s cantos can be understood as portraits in poem form that use pieces of their namesakes’ quotations cut and arranged in new ways. The same might be said for the sculptures. They appear to be layered aggregations of parts and pieces that have been dripped on or bubbled out from their surfaces.

The objects are hard and real, produced by the action of acids, polymers, and metals reacting with each other. And on top of that, dust and stray cobwebs further assert this presence in front of the viewer. The realness of these objects cannot be ignored, even if such materiality contradicts their initial human likenesses. Rather, they are reminiscent of bodies at the most basic physical level.

As Metzger explains in his statement, the interactions of the paintings and sculptures offer the viewer a template for contemplation. These are objects meeting one another. For the viewer, this exhibition strives to be more than a set of images that are looked at and thought about. Rather, they are things to be felt and perceived as canvas, pigment, metal, and oil by flesh, blood, and bone. While they don’t breathe the air, their atmospheres are ones that extend beyond depiction and into our shared space.

The exhibition is on view through October 12th at the Moremen Gallery located at 710 W. Main Street in Louisville (Next to 21c Museum Hotel).

Joel Darland is a contributor to UnderMain who always tries to look at things closely. He recently received his Master’s in Art History from the University of Louisiville and has a deep interest in the material realities of photography and other art media, an interest that sometimes comes in handy when taking his own pictures.


Destructing Meaning: Joan Tanner at the Cressman Center

Exploration into material, form, and process drives Joan Tanner’s donottellmewhereibelong, an exhibition of the artist’s drawings and sculptures made during the last three decades, currently on view at the University of Louisville’s Cressman Center for Visual Arts. Tanner, who was born in Indianapolis but has lived in California since the 1960s, is dogged in her pursuit of spatial inconsistencies, visual ruptures, and structures that are at once architectonic and organic, often breaking from conventional perspective.  She is seemingly unconcerned with aesthetic appeal, and the objects she creates can be compositionally unbalanced or rudimentary in nature.

“Drawing Focus #1”, 1999, oil stick, metallic powder, and ink on Strathmore, 34.75” x 27”. Courtesy of the artist.

“Drawing Focus #2”, 1999, oil stick, metallic powder, and ink on Strathmore, 34.75” x 27”. Courtesy of the artist.

In a range of four numbered drawings entitled Drawing Focus, thick rings made with an oil stick envelop smudges of earth tones and line drawings of vessels, some of which are incomplete. Drawing Focus #2 (1999) contains an elongated vase whose body is interrupted by a dripping blotch of sienna, powdered throughout by a pale turquoise. An opaque black oval has been padded around the vase, its structural integrity unsettled due to the irregular manner of its application. Here, Tanner investigates the limitations and inherencies of her selected media and, especially in works such as Drawing Focus #1, assesses to what extent spatial relationships can be stressed before they read as incoherent.

Tanner’s probing of process and material continues in a series of drawings carrying the exhibition’s namesake, standing as opportunities for the artist to identify and translate concepts, combining architectural and scientific forms that effectively distort vantage points and create perceptive disarray. 

“donottellmewhereibelong #19”, 2014, oil stick, pencil, chalk, colored pastel, 22” x 30”. Courtesy of the artist.

Such is the case in donottellmewhereibelong #19 (2014), a multi-perspective diagram populated with an assortment of browns, blues, and greens that invoke landscapes of the American west. The drawing is strikingly topographic, though viewers may find it difficult to determine if donottellmewhereibelong #19 provides an aerial or frontal viewpoint; it may not matter—Tanner provides enough incongruity for drawings such as this to operate abstractly.

With her materials as guide (the work is listed as a cellophane collage), Tanner transforms the empirical into the whimsical, the geometric into the organic. Moreover, works comprising the donottellmewhereibelong series—which can resemble charts, blueprints, or layouts—invariably map Tanner’s wrestling of ideas and the processes she undergoes to describe them.

donottellmewhereibelong is curated by Julien Robson, who has known Tanner for nearly 30 years and has worked with her on multiple projects, including a solo show of Tanner’s work at the Speed Art Museum in 2001 as well as an interview for the catalog accompanying On Tenderhooks at the Otis College of Art and Design’s Ben Maltz Gallery in 2006.

In the interview, Robson wonders to what degree Tanner’s practice is informed by political positions, to which Tanner replies such inquiries are not “off-base, but posturing a moral or political stance is not [her] intention.” If anything, Tanner maintains undertones of pacifism, as the objects in donottellmewhereibelong are subtle in the ways in which they critique the detrimental characteristics, irreversible ramifications, and destructive nature of global capitalism.

“donottellmewhereibelong #15”, 2014, oil stick, pencil, chalk, colored pastel, 22” x 30”. Courtesy of the artist.

By depicting an abstracted power plant—complete with five smoke stacks emitting an impenetrable fog—in donottellmewhereibelong #15 (2014), Tanner draws attention to environmental decay and the tangible sites spearheading climate change that are, for many viewers, frequently omitted from everyday life. In this drawing, the artist employs murky gray tones and deep crimsons to suggest harm that is both contaminating and corporeal, yet terse sections of blue imply that Tanner maintains optimism regarding humanity’s ability to correct course.

Containing some of the more overt, singular subject matter in the exhibition, donottellmewhereibelong #15 possesses a formal connection with other drawings in the gallery through the layering of various media, contradictory perspectives, and structures—in this case, the smoke stacks—that resemble geological formations above all else. Although Tanner admits that her works are not designed to function politically, it may be likely that her social, economic, and cultural tendencies seep into her creative processes. In donottellmewhereibelong, this occurs in disparate ways.

“Screen Hat”, 1990-2010, wood, Xerox, cloth, metal screen, casters, acrylic, 12” x 17” x 17”. Courtesy of the artist.

Indeed, political implications can be inferred at numerous points in the exhibition. In each instance, Tanner retains a pacifist demeanor. Screen Hat (1990-2010), a small found object sculpture of headwear floating above a two-dimensional rendering of a face, can be framed as an imagined post-apocalyptic scene. The sculpture’s parts are unclean and corroded, as if they had been pulled from the remnants of a fire or combat.

By assembling these incongruous parts into a unified form, she removes them from the meaning they may have once had. More palpably, violence is recalled in a visceral sense by certain components and the ways in which they are attached: thumb tacks puncture the sculpture’s base, nails drive into the wooden frame, a chain bears down upon the face, and a metal screen spurs from atop the hat.

Screen Hat operates as both an index and representation of destruction, as well as a moment to reflect on the consequences of a world order fueled and sustained by invasion, war, and physical dominance. Moreover, the sculpture is anchored to four wheels, insinuating that violence and the forces that extrude it are capable of mobility.

Destruction is a thematic thread in donottellmewhereibelong, albeit not always in a manner relating to discerned subject matter. After all, Tanner states in the 2006 interview that she believes “we are hard-wired toward received perceptions, impressions, and readings of the world.” Instead, as Tanner allows her work to inform itself, the destructive moment in the process becomes a focal a point. Tanner embraces the collapse of utility, formal composition, and connotation. It is as if her exploration of material and form portends a breaking down, anticipating the erosion of deduced meaning.

As a result, donottellmewhereibelong consists of familiar shapes and objects that have gained any number of possible contexts. Viewers are able to apply their own experiences in interpreting what Tanner has created, which perhaps centers their imagination as the primary focal point of the artist’s work.

The exhibition is on view through October 27th at The Cressman Center Gallery located at 100 East Main Street in Louisville.

Hunter Kissel is an arts administrator, writer, and curator based in Louisville, KY. He received a Master of Art in Critical and Curatorial Studies as well as a Master of Public Administration from the University of Louisville in 2017.


“Insect Virtue” at Parachute Factory 

The exhibit, Insect Virtue, at The Parachute Factory on 720 Bryon Avenue offers its viewers – what might seem at first glance – a radically new experience, engulfing them in the sound of forest critters and the smell of dirt.  Throughout the gallery paths of earth direct visitors around the gallery, where trees, long-stemmed plants, and logs are overtaken by fungi. Sprawling on top of a one large dirt patch in the center of the room, a giant animatronic creature sways its head back and forth – as if to inspect the curious faces staring at it.  

What these two collaborating artists, Samantha Hensley and Lizz Hamilton, actually recreate is an environment familiar to its audience, while captivating our imagination with the strangest potentiality.  “The work is basically about this weird creature falling down to earth and then forgetting who he is, and since the only thing around him are bugs he begins to believe and form into a bug himself,” Hensley explains. Their artist statement offers a romantic tale, describing this “divine creature” having fallen to Earth and then morphing into a bug like form due to its fascination with the simple life of insects. As the statement reads:

Moths spin fluid into silken strands, ants enter into putrid flesh, mosquitoes gorge themselves on blood… Seeing this, his mantle radiated with a strange and gentle love for them.

Installation view, ‘Insect Virtue’, The Parachute Factory, 2018

Using animatronic parts from Christmas deer decorations, felt, wire, and other materials, Hensley constructs this white fluffy yet disturbing creature. The swaying motion of its head and the stationary clear white wings on its back show how it is still in the process of evolving into another life form. The interactive installation and the moving sculpture create an emotional connection between the audience and the work. “I wanted people to understand the piece through their feelings for it,” Hensley describes. The work is beautiful yet disconcerting—forcing the audience to confront something that is unfamiliar and at the same time comforting, as the main creature is designed to be a humble guardian. 

Installation view, ‘Insect Virtue’, The Parachute Factory, 2018

While Hensley’s creature sits center stage, Hamilton’s artistic use of organic material (the plants and dirt) and audio creates a familiar yet mystical atmosphere. Hamilton describes her work as a way to explore what she calls “bodily relationships with the divine, ritual, and otherworldly.” The audience finds itself peering with fascination and intrigue at dirt, cobwebs, and fungi covered logs that aren’t generally understood as beautiful or divine. Ever changing and adapting, the creature’s curiosity and awe for this world seems to reflect an underlining truth about human nature.  

As humans, we enter this world in a form described as pure, innocent, and flawless. As we grow, we evolve to fit into new environments, situations, and circumstances. We learn to find our gifts and our flaws. Some people will find us extraordinary, while others will not. When we find love, however, another person sees the rare beauty that others cannot. The work of Lizz Hamilton and Samantha Hensley is a metaphor for this process.

Visitors are sure to find both wonderment and a little comfort in Hensley and Hamilton’s unusual insect world. The exhibit is on view until September 29th and will be open to the public during gallery hours on Wednesdays-Fridays from 5-8pm and Saturday from 12-3 pm at 720 Byron Ave, Lexington, KY, 40505. 


Scene&Heard: Senora May

“I’ve been waiting for this night for so long; I’m so glad you’re all here!” Senora May told the crowd that gathered from the front of the stage all the way to the back of The Burl to celebrate her first CD release.

Lainhart is titled in honor of her maiden name, and many of the songs speak on the theme of family.

Senora May’s music is soft and easy on the ear. It envelops you with a warmth that is familiar and welcoming, even if you’ve never met her. With guitar picking that trickles along like a brook, her voice has the fluidity of a flowing brook. Senora is a child of the hills – the gorgeous backdrop on the cover of her CD is the backdrop to her life and her music.

I am inspired most by nature, second by people.  I can’t explain it. It’s just my process to be in awe of my surroundings, my emotions dictate which direction the song might turn, but I am initially inspired by some sound, or visual directly before me or triggering my memory.  If I hear a cardinal or a mourning dove, or I see limbs broken and scented from deer, that triggers something in my mind.”

The title song Lainhart begins with sounds of farm life that distort into sounds of war. Written when her brother Levi left for Marine boot camp, the song is a tribute to him but also to her family and the life they live in the hills of eastern Kentucky.

Ambient and significant sounds are in several songs on the album, a sonic tapestry of her story. It’s a story of family and love and distance and work of all kinds. Senora was joined onstage at The Burl by Josh Nolan on guitar and toy piano and John Isaacs on drums.

Senora May performing at The Burl

The album tells the story of a woman coming into her own. The wife of Tyler Childers, Senora May’s music is certainly influenced by being the wife of an actively touring musician. 

“Through the deliberate arrangement of my album, I hoped for people to navigate the loss, the support, pride, and then self-discovery and bliss through solitude. I would have surely lost myself through turn points of this project, if I hadn’t encountered the self preservation piece.”

She lives in peace with the solitude of her home, without electricity amongst the hills she grew up with, fostering her independence and her art, including music, graphic art, painting, stained glass, fibers, as well as other mediums.

Her song “By My Lonesome” is an anthem for the independent natural woman, confident in this solitude and strengthened by her abilities. Senora brags that she can skin any animal properly and teach another to do the same. A true child of the hills, she lives the authentic life she sings about, and her voice and lyrics roll as naturally as the fog in the hills at sunrise.

“Only Want You” plays to the background of coyotes yelping as she sings of a wife missing her husband who is out on the road while she listens to the crickets sing around her at home in the hills. Tyler has been touring for most of their marriage, especially so in the last year or so, and this experience certainly influences her music.

“Missing him when he’s gone is always there, I try to stay busy enough that it doesn’t become a problem. When I let my emotions interfere with my productivity, I call him and we talk about it and he’ll do the same. We have a really good relationship in that way. But yes, I would say quite a few of our songs have no option but to be inspired by our missing of one another.”

Her CD release was quite a success: a full house at The Burl with Tyler home to watch the whole thing. The crowd was treated to a spectacular natural light show as thunder and lightning blasted outside, knocking out some of the lights as she played. Loyal fans turned on their phone flashlights to illuminate her with love, singing her words back to her. The whole CD was inspired by her fans, “I put Lainhart out, for my fans who have bugged the hell out of me. I put it out for my family and friends who love me and have convinced me of my capabilities.”

The week after Senora May’s CD release at The Burl in Lexington, she played the early morning stage Saturday at the Kickin’ it on the Creek festival in Irvine, Kentucky, in her native Estill county. Senora was quite at home as the sun rose up over the ridgelines of the holler where the stage sat, the fog burning away with the day’s rising heat. She roused folks from their tents with her songs, luring them into the sunshine with her mesmerizing and sometimes haunting voice.

Senora May performing at Kickin' It On The Creek

A completely different scene than at The Burl, the festival takes place deep in a holler in Estill and Lee County, where Ross creek winds through the bottomland between two ridges. A long slightly-horrifying-to-drive gravel road takes you right to the house of Byron Roberts, a friend of Senora’s family who recalls the day she was born. Roberts has hosted the festival at his home for the last five years. 

The festival is a reunion of sorts for Eastern Kentucky musicians.

The whole feel was that of family, which Senora’s music embodied as she sang up on a stage adorned with flowers her father had grown and picked for her set. Local and homegrown, with love of family. It was the perfect setting for Senora May’s music, which helped bring the day of music to fruition, and would be brought to a head later that night by her husband Tyler.

Folks gathered around with sleepy eyes and happy smiles and cups of coffee as they sang Senora May’s words back to her, one of her favorite parts of making music and sharing it with others.

“I like the way I feel when I’m singing and people are singing along. I like to hear that my lyrics have helped someone in some way.”

It was clear during these two shows, her crowds like it just as much.

Cara Blake Coppola is a contributing writer for UnderMain and a book author. Video by Derek “Doc” Feldman.


New Masters Against Mastery: Melissa Carter at Institute 193

A multitude of voices resonate from the paintings in Melissa Carter’s exhibition New Masters at Institute 193. The large-scale, vibrantly colored compositions recall the works of well-known Fauvist, Abstract Expressionist, and Neo-Expressionist artists. Some are abstract, others figurative. Their painted surfaces range from think and fluid, to flat and constrained. Fleshy natural tones contrast with sharp synthetic hues, and bold geometric patterns lay adjacent to patches of ambiguous organic form. In short, Carter’s works fails to cohere. And I mean that in the best possible way. The new masters, as it were, refuse mastery.

Against a male-dominated culture that valorizes authority, autonomy, and self-assertion, Carter’s paintings stress the value of incongruity, relationality, and lack of control. This feminist stance is reinforced by the artist’s decision to directly tackle the sexist and misogynistic terms that structure the art historical canon. Appropriating the objectified female bodies and exoticized spaces that characterize much modern figurative painting from Henri Matisse to David Salle, Carter transforms them into inscrutable figures set in dreamlike-spaces of their own making. Trans and gender non-conforming figures like the ones found in Chess Master with Blue Gown (2018) and The Snake Charmer (2018) resist the stabilization and consolidation of gender and sexuality into hierarchical normative categories. Gazing out confidently at the viewer (often from behind sun glasses), Carter’s figures compel us to look at them, but also refuse full disclosure. As the curator Emma Friedman-Buchanan perceptively states in the text that accompanies the exhibition: “In Carter’s representations, the one-sided power dynamic between artist and model dissolves through her literal repositioning of women in art.”

In her abstract compositions, Carter challenges the masculinist terms of sovereignty, virility, and force that have characterized much modern painting, particularly abstract expressionism. In her work I’m an Oil Man (2017), for example, the amorphous sea-green subject at the center is bound with stark bands of red and black paint at the top and bottom edges. Unlike paintings by Jackson Pollock or Willem De Kooning the gestural marks do not appear as free and authentic expressions of the self, but instead as polyvocal and ambivalent responses to the constraints of the frame. Spoken from the non-dominant position of the female artist, Carter debunks the myth of unfettered self-expression. As the title suggests, patronage from captains of industry (such as wealthy oil men) has historically tethered itself to notions of artistic genius that tout the virtues of independence, self-reliance, and self-aggrandizement, thus marginalizing artists whose experience does not align with their world view.

In an art world in which women still do not receive equal compensation, professional recognition, critical acclaim, or gallery and museum representation (with work by women artists making up only 3-5% of permanent collections in the US and Europe), exhibitions of work by feminist artist like Melissa Carter are desperately needed. They not only combat aesthetic biases and discriminatory canons, but they also point a way forward to new approaches to the artistic process.

New Masters will be on view at Institute 193 until October 13th. For more information about the show, as well as gallery hours and location, go to the Institute 193 website.

Installation photograph of Melissa Carter: New Masters at Institute 193 with The Snake Charmer (2018) to the left and I’m an Oil Man (2017) straight ahead.

Melissa Carter, Chess Master with Blue Gown (2018), Oil on Canvas, 72 x 48 inches.

Melissa Carter, I’m an Oil Man (2017), Oil on Canvas, 60 x 48 inches.

Miriam Kienle is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Kentucky.


Scene&Heard: Magnolia Boulevard at the Burl

It’s a given: when Magnolia Boulevard takes the stage, the crowd immediately starts dancing. Whether their songs swing from folky to blues or funk, the crowd is always movin’ and shakin’ with this band. The organic connection between band and audience is part of the energy that is propelling Magnolia Boulevard along a path of promise. And somebody is paying attention to this. Only two years old, the band has already gained the attention and sponsorship of Paul Reed Smith guitars.

The Burl filled quickly on this August Friday evening in anticipation of a three-band lineup. Warmed up by Boscoe France, another PRS band that got the crowd moving with some astounding guitar work, everyone was ready to keep going when Magnolia Boulevard took the stage. The opening jam made the audience bubbly and perfect for when lead singer Maggie Noelle stepped up to the mic and began singing.

Compared often to Susan Tedeschi, Bonnie Raitt or Janis Joplin, Maggie’s deep and flawless voice commands the room. With Gregg Erwin on guitar, John Roberts on bass, Ryan Allen on keys and Todd Copeland on drums, Magnolia Boulevard creates a solid platform of funky jams in support of Maggie’s voice and soulful lyrics. 

Magnolia Boulevard - Call on Me - Video by Red Barn Radio

Each instrumentalist is a master of his craft. The keys converse with the guitar, the bass slaps out its funky beat and the drums keep them all going. It’s impressive. The crowd happily takes it all in as they dance together. This is the vibe the band loves best.

“What we experience is genuine, and the crowd experiences that…the crowd’s got a lot to do with it too,” said bassist John Roberts. “The crowd is a member of the band, if you keep coming we’ll keep putting it out there. You gotta feed off that energy.”

The crowd clearly agrees with these sentiments. And they aren’t the only ones. After playing at Wilcutt Guitar’s 50th-anniversary show, in a slot right before the PRS guitar presentation, Magnolia Boulevard managed to capture the attention of Paul Reed Smith himself.  After their set, and the good luck of Maggie winning the prize PRS guitar out of the raffle, the connection was made. As Gregg had predicted to Paul Reed Smith, “you’re gonna fall in love with Maggie.”

Before they knew it, PRS was flying the whole band to Baltimore to play at their music festival and to record some songs at Smith’s personal studio. During that brief four-song set that was “easy” according to the band, Paul Reed Smith was apparently found standing off to the side, all by himself, mesmerized by the band during their performance. They hope to fly back out to continue working toward a full album under Smith’s guidance and sponsorship.

A creole of folk, bluegrass, funk and rock, Magnolia Boulevard serves up variety from song to song, but the sound of the band is its own, and even the blusier, funkier, slightly darker songs still make the crowd dance. The soul is obvious, and deep, and each instrument holds an equal place in the songs. Balanced. Some songs belt out a near Prince and the Revolution style funk, while others bemoan the deeply felt sorrow of blues. Then they slide funky-like into a jam-band piece that sends the vibe of the room into a frenzy.

Most of the lyrics are written by Maggie or Ryan, but Gregg has written some songs as well. Maggie claims to be “the baby of this band” in terms of professional musical experience. She clearly adores her band family. “I am grateful for this, I am learning so much in this process, they are great teachers.”

Magnolia Boulevard - Jezebel - Video by Shaker Steps

It is not common enough to see local musicians with great talent get the recognition they deserve. The music game isn’t an easy one, for sure. “Be prepared to work for it,” John comments. He and Todd go back to previous bands such as Tribe called Lex and have been immersed in the scene for a while. To be picked up by PRS and have such sudden success is a dream come true. They have been playing festivals and shows all over the region, including Master Musician Festival in Somerset and FloydFest in Virginia.

What’s next? “The stars,” Maggie smiles back. Here’s hoping, y’all…

Listen to Cara’s backstage conversation with members of  Magnolia Boulevard:


Letters of Acceptance Exploring New Envelopes

It’s not a bad thing when an interview with an indie rock four-piece devolves into a discussion of favorite Replacements albums. It also gets more interesting when talk settles around not a seminal work, but a later and, according to some, lesser work. The fact that this narrative derailment ends with mutual agreement on the merits of said album showcases how Letters of Acceptance, a relatively recent addition to the pantheon of local musical life, works as a band; they exist as a loose collective of musicians spread out across more than a couple cities and some impressively harried work schedules who come together in what seems to be a nearly perfect fit on random occasions. It’s the amiable convergence on mutual agreement that operates to their advantage, whether in playing music together or in conversation about The ‘Mats albums.

There’s also more than a hint of serendipity, as the members all find themselves in a relatively same geographic location for the first time. John Harlan Norris and Clinton Harlin Newman (who either really missed an opportunity to name the group “Harlan and Harlin” – or were too wise to do so), the driving force behind the group, knew each other in Kentucky but both wound up in New York for a brief period of overlap. Collaboration grew out of that and spanned years and miles before they finally found themselves both in the same state again, and an intermittent collaboration blossomed into a full project.

“I think we had this idea that we wanted to keep it loose and try and have a little bit of spontaneity,” said Norris. “In some ways, for practical purposes, because that’s all time would allow for.”

The time constraints came not just because of busy schedules but because of the necessity for favorable weather for comfortable recording sessions in Newman’s uninsulated attic in Louisville.

“We could only record during winter, because the attic gets literally a hundred degrees in the summer,” said Newman.

The looseness gives the music a lived-in, organic feel, but not a sense of sloppiness. That loose approach doesn’t bleed over into the production value, however, despite the guerilla recording effort.

“I try to imagine it like we’re doing this twenty years ago and we’re using a little four-track cassette tape recorder to record a whole album,” said Newman. “I still think like that. That’s the most fun thing to do.”

L-R: Scott Whiddon, Tim Welch, Clinton Harlin Newman, John Harlan Norris

After writing and recording together for some time, the duo began taking their music out in public, giving it the local version of a road test before eventually enlisting bassist Scott Whiddon and drummer Tim Welch in mid-2018. Whiddon, a staple of the Lexington music scene the last several years, had been in a band that crossed paths and joined bills with another project of Norris while Whiddon was a grad student at LSU. He helped recruit Welch.

“They hooked me in immediately, when I heard it. I thought, ‘I’ve gotta get in on this.’ Then, ‘My wife’s going to kill me,’” said Welch.

Only after Welch was brought in as drummer, completing the foursome, did he realize his own proximity to the fated group:

“John and I live like five houses away and didn’t even know each other,” said Welch.

The relatively short distance between bandmates now belies a larger distance in the mix, namely, Norris’s seven-hour weekly commute to teach in Jonesboro, Arkansas, at Arkansas State University, where he is Associate Professor of Art. 

The artistry is evident in the composition – the lyrics often convey textures as much as themes, evoking actual poetry rather than a series of built-out rhymes. There is an undercurrent of bemused alienation throughout, disassociation viewed through a winking lens, even if it isn’t a conscious effort at a throughline.

“It’s just what comes out,” said Newman.

Lines fit because they work, not because they serve some heavy-handed theme:

“I’m interested in narratives that aren’t straightforward,” said Norris, but there is a bit of soul-searching emptiness that the songwriters attribute to being back in Kentucky.

“I think there are some lyrical things in an oblique way that do address that,” said Norris.

“The idea of coming back to a place and having it be different from what you anticipated,” said Newman. “We’re still trying to figure out where we are.”

Norris and Lewis work up the songs together, but it’s not a stretch to see echoes of Norris’s visual art in the lyrics from the duo.

“I’m here, but I’m ill-defined,” a line from “Cons and Pros,” the leading track on their new EP, could describe any number of Norris’s works, portraits where the human subject has been replaced instead with objects that reconstruct the outline of a human figure or build a silhouette that obscures identity. If this description is getting away from me or the point isn’t quite getting across, know that this is all meant to be a breathless compliment on the artistic complement.

Art as motivation is what drives back the forces of chaos that would render a less-organized band asunder. 

“Everyone in this band has a job and a house and responsibilities. When we see each other, it’s really happy. We have to plan ahead, and that’s okay,” said Whiddon. “It’s going to be fun.”

“If it’s a thing you want to do, you just figure out a way to do it,” said Norris.

Letters of Acceptance will be debuting their full-band lineup and releasing their EP at The Green Lantern on Friday, August 31st at 10 p.m. with Robby Cosenza and Otto. Tickets are $5.


20 Female Japanese MCs Changing The World of Hip-Hop

 This article was produced in partnership with The International Center for Journalists

After being almost entirely dismissed by mainstream media and record labels in Japan until the mid-nineties, the world of Japanese hip-hop emerged out of the underground clubs and gatherings at parks and train stations and has generationally evolved to be embedded in the cultural consciousness of every day Japanese people. Alongside of a positive shift toward true gender equality as well as a rising awareness and celebration of idiosyncratic hip-hop music, dance, fashion, and art, a new generation of avant-garde female rappers has emerged, who were not only inspired by strong American female hip-hop artists like MC Lyte and Lauryn Hill, but also by trailblazing Japanese hip-hop groups like Rhymestar and Nitro Microphone Underground, who learned the four elements of hip-hop from New York and adapted it to a Japanese palate.

Before female MCs began crafting their own raps in Japan, female R&B singers were instrumental in bringing hip-hop into the mainstream in Japan. The beginnings of commercial success for hip-hop artists started in the summer of 1995, when a group called East End teamed up with a former J-pop star named Yuri to put out a track called “Da.Yo.Ne.”. This song went on to sell millions of copies and started a long history of female J-pop and R&B artists, like Cibo Matto and Koda Kumi, to experiment with rapping as well as featuring (predominantly male) underground hip-hop artists in their songs. In his foundational book on the beginnings of how Japanese hip-hop came to be, Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization, MIT professor and Japanese scholar, Ian Condry, mentions that, in the late nineties, “a Japanese R&B boom led by women singers helped to bring (male) Japanese hip-hop into the mainstream consciousness.”

When hip-hop initially went mainstream in Japan, women were merely fans, but times have changed and now there is a multitude of new female MCs who are not only going beyond their rigid “Office Lady” gender expectations, but are experimenting into totally new realms of music and self-expression.

In particular, female MCs in Japan face lots of problems, not only with sexual harassment and dismissive record executives, but also with the Japanese language alone. In English, women and men use the same grammar and verb endings to express an idea, but in Japanese, women and men use different expressions. For example, women often refer to themselves as “atashi”, whereas men will use the word “ore”, so it creates a challenging dilemma for female MCs who want to sound strong but still maintain a feminine touch.

The 20 women that I have featured in this article are courageously shifting the paradigm of a male-dominated hip-hip world to a more balanced state and are brewing up fresh compositions drawing from elements of J-Pop, hip-hop, jazz, EDM, and traditional Japanese folk music. Using the spirit of hip-hop that celebrates individual pride and uniqueness, these women are boldly rejecting the image of passive Japanese women, fighting misogyny in their lyrics and performances, and are pushing the global world of hip-hop to new heights.

Click on the images of your favorite female Japanese MCs on the slider below to read more about them, see videos of their music, and hear interviews with several of them.

MC List and Links

#1 – コマチComa-Chi

#2 – あっこゴリラAkkogorilla

#3 – MCfrog

#4 – Kagura Sunshine

#5 – Acharu

#6 – 椿 Tsubaki

#7 -DJ みそしるとMCごはんDJ Misoshiru & MC Gohan

#8 – Awich

#9 – NENE from ゆるふわギャング Yurufuwa Gang

#10 – RIN a.k.a 貫井りらん Nukui Riran

#11 – MINAMI from Teng Gang Starr

#12 – 072 (Onatsu)

#13 – Sarah Midori Perry from Kero Kero Bonito

#14 – ダヲコDAOKO

#15 – 秀吉a.k.a.自称アイドルラッパー Hidekichi a.k.a. Jishou Idol Rapper

#16 – 泉まくらIzumi Makura

#17 – コムアイKOM_I from 水曜日のカンパネラWednesday Campanella

#18 and #19 – MaryJane (Luna and Tsugumi)

#20 – MC MSZ


OFF-SPRING: New Generations at 21C Museum Hotel – Lexington

The line between childhood and adulthood is muddy and complicated. When we are children, we are constantly looking forward, seeking to emulate the adults that surround us through our schoolwork, our daydreams, and our play. As adults, we frequently gaze backwards, thinking nostalgically of times when our lives were simpler and when we had not yet made the choices that would come to define our lived existences, where regret seemed impractical because the world was filled with endless opportunities. Moreover, childhood and adulthood are diametrically opposed, with childhood being defined by the inexperience of adulthood and adulthood being determined by maturity not found in childhood, all of which comprises the complicated processes of “growing up.”

This push and pull between the conception of each life stage is at the core of the new exhibition OFF-SPRING: New Generations, now on view at 21C Museum Hotel in downtown Lexington. On the whole, the exhibition poses many complex questions about the limits of childhood, the definition of adulthood, and the processes that come to determine the passage between the two, presenting a multifaceted exploration of how the self is constructed through the internal passage of time we all experience.

One of the primary ways we transition from childhood to adulthood is through our education. Theoretically, the practice of attending school is designed to transform children into mature adults, capable of thinking deliberately and acting rationally on their own in the world. While this process could—and some might argue, should—entreat the development of individualism on behalf of the pupil, the result of this education is far more often a condition of universality, with students demonstrating similar knowledge and an understanding of the world at their point of culmination.

Li Hongbo (Chinese), “Absorption No. 5”, 2015, Books, desk, chair

This uniformity through education is explicitly at the heart of Li Hongbo’s sculpture Absorption No. 5, which consists of a bust of a child, carved from Chinese government issued text books sitting on a school desk. The figure is therefore formed out of the same educational materials that every child receives in China, thus highlighting how on a fundamental level, all Chinese children are taught to be the same.

While Li Hongbo is skeptical of the sameness that is produced through education, Sofie Muller’s sculpture Clarysse highlights the attachment we feel towards education as a fundamental component of childhood. The work, which is the first one we encounter, consists of a patinated bronze sculpture of a young schoolgirl sitting at a wooden desk, but the head of the child has been removed, “leaving only an oval shadow burned into the desktop.” The removal of her face renders her anonymous, making her a synecdoche for any schoolgirl, and thus reminding the viewer of the uniformity of education across all children.

Yet, at the same time, the implicit violence of her decapitation, further underscored by the burnt shadow, entreats us to feel great empathy at the loss of opportunity for her, since it is a near universal belief that all children should have the right to an education and that the interruption thereof is a marked tragedy. Viewed so closely together, these two works offer a complicated consideration of how education works to transition children to adulthood, existing as a potentially positive opportunity for maturation while simultaneously being a system of formal indoctrination.

Although formal education is central to the maturation from childhood, informal development through play is also essential for children, and the enactment of that play is prominent throughout OFF-SPRING. In several cases, issues of play are used to illustrate how children seek to emulate adults in their own actions, often distorting the reality of adulthood in so doing.

Gehard Demetz (Italian), “Keep My Old Dreams”, 2016, Lindenwood © Gehard Demetz, Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

For instance, Gerhard Demetz’s sculpture Keep My Own Dreams “depicts a frowning child, standing in a protective stance; he holds a baseball bat in one hand and a hairbrush out in front of the other, as if warding off danger.” The child is purposefully misusing these objects to help him emulate the bravery enacted by parents as they protect their children from unknown harms. This desire to replicate the parent on behalf of the child is further underscored by the fact that he is wearing the shoes of a grown adult, his small ankles pressed against the leather tongues revealing a substantial gap, an action that many children do as a part of their play.

Carrie Mae Weems (American), “May Flowers”, 2002, Chromogenic dye coupler print, © Carrie Mae Weems, Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Similarly, Carrie Mae Weems’ photographs Untitled (Mother, Daughter, and Make Up) from The Kitchen Table series and May Flowers unpack how play acts as a pretense of maturity. In both works, young black girls adorn themselves—with a crown of flowers in May Flowers and with make-up in Untitled—in a way that makes them appear more “womanly,” therefore practicing the grooming behaviors that will likely characterize their adult lives. By capturing the gestures of children’s play, both Demetz and Weems consider how these actions informally teach children the practices that will comprise their daily lives when they have fully matured.

In addition to considering the gestures of play, many of the works in OFF-SPRING also examine the objects thereof. Chris Roberts-Antieau, for example, explores the form of the doll house in her work Murder House. Employing the conventions of the dollhouse as a child’s toy—using appropriately sized figures and furnishings placed in a realistic setting—Roberts-Antieau subverts this kind of play by replicating one of the most shocking scenes of violence in the 20th century: the murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959, a story that was memorialized in Truman Capote’s landmark work In Cold Blood. In depicting the murder scene in a doll house, Roberts-Antieau conveys a mature subject matter through an immature medium. In so doing, not only has Roberts-Antieau complicated the notion of a child’s toy through meticulously recreating the violent crime scene, but she also brings to light the ways in which the victims of this real-world horror, specifically the two teenaged Clutter children, were rendered mature by the violence they experienced.

Frances Goodman (South African), “The Dream” (detail), 2010-2016, Silk, lace, organza, satin, beads, embroidery thread, wedding dresses, sound installation.

The intersection of playing at maturity and the lived experience thereof is also present in the way the show considers the ritual of marriage as a marker for the transition from childhood to adulthood, especially for women. In Frances Goodman’s installation The Dream, which “is comprised of satin, silk, and organza wedding dresses flowing from the ceiling to the floor in waves of pinks and whites,” the piling of the gowns, coupled with the soft organic nature of the sculptural form rising above them makes the space feel like a child’s playroom, with plenty of wedding gowns to play dress up in. This juvenile fantasy of marriage as something you can pretend to attain clashes starkly with the sound components of the piece and the quotes embroidered on the sculptural forms of the work, all of which derive from the “candid emotions of hope, envy, angst, uncertainty, and desire about the tradition of marriage” expressed by “dozens of women ages 20 to 60 ” that Goodman interviewed for the project. As such, Goodman illustrates the transition to womanhood that is actually experienced by many when they move from bachelorette to bride to wife, a reality that is often far from the dreamed experience of young girls as they play.

While many of the works in OFF-SPRING focus on the differentiation between childhood and adulthood, still others consider the ways in which those relationships are intertwined, specifically within the context of the family unit. For instance, Daniel Magnusson’s serial portraits of fathers and daughters attending “Purity Balls” in Arizona examine the way that the practice of childrearing impacts the maturity of both the parent and child. In the photographs, the fathers hold their daughters close in an effort to support and protect them; while the idea of a “Purity Ball” might seem to be a sign of overbearing parenting, Magnusson notes that while he had a similar impression of the practice, “as [he] learned more, [he] understood that the fathers, like all parents simply wanted to protect the ones that they love—in the best way they know how.” The portraits thus function as an illustration of the maturation both of the daughters and of the fathers; while the Purity balls in many ways mark the transition from girlhood to young women, the participation of the fathers in them illustrates their complete acceptance of the role of parent as caretaker, recognizing that they are not only responsible for their own lives but the well-being of others, an act that by its very nature matures them.

Other works similarly tackle the issue of maturation through the depiction of inter-generational family relationships. Deanna Lawson’s Coulson Family, for example, explores the influence of familial legacies on the upbringing of her subjects, Black families that she meets “in grocery stores, on the subway, on road trips, during international travel, and on the busy streets of her Brooklyn neighborhood.” The images then take on the form of a family portrait, objects that by their very nature are meant to document the present for future generations. As such, these photographs not only illustrate how the family structure of today influences the upbringing, and therefore the identity, of a particular individual, but also calls to mind the complicated experiences of many previous generations. For Lawson, these photographs help to map the larger system of the experiences of black families living in the African diaspora and help personalize the experiences of various individuals within the context of a greater global black history.

Race and gender are two of the many themes that re-emerge throughout the show, further blurring the focus of OFF-SPRING: New Generations, and making it clear that this is not simply an exhibition about childhood and maturation. The show is, in fact, so full of thought provoking work that it would be nearly impossible to characterize it as examining simply one entity. Rather, the narrative it weaves reveals the complexities that really underlie the process of self-discovery we all embark on as we grow. Moreover, the show demonstrates that the designations between life stages and identities are not hard and fast, but rather exist in a continuum and the acknowledgement of the fluidity between them helps breed a greater understanding of the diverse human experience.


Fresh Big Fresh

The cover photos for the Big Fresh’s sophomore LP release entitled Sweeps denote a certain image, a picture of nostalgia for a time when some of us were in our foundational age, young children surrounded by neon colors, living through the country’s desperate grasp on the wholesome ideal of the fifties while we heard about the Cold War on the huge TV that sat as the central focus in every house of privilege.

Their photos are intentionally set to look like the TV Guide covers of those days, when sitcoms were the unifying force for us all, what was talked about the next day at school, what folks looked forward to from week to week. As we were kids then, it seemed simpler times.

Big Fresh

The sound is all Big Fresh. The techno, synthesizer-heavy lightness of the eighties, the vocal harmony of backing vocals, the electronic sound that was emblematic of those times. Here’s a sampling:

Cosmos Song featuring Reva Russell English

Hottie Tottie featuring Ryan Hover and Chris Dennison

Uh Oh featuring Per Sunding and Karen Hover

Additional songs on the Sweeps EP include The Voices featuring Ken Stringfellow, and I Found Out featuring Tim Welch.

Yet the singers and musicians in Big Fresh are grown now, with kids of their own, and the experience of growing up to know that those really weren’t simpler times, that there is no simple time, gives Big Fresh the authority to claim and redefine this music as their own. “I Found Out” is a perfect example of this, a song that feels light and airy but seems to be discussing an angst only earned by living.

Big Fresh is a large collective of Lexington musicians, including Daniel Coy, Jeremy Midkiff, Ben Fulton, John Ferguson, Dave Farris, Nick Coleman, Ben Phelan, Faith Diamond, Bryan Gore, Brian Conners Manke, Matthew Clarke, Kate Drof, Kim Conlee and Trevor Tremaine. All of these people are also in ATTEMPT, and several are in numerous other bands as well. For John Ferguson, however, Big Fresh is “The project that is most near and dear to my heart…Big Fresh is specifically pop songs that are a little easily digestible.” These bands, along with Italian Beaches and Jeanne Vomit-Terror, all share members and are all putting out LP’s on the Desperate Spirits label, which they started.

Desperate Spirits is a local creation by the above mentioned, where they put out vinyl LP’s from their collective band of madly talented musicians. Sweeps is one of three albums they will have produced this year, not bad for a labor of love being done by working folks with a passion for music. They choose to produce “Vinyl artifacts” instead of putting out music digitally, which has its benefits and perks of course, “but to have this object, this artifact, you’re creating something that can be archived into history somehow. Even if we’re doing it for ourselves, there’s this physical thing we can hold.”

The album is the second of a set, the first Big Fresh LP called Fall Preview was released last year. The new LP Sweeps is a bold follow-up to the first. Each song, while resonating Ferguson’s vision of lighter, pop type songs, shows diversity between the songs, each one holding its unique place in the group. “Cosmos Song” features the female vocalists in the band, layering electronic songs in a haunting, enveloping way that wraps through the speakers. The LP starts and ends with “Hottie Tottie” and “The Voices”, respectively, more upbeat electronic sounds with robotic vocal overdubs, but then lead into and out of the more existential songs in the middle. Diverse and vibrant, the whole LP is a masterful orchestration of the surface level optimistic consumerism of the 80’s matched with the more accessible daily struggle of the daily life of jobs, kids and life.

Reflecting their lives as parents and to appease an audience of the same generation, Big Fresh will have their record release as a brunch, at 1 p.m. on Sunday, August 19th at The Burl. The Doodles food truck will be there and it is an all ages show.  Big Fresh hopes to be “mindful of how difficult late night shows are, how exclusive those shows are. Such a niche audience, we would like to branch out to other opportunities.”

After the record release, Big Fresh will be playing Sept. 8th at the Tahlsound Festival on Southland Drive, another daytime show that is all ages friendly. Ferguson spoke at length about what a supportive community Lexington is for the diverse talents of the folks on the Desperate Spirits label. “Lexington is great in that way in that everyone kind of supports everyone else. It is a very inclusive and supportive community.” The variety of shows that people around town can enjoy speaks to this inclusion.


Reflections On The Chamber Music Festival Of Lexington

I must begin with a full disclosure – I am hopelessly biased in my writing. About six years ago, I remember the discordant looks I got when I said that I ran the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington. I was in my early twenties, scraggly with semi-kempt facial hair and strong opinions – not exactly the picture of a chamber music enthusiast. But my deep affinity for the music was genuine – and I still hold it today (right alongside the other two).

So why? What is it about this music, which conjures up the image of powdered wigs and gilded wall trim, that can be engaging and electrifying for a member of what the American Conservative calls “Generation ‘Meh’”? I suppose it really breaks down into three reasons, each of which I will discuss separately.


The first reason is the music itself.

Chamber music is a fantastical journey in musical collaboration, with threads that grace so many different genres. Rooted in Medieval and Renaissance home-music and consort playing, early chamber music – and consequent traditions – bear a striking resemblance to old time music of Appalachian tradition. The musical complexity and intimacy of the chamber music ensemble are echoed in jazz, modern bluegrass, and Eastern European folk traditions. The intentional and notated nature of it are – naturally – tied to the greater classical music repertoire of the symphony, opera, and ballet.  Contemporary chamber music can even resemble the driven pulse of electronic artists like Aphex Twin.

Many of these genres could be easily lumped in with the technical definition of chamber music – music played by a small ensemble in an intimate space with one performer per part. While jazz, old time, and bluegrass all could fit into this typology easy enough, many purists don’t agree with this broad interpretation. So, I talk about it in a slightly different way: interconnectedness.

No better representation of the interconnectedness of chamber music could be found than the Chamber Music Festival that is endearingly rooted in our place – Lexington, Kentucky – through co-founder and Artistic Director Nathan Cole.

The Chamber Music Festival of Lexington has a penchant for pulling on these threads of musical connection until they achieve some semblance of cellular fusion. Last year, jazz was the genre which was consumed by this interconnectedness, with the festival featuring jazz violinist (and Lexington native) Zach Brock and his trio, Triptych. Their performance of Bassist Matt Ulery’s, Become Giant, was a standout of my musical year. It perfectly blended the improvisatory flexing of jazz with the delicate communication of chamber music.

This year, Ben Sollee, another Lexington musical legend, will be joining the festival. Ben’s music is hard to describe, but I would put it somewhere on the American music spectrum with Appalachian Old Time, Western Kentucky Bluegrass, and the very broad “Americana”. It will be fascinating to see how his chordal, flowing music that hearkens to traditional Kentucky folk music integrates with the other music programmed this year – especially folk-driven music like that of Leos Janacek or Edvard Greig.


The second reason is the community that the music creates.

The intimacy of chamber music handily carries over into the chamber music audience that it creates. There is something about the experience of watching this music that bonds you both with the artists themselves and the folks sitting all around you.

This type of connection – so hard to define, yet so clearly identifiable – is one of the clear draws of the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington, and could even be a reason for its success.

Each year, the festival brings back the same core artists, and the same Ensemble-in-Residence. After 10+ years of coming to Lexington, world-class artists Alessio Bax, Burchard Tang, Akiko Tarumoto, and Priscilla Lee have become family to many in Lexington. After performances you will see hugs and closely-spoken conversations about the feelings that the music evokes in both the artists and the listeners. Audience members will pair off with the artists, going to drinks at Kentucky Native Cafe or a late-night dinner at Charlie Brown’s.

All of this comfort with the audience, built through human relationships, brings with it a greater emotional connection in the musicians, and more complex and nuanced musicality along with it.

It also impacts the audience.

I vividly remember a performance years ago of Olivier Messiaen’s, Quartet for the End of Time, written during the composer’s time in a German Concentration Camp, and debuted by fellow prisoners in the camp itself. The intense emotional energy in the room was thick and palpable – something that happens only when an audience and ensemble are willing to be vulnerable with their emotions.

The third reason is the environment of the performances themselves.

Answer this question honestly – how often do you find yourself among neighbors, in a quiet, dark space without the piercing blue glow of screens or clamor of notifications?

We all have a habit of romanticizing the time before smartphones and social media. The landscape of the 20th century certainly had less pings and beeps, but the human attention span has always been evolved to notice the quick movements and slight distractions that, in another time, could warn us of approaching predators.

That being said, it is rare these days to give yourself the space to be contemplative and fully immersed in an experience.

Even for a generation that is said to prefer experiences over assets, my generational peers are so often distracted by the cacophony of breaking news or incoming work emails that many of us seem to be losing the focus muscle altogether. For me, this lack of focus and constant stimulation seems to sap my ability to slow down and be intentional with my life.

When I was running the festival, we developed a somewhat radical Ensemble-in-Residence program – each year it features the wind quintet WindSync – that brought chamber music to street corners, bars, and impromptu locations throughout the city. I distinctly remember the euphoria of getting concerts out of the hall. But as I have aged, and my life has gotten more complex, challenging, and emotional, I have found myself increasingly reverent for the calm quiet of a concert hall.

So, for a few hours this August, I am grateful to have a chance to be in a space where everything is done with extraordinary intention. Surrounded by melodies and harmonies that span centuries, I can truly forget about the constant idling of my 21st century attention span. I can be attentive, among people I care about, sharing in the unique experience that is chamber music.

The monasterial stillness of a chamber music performance is something not to be missed in 2018, the year of distraction.

And we are lucky to be able to experience this through a world-class chamber music festival like ours.

Ours is a festival that clearly understands and draws from the tapestry of its musical influences and legacies, and asserts the potential for chamber music to rejoin popular music. It programs standards of chamber music repertoire, but brings in artists from outside genres to collaborate. It pulls the music out of the hall and onto street corners  – but it still allows the tradition of the dark, intentional space (that I so love) to continue.

I may be prohibitively biased in regards to chamber music – and particularly this festival – but I do believe that all of our 2018’s could be improved with the stillness of witnessing this music.  Why not spend that time among friends and neighbors, experiencing it together?  You may think that I am surrendering to my sentimentality for art form, but then again, maybe my life could be improved with a little more sentimentality and fewer strong opinions.

Richard Young is former Executive Director of the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington. He currently serves on the festival’s board of directors.


Scene&Heard at the Master Musicians Festival

The Master Musicians Festival 2018 sprawled over the sunbaked rolling hills of the Somerset Community College Campus. Food truck aromas followed the nose through booths offering crafts and tie dye t-shirts.  Good humored folks laughed and danced and sweated in the sun while an incredible line-up of musicians poured out hearts, souls and talents from the festival’s pair of stages.

The Eastwood Stage stage, nestled in the trees down a slight hill from the big main stage where headliner John Prine would play later that Saturday, was home to the local acts that were performing between main stage sets. Hosted by Eastwood Records, the second stage gave “the little guys a spot down here in the valley,” musician John Clay quipped when he opened his set.

Click on image for Cara’s chat with John Clay | Photo by Cara Blake Coppola

Since 1994, The Master Musicians Festival has hosted big names in Americana music on its stages for folks to enjoy. This year brought one of Kentucky’s legends as headliner John Prine shared his bill with the likes of Amanda Shires, JD McPherson, The Dead South, Dawg Yawp, and many more. Some hot local bands shared the big stage with those names, including Joslyn and the Sweet Compression and Arlo McKinley and the Lonesome Sound.

But our attention was drawn to the second stage, a brilliant festival strategy of providing local artists opportunities to call attention to their offerings as set changes happen on the main stage.

This year’s second stage hosted several Eastwood Records bands in addition to John Clay and the Boxwine Prophets. The lineup included Dave Ernst and the Early Favorites and Nick Dittmeier and the Sawdusters. They shared the stage with other local favorites, including John R. Miller, Coby Langham and the Citizen’s Band, Eric Bolander Trio, Luna & the Mountain Jets, Bee Taylor, Magnolia Boulevard and the last night closed out after John Prine left the stage post encore with Reverend John & the Backsliders.

Wesley Allen founded Eastwood Records in Louisville four years ago, to honor his father, nicknamed “Eastwood” from his hometown of Eastwood, KY. In that time, he has come to represent some up and coming names in Americana within the mostly Louisville scene. Having a fond love for Louisville and Kentucky music, Allen “felt like it doesn’t get enough attention and I wanted to be the guy who changed that and put that out there.”

Listen to Cara’s conversation with Wesley Allen

Allen’s good friend Nathan Paul Isaac works in both camps, so the connection between the Festival and Eastwood Records was a natural fit. “I owe that dude a lot,” Allen laughs. The opportunity to put his musicians on a bill with such a remarkable Americana line-up was a great choice to make. “It brings an amount of exposure that you would have to pay thousands of dollars for anywhere else. The fan base that comes to this festival is heavily Americana, so to have three of my top Americana bands get to play here and get represented at festival with somebody like Amanda Shires or John Prine, you would have to beg for it, they literally just offered it to me. It’s a no brainer.”

John Clay, who plays on Eastwood Records as a lead act but also plays drums for several other bands on the bill, has been with Wesley since 2016. He’s been on tour for awhile playing drums with Colter Wall, and Nick Dittmeier before him, but is finishing working on two albums with Eastwood Records to be released soon.

John Clay and the Boxwine Prophets | Video by Cara Blake Coppola

John Clay sings with a soft warble to his voice, only to send his voice sailing loudly out over the hills in the next note. It’s an authentic voice that is powerful and feels like it belongs in those hills. He starts one song with a booming a capella that has a touch of twang and a load of truth. When he covers a TVZ song, folks get up and start dancing, despite the heavy July heat. His rocking honky tonk songs make people leave the cool comfort of the shade to move in the sunshine.

Asked how it feels to share the bill with John Prine, Clay searched for an answer. “It’s very shocking. A lot of my friends are on this bill. Most have been directly inspired by his music. To see your name on a bill with someone like that, it’s hard to explain.”

That seemed to be the sentiment of all the musicians I had the opportunity to talk with that day. It is surreal to be at home in such a friendly community as Somerset, nestled in the hills you walk daily, and to be doing what you love so much, in such astounding company. Everyone I talked with that day was walking in a sunshine- filled daydream.

Dave Ernst, who opened the Eastwood Stage that Saturday, was still reeling in the completion of his set with his band The Early Favorites. “It’s Amazing, my first time to the event. Blown away with how cool and friendly it is down here. It means alot. This place is amazing, stages are great, setting is wonderful.”

Listen to Cara’s conversation with Dave Ernst

Coby Langham was the next to play the Eastwood stage after Grayson Jenkins of Lexington finished his set on the main stage. Coby and the Citizens Band, named for Langham’s truck driving career, filled the stage as the day was still getting moving.

Cara chats with Coby Langham

Coby and the band nailed their set, singing solid Americana songs into the hot afternoon. Some songs were more playful, getting folks to tap their feet and move in spite of the heat, others more heavy like with lyrics like “a mountain of pills to swallow these hills.” His song “Sober Bible” was a sad, mournful tune about loving someone with an addiction. His songs sing of truth and life and the real poetry of real life. The harmonies were sweet, even pretty to contrast the dark lyrics that hit home to too many.

Coby Langham and the Citizens Band performing at the 2018 Master Musicians Festival | Video by Cara Blake Coppola

The parking lots were filling and people were setting up their chairs for a day in the shade. You could hear the music of the main stage from the second stage, so many settled in for the day amid the hammocks and children’s games thoughtfully constructed by the Festival. Golf carts whizzed by all day providing rides to and from the parking lots for everyone. Hot wooden benches were covered in soft woven blankets for comfort. Free water was given out everywhere. The festival felt very comfortable and welcoming, something mentioned by all of the musicians we interviewed.

After his set at the merch table Wesley Allen manned steadfast all day long in the heat, Coby and his band were happy and sweaty and enjoying their part in the festival. “This is the biggest thing we’ve done yet. It was the easiest ‘yes’ I’ve ever said to anything. To be here with John Prine, we’re going bonkers. It’s a real big deal for us.”

Later that night, John Prine took the stage and every musician mentioned was in the crowd. Prine’s music rang out over those hills to the love and adoration of everyone in the crowd. It was a great set, he played his classics “Dear Abby” and “Your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore,” along with several songs from his new CD Tree of Forgiveness. He started and ended his whole set with “Paradise” while the crowd joined in with nostalgic love. The musicians who were so grateful to share the bill with him joined in.

Like Coby Langham said, “It’s a real big deal for us.”


Scene&Heard: A Last Chance Dose of JoAnna James

When JoAnna James begins to sing, you tend to hold your breath. She captures the attention of the crowd as she whispers her voice into motion, and soon she has drawn the room into her craft. Her voice carries you along as she powers into the chorus, and when she hits those notes…those notes, you only then notice that you hadn’t been breathing because you have to gasp.

I first heard JoAnna’s voice at the first Leonard Cohen Tribute at Soulful Space. She sang “Ballad of a Runaway Horse” and “Anthem” with masterful skill. That treat was repeated at the second encore performance at The Lyric on April 28. One of the highlights of the evening, JoAnna’s voice shifted easily from the slow, meditative sound of “Ballad” to the gypsy-like rhythm of “Anthem”, singing Cohen’s famous line, “that’s how the light gets in” with the spellbinding effect that certainly would make the late singer-songwriter proud.

Produced by Anita Courtney and Purple Carrots Productions, the Cohen tributes were both sell out performances that brought together a diverse array of local musicians to offer their personal tributes to the master. On April 28th, the doors of the theater were thrown open to ventilate the heat as JoAnna and the others joined in verses of “Hallelujah” that spilled out into the streets. JoAnna took the lead on the final verse and belted out a righteous final farewell to Leonard, bouncing her powerful voice off the walls of that historic theater with a stunning, goosebump-inducing crescendo.

Joanna James performing with Richard Young (bass) and Anna Hess (violin) at the original Leonard Cohen Tribute concert

JoAnna came into music as a young girl when her grandpa picked up a violin for $100 from a nun in Mankato, Minneosta, near her hometown of St. Paul. The middle of five kids, her siblings refused the instrument and Joanna was given the violin and lessons with a kind teacher she greatly admired.

Joining orchestra in high school, JoAnna happened upon the guitar, songwriters who played the likes of Lilith Fair, and a book of tablature for Nirvana Unplugged. By 14, she was playing a three-hour gig in a Wisconsin bookstore to a full house. From there, her career has taken her across the country several times over and brought her into songwriting collaboration with a variety of musicians and labels.

JoAnna cowrites and collaborates on songs with many, including Josh Grange, pedal steel player for Sheryl Crow, and Jessy Greene, who has toured with Foo Fighters and Pink, all friends from the “small Minnesota music scene.” She first hears the song, she says, and then finds different processes for integrating the lyrics and music. Inspired by “that” teacher, Mr. Hanlin, who taught her “the connection between music and poetry,” JoAnna is highly adaptive, whether meeting strict deadlines for toplining gigs or musing through a stream-of-consciousness for her own original songs.

Motivated by friendship and a sad but necessary goodbye, Anita and JoAnna are pairing up once more for a show featuring JoAnna before she leaves the bluegrass for the mountains of Colorado. Moving to be closer to family, the show on July 27th at First Presbyterian Church Chapel on North Mill will be JoAnna’s big send-off. She will be joined by several stellar local musicians including Anna Hess and Richard Young, who accompanied her at both Cohen tributes, and Lee Carroll on keys. Maggie Lander will join with backup vocals. The show will be a combination of musicians as well as covers and originals, some solo, some with accompaniment.

 “For me, to produce a show, it needs to meet 3 criteria,” says Anita Courtney of Purple Carrots Productions: “feature great musicians in an intimate setting that pays the musicians well.  JoAnna’s show checks all the boxes. The chapel is beautiful, has great acoustics and seats 100 people. I call JoAnna the ‘goosebump girl’. She gets inside a song, really tries to understand it, feel it and convey that to the listeners.”

Anita is very excited about the combination of musical talent that will be on stage with JoAnna for the show. “Lee Carroll’s stellar piano, Maggie Lander’s beautiful vocals and the professional and soulful string instrumentalists—Anna Hess on violin and Richard Young on bass—and I think we will all be gobsmacked.”

“Gobsmacked” was the compliment Anita received after the Cohen tributes, and she ensures an all-JoAnna James show will be equally effective. The intimate setting of the chapel, JoAnna’s powerfully subtle voice, and a cast of stellar musicians guarantee that she is right. JoAnna feels strongly the power music induces, and she hopes for that exchange on the 27th.

“My biggest hope is what I always hope for with a show…that some sort of cycle of exchange happens, cause that’s what music is, it’s this experience through time, and to share it with these people who are willing to give you their time and attention. I hope that people can walk away with some kind of good feeling and catharsis. That is my hope.”

Cara’s conversation with JoAnna:


Where Sensation, Fantasy, and Reality Meet “Side by Side”

At Murray State University’s Doyle Fine Arts Building, nestled between the sixth and seventh floor, the Clara M. Eagle Upper Gallery is currently hosting the annual exhibition, Side by Side, produced by the Murray Art Guild, the Murray State University art education program, and VSA Kentucky. The “Side by Side” program is dedicated to providing MSU art education students opportunities to work with community artists on a professional level. This year, the program collaborated with VSA Kentucky, a group that fosters art education programs for youths and adults with disabilities in Kentucky. The project was led and coordinated by Debi Henry Danielson, current Director of the Murray Art Guild, and Dr. Rebecca Williams, Assistant Professor of Art Education at Murray State University. The 2018 workshop theme was “The Hero in You: Save the Day!” and will run through to July 9th.

The initial workshop began with eight art education students facilitating a group of eight participants in the K-12 age bracket tasked with creating a superhero persona for themselves, which involved creating their own costumes, comic panels, and Pop art inspired paintings. However, the project extended beyond the theme of superheroes and comic books, as each of the workshop participants coordinated with eight community artists to create a collaborative artwork. Each of the community artists also displayed individual works next to their partnered participant, making the exhibition feel cohesively structured to show each pairing of artists in their mutual effort for the project.

As different as the pieces might appear in the exhibition, they actually work to create a unique show for viewers by juxtaposing sensory experiences in art through choice in media. The exhibition replicates the artist bringing their artistic vision into a physical reality by complicating the viewer’s position in what they consider real or imagined in media. Overall, the show really touches on how people engage with art making and art viewing, particularly in the ways these experiences bridge the imagined and the real through the use of senses.

Garrison Kelly and Elaina Barnett’s ‘Rollercoaster’

Sitting directly at the center of the show, Garrison Kelly and Elaina Barnett’s Rollercoaster prepares visitors for a sensory experience through media as soon as they ascend the stairs to the upper gallery. Categorized as a mixed-media drawing, the piece uses a burlap canvas with various pieces of thread, yarn, and fabric stitched on top with minimal dashes of paint. Immediately, the viewer tackles a piece so abstract, yet with a title that beckons to something figurative, a struggle ensues on how to read the placement of the various media or if there are particular meanings attached to their composition. At the same time, there is an entirely different struggle on how to categorize the piece, as it is at once suggestive of a drawing with the use of canvas and paint, but also something very sculptural in the fabric and stitching.

One of the dominating features of the gallery are the displays of each participants’ comic strips and costumes. The comic panels featured photographs of participants acting out different scenes and poses within two-dimensional settings for their personas to perform heroic tasks, with costumes made from various materials next to them. Each of the participants in the workshop not only worked on creating a fictional character within a fictional setting, but were meant to imagine themselves embodying these roles. By taking photos of themselves in their respective costumes, they physically embodied their personas, bringing their imagined idea into a physical reality.

Ezrah Siler, ‘The Origin of Animal Lady’

For example, Ezrah Siler created The Origin of Animal Lady, where she shows the development of her character as she discovers her powers to communicate and save animals within five panels. This was made by combining a two-dimensional, drawn setting with photos of Siler in costume, as she interacts with the imagined environment and characters. This particular piece demonstrates how Siler imagines herself becoming the hero, bridging the gap between what is fantasy and reality when she literally acts out the role.

The use of collage is beneficial because it encourages the viewer to confront different forms of visual media in a single space. The drawing appears very flat and fabricated, making the visual imagination work slightly harder to read the image. Conversely, the photographs are more realistic and dynamic to make the image more recognizable. At once, the viewer notices the differences in visual realism through the choices in media, yet the narrative and composition creates unity between them because there is an understanding of how things cooperate in the panels. The multi-media approach helps facilitate questions for the viewer concerning what is real or imagined in art, similar to the participants embodying and performing a fantasy role.

Olivia Potter and Jo Bennett, ‘Purple Flowers’

Similarly, the piece Purple Flowers, created by Olivia Potter and Jo Bennett, displays the potential for different media to cooperate through the use of a bi-fold shadow box. On the left, a paper cut-out of a girl sits on a tree, surrounded by moss and other plant-life, while the right shows similar flora and cut-outs of purple, watercolor flowers. The mixed media piece plays on the idea of two and three-dimensional objects coming together within a single space. The viewer is met with the immediacy of sculptural realism in the greenery, as the moss encroaches out of the display and the plant-life appears real. Contrasting this are the drawings of the figure and flowers, but they are composed in such a way to encourage their natural place in the composition, even contributing to the background shadows in a holistic and consistent way that unites the objects within.

In this exhibition, the participants also created paintings with onomatopoeia, or words that represent sounds, often used in comic books as a means to communicate sound through text. Jayson Walker’s Sniff Sniff captures the essence of a comic book by using dots to create color fields, much like Ben-day dots, and an action bubble to outline the words “sniff sniff.” This is very interesting in the process of art making and the viewer’s senses because the eye can recognize dots of color individually, while also seeing the larger sections alternating between blue and yellow.

Jayson Walker, ‘Sniff Sniff’

The viewer can also read the text as a sensory experience by recognizing the codes and meanings attached to the language, or understanding the visual and auditory aspects when one hears the mental “voice” while reading. In Walker’s case, we understand “sniff sniff” to represent the sound of breathing in through the nose or the action of “sniffing,” perhaps even mimicking the action to smell the gallery itself. Part of this process crosses between what viewers experience in a physical reality and what they experience in their minds, or seeing an image versus contextualizing and complicating it mentally or sensorily.

Part of the success in the exhibition is the way dissimilar forms of media and differences between artists can actually come together to form cohesive thought and experiences. Kimberly Kinsland’s embroidered Fanta Sea really represents this ideal, as the media utilizes individual threads of different colors to collectively create a figurative mermaid looking on at a sunset. The thread is sewn in particular ways to create patterns for the eye to recognize, like the horizontal waves or the sandy french knots. The medium is also the perfect intersection to demonstrate a two-dimensional image and the sculptural potential of embroidery, reiterating the sensory experience from other media in the show.

Jo Bennett, ‘Outbloomed’

Throughout Side by Side, difference is emphasized and embraced between the artists and workshop participants, particularly in the ways media is used. It is a space where woodworking and metallurgy seamlessly coexist with drawing and embroidery. At its core, it sparks a conversation about the value of the art making process, and encourages the viewer to experience the diversity through sensation of those media.


“Pangaea” at City Gallery, Lexington

The exhibition Pangaea — now on view at City Gallery at the Downtown Arts Center in Lexington — brings together the disparate practices of Patrick Smith and Robert Morgan in a way that illuminates how the same ideas and impulses can permeate in different ways across both generations and media. Juxtaposed closely in this exhibition, the similarities ring out, making clear elements of both artists’ work that would likely be overlooked in the context of a solo show. As a show, Pangaea, therefore, functions in opposition to the supercontinent from which it gets its name; while the landmass dissipated creating cultural and ecological divisions that have marked humanity since our emergence as a species, the exhibition ultimately unites distinct individuals and shows the shared nature of their art and lives in so doing.  

Detail of Bob Morgan’s sculptural assemblages

One of the starkest distinctions between Morgan and Smith is how each man approaches art making. Morgan, a sculptor now in his 60s, has always identified as an artist. He has been making art out of found objects for as long as he can remember. Morgan’s practice has been consistent for decades, making assemblages that are complicated and congested amalgams of various items, ranging from goat horns and religious figurines to rubber snakes and car parts, all of which he covers with bright colored paint and patches of glitter. 

Smith, on the other hand, is a painter who came to art making relatively later in life, around the time he was an undergraduate at Transylvania University. Now in his 30s, his practice is still evolving, and he conceives of his practice as a direct reaction to his surroundings. For instance, his recent works — which consist of  small, intimate and hyperrealist portraits —simultaneously reflect the regional tradition of intimate craft practices with regard to their scale, while also working against the abstract tendencies that dominate both the painting practices taught in art schools in the area and the looser styles that characterize folk and outsider art in Appalachia more generally. As such, Smith’s practice is more informed by the particulars of time and space than Morgan’s, a notion that is further underscored by the generational differences between them. 

Various self portraits by Patick Smith

Yet despite these differences, Morgan and Smith’s works share a considerable amount in common. For example, both artists explore issues of queerness and sexual difference in their works. Patrick Smith’s work deals with elements of visible queerness and difference through his engagement with gender and sexuality as performance. His self-portraits, for instance, often play with elements of drag, with Smith appearing heavily made up and, at times, dressed in women’s clothing from various (sub) cultures. 

Self Portrait in black top, Patrick Smith

In these images, Smith never appears to be passing as a woman, per se, but rather complicates elements of masculinity by adopting women’s dress. For instance in one Self-Portrait, he appears in a sheet black top, with heavy black eyeliner, and pink lipstick, with his mouth pursed to a kiss. His face gazes directly out but his torso is slightly turned with one arm bent at the elbow and raised behind him and the other wrapping around his belly, adopting a pose often used by women models in fashion magazines. Though Smith has adopted feminine elements of dress and gesture, his gender performance is somewhat incomplete. His shaved head, muscular arms, and hint of a five o’clock shadow remind us that Smith is a man. As such, he is queering the conventions of gender performance, embracing elements of both masculinity and femininity in a way that celebrates deviation from heteronormative and patriarchal conventions of sex and gender.    

Moreover, for Smith, all of his portraits are performances. He often describes his sitters as “getting into character” and for his self-portraits Smith allows his appearance to be styled by various friends who collaborate with him. As such, these works are not emblematic of the subject’s lived experience, but rather illustrate how conventions of gender and sexuality are performed moment by moment. 

Installation shot, “Pangaea” at the Downtown Arts Center

The performative nature of Smith’s work stand in contrast to Morgan’s practice, which is largely derived from his personal history. Morgan, a gay man himself, has been a prominent figure within the LBGTQ community in Lexington for decades. He is widely known for his role as a caretaker having tended the sick and dying here during the A.I.D.S. epidemic in the 1980s and 90s and caring for the legacy of queer folk through his role as the founder of the Faulkner-Morgan Pagan Babies Archive. His art practice has been, as such, largely informed by both his lived experience in and his research of LGBTQ history; he notes that most of his works examine themes of “A.I.D.S., Insanity, Alcoholism, and Drug Addiction,” afflictions that have commonly plagued the queer community and further marginalized LGBTQ folk. 

Bob Morgan with sculptures

Morgan’s affinity for the marginalized manifests in the work he creates. His assemblages are made from piles of junk, objects whose intrinsic value has been lost or was never fully appreciated. Morgan collects these items and transforms them into something new, something with an aesthetic quality that is elevated and is meant to be seen, rather than to hide. That many of these assemblages of people whose experiences were similarly marginalized — like the teenaged drug addict that Morgan cared for and whose nightmare forms the basis of The Island of Lost Souls — and that Morgan himself has felt marginalized in similar ways imbues the sculptures with a particular kind of powerful resonance.

Religion, like queerness, is a theme that is explored in both Morgan’s and Smith’s work. As with his explorations of LGBTQ struggles, Morgan draws from his own religious upbringing in Catholic school as the basis of his work. Each of the seven works on display in this exhibition features an oversized vintage doll, which Morgan has posed and covered with various objects — often including devotional items like figurines of Jesus or religiously symbolic items like swords and snakes. To Morgan, decorating these figures  is reminiscent of the way that The Infant of Prague is dressed and put on display in the chapels of countless Catholic churches and schools, like the one Morgan attended as a child. Yet these sculptures aren’t simply Catholic in character. Some appear to have a more clearly Hindu iconography, like the allusion to Shiva in The Horned Toad, and others involve the hybridization of multiple religious traditions like in Pangaea. Morgan asserts that the appropriation of religious iconography is central to his practices, noting “I steal from every major culture,” and citing a particular predilection for Byzantine, Egyptian, Mayan, and Hindu traditions. 

The religious character of Smith’s work is more subtle. Some of his portraits employ elements of dress and gesture that are reminiscent of the long history of religious icons. For instance, the first painting of Armani, depicts the sitter with their head draped with a pale pink cloth, much like the veiling of the Virgin Mary in many Renaissance portraits of the Madonna. 

“Skull on Red”, Patrick Smith

Smith has also called upon religious symbolism in his depictions of skulls, both in portraits, like the one held by Pablo and on their own. Within Catholic imagery, skulls have often appeared at the base of crucifixion scenes to depict the connection between Adam, the first man created by God, and Jesus, his son. Similarly, skulls are prominent in Protestant imagery, specifically in the form of the Vanitas, a genre of still life that was popular in the Netherlands in the 16th  and 17th centuries, in which the skull serves as a reminder that material objects cannot transcend the mortal plane and thus faith and good works are essential for transitioning into the afterlife. 

Placed side by side, Smith’s and Morgan’s works balance each other out to create a fuller picture of each artists’ respective practice. The overt role of religion in Morgan’s work, for instance, helps to clearly draw out those elements at play within Smith’s. Conversely, the highly legible engagement with performative queerness in Smith’s hyper-realist portraits primes the viewer to read Morgan’s very symbolic assemblages more deeply. The result of this compilation of two different artists with two very distinct practices is ultimately a greater understanding of both artists’ work and the issues they explore. As such, Pangaea, on the whole, illuminates how the differences among artists and their work can ultimately reveal their overall similarities. 


High Spirits in High Spaces

In the first chapter of philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s 1964 treatise on the intimacy of personal spaces, The Poetics of Space, he notes that the houses of childhood daydreams are often vertically oriented. These dream spaces move from the fear and anxiety of dark basements and cellars to the bright fresh air of warm and sunny attics.

Such an orientation is not lost on Erika Strecker’s and John Medwedeff’s Exuberance! at the Kentucky Children’s Hospital. The installation consists of seven aluminum kites that snake up two floors to finally hang motionless but graceful just below the expansive skylight that looms over the hospital’s lobby. Though the artists’ aim was at first something “happy and uplifting,” the installation adds more to its space than a pleasing and whimsical backdrop. Its effect is much more nuanced and presents an opportunity for prolonged and poignant contemplation that burrows much deeper than the brief time I was able to spend with it. The diversity of the space and those that use it is integral to what this installation is ultimately able to do.

In regards to materials, the artists combine a kind of industrial aesthetic that borrows from the space’s architecture and a softer, nostalgic core buoyed by shapes and objects of childhood play. The dull metal of the kites’ aluminum chassis, bracketed and bolted together in echo of the metal frames of the windows above, is balanced against thousands of glinting marbles in transparent tubes. Marbles, like the kites these objects take after, are the realm of a child’s interests and preoccupations. Positioned as the material heart of each kite shape, the marbles sustain the overall objects and further integrate them into the space through the subtle catch and recolor of light that filters down. The thousands of marbles, end to end in their tubes, add a subtle complexity that begins to move them beyond the logic of appearances to other spaces.

Like in a daydream, these kites emerge from a logical place outside of the reality of their installation. In their strangeness and even the unfeasibility of their material, as objects they allow the viewer to enter someplace else, a place where reality and all its traumas is potentially assuaged by childhood’s simpler concerns.

As an installation the work exists in more than one kind of space. Space plays a heightened role here, not just because that is the nature of installations, but the broader implications of the complex hybridization of the particulars of the building in relation to its uses. The work exists on a threshold, a literal and figurative lobby between the outside world and the building’s decidedly non-art interior. The larger lobby area of the hospital complex is open and breezy. Light pours in across the gently slopping walls from a plethora of windows and glass ceilings.

The ground and first floors are essentially contiguous, broken only by a mezzanine that meanders though the building’s several pavilions. Vitrines that contain an array of sculptural objects, from industrial assemblages to brightly painted folksy woodcarvings, are interspersed along walls also hung with prints and paintings. It might be easy to forget that just beyond these calm and quiet places, separated by only a few walls, are the linoleum-tiled floors of narrow hallways that branch off to patients’ rooms and surgical suites. Yet even in the midst of the hospital’s less publicly accessible interior, artwork is likewise displayed for the same purpose as in its lobbies and pavilions. Not cold and clinical, this is ultimately a place for health and healing aided by the collaborative effort of many artists and their work.

Such thoughts are not lost on the staff, children, or families who sit in these art-filled lobbies as a respite, if only temporarily, from the anxieties and realities of sickness so close at hand. It is in this way that the effect of Strecker’s and Medwedeff’s installation is most acute. This isn’t traditional art space, though there is still art here. Instead, art and people share the space in a more symbiotic way. While I was in the first floor lobby gazing up at the metal-framed kites and seeing how the light diffused through their hundreds of marbles, two women in scrubs sat at a low table in the corner and played a card game.

In many ways, my visit was uncommon. This installation is more an element of the ebbs and flows of the hospital’s daily life than something to be specially singled out and visited on its own. Yet even for someone who might only spend a few minutes gazing up at the work, it offers an opportunity for wonder and contemplation. There is still the potential for meditation in its presence even for such a short encounter, a fact that the artists seem to have consciously allowed to guide the design and implementation of the installation. In this space, the short-term and long-term are both offered as opportunities for healing.

Downstairs, the small circular sitting room where the first kite begins its journey was empty as well. From here, the kites seem to rise up into the brightly lit atmosphere above. Far away I heard the murmurs and footsteps of people coming and going. This mixed with the gentle humming of a TV that displayed a video game’s idle menu screen, another kind of lobby open to be taken up and used by someone in need of a distraction. It strikes me that this is the reality of Exuberance! and its presence here. In a place that needs to be something beyond the harsh realities of life and death, a meditation on childhood’s easy slip into wonder is a welcome offering.


A Hidden History of Black Men and Women in Kentucky

The central gallery of the the International Museum of the Horse, situated in the Kentucky Horse Park, is comprised of a single corridor that snakes its way along two floors depicting the historical relationships between horses and humans from the ancient Assyrian chariot horses and jousting steeds of medieval Europe, to the horses that helped move Conestoga wagons westward during the era of Manifest Destiny and the Thoroughbreds that draw millions to the races at Churchill Downs and Keeneland today.

At first glance, this equine inspired institution might not seem like a place to find a deep exploration of the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and systemic white supremacy in the American South, yet punctuating the middle of this sprawling timeline is a new permanent exhibition entitled “Black Horsemen of the Kentucky Turf” that complicates the narrative history on display.

“Black Horsemen of the Kentucky Turf”, installation view, Courtesy The Kentucky Horse Park.

This new installation, which opened April 20, 2018, makes a clear attempt to convey the overlooked contribution of black men and women, both enslaved and free, to the rich horse racing culture of Kentucky and the United States more broadly. Using person-centered language, including multiple narratives, and incorporating strong explanatory notes to help fully contextualize the experiences of the men and women who worked in all elements of this industry, the show addresses the horrific realities of slavery and segregation head on, analyzing the relationship of these practices to the development of horse and racing cultures in Kentucky. As such, the exhibition neither equivocates nor exculpates these institutions and demands viewers to consider the legacy of oppression with regard to contemporary equestrian practices.  

One of the ways in which the exhibition faces down the hard history of slavery and segregation in the United States—and specifically in Kentucky horse racing culture—is the emphatic use of “person centered language” throughout the exhibition. More recent scholarship has involved a re-evaluation of the terminology we use to describe the practices of slavery; as Lucy Ferriss notes in a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education: “There’s been a debate about the language of slavery—or slaving, as some writers prefer to call the institution—for several years. The changes that many have proposed […] put the emphasis on the humanity of people who were brought to this continent against their will and forced to work in bondage for generations.” 

“Black Horsemen of the Kentucky Turf”, installation view, Courtesy The Kentucky Horse Park.

The curators have embraced this practice in their extensive didactic text, using the term “enslaved persons” instead of “slaves” and emphasizing fullness of the lives of each individual featured; the narrative texts, like those discussing Charles Stewart—who is described as “Farm Manager, Jockey, Horseman, Enslaved”—include the fact of enslavement, as opposed to solely focusing on that element of his lived experience, highlighting the whole human life that Stewart lived, for which slavery was only a single part. While such a gesture could run the risk of minimizing the drastic extent to which enslavement impacted Stewart’s life, the didactic text unabashedly acknowledges that Stewart’s role as a horseman was definitively linked to his experience of enslavement, and includes excerpts from his own biographical narrative from an 1884 edition of Harper’s magazine, a facsimile of which is reproduced below it.  

Moreover, Stewart’s narrative is one of many that are included in this exhibition, providing multiple accounts of black men and women’s lived experiences in the Kentucky racing industry during the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. The viewer is immediately presented with the variations of experience in the form of trading cards highlighting eight different figures—Ansel Williamson, Charles Stewart, Harry Lewis, Shelby Pike Barnes, Jimmy Winkfield, Isaac Burns Murphy, Marshall Lilly, and Edward Dudley Brown—that the audience is invited to take upon entering and is entreated to find the corresponding didactic text within the space of the installation.

“Black Horsemen of the Kentucky Turf”, installation view, Courtesy The Kentucky Horse Park.

In addition to these narratives, the exhibition highlights the experiences of several individuals who contributed significantly to black horse culture more generally, including Dudley Allen, who served as the Quartermaster Sargent in the “Colored Cavalry” of the Union Army during the Civil War, and Eliza Carpenter, a formerly enslaved woman who participated in the Oklahoma Land Run of 1893 and expanded the horse and racing industries out West. By presenting various experiences and perspectives, the exhibition avoids the pitfall of tokenism and expands the understanding of the variations that existed within the lives of black men and women living and working during the eras of enslavement and segregation. 

Beyond simply presenting multiple personal narratives, the installation contrasts those stories with a considerable amount of historical explication in the form of signs marked “History 101” scattered throughout. These texts directly confront the complicated legacy of white supremacy both in the practice of slavery and the systematic dismantling thereof. For instance, the placard “About the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution,” discusses the reluctance of Kentucky to ratify the 13th Amendment—which ended slavery nationally on December 18, 1865—until 1976, noting that “With the end of the Civil War, increased raids, beatings, and lynchings by vigilante groups made the Bluegrass countryside a dangerous place for the newly freed.” This text, therefore, challenges the common misapprehension that the transition from enslavement to freedom was smooth and beneficial for all, and that Kentucky, as a border state, was only passively invested in maintaining the practice of slavery. 

The harsh reality of life for black men and women in enslavement and under Jim Crow is also documented through ephemeral objects and images around the exhibition. Photographs of enslaved people engaged in arduous labor appear alongside many of the tools they used. Images that show the clear dichotomy between the white spectators and the black horsemen who trained and rode the animals during segregation accompany journalistic accounts of the hardships and exploitation that these men faced in an effort to earn a living. Combined with the multiple narratives and the historical explication throughout the installation, these images offer a stark contrast to the celebratory history that exudes from the rest of the museum’s exhibitions. 

“Black Horsemen of the Kentucky Turf”, installation view, Courtesy The Kentucky Horse Park.

Yet the curators have clearly gone through great effort to help the viewer experience this confrontation thoughtfully and introspectively. Within the exhibition space itself there are two points where the viewer is asked to reflect upon the information presented. At the “Conversation Station,” for example, the curators have posed the question “Based on the lives of Charles Stewart, Ansel Williamson, and Harry Lewis, do you think black horsemen were as highly revered as the horses they groomed and trained? Why or why not?” and provided the audience with post-it notes and pens to write their responses. The question itself incites the audience to deeply consider the ways in which the practices of slavery worked to dehumanize those in enslavement and how rhetorically and practically a slippage existed between enslaved persons and beasts of burden and the interactive nature of the activity allows the viewer to participate in the conversation that the exhibition is seeking to incite. 

Moreover, being the only site in the museum to focus more on the history of humans than the history of horses and focusing solely on the experience of black people, this exhibition does run the risk of reinforcing the aforementioned conflation of African Americans and animals. Yet it is abundantly apparent that the curators were aware of such an historical linkage and thus have carefully provided physical room for reflection helps to unpack the problematic elements of that linkage. This effort, in turn, works to combat that particular issue. 

The curators have gone through great lengths to confront the long history of racism in racing culture, providing the audience with a considerable amount of explanatory texts, ephemeral images and documents, and opportunities for reflection to help the audience process the thorough history presented in the space. This exhibition very clearly unearths the hidden history of black men and women within Kentucky horse culture and does so in a way that seeks to valorize their achievements and lived experiences while also confronting the challenges they faced and the legacy of white supremacy that we are still grappling with today.   


Fragment of Another World: Eddie Owens Martin and Pasaquan at Institute 193

About two hours south of Atlanta in Buena Vista, one of America’s prominent folk art destinations and environments showcases brightly painted buildings, walls, and other structures, decorated with iconography borrowed from religions and spiritualties of all kinds. It is called Pasaquan and was created by artist Eddie Owens Martin (1908-1986), also known as St. EOM (pronounced like the Hindu “Om”).

“St. EOM: Pasaquoyianism,” installation view, May 4 – June 22, 2018, Institute 193, Lexington Kentucky. Courtesy Institute 193.

At Institute 193, Pasaquan is enshrined and sampled in an exhibition called “St. EOM: Pasaquoyanism.” The organization has transformed its gallery space to offer a taste of Martin’s compound, most vividly by painting the longest gallery wall sky blue, radiating to passersby on Lexington’s North Limestone street where 193 rests. The gallery is adorned with paintings, drawings, and other objects that, in tandem, emanate the kind of images, craftsmanship, and experience visitors to Pasaquan may encounter. As a system, the artworks in “St. EOM” function less as a presentation of select examples of an artist’s output and more as an archive or record of their creative trajectory.  

“St. EOM: Pasaquoyianism,” installation view, May 4 – June 22, 2018, Institute 193, Lexington Kentucky. Courtesy Institute 193.

According to the exhibition statement, Martin moved to New York at the age of 14 and spent his early adulthood working as a hustler, gambler, oracle, and drug dealer. He was sent to the Federal Narcotics Prison Hospital in Lexington in the early 1940s after it was uncovered that he ran a small gambling and drug enterprise out of his home in Harlem. Martin began painting frequently upon returning to New York in 1943, notably creating scenes of ancient cultures out of discarded woods and other materials, but also developing a traditional skillset, as illustrated by the presence of a small oil painting of a home interior.

Eddie Owens Martin, no title, no date, oil on canvas. 12” x 16”. Courtesy Institute 193.

The inspiration for his paintings derived from visions he had experienced since his twenties. In them, Martin claimed to speak with spirits who took the form of tall, elongated, androgynous humanoids. These beings appear in many of the works at 193; they have ambiguous skin tones and hair colors, are depicted in groups, and, in some form or other, are surrounded by geometric patterns.  These figures instructed Martin to return to his native home of Georgia in 1957 to build Pasaquan, which still functions today and is scattered with shrines, pagodas, temples, and other structures.

The culmination of Martin’s visions, his life experiences, and the construction of Pasaquan led to the formation of Pasaquoyanism, a religious doctrine that combines elements of Eastern and Western faiths and spiritualties from multiple centuries. Perhaps more of a lifestyle than anything, Pasaquoyanism—the exhibition’s namesake—is succinctly documented in “St. EOM.”

“St. EOM: Pasaquoyianism,” installation view, May 4 – June 22, 2018, Institute 193, Lexington Kentucky.

The notion of the archive is bolstered by the unifying power of the blue wall. Two pedestals are placed against it are also painted blue, practically going unnoticed if not for the single objects that sit atop each: a beaded necklace with alternating wooden cylinders and spheres, and a gourd whose bulging and elongated shape could easily spur a critical reading with sexual implications. Both objects are presented as if they were votive. In concert, they, as well as the nearby paintings and the bright wall, embody the kind of symbolism and participatory elements of Pasaquoyanism.

“St. EOM: Pasaquoyianism,” installation view, May 4 – June 22, 2018, Institute 193, Lexington Kentucky

The centerpiece of the exhibition is a mesmerizing, brilliant constellation of dots, diamonds, triangles, and rings orbiting around a single vermillion circle, the full diameter of the work as tall as the blue wall on which it is painted. It is a beacon for visitors, indicating the arrival to the sacred land. The pattern is reminiscent of Mesoamerican calendars, marking the passage of time cyclically and precisely. Despite most works in the exhibition lacking dates and titles, the mural is the conjoining factor in “St. EOM,” connecting all themes, palettes, and subjects. The mural amplifies the spirit—indeed, Martin’s spirit—that runs through every object on display.

The mural is a duplicate of another located at the Pasaquan compound. These kinds of images are rampant there, populating the interiors and exteriors of buildings, concrete fences, totems, and a vast array of other surfaces. The design at 193 may be unique, but it is far from the only mandala-like shape Martin painted. Yet its singular nature in the gallery may prompt a moment of pause for viewers, not only due to its size and striking color. With three paintings and a pedestal to either side, the mural is the moment of balance within the exhibition. It is the equalizer. Without it, the works included in “St. EOM” would seemingly lose their grounding as interconnected revelations.

Eddie Owens Martin, no title, no date, oil on plywood, 22” x 39”. Courtesy Institute 193.

The figures that visited Martin in his visions are described in many paintings in “St. EOM,” including in a red and violet dreamscape containing six incomplete faces, four snakes, four floating pairs of lips, and a penis that appears to be attached to a figure’s forehead. The work carries obvious phallic invocations. Yet the symmetry, color, repetition of the same facial features, and association with animals suggest this figure is deeply connected with the world around them—a deity, perhaps. It could be that they are someone Martin knew or dreamed up. In any case, the portrait functions as a representation of a force larger than a single human—could this be an embodiment of nature that Martin offers? If it were, the fleeting qualities of the painting, such as the isolated eyes, lips, and genitalia, likely imply that the figure is not wholly human and thus something else altogether.

Another figure is the focus of a different painting; their gender, ethnicity, and age are undetermined. The shirt they wear possesses a rigid interspersion of triangles, rectangles, and circles in bright turquoise that matches the color of the figure’s hair and pupils. They are haloed by fire-like streaks of orange and interlocking diamonds. 

Eddie Owens Martin, no title, no date, oil on canvas, 25” x 33”. Courtesy Institute 193.

Unlike the six-faced painting, this work peers at the viewer, as if it were inviting them into Pasaquoyanism, much like a separate painting of three sitting figures in a pyramid formation. Both paintings are of figures who acknowledge the viewer with their stares, ignoring the setting—whether atmospheric or scenic—in which they are placed. Visitors to Institute 193 are their main focus, and they seem intent on drawing them into their world. These paintings, like “St. EOM” itself, are a preview of what Martin’s religion looks like and how it visually behaves—as a lively, enigmatic mode of living, made manifest in the beings and landscapes Martin portrayed. 

“St. EOM: Pasaquoyianism” is on view until June 22, 2018 at Institute 193 in Lexington, Kentucky. 



Scene&Heard: Johnny Conqueroo “Haint Blue”

It’s a cold night in early December, but the Green Lantern is packed. The trio of musicians assembles on stage, and the weight of expectation hangs heavy. For the uninitiated to the Johnny Conqueroo universe, this is the moment when blistering rock’n’roll might be expected. This is the band you’ve heard about for years. This is the band you’re supposed to accept as the Next. Big. Thing. So it’s just a tad confusing when the downbeat produces…slow and heavy 12-bar blues?

Okay, so you adjust your expectation – after all, they aren’t making some rote recital of a familiar form – they’re really digging into it, extracting every last ounce of grit.  It’s now a blues band you’re witnessing. And before the cymbals die out from the first tune, gritty guitar kicks in and the blistering rock’n’roll of their new single “Brick” begins, rejiggering those blues chops with meaty layers of deep bass and rock solid drums. Singer/guitarist Grant Curless stalks the stage like a man possessed, clinging to his guitar almost like a weapon to ward off the crowd, while Shawn Reynolds on bass and Wils Quinn on drums to lay in the pocket and anchor the action. Welcome to the real deal.

Johnny Conqueroo is not here to play to your expectations. Starting off with a heavy blues number in a rock show? Unheard of. Finding a home in the blues when much of the modern musical catalog seems to have abandoned it? Bold. Coming off as slightly reserved, intensely polite and complete pros during an interview? Isn’t this supposed to be a bunch of young punks?

It’s easy to overlook the fact that the members of Johnny Conqueroo are, in fact, well-worn veterans in the Lexington music scene and beyond because they started as a band relatively young (side note: so did Radiohead). It’s their complete professionalism that allowed Quinn to quickly suppress a strained grimace when asked a somewhat condescending question about whether the band’s relative youth provided them with a sliding scale of expectations.

“There’s a lot of bands that will kind of ride on that – ‘Look, we’re amazing and we’re kids.’ And that becomes their identity,” said Quinn, “and then all of a sudden they’re not kids, and it’s just, ‘Oh, they’re just a band.’ It definitely helped early on, because people were like, ‘Yeah, they’re in high school and they play the blues – isn’t that funny?’”

“It feels almost kind of gimmicky,” said Reynolds.

“It was a glaring fact,” said Quinn.

If the band (rightly) chafes under the mention of their youth during their band’s rise, it’s because it’s at this point where a hacky writer should discuss how the transition from “high schooler band” to “adult band” has had a marked difference on their music and given them a more mature sound as they have shed their teenage band persona. But that would be stupid.

Has their songwriting progressed? Absolutely, just like any band with years of experience. Is their sound more focused and tighter? Listening through from their 2015 EP to 2016’s “Washed Up” and on to their newly-released EP, “Haint Blue,” the answer is indeed “yes.” It’s the central tenet that there is a mandated maturation process to which the band has been exposed that breaks down – Johnny Conqueroo didn’t age into their musical craft – they’ve been at the top of their game since the beginning, and they’ve been doing this a long time.

“I started going to Nashville maybe fourth or fifth grade – started going down there a whole lot,” said Curless. “Started listening to the bands in the honky-tonks, which were cover bands, but would cover old country songs and old rockabilly songs.”

Curless’s interest in music formed there, shifting from old country like Hank Williams to rockabilly, and then…

“Slowly, that morphed into the blues,” said Curless.

Although the band has moved a bit away from its roots as a blues three-piece, it’s the genre that still informs their music to a high degree.

“I can’t really help it, to some extent,” said Curless. “You like what you like.”

“Listening to the blues – you kind of start to get an appreciation for the storytelling aspect,” said Quinn. “You can get an appreciation for that without going through anything other than just listening to those stories. They’re just fun stories, and if it’s good blues, it’s always told with conviction, too. It seems like it’s told by someone who really needs to tell it.” 

It also helps the group mine fodder for their material from stories around them.

“We have a whole multitude of weird friends and weird people and weird stories you hear in Lexington,” said Curless.

“You’ll start to pick up these inspirations from people you meet and friends and characters for weird ideas to jump off of,” said Quinn.

In addition to mining the local landscape for stories, the band has a reverence for the music that came before, sniffing out pieces and parts to add to their repertoire.

“Any time we hear a record or a 45 that just has an element to it that we really like, we try and incorporate that same element into a song or in the band in general,” said Curless. “The groove of funk music…”

“Like those little drum breaks from sixties garage band songs,” Quinn said. “Actively listening to that stuff and seeing what you could pull from it. The internet is basically the secret.”

On “Haint Blue,” their third release in four years, Johnny Conqueroo throws the throwback dance party they’ve been building to since their first EP in 2015. Jangly guitars, slapback vocal reverb and a trademark drum sound by knob-twirling local mastermind Duane Lundy all add to a potent mix of equal parts modern blues and Dick Dale. The title track takes these fundamentals sans vocals and turns them on their head in a raucous musical exorcism over a repeated riff that demonstrates the power in this power trio.

That power overtakes Curless on stage, turning him from a soft-spoken and circumspect individual in an interview into a howling banshee, ready to take no prisoners. His bandmates referred to Curless’s enormous stage charisma and excellent guitar face as a possession, relaying a story of one memorable gig where Curless was so overtaken with the energy of the show that he smashed his guitar at the climax of the song and ran off stage.

Curless shrugs off any idea that there’s some demon to exorcise. There’s no deep trauma underlying the complete transformation, no need to prove something to the world. It’s just a natural extension of Curless, guitar in hand, absorbing every electron of light in the spotlight night after night. 

“It just feels right up on stage.”

Johnny Conqueroo’s third release, “Haint Blue,” is out now on label The Fir Trade.


UMZine #1 Now Available Online!

All hard copies of UMZine #1, our curated guide to Lexington’s music, art, and literary scene, have been gobbled up. So we are making our fabulous little zine available to all. Feel free to download it, if that suits ya.

Just click on this link for you to get your eyeballs on UMZine #1


Scene&Heard: Short & Co.

The lineup at The Burl on a Friday evening in May was packed with a triple header of local musical talent for the fifth year anniversary of Alcatraz Shakedown. Following Magnolia Boulevard and preceding the headliner, Short & Co. took the stage and took over the room with some face melting blues and guitar work.

Jeremy Short is the front man for Short & Co, his first band as frontman and lead vocalist and guitar. A lifelong musician who previously played as guitarist and backing vocalist for others, including Sasha Colette and the Magnolias, this band and their first CD, Lost in a Spin, is his first foray as lead guitarist and songwriter, which he claimed to be “brand new, incredibly challenging and a steep learning curve for sure.” All who listened that night and have his newly released CD can agree, this is a good thing.

Jeremy Short can play the blues. And I’m not talking just playing. Playing a guitar is one thing, using that guitar to channel the essence that is The Blues is another thing. It requires a master of the craft. Short is undeniably a master of the guitar, and The Burl’s welcoming wooden walls were happy to embrace his music and his sound that night.

From a family of devoted musicians and singers, Short was raised surrounded by the voices of his family singing in harmony. As a child he lived with his grandmother, who had a piano at home and played at church, and his grandfather, the preacher of the Methodist church in Wolverine, Kentucky, a small town in Breathitt County Short describes as “on the way to Hazard.” He thought everyone started Sunday dinner with the family by singing praises, “that was normal to me”. While no one in his family took their talent to the stage before him, Short grew up with a love of music and harmony. That is quite evident when Short & Co. takes the stage.

Short & Co: (L-R) Corey Heim, bass; John Clay, drums, vocals; Jeremy Short, guitar, lead vocals

Joined on stage by Corey Heim on bass and John Clay on drums and vocal harmonies, Short & Co. sounds like much more than three people up there. Their vocal harmonies were tight. John Clay, a seasoned musician and vocalist out of Louisville, kept a solid back beat of drums while also matching his voice to Short’s with tight precision. The bass gave that solid foundation and held it while Short sunk down into deep, solid confident blues solos.

Jeremy Short

Whether using his slide or not, Short is quite familiar with the neck of a guitar. Playing it with ease and soul, he ran up and down the neck creating slick blues licks while the drums and bass danced behind him. Ranging from a more Chicago style song then into a poppy sounding song that echoes his love of all Steely Dan guitarists, his set ended with a song that had a Rockabilly sound to it. Covering “Dead Flowers” by The Rolling Stones rounded out the set, giving a deep variety of great guitar led music for the crowd that night, which danced enthusiastically all night long.

His mastery of the craft of the guitar solo has earned Jeremy Short enough attention to be invited to attend Tyler Childers’ panel during Bonnaroo this summer, discussing the guitar solo during the festival. He will also be appearing at the Bluegrass BBQ festival in downtown Lexington. His new CD can be purchased at shows, or on his website at

Photos and video by Derek Feldman


Celebrating a Century of Bernstein

You may not be familiar with the tragic love story of Tristan and Isolde, but I would wager that you could conjure up a quote or two from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the play that inspired composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story which catapulted him into the limelight as the music man for all seasons and confirmed his unique sensitivity toward popular culture, philosophy, literature, religion, and the politics of his times.

His 100th birthday (August 25, 1918) is currently being celebrated (until August 25, 2019) by orchestras, singers, and dancers in cities throughout the world, and Lexington, Kentucky has joined the party. In keeping with his genius, Bernstein said: “To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.” Tempus fugit I thought as I sat in the Singletary Center and listened to the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra’s (UKSO) April 20th Season Finale: Bernstein at 100! 

Maestro John Nardolillo presented a remarkable program showcasing some of Bernstein’s greatest achievements, sharing the stage with five conductors, four choruses, eight soloists, and the UK Jazz Ensemble. Even the audience got in on some of the action.  As Nardolillo opened the evening’s tribute with the Overture from Candide, it became clear to all present that “tonight, tonight, won’t be just any night.”

Nardolillo, Orchestra, and Choruses

The Candide Overture is the shortest sonata form (ABA) I have ever heard. It commenced (A) with a tremendous burst of frenetic energy initiated by the brass and percussion, and rapidly spread into the strings and woodwinds as if it had gone viral. Then this structured chaos transitioned into a hymn-like movement (B) introduced by the strings and passed on to the other instruments before returning to the more energetic dance-like rhythms established by the horns and timpani at the outset (A).  The piece was a single movement less than five minutes long but it packed a wallop, ending with a whimsical whimper and a bang. UKSO’s delivery helped assure its immortality.

Before the performance of the second work, Benediction from Concerto for Orchestra conducted by Sey Ahn, Nardolillo provided some context for what was not originally a part of the Concerto but later became its final movement. Benediction was written in 1986 for the grand reopening of Carnegie Hall where Bernstein had debuted 43 years earlier as a substitute conductor for the New York Philharmonic when he was asked at the last minute to step in for conductor Bruno Walter. The personal prayer he uttered to himself that night before raising his baton became Benediction.

Baritone Taeeun Moon | Benediction

The Benediction began with the brass, sounding at first like a call to arms but then a soulfulness prevailed building steam as it progressed from the oboe to the clarinet and the strings. At the conclusion, baritone Taeeun Moon’s contemplative vocalization of Bernstein’s prayer, in Hebrew, asks God to keep us safe, shower us with his grace and light, and bless us with peace. It seemed like a blessing for the evening’s program as well.

The remaining three works prior to intermission played strongly to Bernstein’s musings on philosophical and religious ideas and texts, with John Nardolillo (UKSO) conducting the Serenade and Three Meditations from Mass, and Jefferson Johnson conducting Cinchester Psalms, sung by four choruses: the UK Choristers (Elizabeth Wilson), the UK Women’s Choir (Lori Hetzel), the UK Chorale and the UK Men’s Chorus (Jefferson Johnson).

Bernstein’s philosophical Serenade, based on Plato’s Symposium, is a lively musical exchange on the subject of love. The conversation began with an eruption of discord and dissonance as all the instruments tried to speak at once. But then guest violinist Daniel Mason (Concertmaster of the Lexington Philharmonic) inserted himself into the squabble and engaged in a dueling duet with the principal cellist as both expressed their views with equal gravity.

Violinist Daniel Mason | Socrates – Alcibiades

Mason appealed to reason with his deftly rendered solo passages even though the xylophone and drums kept playfully interrupting the discourse. Near the end, however, all the instruments seemed to agree to disagree and Mason, with his virtuosic reciprocity, got the last word. So what is love?  No one knows for sure. Socrates said the beginning of wisdom comes from understanding the limits of our knowledge. This was Bernstein’s premise as well.

Before the Three Meditations from Mass, Nardolillo announced the presence of two people in the audience who knew Bernstein personally and that guest cellist Benjamin Karp (principal cellist for the Lexington Philharmonic) had played under Bernstein’s direction at Tanglewood. This knowledge intensified the presence of Bernstein’s spirit for the remainder of the program. As for the three Meditations for cello and orchestra, the third movement, Presto, best captured that spirit.

Cellist Benjamin Karp | Three Meditations

The introspective and ceremonial musical elements introduced in the first two movements of the Meditations culminated in the third and Karp unified them with great strength. His skillful phrasing, subtle dynamics and bold accents were spellbinding.  Rhythmic drums paved the way for Karp’s solo ruminations and when the gong sounded, the strings followed his lead into a shamanistic fury of dance, highly spiritual and celebratory.  Then Karp imposed a cathartic sense of calm with a wistful melody before he engaged us with amazingly intricate bowing like an oracle intermittently disseminating words of wisdom. The drum and the harp accompanied the fading tones of his good counsel and left me in reverie, wanting to hear more.

When Bernstein composed the Cinchester Psalms, he specified that the second Psalm be sung by either a boy soprano or a countertenor. The voice of a boy soprano imparts a sense of innocence and spiritual purity, and a well-trained countertenor can sing with unrestrained clarity within the vocal range of a contralto or mezzo soprano. His voice resonates a distinct timbre simply because it is a male voice singing outside the limits of its ordinary range.

Countertenor Joseph Kingsbury | II Psalm 23; Psalm 2:1-4

Although Bernstein’s Psalms are sung in Hebrew, we are all familiar with the biblical text.  Jefferson Johnson conducted this demanding choral work as the combined choruses admirably rose to the occasion.  The first Psalm calls for us to live joyfully; the third pleads for us to live in unity; the second, bridging the first and third, encourages us to travel through life with faith and courage. And countertenor Joseph Kingsbury delivered this Psalm with mesmerizing articulation, tonality, and agility: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

The second half of the program offered much lighter fare and focused on Bernstein’s compositions for theater, stage, and film which involved collaboration with with several lyricists, the two most notable being Stephen Sondheim and Stephen Schwartz. After Intermission, clarinetist Scott Wright, the UK Jazz Ensemble and conductor Miles Osland took to the stage with Bernstein’s Prelude (for the brass), Fugue (for the saxes), and Riffs (for everyone).

Clarinetist Scott Wright | Riffs

The Prelude was a jazzy, cool, and rhythmic exposition for the brass, drums, and bass. The mellow saxes teased each other unmercifully in the Fugue but were provided full support, be it point or counterpoint, in their individual and collective fugal moments. The Riffs ensued when Scott Wright (Professor of Clarinet at UK) took the lead with the big band sound as he masterfully interacted with everyone, fully engulfing the call-response format near the end that garnered the well-deserved acknowledgement he received from the ensemble and audience alike. I felt as if I had just been to church while heeding the call of the wild.

Conductor Miles Osland, Clarinetist Scott Wright, and the UK Jazz Ensemble | Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs

In the next segment, Nardolillo playfully interacted with the audience in a little practice for our participation in two numbers from the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.  Along with the chorus, and before the orchestra came back on stage (he wanted to surprise them), he had us snapping our fingers in the Prologue and yelling “Mambo” in the fourth movement by the same name.  We followed through and did no harm—Bernstein would have approved. 

Nardolillo coaches the audience on finger snapping with the chorus in Prologue.

The orchestra, of course, brought West Side Story back to life with these eleven Symphonic Dances. It made you want to sing and dance.  Fortunately, no one tried but it set the tone for What a Movie from Trouble in Tahiti with Logan Blackman conducting and mezzo soprano Audrey Adams as soloist; Three Dance Episodes from On the Town, and Glitter and be Gay from Candide with James Burton conducting, and soprano Jessica Bayne as soloist.

Audrey Adams and Jessica Bayne both were both spectacular in their respective roles.  They teased, they flirted, and cajoled with voices and drama worthy of both Broadway and the Metropolitan Opera.

Mezzo Soprano Audrey Adams | What a Movie

Maestro Nardolillo conducted the final number of the evening’s performance, the heart-rending chorale finale, Make Our Garden Grow from Candide, with soprano Jessica Bayne, tenor Michael Pandolfo and Mixed Chorus. This duet between Candide and Cunegonde (characters from Voltaire’s French satire, Candide: Or the Optimist) was Bernstein’s message to us all: And let us try, / Before we die, / To make some sense of life. / We’ll do the best we know . . . / And make our garden grow.

Tenor Michael Pandolfo and Soprano Jessica Bayne | Make Our Garden Grow

Pandolfo’s and Bayne’s voices were sublime as they shared Bernstein’s impassioned plea full of sincerity and optimism.  And as the chorus joined in, magnifying Candide’s and Cunegonde’s emotions, Bernstein’s plan to unite us and give us a glimpse of our humanity will continue long past his 100th. It doesn’t matter that the clock stops ticking, eternal truths keep on truckin’.

Curtain Call (left to right) for Maestro Nardolillo; Guest Conductors: James Burton and Jefferson Johnson; Choir Directors: Elizabeth Wilson and Lori Hetzel; and Vocalists: Joseph Kingsbury, Michael Pandolfo, Audrey Adams, and Jessica Bayne

Bernstein had a strong affinity for young people and he would not have been disappointed in the exuberance displayed by everyone involved in this community-based collaborative centennial celebration of his music.

If you missed this magnificent Season Finale, you still have an opportunity to pay homage to Bernstein this fall. The Lexington Philharmonic begins its next season Opening Night: Bernstein & Gershwin on Saturday, October 20th at the Lexington Opera House (7:30 pm).

And remember, you can always get a bang for your buck with Maestro Nardolillo and the UKSO when they launch their 2018-2019 season program.

Photos provided by Sally Horowitz Photography


Leonard Cohen Tribute Concert II: The Concert Video

Another sold-out house! Lexington sure does have an appetite for Leonard Cohen’s music poetry. Hallelujah. The Leonard Cohen Tribute Encore was held at the Lyric Theatre in Lexington, KY on April 28, 2018 .  Thirty-five Central KY musicians paid tribute to Cohen’s incomparable catalog by covering 20 songs and closing with all the musicians and audience participating in a Hallelujah songfest! The show was produced by Purple Carrots Productions and UnderMain. The original show in November was sponsored by First Presbytarian Church Music for Mission and was held at Good Shepherd Church in Lexington.

Did you miss the encore presentation? We’ve got you covered with a fantastic concert video filmed by Mark Rush / Shaker Steps Productions. You can watch the video of the entire concert here:

As a bonus we are also including the program for the concert so you can read about the performers and the songs. Just click right below and you can scroll through the PDF of the program.

So drink it all in one big gulp or sip it and savor.

I caught the darkness
It was drinking from your cup
I caught the darkness
Drinking from your cup
I said is this contagious?
You said just drink it up

From “The Darkness”- Leonard Cohen


Memorial in Process

Carleton Wing’s statement on “Sharing Time and Space,” the exhibition currently up at MS Rezny Studio Gallery in Lexington, Kentucky, calls it an “exchange.” As the title also implies, this is something shared. On its surface this is readily apparent: here Wing and Paolo Dal Prá engage in a dialogue even across the gulf between life and death. But the objects also stake out their own positions and their own conversation. The cross between the materials and the bodies of work is also an exchange, one that can even speak apart from the intentions of artist, gallery, or viewer. This is where things become more complicated. Set up together, the works work things out amongst themselves.

‘Sharing Time and Space’, Installation view, MS Rezny Studio Gallery

At first the juxtaposition of crisp digital collages with rough wood assemblages, rustic clay figures, and heavy dark paintings comes across as uneven and jarring. Yet there is a sense that despite differences in form and material an animated conversation is taking place and affinities are being forged. Wing and Prá’s works are tied together in ways beyond the inconveniences of their contrasting mediums. In a way these works exist like a single thing, each object a part that contributes its specialized function to the organism as a whole. The exchange is symbiotic.

This is one way that the works fill in each other’s gaps. Separately, Prá’s sculptures, paintings, and drawings seem to be disintegrating. But their fragmented appearance is not really a product of being purposefully unfinished or aesthetically rustic. Instead this is the spirit of their “primitivism,” as if they are objects found, compiled, and now left to weather away. Prá’s works come across like some distant memory, a trace or a vestige of some half-remembered experience. The haziness and roughness of Prá’s paintings and sculptures feels like the melding of different realities. A painting like Figure, showing the curvature of the back of a human form breaking across a mottled surface, is like an image whose overall clarity comes at the expense of more specific details. The object itself and its forgotten source trying to push itself back to the surface meld together as one appears to wear away and reveal the other

Following after this same comparison to memory and its workings, Prá’s sculptures are likewise in the midst of a breaking-down. Their disintegrations are much more literal however. They take place in the physical form and materiality of the objects themselves. This nudges them beyond the realm of art objects to that of real things with a real stake in life and death. Inside of the aptly titled Figure are metal and springs, the guts and bones of things with real presence in the world. These objects become more logical and their existence more necessary as they take on a more vital character. The more this vitalism grows the more intertwined these works become.

In this sense there is also a somewhat sinister current that runs underneath and between these works. Where at first they appear to be starkly separate, they are bound together by the unpredictability of anonymity and autonomy. Together they hint at something outside of what can be seen but which regardless looks out and sees. In the case of Wing’s collages, there is a literality to the form he employs. In the sense that each one plays at being a model of the universe, the radiation from the center is in, out, and infinite. Yet they also hint at an almost conscious presence that peers out through the rapid circulation of the mandala form. Like the eye of a storm, the supposed peace at the center of these mandalas barely masks the fear and anxiety of what their forms in fact model.

This is where Wing’s mandalas really set themselves apart. Beyond their mundane source imagery (birds, prawns, onions), Wing’s mandalas are expansive even as they appear to shrink into the limits of their centers. More than attractive designs they are like eyes that look out from each little pinpoint. In the middle of each mandala, the design is pulverized into the smallest and sharpest possible extremity. The more abstract mandalas pull strongest toward the oblivion of their cores. Muskrat Jaw Secular Mandala and Shell Secular Mandala begin on their fringes as recognizable objects but quickly melt into carousels of frantic and chopped up lines and colors. The complexity of the designs ultimately breaks down into the simplicity of the point. Yet this simplicity is misleading. Through the static center the universe comes roaring through.

Paolo Dal Prá, ‘Horse’, 2017

So this conversation between artists and artworks is quite complex. Initial separation between the objects is bridged by the presence of a vital force that operates seemingly beyond human control. It is interesting that so many of Prá’s figures appear to be blind. But while they are eyeless or with eyes blank and unfocused, they still seem to look out. Even more, placed next to sharply gazing mandalas they are added a profound sense of penetrating sight. Together these works exist as the more unnerving viscera of existence. The universe stares back wildly through the centers of Wing’s swirling and anxious circles and Prá’s mysterious and half-completed figures. When the ghoulish decrepitude of Prá’s Horse plays against the cold prickly apparatuses of Wing’s Machine Part from Tower Bridge, London Secular Mandala, their combined effect is uncomfortable and uncanny. But even here life also flashes in triumph.

In the end it is a fitting memorial. What better place is there to celebrate than within art itself with all its contradictions and persistent questions? Here we are confronted with art as both mute and static objects and something much more active, unrestrained, and messily unresolved.


Ever-Present: Yvonne Petkus at Moremen Moloney

Part of the mission of Moremen Moloney Contemporary Gallery in Louisville, Kentucky is to bring forth intellectually challenging work which addresses relevant issues and concepts in a manner that is both provocative and accessible. With Yvonne Petkus’s Witness: Bosnian-influenced Paintings, visitors are met with images that resonate, largely due to striking, straightforward representations of the enduring impact of the Bosnian War and sociopolitical conflict in the Balkan region. Through a combination of subject matter and visual redundancy, Petkus provides a somber reminder of the ways in which identity and place are affected by warfare.

WITNESS: Bosnian-influenced Paintings, 2018, Moremen Moloney Contemporary Gallery, Louisville, KY.

Petkus’s work in Witness follows the artist’s immersive study of and living in Bosnia and Herzegovina during spring 2017. Upon being granted a fellowship through the Zuheir Sofia Endowed International Faculty Seminar program at Western Kentucky University (where the artist teaches), Petkus travelled to the Bosnian region last May. In her statement for Witness, she describes the opportunity as “intense, beautiful, emotional, at some times difficult, and at all times supremely interesting and inspiring.” The resulting exhibition is a visual extension of the internalities she also expresses in writing.

Installation view with ‘Raw’, WITNESS: Bosnian-influenced Paintings, 2018, Moremen Moloney Contemporary Gallery, Louisville, KY.

Witness contains fifteen oil paintings, rendered on either plexiglass or board, dispersed throughout three rooms. The material on which each image is amassed affects the quality of how it is seen: for example, small areas of untouched plexiglass function as apertures exposing the wall behind a work to reveal shadows cast by the paint itself, simultaneously emitting backlight that often contributes to a painting’s ocular depth. Petkus’s application of paint is expressive, and the resulting surfaces are—save for the uncovered segments of plexiglass—dense and active, possibly reflective of an artist and creative stimulant that are both unsettled. The inherencies of Moremen Moloney, as a house-turned-gallery space, encourage viewers to imagine living with the work in their own homes, a sentiment apparent in the display of Raw (Siege of Sarajevo) (2018) over the mantelpiece. 

Every painting in Witness features at least one specific figure: a nude woman with long dark hair and apricot colored skin splotched with deep reds, typically with mouth agape, and showing obvious indications of distress and exhaustion. The repetition of the woman, in addition to the blue atmospheric background she normally appears within, generates a sense of narrative throughout the exhibition and this particular body of work. 

It cannot be assumed that these are self-portraits, though they do transmit a kind of personal affiliation Petkus has with the figure she construes. Raw (Siege of Sarajevo) contains the figure in double; the painted woman locks hands with, and seemingly calls out to, another. The scene suggests the two are attempting to pull their counterpart nearer, as if both are in need of saving. The women, despite their hand-in-hand connectedness, are largely removed from each other. As an output of Petkus’s research and study, Raw (Siege of Sarajevo), titled after a prominent event of the Bosnian War, captures the intensity of the siege itself as well as the legacy of the communal trauma it spurred.

Yvonne Petkus, ‘Caught’, 2017, oil plexiglass, 36” x 30”

Throughout the exhibition, the figure is in some state of incompletion. For instance, in Caught (2017), a woman stands in an unknowable substance, turning her back toward the viewer and reaching outward from her left side. Except her arm dissolves, or rather, is consumed by the surrounding area. The woman looks over her shoulder, but offers no gaze towards the viewer—her eye sockets are deep cavities. Caught evokes Petkus’s perception of the degree to which local history resonates in present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina. Here, the woman is a metaphor for the artist’s own interactions with the region and people who inhabit it.

Notions of distress are embodied in the woman Petkus portrays, enhanced by the characteristics of the locations the woman is placed within. Petkus, at most, will afford viewers with just enough directional contours or value shifts to indicate depth, but more frequently paints the figure amongst a sea of indeterminate objects and forms. 

Yvonne Petkus,’ Raw II (Siege of Sarajevo)’, 2018, oil on plexiglass, 30” x 36”

Raw II (Siege of Sarajevo) (2018) is a case of the former. Like the previously mentioned Raw (Siege of Sarajevo), this second iteration holding allusions to the siege of the Bosnian capital features two women joined at the hands, pulling the other in anguish. In the distance, the pretense of another figure, standing and facing away from the women, can be seen amongst impressions of architectural structures. Yet these components are minimal, and could just as well be interpreted as abstracted shapes. Petkus is sure not to give too much away—these faint gestures retain a sense of uncertainty, as if they are memories of the women in the foreground, remnants of their shared pasts.

Witness is, in addition to being a record of lingering feelings of political upheaval Petkus sensed during her Fellowship, a trial of the viewer’s endurance. Indeed, just as Petkus marks the pervasive aftermath of the Bosnian War, the exhibition at Moremen Moloney, through the persistence of a specific figure and locality she occupies, may fatigue viewers with recurring palettes and forms. 

‘Witness’, 2018, oil and acrylic on plexiglass, 11” x 14”

Petkus intends for this, surely. Witness (2018), the inclusion possessing the same name as the exhibition itself, not only stands as an emblem of Petkus’s observations, it is a reminder that the viewer is also under scrutiny. Witness is one of few up-close portraits in the exhibition, presenting the same women as before in a more intimate fashion. She watches visitors to Moremen Moloney, waiting for them to experience the same sensations of depletion she feels. As she travels from painting to painting, her fatigue evolves, at times accompanied by others.

By describing the struggles of others, the artist prompts viewers to recall their own harrowing encounters. In Witness: Bosnian-influenced Paintings, Yvonne Petkus employs a lively handling of paint to both illuminate an aftermath of violence and contest viewers’ own perceptive capabilities. While her paintings may only reflect a portion of the condition of the Bosnian region, they are testaments to collective struggle and, eventually, restoration.


From Many Angles: Daniel Ludwig

Spread over three distinct locations, in three different municipalities, the retrospective of Daniel Ludwig’s practice—currently on view at Heike Pickett Galleries in both Versailles and Lexington and at the Georgetown College Art Galleries—presents a multidimensional perspective on the artist’s work over the last 35 years. Working primarily in painting, with a handful of works of sculpture, Ludwig has developed a clear aesthetic that combines elements of “the great art of Europe” with that of American vernacular painting; presented in this distributed fashion, this retrospective offers the viewer the opportunity to ruminate on specific elements of his practice in relation to the totality. 

Heike Pickett Gallery & Sculpture Garden: Versailles

Nestled in a 1792 Federal House just off of Main street, Heike Pickett gallery is a small, independent gallery, open to the public on Friday and Saturday from 11 am to 4 pm or by appointment. Ludwig’s retrospective dominates the main gallery space, comprised of one large room with various alcoves that serve to further divide up the area. The age of the space, which exudes with the creak of every step along the hardwood, stands in stark contrast to the body of work on display, focusing exclusively on Ludwig’s work in the last several years. 

Daniel Ludwig, “Graces”, Oil painting, 60″ x 46″, 2017

From this exhibition, it becomes readily apparent how much Ludwig’s recent practice has been informed by a reimagining of canonical themes and motifs. For instance, one of the first images that you encounter is his work Graces, in which Ludwig presents three nude forms—only one of which is identifiably a woman—standing in interconnected poses, with free floating drapery dashed around and between their bodies, clearly alluding to the “three graces” of Greek Mythology and the myriad representations of these figures. Yet Ludwig subverts the conventional depiction of these figures by imbuing the work with a heavy use of arbitrary color, rendering two of the figures in a pale purple, as well as invoking the visual rhetoric of Surrealism by portraying the figures as somewhat translucent, revealing elements of the background landscape through the outlined form of their bodies. 

This juxtaposition of many different painting traditions thus offers something altogether new, an illustration of the spectral presence that these historical depictions maintain within the current art world. They make clear to us as viewers the long legacy of art history that the artist must engage with in the name of innovation and provide one indication of the implications of that gesture. Other works in the space similarly engage with this long, Euro-centric art historical convention, making clear that as Ludwig looks back on his own art practice, he is both acutely aware of his personal history and his position as inheritor of the legacy of the European canon. This balancing between old and new, canonical and avant-garde is thus further affirmed by the relationship between the works and the architecture of the gallery.

Heike Pickett: Lexington

Whereas the Versailles gallery is an historic setting, the satellite space at CMW Architects — which is open Monday through Friday from 8 am to 4 pm — is a new, more industrial space. Located in the active offices of an architectural firm, the gallery space comprises of a long corridor, adorned with work on both sides, culminating with a large piece on the wall opposite the hallway at the far end. It is a unique sort of aesthetic experience, one in which the viewer may expect to have their experience interrupted by the sounds of typing or the faint smell of one of the employee’s perfume, all of which, undoubtedly will have some form of impact on their engagement with the work. 

Daniel Ludwig, “Figure and Clouds IV”, Oil, 40″ x 30″, 1989

Proceeding through the space you get a greater sense of previous elements of Ludwig’s practice, revealing a different tradition that is prominent throughout his body of work from the middle of his career, specifically the rhetoric of American Realist painting. While Ludwig frequently cites the influence of seeing European Masterpieces during his time abroad in college, it is also abundantly clear in works like Bathers (1989)—which features three nude swimmers wading out in the ocean—the debt that Ludwig’s practice owes to the traditions of artists like Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, and, especially, Edward Hopper. Ludwig’s attention to the light and shadow, and the volume to which he gives his figures combined with a clear painterly quality of his brushwork and the high concentration of color all give the image this sense of a uniquely American experience within a singularly American landscape.

The particularly pastoral character of this work plays off the industrial nature of the space in a way that parallels the viewing experience in Versailles. Yet again the visual elements of the artwork diverge from the setting in which they are immediately found, allowing the viewer to experience the stark character of these scenes through the distinctions and contradictions that emerge in their presentation in this particular site.  

Georgetown College Art Gallery:

Whereas the two previous sites have a clearer focus on a particular era of Ludwig’s practice, the exhibition at Georgetown college fits more in line with the traditional retrospective, a fitting gesture given the conventional nature of the gallery space itself. A well-lit white cube in the art building, walking into the Georgetown College Art Gallery, the viewer can expect to engage with the work in a more conventional and academic way. It is only fitting then that this space offers a more comprehensive survey of Ludwig’s practice, highlighting his early career, starting in the mid 1980s and extending to his most recent work. 

Daniel Ludwig, “Anne with Necklace”, Oil on Board, 24″ x 16″, 1982,

In this space the viewer can see clearly how elements of European and American painting have always been present in Ludwig’s career, but that the extent to which he engages with one tradition over the other varies at any given moment. For instance, during the 1980s he made very clear references to German Expressionist traditions, such as the almost uncanny parallels between Paula Modersohn-Becker’s 1906 Self-Portrait and Ludwig’s Anne with a Necklace (1982) with regard to color, texture, and composition. At the same time, his more recent works, such as the painting Disfruta, maintain a clear reference to early 20th Century American art, evoking the social realist elements of works by artists like Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and Kentucky’s own Edward Melcarth through the clear depiction of industrial labor and American manufacturing in a manner reminiscent of WPA muralism.  

The context of a university gallery thus affords a more academic and historical consideration for his work, preparing the viewer to engage with the full range of his practices through the site specific cues that prime the viewer to approach the art in a particular museological manner. 

A Complete Retrospective

Taken as an aggregate, these three galleries do ultimately form a cohesive retrospective and offer the viewer a unique way to consider the life and career of a particular artist. Because it is impossible to see all three shows simultaneously or even within quick succession, the viewer is given a chance to pause and reflect between sites and to consider elements the various narratives surrounding Ludwig’s practice constructed in each space. It is, therefore, a unique viewing experience to construct an understanding of an artist’s work through deliberately stepping away and then back towards his work.

In addition to offering the viewer an opportunity to see concentrated pockets of work and take time to consider the show in each of the three spaces, the distribution of the exhibition across three different gallery sites also means that, more so than in other exhibitions, the experience of the viewer is heavily informed by the order in which they see it. Recognizing this to be the case, my experiences reflect only one possible permutation with which the audience can engage with this exhibition and should be noted as such. Moreover, what is unique about this model of a retrospective is that it presents multiple angles from which one can consider Ludwig’s work, effectively creating a more open curatorial experience through dispersed viewing.   

 Reference Note: Fowler, Harriet, “Essay,” Daniel Ludwig Retrospective (Georgetown, KY: Georgetown College Art Galleries, 2018) 8.


Daniel Ludwig: New Works 2016-2018

Heike Pickett Gallery & Sculpture Garden

110 Morgan Street, Versailles, KY 40383

Through June 8, 2018

Hours; Friday and Saturday, 11 am- 4pm and by appointment

(859) 233-1263


Daniel Ludwig Retrospective: 35 Years of Artworks in Kentucky Collections

Ann WrightWilson Gallery at Georgetown College

Through May 25, 2018

Hours; Wednesday through Saturday, 12 am-4:30 pm and by appointment

(502) 863-8399


Daniel Ludwig: Selected Paintings and Drawings

Heike Pickett Gallery at CMW

400 East Vine St. Lexington, KY (859)233-1263

Through June 8, 2018

Hours: Monday through Friday, 10 am.- 4 pm.

Gallery Hop with the Artist, Friday, May 18, 5- 8 pm


Storytelling By Design

Fifteen years ago, a symposium exploring the interplay of public art, architecture, and history would have drawn interest from many quarters but probably not historic preservation professionals.  What does public art have to do with preservation, some would have asked? Now, however, the question is hardly necessary. Preservationists of many stripes have recognized that valued buildings, no matter how important, have little hope unless someone cares. Meaningful connections to place are cultivated in multiple ways, and those connections lie at the heart the factors that compel preservation. Public art and architecture are powerful vehicles for stimulating intellectual and emotional investments in place – and the varied activities that aim to “preserve.” 

The presenters and audience at the 2018 University of Kentucky Historic Preservation Symposium made these points repeatedly during a lively day of discussions that explored the developing nexus of activity around historically informed art and architecture. Held on Friday, March 30 at the UK Athletic Association Auditorium at W.T. Young Library and at Memorial Hall on the University of Kentucky campus, the symposium attracted more than 50 people, and others viewed it via a Facebook livestream.

Featured speakers included Jerome Meadows, an award-winning artist known for large-scale public art and landscape installations; the three members of the Selvage Collective, a curatorial trio based in Atlanta, Georgia; and Rebecca Bush, the curator of history at the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia. A panel discussion on public art projects in Kentucky communities and a keynote address by Alan Ricks, co-founder of MASS Design Group, rounded out the schedule. By the end of the day, all in attendance had learned about pathbreaking projects that have compelled people to grapple with underappreciated histories, to think differently about the past, and to see opportunities for healing and reconciliation. 

Meadows began the symposium with a presentation that surveyed several of his best- known projects and one that is now underway. A native of New York City who now resides Savannah, Georgia, Meadows is acclaimed for thoughtful, deeply moving artwork that interprets African American life and history. The African American Heritage Park in Alexandria, Virginia (1995), one of his earliest efforts, combines a series of sculptural forms and interpretive panels overlooking an African American burial ground.  The African Burying Ground Memorial in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, honors the enslaved men, women, and children who lived and worked in Portsmouth or passed through the town because of the role of its merchants in the international slave trade. In recounting the origins of these designs and the ideas they express, Meadows left the audience awed. The sensitivity of his work, his creative prowess, and the historical information incorporated into each project demonstrate what is possible when difficult subjects are treated respectfully, honestly, and provocatively. 

Meadows is currently developing sculptural forms for a memorial to Ed Johnson, an African American man lynched in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in March 1906. Like hundreds of black men in the Jim Crow South, Johnson found himself wrongly accused of raping a white woman, tried before an all-white jury, and sentenced to death. Then, in ritualized fashion, a mob stormed the local jail and broke Johnson out of his cell. Immediately before his executioners hung him from a bridge across the Tennessee River, Johnson spoke his last words: “God bless you all. I am an innocent man.”  The memorial will create a space for remembrance and contemplation at the south end of the Walnut Street Bridge in downtown Chattanooga. To secure the commission, Meadows partnered with a landscape architecture firm to develop the site and ensure a graceful setting for his sculptures.  

The Selvage Collective followed with a tour of the four projects the group has completed to date. Founded by Julia Brock, Teresa Bramlette Reeves, and Kirstie Tepper at Kennesaw State University, the Selvage Collective is committed to revealing and visualizing “alternative narratives and history.” As the group’s mission statement explains, they “work in the borderland of fact, hearsay, and fiction, wherein one finds multiple voices and stories to share.” The Selvage Collective’s first project, Hearsay, was an exhibit displayed at the Zuckerman Museum of Art at Kennesaw State University from July 26-October 25, 2014. By displaying a series of solo projects that challenged well-known narratives of southern life, the exhibit offered “alternative points of view to the historical cannon.” Narratology, an installation in the Welch School Galleries at Georgia State University, followed in January-February 2016. In asking how international artists rise to prominence, the installation juxtaposed narratives of individual accomplishment with news about political events, international exhibitions, and curators in order to complicate narratives of individual genius. 

The Selvage Collective’s most recent projects have moved into the digital realm and placed temporary exhibitions in public space. ATLas, part of the ATLmaps website, explores the role of female artists and art administrators in the Atlanta art scene of the 1970s. An interactive map provides access to video interviews, historical information and images, and geospatial data to illuminate the lives and work of ten women. The Mystery of Stark Alley explored physical change and forgetting in the Wildwood neighborhood of Columbus, Georgia. While investigating maps of the area, the group noticed that Stark Alley, one of two alleys original to the neighborhood, disappeared by 1950s. In October 2017, Selvage installed a 70-foot textile representation of the alley border and a small exhibit at the Smith-McCullers House, the childhood residence of famed writer Carson McCullers. In recounting the process employed in developing the installation and exhibit, Brock related the central question that motivated the group’s work: “How can the residual become an engine of meaning?” 

After a short break for lunch, the symposium reconvened for presentations that placed the interplay of art, architecture, and history in a broad perspective and highlighted projects in Kentucky communities. Rebecca Bush traced the development of artists’ involvement in interpreting contested historical subjects and the major trends she sees as shaping the public art-history relationship today. Bush is coeditor of the recent collection of essays Art and Public History: Approaches, Challenges, and Opportunities (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2017). Her comments emphasized artists’ role in helping communities approach difficult histories and produce artwork that encourages contemplation, reflection, and tolerance. A panel discussion followed. Sarah Lindgren, public art administrator for Metro Louisville Government, spoke about the Public Arts and Monuments Advisory Committee that Mayor Greg Fischer recently charged with developing principles for evaluating existing art and monuments in response to debates about Confederate memorials. Nathan Zamarron, the Community Arts Director of LexArts, discussed several projects his organization is working on, and Garry Bibbs, an acclaimed artist and an Associate Professor in the College of Fine Arts at the University of Kentucky, spoke about his work and the centrality of storytelling to his creative process. 

For the keynote address, the attendees walked across campus to Memorial Hall to hear Alan Ricks speak about MASS Design, the firm that he and five other students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design founded in 2008. From the beginning, Ricks and his partners envisioned a different kind of architectural practice. In the years since, the group committed itself to “architecture that promotes justice and human dignity.” Ricks’s lecture showcased schools and health care facilities that MASS Design has created in Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States. The firm’s most recent work includes several memorials. Ricks spoke in depth about a proposed memorial to the 1994 Rwandan Genocide in Kigali, Rwanda, and a planned Holocaust Memorial in London, England. In discussing these projects, Ricks emphasized the difficulty he and his colleagues encountered in developing forms capable of representing horrific events and the importance of memory as a guard against future atrocity. 

By the end of the day, all who attended left with a great deal to consider. Art and history have a long and intricate relationship, but the ways in which artists and architects are now engaging historical subjects marks a turn away from traditional forms of remembrance. The degree to which art and architecture can bring forgotten histories into view and force contemplation is potent testimony to the power of the material world to shape human thought and emotion. Although historians have long favored written narratives, the work of Meadows, the Selvage Collective, and MASS Design suggests important alternatives. The emotional resonance of their work underscores the power of art to convey sentiments that might otherwise remain marginalized or hidden completely.

How, then, is historically informed art and architecture part of preservation? As the Czechoslovakian writer Milan Kundera observed, “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Without physical remains, remembrance becomes difficult, prone to loss, amnesia, and varying forms of erasure. Although preservation advocates once saw the care and protection of valued remains as paramount, no longer is that true. Growing attention to historically informed art and architecture demonstrates the importance that advocates and professionals now place on public interest. In making challenging histories visible, artists and architects are pioneering methods for highlighting the relevance of the past and connecting it with contemporary debates. Although the outcomes are always uncertain, the results are consistently impressive. Sustained interest in the past is a wellspring of meaning and a path toward a more just and equitable world. Working toward such goals necessarily involves respectful treatment of valued remains. However interest in the past is fostered, it holds the promise of meaningful dialogue about the roots of our time and the promise of the future. 


Designing Women at The Speed

Thoroughly Modern: Women in 20th Century Art and Design was conceived as a sequel to the Speed Art Museum’s blockbuster exhibition, Women in the Age of Impressionism.  But this small, elegant display of women’s work stands on its own merits as one of the Speed’s best recent installations.  The exhibition consists of only 35 objects or dinner ware sets but is mostly pottery.  The show is on view until July 1st at the Speed in Louisville.

The artists are given momentous status with blown-up portraits of each on tall wall graphics placed between cases and wall works.  As a display strategy, it works brilliantly.   Modestly scaled decorative arts gain in interest through the borrowed glory of their makers’ heroization.  

The artists are by birth American, Austrian, British, French, German, Hungarian, and Russian, and their media include woodwork, paintings, prints, textile, silver and ceramics.  This is a homegrown endeavor organized by the Speed’s curators, drawing on the strengths of the Speed’s own holdings, local collections, and the University of Louisville’s Hite Art Center.  The artists range from Susie Cooper and Eva Zeisel, towering figures in the history of 20th century decorative arts, to a gifted amateur china painter, Althea Moore Smith.  None of the women have been given proper recognition for the magnitude of their artistic achievements, and the fact that most are relatively unknown piques heightened interest.  

Anne-Marie Fontaine French, (birth and death dates unknown) “Vase Fontaine #2”, 1934, Porcelain

Two vases by Anne-Marie Fontaine, (birth and death dates unknown), a designer for Sèvres porcelain in the 1920s and 1930s, are a case in point.  To my knowledge, there has never been a museum exhibition in the United States dedicated to 20th century Sèvres. Fontaine’s supernal decoration of a three-part cylindrical vase is ethereal: overlapping gold and blue clouds rise in curved bands, interspersed with a sun, rain, feathers and stars. One can imagine Fontaine’s vase set off against rectilinear white walls in a LeCorbusier house of the period.  The pot’s restrained elegance, cosmological whimsy, simple geometry, and integral relationship of its motifs to the vessel’s form mark it as an Art Deco masterpiece.

Eva Zeisel American, born in Hungary (1906-2011) Century Platter and Bowls, designed 1950 Whiteware

Not all the works in the exhibition are luxury goods. Eva Zeisel (1906-2011) designed for a mass market, working for manufacturers like Hall China in Ohio, Shenango Pottery in Pennsylvania, and Red Wing Pottery in Minnesota, and towards the end of her life, Crate and Barrel. Eva Zeisel’s 1955 Century platter and bowls anticipate Aero Saarinen’s TWA terminal: Their extended undulant curves made the set easy to stack for storage and easy to retrieve.  Zeisel’s pottery is often characterized by a covert anthropomorphism: the handles of the Century dishes rise in hallelujah exultancy. In 2004 Zeisel wrote, “I have rarely designed objects that were meant to stand alone.  My designs have family relationships.  They are mother and child, siblings, or cousins.  They may not have identical lines, but there is always a family relationship.” 

Eva Zeisel American, born in Hungary (1906-2011) Town and Country Salt and Pepper Shakers and Teapot, designed 1946 Earthenware

Zeisel’s biomorphic salt and pepper shakers for her 1946 Town and Country china precede by two years cartoonist Al Capp’s cartoon invention, “shmoos” which had comparable shapes.  Zeisel’s implements intertwine and seem inseparably affectionate.  Pertinently in a 1987 New Yorker interview, Zeisel asserted, “I think with my hands.  I design things to be touched – not for a museum.  A piece is ready when it has the shape of something to cherish.”  Wit is a continual factor in Zeisel’s art: the lid of the Town and Country teapot is off-center, giving it the comical air of a jaunty beret.

Zeisel worked in Germany in the late 1920s, and then traveled to Russia where she rose to the position of art director for the Soviet glass and china industries.  Imprisoned for plotting against Stalin, she eventually was released and made her way to the United States.  She was given a one-person show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946, and is credited with designing the first all-white modernist dinnerware. She continued her protean creativity until shortly before her death at the age of 105 in 2011.

Susie Cooper, (1902-1995), is also profiled with wonderful examples.  An English artist born in the Staffordshire town of Burslem, Cooper’s most characteristic product is the trio, a cup, saucer and cake plate suitable for Britain’s ritual breaks at elevenses or at afternoon tea.  In contrast to Zeisel’s functionalism, the diction of ceramics in Cooper’s work seems more about convening, contemporaneity, and the contract of hospitality between host and guest. Her customers were the emerging British suburban middle class, who embraced 20th Century values of informality, enjoyment of color and innovative form. The patchwork enamel hues in Cooper’s earlier works are be-jazzed cousins of Sonia Delaunay’s Orphism.

Susie Cooper British, (1902-1995) Vase, about 1925, Earthenware

A lusterware vase depicting a leaping antelope in front of an orange tree has a jubilant rhythmic composition characterized by unexpected intervals between figure and ground.  The antelope was a favorite motif of Cooper’s, and was used in one of her pottery marks. Cooper could be more restrained in her designs. In a 1931 trio on view, the decoration shifts to delicate patterns of scrolls, circles, dots, and plant forms. 

Susie Cooper British, (1902-1995), Cup and Saucer for Coffee Service, 1933, Earthenware

Of the paintings in the exhibition my favorite is the 1930 Two Cats on Stairs (Tooky, 10th Street by Marguerite Zorach, (1887-1968), whose reputation until recently has been overshadowed by that of her sculptor husband, William Zorach, the apostle of the ideology of direct carving. Marguerite Zorach was one of the first Americans to embrace the Fauve palette; a textile artist as well as a painter and printmaker, her painting in the exhibition is an exercise in Cezannesque pictorial tension, with its reverse perspective (the bannister recedes towards the viewer rather than into the distance, a red sill in the foreground is bound together with the wall of a brick building in the distance, the view of the roof through the window is angled up, the stairway tilted to the right). There are six interlocking rectangles in the painting giving the radiant backlit cats a supercharged stage set.

Marguerite Zorach American, (1887-1968,) “Two Cats on Stairs”, ca. 1930, Oil on canvas

Blanche Lazzell American, (1878-1956), “Abstract Petunias”, 1946, Color woodcut on laid Japan paper

Morgantown, West Virginia native Blanche Lazzell (1878-1956), is represented by a painting and a print.  Like Zorach, Lazzell domesticized European innovations: her 1917 loosely pointillist painting of Woodstock, New York, is constructed of large patches of overlapping complementary colors.  It was done at Byrdcliffe, an arts and crafts school well-known for their costumed revels.  Lazzell subsequently worked in Provincetown, Massachusetts – like Louisvillians Fayette Barnum, Maude Ainslie, and Mary Spencer Nay, who also worked there and found opportunities in the less sexist, more relaxed environment of summer art colonies.  Lazzell’s 1946 woodcut, Abstract Petunias, is a cubist arrangement of spiraling flat planes of color: Lazzell was one of many Provincetown woodcut artists, like Cincinnatians Maud Hunt Squires, Ethel Mars and Edna Boies Hopkins, who used Japanese ‘white-line’ woodcut technique.  Many of Hopkins’s most memorable prints depict Appalachians in Eastern Kentucky. 

Thoroughly Modern succeeds because it is an exhibition of unfairly overlooked artists: it provides new visual information for all but specialists in 20th Century painting and decorative arts.  It obliterates conventional distinctions between ornament and abstraction, undermines the primacy of painting and sculpture, and subverts the canonical hierarchy of male artists working in familiar styles.  Most of all, it is an affirmation of the rich and still only partially discovered pathways of modernism.



Daniel Ludwig Presented by The Heike Pickett Gallery

The Heike Pickett Gallery is presenting a retrospective of works by Daniel Ludwig in three locations this spring.

An UnderMain review of these exhibitions is forthcoming, but in the meantime, check out the artwork in person at the following locations.

Daniel Ludwig, “After Image”, 2017, Oil on Linen, 60 x 40 inches

DANIEL LUDWIG: New Works 2016-2018

April 21-June 8

Heike Pickett Gallery & Sculpture Garden

110 Morgan Street

Versailles, KY 40383

Daniel Ludwig, “Woman with Ochre Shade”, 2005, Oil on Linen, 50 x 40 inches

DANIEL LUDWIG:  Paintings and Drawings

April 15-June 8, Gallery Hop May 18th 5 – 8 p.m.

Heike Pickett Gallery at CMW

400 E. Vine St.

Lexington, KY 40507


Daniel Ludwig, “Another Season II”, 1996, Oil on Linen, 70 x 54 inches, Private Collection


Thirty-five Years of Artworks in Kentucky Area Collections  

April 22-May 25, Reception April 22nd  5 – 7 p.m.

Anne Wright Wilson Gallery at Georgetown College

Corner of E. College St. and Mulberry

Georgetown, KY 40324

For further information:

phone: 859-233-1263



Horse Feathers Fly in Horse Country

The opening notes of “Without Applause,” the first track off the forthcoming Horse Feathers album “Appreciation,” belie the NPR-blessed “Beardy Pacific Northwest Folk-Pop” status the band has achieved in recent years. It’s an up-tempo throwback that feels more at home in the mid-seventies singer-songwriter era than in the catch-all frame of “indie folk.” The ascending melodic lines in a major key, the hint of conga drums, some tasteful soul piano and a big finish complete with choir vocals defy a genre lately stagnating from a distinct lack of these added elements. All this goes to say that Astoria, Oregon-based Horse Feathers isn’t your standard indie folk band. Hell, Horse Feathers isn’t your standard band, period.

Horse Feathers isn’t so much an ongoing group as much as it seems to be a shifting collective of musicians wrapped around the singular songwriting prowess of Justin Ringle. There have been multiple iterations of the outfit in the 14 years since its founding, and the only constant has been Ringle. It’s this unconventional assembly of lineups that refreshes Horse Feathers, providing longevity and a creative wellspring.

“The blessing and the curse of this project and being able to sustain a 14-year project,” says Ringle, “is the fact that I’ve had multiple incarnations of the band.”

Justin Ringle (Horse Feathers) – at home, Astoria, OR | Photo by John Clark

“On one hand, that’s been the Achilles heel – to keep personnel around. But, the positive of that – working with different people and collaborators – has kept the project alive in a different way and kept it interesting for me.”

The current form of the band includes longtime collaborator Nathan Crockett, as well as two new faces rounding out the rhythm section. Of course, these faces may be new to Horse Feathers, but anyone paying attention to Lexington’s burgeoning music scene over the past several years would be able to pick J. Tom Hnatow and Robby Cosenza out of any lineup.

May 4th will see the release of “Appreciation,” an album recorded in Kentucky between La-La Land Studio in Louisville and Shangri-La Productions in Lexington with local recording wunderkind Duane Lundy (for more on Lundy, see “Duane Lundy’s Crossfade Moment”).

“Upon a stop by the studio, while I was in another session,” recalled Lundy, “Justin and I hit it off pretty quickly and found a kinship in texture and depth of field, and how it could potentially serve as an interesting backdrop to Justin’s very intelligent and nuanced songwriting, arrangement, and productions.”

It might sound like a stretch for an Oregon band to record in Kentucky, but Ringle describes it more as a moment of serendipity. He has ties through his partner to Louisville, and he crossed paths with Hnatow and Cosenza on the road on several occasions. When it came time to round out the band for the next album, they came on board and provided the last tie to Shangri-La, where both have been major repertory players in Lundy’s operation.

Duane Lundy | Photo by Brian Powers

Lundy said Horse Feathers presented him with an opportunity to work in a very focused and liberating way. “Justin and the band allowed me a great deal of freedom to engineer, and mix in a way that felt fresh, but an outgrowth of what I had been working towards over the last couple of years.  Working on such detailed material was in particularly refreshing with Tom and Robby on the session.  We were all being challenged to stretch out in some different directions, and it served as a very healthy thing for my own process.”

Solidifying a band with members based nearly 2500 miles apart might seem a daunting task, and it often is.

“It’s us vs. geography in a way,” says Ringle.

Hnatow shrugs it off, however, noting, “I’ve never been in a band that’s all been in the same city.” His time spent in These United States and Vandaveer, both multi-state outfits, gives context to his devil-may-care attitude.

Cosenza sees the distance as even a positive, forcing the group to focus.

“The benefit is we don’t see each other the same way. We do a lot of work in a succinct amount of time.”

Time seems to be the one thing Horse Feathers has plenty of. After 14 years at it, Ringle considers himself a lifer, although he’s fatalistic about what that means. Where others would speak of a life of music-making in only positive terms, Ringle sees in it a certain quiet inevitability.

“You kind of reach a point where – [after] you get into a decade or longer time period – where you don’t know how to leave it,” Ringle said. “I don’t think I’m able to do that. After it becomes your identity, you can’t get away.”

He’s been at it long enough to be able to eschew the standard-issue aspirations of rock superstardom and an endless supply of cash for broader goals of personal enrichment.

“I just want to have different experiences,” says Ringle. “For some, it’s about vertical ascent. For me, it’s all about expanding horizontally into new facets. All I’m looking for are angles.”

Cosenza augments this with his own goal: “I just want Bob Dylan to open for us at Madison Square Garden.”


Critical Mass II: A Short Video Summary

On Wednesday, March 28th, 2018, UnderMain held its second Critical Mass panel discussion on critical thinking in the arts, examining, in part, what role criticism plays as Kentucky artists and institutions engage more readily with a national and international dialogue. This year, our partners were The Great Meadows Foundation and KMAC Museum, with KMAC Curator Joey Yates moderating. We conducted Critical Mass I in 2016 in partnership with the University of Kentucky Art Museum. Critical Mass III will take place in Northern Kentucky in 2020.

Our featured panelist this year was New York-based curator Dan Cameron. Dan shared his extensive experience as a curator, writer, and critic as well as the inaugural Critic-in-Residence for the Great Meadows Foundation. During his March residency he made studio visits to a number of artists in the region as part of the foundation’s goal to help strengthen and support the critical growth of Kentucky artists’ work.

UnderMain promotes robust critical discourse in our region as it aids in the development of the individual artist and an awareness about Kentucky’s position within the larger art world.  Missions aligned as these three partners believe that exposure to criticism plays an essential part in an artist’s development and a community’s growth. Dan’s thoughts were well-balanced by the insights of our three other panelists, Emily Elizabeth Goodman, Tiffany Calvert, and Vinhay Keo.

For those of you who could not join us, we have composed a short video for you. Ten minutes or so of the juiciest stuff. Hope you enjoy. 

Video and Audio
© 2018 UnderMain, Inc.
UnderMain, Inc. would like to acknowledge the following for helping us organize Critical Mass II and producing this short video:
Julien Robson, Director, Great Meadows Foundation
Joey Yates, Curator, KMAC Museum
John Williams, Principal Photographer / Producer SoundART Management™
Eric Cade Schoenborn, Designer, Culture on Demand
Raleigh Dailey, Pianist/Composer
Savannah Wills, Chellgren scholar
KMAC Staff


Dan Cameron

Along with his ongoing curatorial projects, Cameron is a widely published art critic, with several hundred book, magazine and catalog essays to his credit. Along with teaching on the graduate faculties of Columbia University, NYU and the School of Visual Arts, Cameron is a frequent lecturer at museums and university campuses around the world. He currently serves on the Advisory Boards of the Madison Park Art Conservancy in NYC and the ARC/Athens Artist Residency in Greece. He has received numerous awards for his curatorial and scholarly work, most recently the 2010 Service to the Arts Award by the Anderson Ranch in Aspen, Colorado, and the 2015 Eminent Scholar award from the American Cultural Association/Popular Culture Association.

Emily Elizabeth Goodman

Emily Elizabeth Goodman is a Lexington, KY-based art historian, curator and critic and Assistant Professor of Art History at Transylvania University. She received her B.A. from McGill University and her MA and Ph.D. from the University of California, San Diego. Her doctoral research focused on the use of food culture in feminist art in New York and California during the era of the “Second Wave.” Her more recent scholarship and curatorial work — which includes the exhibition New Domesticity concurrently at the Morlan Gallery and the Parachute Factory — has focused on contemporary women artists’ examination of craft and domestic labor in the American South. She is the author of a forthcoming article in the journal Performance Research and writes for various art publications including Number magazine and Hyperallergic.

Tiffany Calvert

Tiffany Calvert is Assistant Professor of Painting at the Hite Art Institute at the University of Louisville. Tiffany’s work has been exhibited in group and solo exhibitions including Lawrimore Project in Seattle, Visual Arts Gallery at SVA New York, and Carl & Sloan Contemporary in Portland, OR.  She has been a recipient of a Geraldine R. Dodge Fellowship and residencies at the ArtOmi International Arts Center (NY) and Djerassi Resident Artists Program (CA). In 2010 she was awarded a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant.

Vinhay Keo

Vinhay Keo is originally from Cambodia, where he spent the first 10 years of his childhood. He earned his BFA from the Kentucky College of Art + Design at Spalding University. He received the Ellen Battell Stoeckel Fellowship to study at Yale Norfolk Summer School of Art, a Great Meadows Foundation recipient, participated in workshops such as Anderson Ranch Art Center and Anne West’s writing reflection. His work has been exhibited throughout galleries in Louisville, Kentucky with a recent solo exhibition at Moremen Moloney Contemporary Gallery.

Vinhay Keo, “Model Minority” from the Confront 2017 series shown at the Moremen Moloney Contemporary Gallery, Louisville, Kentucky


UnderMain, Inc. – a Kentucky 501(c)(3) – is an arts, cultural, and topical online publication that has a wide bandwidth. Cultural affairs is a big basket. Arts of all kinds, community issues, controversies, contests, events, people, and critical reviews. UM is serious and fun. We love playing in the digital sandbox and presenting vivid content to you, ad-free, as we offer support to some of Kentucky’s most talented writers, artists, and performers. (

 Great Meadows Foundation is a grant giving foundation, launched in 2016 by contemporary art collector and philanthropist Al Shands. Named for the home that Al and his late wife Mary created, the mission of Great Meadows Foundation is to critically strengthen and support visual art in Kentucky by empowering our community’s artists and other visual arts professionals to research, connect, and participate more actively in the broader contemporary art world. (

 KMAC Museum is a contemporary art museum located in the West Main District of downtown Louisville KY. Through exhibitions and educational programs the museum examines the multifaceted landscape of contemporary artistic production and material culture. (






Published by UnderMain, Inc., P.O. Box 575, Lexington, Kentucky 40388


Scene&Heard: Marble Creek Rangers at the Elkhorn

The room at Elkhorn Tavern greets its visitors with an inviting warmth as embracing as the tantalizing aroma of BBQ and the fire burning in the fireplace. Closing out the cold and freezing rain pelting the bustling Distillery District on Manchester Street, the room is full of happy, warm folks listening to the Marble Creek Rangers. Between the smell of food, the charms of the fire, all the people glad to be there and loving the music Eric Cummins and his band were providing, it was the perfect place to be on such a cold, dark night.

The Marble Creek Rangers lead is Eric Cummins, who pulled the band together mostly from his other two bands, the more electric sound of the Eric Cummins Band, and the beloved Allman Butter Band. The Rangers are a more acoustic sound, but very eclectic, hitting everything from Johnny Cash to Gillian Welch, The Allman Brothers, Billy Joe Shaver and Alejandro Escovedo in their covers, mixed with originals mostly written by Cummins, with a fast, upbeat bluegrass sound. But even those are not just Bluegrass.

“We cut a wide swath,” Cummins says of his band’s diverse tastes and talents. Joined by Martie Clough on bass and harmony, Brandon Bowlds on mandolin and harmony, Mike DeLong on drums and Don Rogers on fiddle and singing, the Marble Creek Rangers are a powerhouse of solid musical talent.

The room was full of people grateful to be off work on a cold Friday night. UK had just won the game, their colors were adorned on sweatshirts and hats throughout the room, the playoffs played silently on the television behind the bar, and the feel in the room was so comfortable. The Elkhorn Tavern serves food ordered at the bar, everything from beer cheese plates to BLT’s and Hot Browns. Serving a diverse selection of spirits, including their own brands of several kinds, the Tavern gives the feel of an old neighborhood pub. The stone walls, hardwood, classic bar candles burning and animal trophies adorn the space, and the Rangers fit perfectly by the closed tasting room.

The drums were nestled back in the corner, Eric’s back was to the door and the sound of the band resonated and filled the space. Everyone seemed happy: happy to be there, happy the game was won, happy the band was playing high-quality songs with a good vibe.

Eric’s voice is solid, he can shift from Johnny Cash to Gillian Welch to Bruce Springsteen smoothly. His band is tight and has his back at every step, with every note. The fiddle and the mandolin partner perfectly, taking turns with their parts and making the music so alive folks were dancing around the room. Whether two-stepping or just shaking it where they stood, it was clear they were quite pleased with what they heard.

“Our best gigs come when folks are music lovers out in the crowd,” Eric later commented, and that synergy was clear on this recent night at Elkhorn. Musicians and crowd exchanged energies, and the friendly staff handing out delicious plates of food and good drinks made the fit quite pleasant.

 The Rangers feed off the crowd as well-seasoned musicians do, and reflected that in their playing. They are the kind of band that can play steadily to a crowd full of talking people but still command their attention enough that they all join in on the chorus. Their songs are recognizable, and the originals they bring into the mix perfectly with the sound. Eric and the band do not do setlists for gigs. Rather, they have a treasure trove of songs they all know and have played together, and even more they could fall into with Eric’s lead should he feel inspired to do so. That is the beauty of a well-seasoned band of great musicians.

Fellow musicians have called Eric fearless in the past, winging gigs with faith in his musical talent and his bandmates. “In everything I do I like the element of danger. If it works out it’s a big thrill, like ‘hey we did it!’…people don’t mind seeing you be human. That’s the fun thing about getting off your couch and going to see someone play…something will happen.”

After a long life where he attempted music full time, even busking down in Florida, and realized it wasn’t a solid “business plan” for a man with a family and wanting a home, he began working at Wilcutt Guitars on Southland Drive and has worked there ever since. He knows many successful rock stars through his work but is happy to be a local musician who makes music with his friends after work is done, and gets to play for receptive crowds like the folks at Elkhorn last night.

Cummins on Lexington…

“That’s the rewarding thing for me at this point: to go and play well and have fun making music with my friends.”

Eric plays regularly around town. You can catch The Eric Cummins Band at Parlay Social in downtown Lexington and the Paddy Wagon in Richmond regularly. The Allman Butter Band is playing The Burl on March 31st, and Marble Creek Rangers will be back at The Elkhorn Tavern later this month and are playing Inclusion Palooza at the Moondance Amphitheater April 21st.

After the Elkhorn show, Cara sat down for a chat with Eric Cummins:


The Art of Collage and Assemblage Take Wing

In his Rooftop Soliloquy, Roman Payne states that “All forms of madness, bizarre habits, awkwardness in society, general clumsiness, are justified in the person who creates good art.”  Collage and assemblage artist Carleton Wing could take umbrage to this statement but I doubt that he would. When he began making art in the early 1980s, he considered himself an introvert, a shy person with low self-esteem and his art was a safe way for him to assert himself quietly.

Wing is no stranger to the Lexington arts scene where he owned and operated Wingspan Gallery for several years on the corner of Jefferson and Second Street.  He sold the gallery six years ago after being diagnosed with leukemia and his only option for survival (20 percent) was a bone marrow transplant. Facing better odds (70 percent) in Florida than in Kentucky, he moved to Tampa where he received a stem cell transplant from a 20-year-old male donor living in Germany. Now back in Lexington, his life has undergone a transformation and his art a transfiguration.  Both speak the unspeakable. They shine.

Wing in his studio getting a big hug and kiss from Bella for being a good boy and sticking to his schedule. | Photo by Jim Fields

Wing creates his collages and assemblages by “removing familiar images and objects from their original context and rearranging them to illustrate a new notion or idea.” Although his subject matter is serious—gender, religion, war, politics, and class, he often uses satirical titles and humor to further engage his viewers, to make them think and maybe walk away with a smile on their face.

The Cownolfini Wedding, a take-off of Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Wedding, is prime beef. George Orwell’s Animal Farm came to mind when I first saw it. The pigs, Snowball, Napoleon, and Squealer may be missing from the scene but Animalism still rules the day. The period garb of the two central figures is borrowed directly from van Eyck, and Wing’s crafty placement of the mirror on the tree not only reflects the rear-view image of the original painting but also serves as a reminder that we occasionally need to take a closer look at ourselves—even hindsight will do.

The Cownolfini wedding took place on a pleasant October day in New Hampshire. Her two children, from a previous marriage, look on as the Magistrate enjoys the sun and the Mayor sings Ave Maria

Unlike the bride in Cownolfini, Katrina is not the marrying kind. A hurricane of a woman, she is more like Brunnehilda who, in myth, could be approached only by a man able to surpass her in strength. Wing’s title provides levity and perspective to a perplexing and unsettling work because it imposes a different order on our preconceived notions of reality and sexuality. It is ambiguous and symbolic; it is the surreal inner voice of a bizarre dream.

Katrina has little use for men.

Wing has a definite kinship with artists like Salvador Dali and Renne Magritte, contending that surrealism can actually bring us closer to reality because it mimics the contradictions and absurdities of the “real” world.  And there is method to his madness. Had he given this piece a different title such as The Lady or the Tiger, it would have altered the narrative and the way we look at it.

At the outset of his career 35 years ago, Wing relied on countless images from glossy magazines such as National Geographic, Smithsonian, and Architectural Digest for his constructions.  However, the translucent multi-layering effect that characterizes his more recent work was not possible with opaque paper cut-outs. The Internet, Adobe, and archival quality digital printing now provide him with endless resources and creative possibilities, bringing his story-telling to new level.

So for Wing, making art is about making choices and then seeing where it leads.  His process begins with a single image or object that interests him and then he subconsciously adds other images until he discovers what he is trying to say or until a story emerges, at which point he consciously takes control and works with intent based on how he wants the narrative to unfold as in Jesus Wanders.

Jesus wanders the wilderness on the best he could get from Steeds-R-Us Rentals

Here, Wing brings the Temptation of Christ into the 21st century and Jesus is not exactly slouching toward Bethlehem. He sits upright on a humble beast that travels slightly faster than the speed of a turtle, so he will have plenty of time to absorb the wilderness of modern civilization.  It is a complex composition with a penetrating sense of perspective and perception.

The desert is dotted with vignettes, each with its own story.  Is that Mary Magdalene sitting there in the lower left with her greyhound?  Every line and object, particularly the road and buildings, contribute to the visual depth of the image except for the decorative figure of Christ on the rhinoceros. It is flat, non-dimensional, and stops the eye before it can wander any farther into the landscape.  He stares directly at us perhaps leaving us with that single all-important question: What will (not would) Jesus do?  I suspect he may stop in at Jax’s for a round with the locals before he heads into town.

But In the Great Hall poses a different question—one of self-examination. Evoking consternation rather than a smile, it demonstrates Wing’s power to draw in viewers with his process of digitally layering multiple images with such translucency that it is next to impossible to feel you are looking at a single work of art.  From the dogs guarding the chicken-footed framed faces that haunt the foreground and the diaphanous swooning females on each side of the background to the pair of eyes overseeing all, the artist presents an allegorical narrative on human nature—we, too, get to make choices.

In the Great Hall of Consequences, Grief and Atonement

The rather stern Miss Sturgehill, however, appears to be propelled by a lot of confidence and few regrets.  Besides never having lost a road rally, she never misses a photo op either.  Wing’s wit, sarcasm, and humor come to the fore in this collage and, being a cat lover, I like to think it began with the single image of the devoted and fearless feline, Mr. Whiskers.

Miss Sturgehill has never lost a road rally with Mr. Whiskers as her navigator.

In most of Wing’s collages, as apparent in Miss Sturgehill and Christopher’s Pastime, the heads are a bit too big for the bodies; the size of various objects are not in direct proportion to others far or near, and the perspective, in general, is a little off-kilter. No, you are not suffering from Alice in Wonderland syndrome (AiWS), but you are experiencing Wing’s playful Lewis Carroll effect where both the familiar and unfamiliar are distorted to make us rethink what we think we see or know—or to simply make up our own stories. 

Christopher’s favorite pastime is playing with his friend Randy.

Wing embarks on a similar journey with his assemblages, beginning with a single object and then improvising until it takes a form that dictates what he should do next.  His Warrior Turtle began with a turtle shell, a doll’s head mold, and a pair of bronzed baby shoes.  The rest came from whatever he had on hand that knew it belonged to the warrior.

Turtle Warrior (front view)

The codpiece is actually a corn husker; the arms, forks; the weapons, a spear and a kosh; and the headgear, mangrove seed pods. The pieces of leather overlapping the shoulders, the leopard skin fabric, the beads, and the iconic crosses strengthen the ceremonial primitive spirit of this warrior king.

Turtle Warrior (rear view)

The back of the warrior is flanked with seashells and adorned with a deer’s tail.  The anklets which look like chainmail are made from gutter guard.  I think you get the point. Question: When is a potato peeler not a potato peeler?  Answer: When it gets into the hands of Carleton Wing. 

Two years into recovery from his stem cell transplant Wing came back to his drawing board and it renewed his spirit, aided his healing, and improved his outlook on life.  His recent collages of secular mandalas, 10 of which now hang in the Markey Cancer Center, further demonstrate to us an artist who sees the infinite in the finite, who sees many worlds within the one we all share.

Bee Eater

These mandalas, geometric figures that represent the universe, also signify our search for completeness and self-unity. They have no beginning and no end. The patterns and designs are as infinite as those of the snowflake and as limitless as our imagination when we are not afraid to open our eyes. This is the perspicacity Wing shares with us through amazing works of art such as Bee Eater and Orchid.


I had some questions for Wing:


Wing has two upcoming shows. The first, Short Stories from the Near Side, at the Carnegie Center’s newly renovated Skydome – 251 West Second St. (859-254-4175), opens on Friday, March 16 with a Gallery Hop reception from 5-8 pm, and closes on May 14, 2018.

The second, Sharing Time and Space, an exhibition of his Mandalas in a duo show at M.S. Rezny Studio/Gallery – 903 Manchester St. (859-252-4647), runs from April 10 through May 26, 2018. An artist’s talk is scheduled on May 12 from 11:00 am – 12:30 pm, and a closing Gallery Hop reception 5-8 pm on May 18, 2018.

(All images courtesy of the artist)


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.


WRFL hits ‘Big 3-0’

WRFL, at 88.1 on the FM dial, has been fulfilling its mission in Lexington for an incredible thirty years. Next weekend, March 2nd through March 4th, WRFL will be throwing an epic party in celebration of thirty years as a pivotal force in Lexington.

Photo by Arden Barnes

WRFL was started back in 1988, when “College radio was a vibrant media platform for punk rock and alternative music culture,” says Phillip Kisling, the station’s promotions director. After a year of research and fundraising by Kakie Urch, lovingly referred to as their “punk rock godmother”, WRFL hit the airwaves to offer Lexington “a source of music, news and other programming not regularly found through other media outlets in central Kentucky.” In doing so, the station has been foundational in the education and training of many of Lexington’s broadcasters, sound engineers, and music producers, fulfilling the first part of their mission, “to provide its members with professional training and guidance in radio operations management, program development, and quality broadcast performance.”

For thirty years, WRFL has been providing a creative and informative outlet for Lexington and has helped greatly in fostering a sense of community around town in the music and art we celebrate. While affiliated with UK, WRFL works with the entire community, accepting interns from many area colleges. Students in fields such as broadcasting, journalism, marketing, business, engineering, music or art can find a place to learn their career with hands-on training and encouraged creativity.

Being a DJ at WRFL is an opportunity many around Lexington can claim. They have an open door policy at the station: as long as folks commit to three training weekends and some studio time shadowing an experienced DJ, anyone in the community –not just UK students, can host a show of any theme as long as the content complies with FCC and UK stipulations.

Featuring everything from social activism, to mental health issues, LGBTQ topics, to Russian radio, WRFL is a blank canvas that encourages the creativity of the community to thrive. “We’re really an open door, despite being in a basement,” Ben and Phil joked, and are excited for when the studio gets to move into the new Student Center that is currently under construction.

WRFL has provided that “bridge or handshake” between UK students and the city where they may be finding themselves for the first time. Kisling spoke of how he hated Lexington when he arrived as a UK undergrad from Louisville: “It wasn’t until I found WRFL that Lexington opened up to me.” The station became an introduction to Lexington’s alternative music and art scene, and in turn, many of those musicians and artists have appeared in the studio or have been a dj themselves.

All of this successful collaboration, creativity and love for commercial free radio will culminate in the 30th Birthday Bash for WRFL happening over an entire weekend at The Burl. The lineup for the venue is to celebrate WRFL, and will feature a special draft from Blue Stallion Brewery, a mango IPA called “The Only Alternative Left”, celebrating the station’s motto.

Washed Out is the big headliner on Friday the 2nd, with openers Idiot Glee and Helado Negro.

Kisling and Allen are very excited to bring such a big name to Lexington, offering their supporters and audience a chance to see a band they would normally have to travel a long distance to pay much more money to see at a bigger, less intimate venue. There is an after party for that show as well, featuring Hell Bent Hearts, Just a Test, and The Yellow Belts.

Saturday’s festivities begin during the day at the Downtown Arts Center, where thirty years of DJs will reunite and celebrate at a free, family-friendly exhibit of Rifle Magazine, the station’s program guide. The evening will be back at The Burl headlining Cults, with openers Ellie Herring, Hair Police and Devine Carama, along with an after-dance party with DJ’s.

The next day they are hosting a “Hangover Brunch” and are bringing in all the nostalgia, with bands that were playing when WRFL was first hitting the airwaves all those years ago, featuring Ten Foot Pole and Nine Pound Hammer, along with the younger phenoms of Johnny Conqueroo. That brunch also promises to feature a collaboration between the generations when some of the original musicians will be performing with their own musical kids, as the generations pass the baton and the great music keeps on playing.

Such a magical celebration the folks at WRFL have put together for us, a celebration of thirty years of alternative music on commercial free airwaves, a collaboration of some of the best and hardest working creative minds in town. For thirty years WRFL has held true to the mission, and next weekend’s celebration promises to be an incredible apex for the “Only Alternative Left.”

Listen to Cara’s conversation with Phillip Kisling and Ben Allen:


Lavish! Capturing Nature’s Beauty One Stitch at a Time

“If people fall in love with something, they’re more likely to take care of it, so I thought, ‘what suggests care and love’, and I thought that embroidering was an interesting one because we embroider things we care about.”

Lavish!: New Work by Zoé Strecker is the latest exhibit on display at Transylvania University’s Morlan Gallery by Associate Professor of Art, Zoé Strecker. Its purpose is to showcase the beauty of Pine Mountain, which is a natural community of the most biodiverse forests in Kentucky. “It’s actually the second most biodiverse temperate forest in the whole world, like the entire planet, except there’s a spot in China that’s very similar but has greater elevation differences,” said Strecker,  “This little treasure is just three hours from here and maybe unappreciated. I just wanted to do work about it and had started making notes, doing some writing, and it just was an idea that grew from how do I help other people fall in love with this place.”

Strecker gathered mainly volunteer embroiderers in groups or as individuals from various places around Kentucky as well as across the nation. These volunteers stitched over top of images taken primarily by Strecker of the natural communities of Pine Mountain, which she also edited into a circular shape, and printed out onto silk organza. The stitching enhanced the images by giving them depth with a 3D appearance. Some of the photos taken were close-ups of tree trunks that had moss or some sort of growth on them, and this is where Strecker or one of the volunteers would stitch to create an interesting effect for people.

Preparation in Strecker’s studio

“I imagine them [the images] as windows into each of the types of forest communities,”  Strecker said.

She proceeded to show me the various circular panels, where a large portion of the stitching was done by volunteer embroiderers. Good news doesn’t always spread quickly, but in this case, it did. Finding volunteers wasn’t difficult Strecker said, “Here in Lexington, I just invited people that I knew, and people associated with Transy friends, and then they invited friends or posted to Facebook, and their friends said ‘that’s so cool, may I come stitch?’”

Strecker stitching over image photographed on Pine Mountain

While the pieces themselves are stunning, the design of the exhibit is certainly something to be noted. The major, circular installation that holds the pieces measures 22 feet in length, and 10 feet in height, and is positioned off to the left side of Morlan Gallery. Strecker said she designed the space to help people feel as if they were surrounded by nature. “I made a bent wood frame and it has sheer walls and then these [panels] hang on it. Everything was done to be as minimal as it could be so that it has a very meditative, ethereal feeling in the space, and I also have audio of the forest, I have sounds of the background, water, wind, trees and bird sounds and bird calls. I also have aroma in the show, so all of these things are gonna come together,” she said.

One of the most interesting things about this exhibit is that it will continue to evolve, even after opening in the gallery. “The project will continue during the exhibition, it will continue after the exhibition, so we will keep stitching. There will be at least three more images and then there are lots of small ones also that are individual organisms. It’s a living work in progress” Strecker said, “It will continue, at least through the end of the summer for the stitching part, because there are three more big ones, but I’ll look for more exhibition opportunities that may include more stitching too.”

The process of putting this show together took place over a period of years and required extensive research and time. Strecker has been formulating the ideas for Lavish! since 2014, and began to conduct the research and do the traveling over the following few years.

Lavish! is especially unique from other art exhibits in the sense (literally) that aromas accompany the artwork.  “I had spent a fair amount of time over the last few years on and off researching perfumers who dealt with non-traditional smells, in other words not just flowery types of perfumes you think about wearing, but smells that you connect to a place, and I found several different individuals and companies that do that, and in the end I was able to get some that were affordable that are separate accents,” Strecker said.

She visited perfumers in their spaces to explore and research the scents, but in the end, “I just had to smell them with my nose.” she laughed. “I have six separate things that will be emanating through the space and I have them in little miniature vaporizers that look like little humidifiers, and I mix a very little of the perfume with water, and it just sort of gently emanates through the space.” Strecker is eager to see how the scents play out in the space she was given. “I’ve tested this all out in my studio, but to put it in that space which has a different square footage and a different heating system, and has different objects in it, I’m just so eager to see how well it works, but it’s up for a month, so I can tweak it. I can start with how I think the scents will be most powerful and then increase or decrease things. It’s definitely a living project” she laughed.

A display of images concealing small vaporizer placed behind on a small shelf

It was easy to see that Strecker was eager to finally get the show open after all the work she and everyone else has put into this exhibit. “I guess what I’m really curious about is whether it creates this sort of meditative, contemplative space I think it will and because I worked on the parts separately and they’re coming together for the first time all in one space in the show. I personally want to see if it is creating that space the way I think it will. And of course I get a chance to see how other people react, and that’s the fun and also maybe the terror of putting something in public. But I feel that this has been so supported already by people involved in it that I’m not really afraid, I’m more excited.”

These pieces appear all around the circular structure, imitating how they would appear in nature.

The idea for this project originated almost twenty-three years ago, when naturalist for the state, Marc Evans, discovered what he thought was an old growth forest while doing aerial surveys of the Pine Mountain area. Strecker said, “It was way bigger than he thought, and they saw that the massive tree crowns went further and further than he ever imagined, and they checked on the ground and found that it was true.”

Evans was in the same circle of friends as Strecker, and Pine Mountain sparked her interest when she heard about the discovery. “I’ve always loved wild places, I’ve always been a hiker and an outdoors person every since I was tiny, so I just became fascinated and kind of got involved.”

Strecker said that besides taking the photos for the project, she loved being out in the secluded forest. “Being out in the forest for long stretches of time, just sort of getting to know the sounds and the visuals of the place and the smell—all of those things, I just love them so much.”

An image that was heavily embroidered to create a 3D effect.

“For a few of the natural communities, I went with botanists who were doing fieldwork, so there were two people from the Kentucky State Nature Reserves Commission who were full time botanists, and they go out and do field work. I asked if I could come along, and they went off trail and they were counting species I was just looking for photo opportunities. That was really fun, you know, we had to move by GPS and we had to wear snake gators because we were going way off the trail, and we carried bear repellant in case, so we were very far out there.”

In addition to the main pieces in the exhibit, there’s also an exhibition within the exhibit on the other side of the gallery, by artists who are a part of the Pine Mountain Collective, which is a retreat that lasts three days at Pine Mountain and is co-hosted by Strecker. The retreat has been attended by over 100 artists, some who have work displayed in Morlan Gallery.

The artists chosen for the Inspired by Wild Places exhibit were Brian and Sara Turner, Rebecca  Allan, Erika Strecker, and Vallorie Henderson. “We have a show within the show, and an evening of musicians and readers,” Strecker said.

 is on exhibit in Morlan Gallery through April 2nd. There will be an art talk with Strecker on Thursday, March 8th at 6 p.m. in the gallery, and Wild Things: Selected Artists from the Pine Mountain Sessions on Friday, March 23rd from 7 p.m.-8:30 p.m. in Carrick Theater, which is also located in the Mitchell Fine Arts building.


The Nude: Brutal Beauty at Lexington Art League

Nudity and nakedness are complicated and often overlapping concepts in the history of art; while historically, nudity has been associated with heroism, virility, divinity, and confidence, and nakedness considered a state of vulnerability, shame, and lasciviousness, contemporary artists have continually blurred the boundaries between these two concepts, leading to new understandings of the bare human form.

In the Lexington Art League’s exhibition, The Nude: Brutal Beauty, now on view at Loudon House, the connotations of both nudity and nakedness—as well as their points of intersection—are on full display, creating a show that questions the historical provenance of nudity in art, as well as our own understanding of nakedness today. Furthermore, building on the dialectic between nudity and nakedness, the works in this exhibition challenge us to consider other diametrically positioned notions, specifically the distinctions of past/present, West/East, human/animal, internal/external, or dead/alive. The result of the exhibition, which spans two floors and contains work by over 20 artists from around the world, is a thorough survey of many of the complex issues that arise when considering the stripped down human form.

One of the prevalent issues the exhibition examines is how our contemporary understanding of nudity is not only informed by but also challenges that of previous moments. Two artists in particular, James Volkert and Kiana Honarmand, appropriate canonical, art historical portrayals of nudity in order to make comments on the state of the body in art and society more broadly in our current time. For instance, in his piece la beaute, comme la verite: After Courbet, Volkert has appropriated two (in)famous images by 19th century French realist Gustave Courbet, Sleep and L’Origine du Monde, both of which brought scandal upon Parisian society for their frank depiction of women’s sexuality and the sexualized female body. Volkert has placed the works on rotating slats, the handles of which employ another historical nude—the Venus de Milo—and which can be turned to create one of 2048 possible combinations, pointing to the shifting and ever changing conceptions of nudity and nakedness from antiquity to the Victorian era to the present day, a notion further underscored by Volkert’s inclusion of Courbet’s own words: “La beaute, come la verite, depend de l’epoque ou l’on vit” (“Beauty, like truth is relative to the time one lives”).

James Volkert, “la beaute, comme la verite: After Courbet”

Like Volkert, Honarmand also considers the implications of historical nudes on the present moment, but her appropriation of imagery—largely history paintings from the Italian and Northern Renaissance—involves a more direct intervention on the form in an effort to make an explicit comment on contemporary politics, specifically covering over the naked bodies with lines of Farsi poetry, blocks of color and pattern, and, occasionally, sculptural elements, all of which are derived from traditional Iranian art. The resulting covering of these bodies with this kind of imagery is a direct comment on the programs of censorship and modesty in Honarmand’s native Iran. This gesture also calls into question the role of nudity in both Western and Middle Eastern art and society, both historically and in the present.

Kiana Honarmand, “The Birth of Cupid 2”

In addition to attending to temporal and geographic dualities with regard to the nude, the exhibition also sheds light on how nakedness is a defining line between humans, the only species to clothe our bodies, and all other animals. For instance, Canadian artist Jessica Sallay-Carrington’s ceramic pieces, Self-Love, Preening, and her serial works Bits and Pieces 1 & 2, involve a hybridization of animal heads—often derived from more than one species, like the rabbit face and ears, lamb’s neck and goat horns in Bits and Pieces 1 & 2—that rest upon a naked human body. Similarly, in his photolithographs, Bathers and Nora, Lexington-based artist Todd Herzberg also juxtaposes bird heads on human bodies, but in these cases, Herzberg makes clear that the hybridity is merely masquerade, as we can see the eyes of each of the humans peering out through a slit in the bird’s neck. In both artists’ works, however, Herzberg and Sallay-Carrington call attention to the limits of associating human nakedness with animal nudity.

Jessica Sallay-Carrington, “Preening”

Todd Herzberg, “Bathers”

At the same time, other artists explore the very human nature of nakedness, looking at nudity and exposure as a fundamental aspect of our shared experience as a species and as a community. In his photographs The Head and The Body I, Jim Allen juxtaposes anatomical imagery—a diagram of the intracranial structures and of the muscles of the torso, respectively—onto the body of an older man. The result is an exposure not just of the nude body, but of the naked structures that lie beneath it, revealing the viscera that is common to all humans. This gesture thus uncovers that nakedness does not stop at the surface level, highlighting the vulnerability that is implicit in both exposing our bodies internally and externally.

Finally, while Allen’s work calls into question the duality between the internal and external forms of the human anatomy, Vinhay Keo’s work Surge from his series Sanctuary/Purgatory considers the dichotomy between the living body and that of the dead. In this image, Keo, whose body has been painted white, appears splayed out in a white cave partially buried within a mound of shredded paper; his head, arms, and one leg emerge from the pile, giving the appearance of a dismembered corpse in the process of decay. The whiteness of his skin evokes the image of bodies covered in lime that have been found in mass graves at the site of numerous atrocities, further underscoring the idea that this body is, in fact, deceased. Yet the position of the body, the tilt of his head and the haphazard placement of the arms, might also suggest that he is not quite dead, but rather has endured “la petite-mort”—a French euphemism for orgasm—and has fallen back into the embrace of the pile as a result of this ecstasy. This ambiguity thus reveals how nakedness has a connotation of both life and death, especially in considering the body during moments of temporary or complete surrender.

Vinay Keo, “Self-Purgation”

Many other complicated distinctions arise throughout the work within the exhibition, especially when considering the sheer volume of art that it contains. As a survey of the nude in contemporary art, and one that aimed to allow the artists to “present depictions and investigations of their own perspective on the human figure in all its rawness and wonder,” it has certainly succeeded to capture a breadth of different interpretations thereof. The exhibition therefore builds on the long tradition of nudity and nakedness within art history and does so in a way that shows that there are still further avenues to explore even within the most conventional areas of artistic portrayal.

Images provided by the Lexington Art League.


The Brain and Baya: The Grey Art Gallery

On a recent trip to New York, I decided to visit the Grey Art Gallery at New York University, located in historic Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. The mission of this university gallery is to collect, preserve, study, document, interpret, and exhibit the evidence of human culture.

My mission was simply to check out the exhibition titled “The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal” after reading a review by Roberta Smith in the New York Times. I ended up seeing a second show that made me realize that if we are each to be seen as one of the humans that makes up that culture, we must first be visible.

“The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal”

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Synaptic contacts in the cerebellum, 1930s, Ink and pencil on paper, No. 9

The drawings in this exhibition are small and enormously captivating. Based on microscopic observations of cells, neurons, and gray matter of the brain, they morph into surreal abstractions. The compositions grow into poetic – even tragic – realities with descriptive titles like “pathways mediating the vomiting and coughing reflexes”, “a cut nerve stump of a rabbit six hours after damage” and “neurons in the cerebellum of a drowned man”.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, “Axons of Purkinje neurons in the cerebellum of a drowned man”, date unknown, Ink and pencil on paper, No. 66

Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934) is considered the father of modern neuroscience. He was also an artist. Working with a microscope, pen, pencil and paper, he drew these images freehand as a way to evidence his scientific discoveries. As a neuroanatomist working at the turn of the century, his work is equal in stature to Charles Darwin or Louis Pasteur, albeit relatively unknown to the general public.

In 1906 he received The Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his discovery now known as the Neuron Doctrine. As Roberta Smith sees it, Cajal was famous for uncovering the fact that “neurons were in touch, without touching”.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Astrocytes in the hippocampus of the human brain, Pen and ink,

There are more than 80 of Cajal’s drawings in the show, selected from over 2500 drawings, made between 1890 and 1933. Originating at the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, this show opened in January of 2017, arrived at NYU this year and will remain on view there until March 31, 2018. The following dates then fill out the tour for this traveling show.

  • MAY 2, 2018 – JANUARY 1, 2019 | MIT Museum, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
  • JANUARY 27 – APRIL 7, 2019 | Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA

While solely dedicated to Cajal’s work, the show also includes adjacent galleries with more colorful, technology-driven imagery made by neuroscientists working today. These images demonstrate the validity of many of Cajal’s arguments – explained in wall text and in a 207-page catalogue with an essay by Janet M. Dubinsky titled, “Seeing the Beautiful Brain Today”.

In the digital image below, Dubinsky provides evidence of one of Cajal’s foundational arguments. The synaptic vesicles (small white spheres) that release chemical messages at each synapse are shown in the axon branches (transparent colors) surrounding the dendrite. Dubinsky states that:

Synapses strengthen or weaken with practice or disuse, a property that underscores learning at the cellular level. This variability is referred to as synaptic plasticity, an idea Cajal embraced as necessary for mental function

From “The Beautiful Brain: Seeing The Beautiful Brain Today” by Janet M. Dubinsky. with 3-D view of synapses on several spines along a cortical dendrite in a mouse cortex.

The “Glass Brain Flythrough” demonstrates how information is carried through the brain and was captured by MRI brain scans of the cerebral cortex (gray matter) and bundles of nerve fibers (white matter).

Glass Brain Flythrough, 2014, Short clip of the animation, Gazzeley Lab and Neuroscape Lab, University of California, San Francisco, with the Swartz Center for Computational Neuroscience, University of California, San Diego, Syntrogi Labs, Matt Omernick, and Oleg Knoings, Lent by Adam Gazzeley

In an attempt to stimulate a little grey matter, I had visited a few other shows on this trip, including: Auguste Rodin, Michelangelo and David Hockney exhibitions at the Metroplolitan Museum of Art, Carolee Schneemann at MOMA PS1, and Laura Owens and Jimmie Durham at The Whitney Museum of America Art.

For intriguing content that made me want to learn more, “The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal” was on the top of my list, until I decided to take the stairs to the lower level of the Grey Art Gallery.

Baya: A Woman of Algiers

At the bottom of the steps, I found a quiet gallery filled with color and familiar shapes. At first glance, it looked like five or six covered pedestals held Picasso-esque ceramics and on the walls hung vibrant paintings of various women in long dresses with fanciful hats and/or hair.

The introductory wall text clearly explained that this exhibition is about Baya Mahieddine (1931-1998), known as Baya, a female artist who was orphaned at age five. An artist who had never been the focus of a solo exhibition in North America until now.

Baya: A Woman in Algers, installation view at the Grey Gallery at New York University

Pablo Picasso, Bearded Man’s Wife,1953, White Earthenware clay, decoration in engobes, knife-engraved under partial glaze, 500 copies produced, Grey Art Gallery, NYU, Gift of Homer Kripke

Curated by Natasha Boas and accompanied by a 57-page catalogue that describes Baya as a woman veiled, a woman trapped in traditional roles, marginalized as a painter in her own country of Algiers, a woman who even by her own signature is enigmatic, a one-eyed woman peering out from behind her own multi-cultural identity and the denial of labels like “outsider artist” and “art brut”. A woman who, according to Boas, by seeing, is finally seen.

Femme sur fond bleu (Woman on a blue background), 1947, Gouache on board, Collection Isabelle Maeght, Paris

Boas’ essay, titled “Baya: The Naked Eye” introduces us to Baya, who was “born Fatma Haddad in 1931 outside Bordj el-Kiffan, a Mediterranean beach-town suburb of Algiers, to a small rural tribe of mixed Kabyle and Arab heritage that relied entirely on an oral tradition of storytelling and folklore”.

Later adopted by a French intellectual, she was encouraged as an artist and given access to prominent figures in the art world, including Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, André Breton, Jean Dubuffet and Joan Miró. During this time, Baya entered a rare period of recognition for an artist of her training, one that could be viewed, so the curator states, as “Baya stepping into the visible”.

Boas states that, in 1945, Amié Maeght, a prominent French art dealer discovered Baya, and that her work – created largely from her imagination and her dreams from a very young age – was subsequently included in the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in July of 1947.

Due to her success in Paris, she was later invited to an artist-in-residency program at the Madoura ceramic studio in Vallauris in the South of France, where she met Picasso.

Derriére le Miroir (Behind the Mirror), sixth edition, 1947

Pablo Picasso, “Jacqueline’s Profile”, 1956, White earthenware clay, engraving accentuated with glaze, and black-patinated ground, 500 copies produced

From the wall text for “Jacqueline’s Profile” we learn that from 1948 to 1952, Baya spent her summers in the French coastal town of Vallauris working alongside Picasso, who attributed his work in ceramic to her influence. Later, embarking on his seminal “Women of Algiers” series (1954-55), Boas reiterates,

Picasso again cited Baya as his inspiration.

Was it Baya or Baya’s artistic style that influenced Picasso? Why does this show not include the ceramics made by Baya during her time in Vallauris?

In 1953, Baya left France and her adopted mother to return to Algiers. She married a traditional Muslim, who was thirty years her senior, and settled into family life giving birth to six children. According to the curator, Baya did not show work again until 1963 and then exhibited annually until her death in 1998.

Femme allongée au visage bleu (Reclining woman with blue face), 1947, gouache on board, Collection of Isabelle Might, Paris

From one of the supporting essays in the catalogue it is suggested that this image is self-portrait of the young Baya who, lying down to sleep, contemplates her sad and lonely state as an orphan.

If the date on this painting – and all of the paintings in this show – is accurate, 1947, might not Baya have been thinking something entirely different than about her sad and lonely condition? Was inclusion in the Exposition Internationale and her residency a blue period for this young artist?

Was there something that forced her back to Algiers? Could it have been life as a creative in a male dominated world of art wherein she could be little more than muse? Was she, in fact, lying down to sleep? Why did she return to a life removed from making art? Does this show help us see who Baya really was?

Boas makes a final point that Baya’s paintings could be read as culturally subversive in that they “can look back on modernist art history from today’s vantage point and be seen”. But is that with both eyes wide open or through the single lens of another?

These two exhibitions, Cajal and Baya, are inaugural exhibitions making visible for us a kind of brilliance in the human species and, in doing so, adhere to the mission of the Grey Art Gallery. Both will strengthen your synaptic plasticity and are on view through March 31, 2018.


New Domesticity: Women’s Work in Women’s Art

Feminism is often perceived as an attack on traditional values and in opposition to family life. New Domesticity: Women’s Work in Women’s Art, the current show at the Parachute Factory and the Morlan Gallery, investigates how people identify with societal notions of womanhood, and highlights the malleability of this concept as a whole.

According to the curator, Emily Elizabeth Goodman, “these domestic works…explore where we have been, calling on the work of women ancestors to illuminate the present by considering the past.” Right now, change is occurring rapidly in how society considers concepts such as gender, family, and femininity in particular; but works like these remind us that the past is not actually past.

Institutional ideologies only last because people fail to question them; thus it is essential to consider how history continues to inform contemporaneity. Now more than ever it is important to think critically about one’s perceived place in society and how gender may come to inform conceptions of identity.

Stacey Chinn, “Bindle (I Have a Fear of Commitment)”, 2013, Handwriting in ink on bedsheet, tree branch, polyester fiberfil, 114″ x 26″ x 26″

Some of the most particularly memorable works in the exhibition are by Lexington artist Stacey Chinn, “Bindle (I have a Fear of Commitment)”, 2013, and “Bindle (Mother May I?)”, 2017. The former is a nine and a half foot tall tree branch and a tied bed sheet with polyester fiberfill, leaning on an angle against the wall. Ink handwriting fills the entirety of the white sheet with the phrase repeated over and over, “I have a fear of commitment.”

Both of these works reference the cultural conceptions of womanhood in a context of the masculine vagabond. The use of the bed sheet in “Bindle (I have a Fear of Commitment)” references domestic labor that women are traditionally expected to commit to, such as making the bed. The bindle itself evokes feelings of rebellion and freedom from conventional norms.

The size of this piece makes it stand out across the gallery, but the juxtaposition between the coarse tree branch and delicate bed sheet adds another dimension to the statement on feminine freedom. Even the act of putting ink on the bed sheet can be symbolic for rebellion against the commitment to traditional house labor. This piece asks how one defines femininity in the presence of a desire for freedom and an absence of a “natural” domestic instinct.

Stacey Chinn, “Bindle (Mother May I?)”, 2017, Knitted yarn, tree branch, polyester fiberfill, 19″ x 3″ x 3″

“Bindle (Mother May I?)”, made from a thin stick and knitted pouch, references gender as well as motherhood in particular. It is a much smaller version of the previous bindle, a little longer than a forearm, and notably uses a combination of pink and blue knit. In comparison to the size of the “Bindle (I have a Fear of Commitment)”, this one reads as a child’s toy, and the knit material mimics handmade baby’s clothes. The combination of these formal decisions disrupts cultural conceptions concerning freedom by revealing the masculinity tied to vagabonds, and using it as a platform to consider freedom abstractly.

Stacey Reason, “Lomas Tower”, 2015, Steel, glass, pressed flowers, caulk, concrete, light socket, LED light bulb with speaker, paper, 10:44 minute audio, 37 1/2″ x 8 1/2″ x 7″

Another interesting idea of domesticity is depicted in Stacey Reason’s “Lomas Tower, 2015. From Paducah Kentucky, her sculpture was partly inspired by her time spent living in Mexico in a “European style” housing development, which was culturally cut off from the community around it. The sculpture is comprised of steel, glass, press flowers, caulk, concrete, a light socket, a LED light bulb, and paper. From a side view the sculpture appears minimal and industrial. Yet, when viewed from the bottom up, a succession of pressed flowers illuminated by light at the bottom creates a natural yet sterilized aesthetic.

Lomas Tower” engages with domesticity by calling attention to new types of domestic spaces and how traditional ideas translate. By calling attention to the form and function of these kinds of housing developments, Reason identifies the highly constructed lifestyle they perpetuate. In addition to questions of domesticity, Reason’s work discusses issues of class as well as industrialism.

The materials in the sculpture are the same ones used in her own housing development. Using cheap materials while also perpetuating a modern lifestyle; these housing developments are indicative of deeply rooted impacts of industrialism on modern home life.

“New Domesticity: Women’s Work in Women’s Art”, installation view, image by MS Rezny

New Domesticity: Women’s Work in Women’s Art, on view through February 16th at the Morlan Gallery and through Feburary 24th at the Parachute Factory, makes a uniquely essential point about current cultural conditions. Ideas about gender roles and femininity are being questioned in society, no doubt; but this show also makes the point that conceptions of femininity are not only fluid in terms of time, but also varied from one perspective to the next.

“New Domesticity: Women’s Work in Women’s Art”, Installation view, image by MS Rezny

The emphasis on diversity in age, race, and geographic location in this show provides a broad platform with which to further consider contemporary womanhood and find common ground among the obstacles, which usually keep us apart. The show is described by the curator as “a criticism of the fictional naturalness of the affinity between domesticity and womanhood,” but along those lines, it mimics the female empowerment movement in society today.

New Domesticity uplifts female artists, and simultaneously critiques the institutional ideas that have historically limited woman’s power, while celebrating the present condition of women by evoking the past.

This exhibition also features the work of Jane Burch Cochran, Rae Goodwin, Judith Pointer-Jia, Diane Kahlo, Helen LaFrance, Lori Larusso, Colleen Merrill, Stacey Reason, Jennifer A. Reis, Kristin Richards, Justine Riley, Bianca Lynne Spriggs, Bentley Utgaard and L.A. Watson is accompanied by this 51-page catalogue.

About the author: Savannah Wills is a Chellgren Scholar at the University of Kentucky. She is seeking art history and art administration degrees and has chosen to work with UnderMain as her spring project. Christine Huskisson has committed to guiding her as she embraces the concept of criticism in both writing and by assisting UnderMain in organizing our second panel discussion on the topic: “Critical Mass II: The Value of Critical Discourse in the Arts – A Discussion on Authority and Accessibility in the Written Review” to be held on Wednesday, March 28th, 2018 in Louisville, Kentucky in partnership with the KMAC Museum and The Great Meadows Foundation. Watch for the UnderMain Newsletter on February 26th for final details and welcome aboard Savannah! 


‘A Little Bit’ More Working to Be a Whole Lot More

“Music is our drug of choice, I guess you could say,” said Jill Hamlin, one half, the other being Reed Fields, of the duo A Little Bit More.

As vices go, there are less expensive ones than music, but to Hamlin and Reed, it’s the one that exists as a lifelong pursuit, as necessary as oxygen.

“It’s kind of just like breathing. If we didn’t have music, I don’t think we’d be able to survive,” said Hamlin.

By day, both Hamlin and Fields work with youth. Hamlin, who has a Master’s in Social Anthropology Ethnomusicality from Queen’s Unversity Belfast in Northern Ireland, is a program director for Sunrise Children’s Services, while Fields applies his Master’s in Teaching at Bath County High School. By night, the pair set out to spin heartrending ballads and straight barroom rockers in joints stretching from the iconic Bluebird Cafe in Nashville to New England.

What comes through on “Silhouettes,” their debut album, is a back-to-basics approach. The duo seeks to showcase in their influences, ranging from rock to gospel, but they aren’t necessarily interested in deconstructing the country genre in the same vein as fellow eastern Kentuckians Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton. They brand their music as Americana, but it often exists more as a strain of purer country, the kind not heard ever since a more modern, pop sound has taken root in the mainstream. Shades of Emmylou Harris shine through, and the compressed finger-picked acoustic on the opening of “I Don’t Lie to You” might be at home on any of Steve Earles seminal albums. Both are cited influences on A Little Bit More’s work, but nothing feels forced.

In fact, authenticity is part of what makes A Little Bit More so familiar and lived-in. When there’s a bit of Eastern Kentucky accent shining through in the lyrics, it’s genuine expression rather than affectation. Hamlin and Fields sing how they talk – they aren’t exaggerating it for effect, and they aren’t toning it down to satisfy contrived mainstream appeal (for more on the complications surrounding an Eastern Kentucky accent, head here: That sense of place anchors the music, and the lyrics reflect their Owingsville, Kentucky, setting, plumbing both the dark and light sides for depth.

“Music is about celebrating,” said Hamlin. “It’s about bringing to light good things and bad things.”

Reed Fields | Photo by Chrissy Perkins Photography

Jill Hamlin | Photo by Chrissy Perkins Photography

Both the good and the bad abound in the text of A Little Bit More’s music. Hamlin’s plaintive vocals on “Where I Am” are a quiet reflection on the ravages of addiction, speaking to her belief that this scourge has become something almost as devastating as cancer in its expanding reach.

“Everyone knows someone who has been touched by it,” said Hamlin, a condition that seems to her to have only reached this prominence in recent years. “Where is the hope?”

Fields teases an upcoming tune, “Crooked Town,” which looks at small-town corruption that he hints may be less than fiction.

Counteracting the somber notes of these songs are “Beer Bottle” and “Get Up Crowd,” which bring the duo back to a more celebratory mode that makes you want to scoot a boot across the dance floor, complete with just the right amount of twangy guitar.

To record their debut, the duo brought their full band contingent to studio Station West Nashville to work with engineer Kyle Manner (Brad Paisley, Alan Jackson). The experience was surreal for the pair.

“He (Kyle) treated us like we were somebody,” said Hamlin. “We’re used to being a ‘garage band.’”

After a month of preparation and four solid 11- and 12-hour days of recording, the result was “Silhouettes,” a 13-track album of original music, released in March of 2017. That hard work returned an unexpected benefit in the form of a win for “Album of the Year” at the Lexington Music Awards in early 2018. The duo hopes this award will be a boon locally, where they have been building a steady following, which sometimes manifests itself in interesting ways.

“We were playing a writer’s night at Bobby’s Idle Hour [in Nashville] – which is the last actual writer’s night place that they have on Music Row,” said Fields. The place was crowded when Hamlin and Fields made their way in, asking some seated patrons if it would be okay to sit at their table. Fields sat down and began messing with his guitar to get ready to play.

“They tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘You don’t recognize us?’,” said Fields. “Four of our fans from Lexington had driven all the way there to watch us play six songs.”

“At 10:45 at night!” interjected Hamlin.

“On a weeknight!” Fields laughed. “So we love the music scene in Lexington.”

A Little Bit More’s fandom has taken on an even more unusual form: a line dance captured in a series of YouTube videos, with one garnering almost 40,000 views. Fields found this out almost by accident when he started searching for the title of his songs and saw a result that seemed to be a match.

“I clicked on it, and there’s these people in China dancing to it,” said Fields.

An Irish choreographer created the dance to the strains of “Save Me Tonight,” and she has been teaching it (and filming it) with groups around the world. That level of audience buy-in spurs Fields and Hamlin onward.

“The final defining moment is when you play a song and you see people reacting,” said Fields, recounting an early moment in the duo’s tenure when an original song moved some audience members to tears.

“That, to me, is the ultimate for music – you can create something that people could relate to that strongly.”

That moment for Hamlin came during a set of covers when audience members started requesting their original tunes.

“It was a humbling experience,” she said.

For A Little Bit More, those experiences are happening more as the hard work begins to pay off. They continue to hone their craft, working their way through the ropes in famous songwriter locales in Nashville, while somewhere on the other side of the world, a new group of line dancers learns the steps to a song from a humble duo from Owingsville, Kentucky.


Scene&Heard: Four Seasons, Many Moods

The first sight that greets you when entering the Lyric Theatre is a wall of local art. Immediately, this wall serves to situate you: you are not here for only a show, or a concert, or an exhibition or a community gathering. Instead, this wall seems to emphasize that every single piece of art that takes place inside this building is part of a larger context of local artistry and engagement between artists and what political theorists call civic society—those people and organizations that go out of their way to build a sense of community.

The Lexington Chamber Orchestra, which performed in a matinee at the Lyric, is exactly that sort of organization, They are, first and foremost, a community ensemble, drawing their onstage talent from the Lexington community. And in return, that community supports them. Though admittance to the Chamber Orchestra’s performances is free, most everyone I entered with donated to support the orchestra.

The program, mostly lighter fare, was titled Four Seasons, and seemed to welcome back audience for the first performance of the New Year. While Jan Pellant, the Music Director of the Chamber Orchestra, had only programmed three pieces, each contained an internal variety that allowed the ensemble to move through a wider range of moods than a quick glance at the program might suggest.

Maestro Jan Pallent | Courtesy Lexington Chamber Orchestra

The concert began with 4 selections from J. S. Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge. Translated, the title simply means ‘The Art of the Fugue,’ and Bach had under this title written an entire course’s worth of demonstration and model of the fugue form.

From a compositional perspective, a proper fugue is a difficult thing to do well—a fugue is a series of rhythmically and harmonically interlocking musical phrases in which each phrase could, in theory, function as a predominant melody. Holding together that level of complexity is a tricky task for any composer, but Bach was the undisputed master of the form. He wrote Die Kunst der Fuge towards the end of his life, and left no indication of what instruments were to perform the piece, how fast or how loudly they were to play it, or even whether he even considered the piece to be properly finished.

All of this ambiguity could be considered a challenging task for any conductor. But, as Pellant points out in his program notes, “these points give the artists opportunities to create uniqueness based on personal creativity” as well.

In performance, Pellant gave the score a respectable shakedown, imbuing variety to the orchestration and performance choices. The first movement, light and quick, was an excellent demonstration that the Chamber Orchestra knows how to balance a technically complicated piece to both demonstrate each individual element and create a unified whole— not an easy thing to accomplish with Bach, who can sometimes feel like a lecture from your math professor on the numerical properties of pi. The second movement elaborated on the technical distinction of the first.

The third movement was a real highlight that emphasized the ensemble’s harmonic balance, and the low voices thrummed away at the base of chords that are passed through the upper three voices in a rhythmically steady pulse that unwinds through the ensemble.

The final movement continued this rhythmic development, rolling through the ensemble like a well-built clock.

The most fascinating aspect of a good Bach performance is that it’s both utterly predictable, in that you can usually make a pretty good guess as to where he’s headed in terms of rhythm, melody, harmony, and the overall structure of the piece, but the craftsmanship of each individual element is such that you don’t find yourself minding it all that much. Often, the best way to enjoy Bach is to let yourself sit back and enjoy the music as it presents yourself to you. This is especially true of his fugues, which unfold with an exacting mathematical precision. The real talent of the Chamber Orchestra lay in the clarity with which Pellant held each part strong to its own voice, maintaining the counterpoint without allowing it to dissolve into a multi-part mush of predictable harmonies.

The second piece was an excerpt of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5; the Chamber Orchestra performed the Adagietto section, which is one of Mahler’s most excerpted pieces. However, the Adagietto was nonetheless an interesting choice for such a tiny ensemble. The rich, almost overdeveloped late romantic chords of Mahler’s symphonies can tax even the large string sections of full-size orchestras, and for a smaller group, especially the intense layering of chords can be a challenge.

Here Pellant had to toss about his hands, one after the other, to each section, making a thousand tiny adjustments on the fly. His long, stentorian frame remained firmly planted in front of his score, but his left hand would flicker and shudder, always coaxing out more vibrato, more emotion, from the scraping bows.

The lights remained up in the audience throughout the performance, giving it a participatory feel for the listeners. The boxy design of the Lyric’s theater, in which the stage sits bluntly in front of the audience,  helped to collapse the distance between orchestra and audience, which diffused a great deal of the stuffiness that often invests classical performances.

The final piece came from the Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla. Taking his inspiration from Vivaldi’s famous (and famously overrated) Four Seasons Suite, Piazzolla wrote a set of four pieces for strings ensemble and solo violin that described the seasons of his native Buenos Aires. Mixing high-minded classicism with the rolling and rumbling rhythms of Latin dance music, Piazzolla wrote incredibly technically complicated pieces for string performers.

For the final piece, the Chamber Orchestra was joined by soloist Kyung Sun Lee, a violinist who has held teaching and performance positions at Oberlin College, the University of Houston, and Seoul National University (all schools with music departments of the highest order).

Kyung Sun Lee | Photo courtesy of the Lexington Chamber Orchestra

That training was pushed to a dramatic degree, as Piazzolla wrote a violin part that approached the technical complexity of Sibelius’ legendary Violin Concerto. Lee played with expressive sensitivity at the very highest end of her violin’s range, and her fingers danced through a score that included double stops, glissandi, and portamento demands far beyond even that normally asked of internationally acclaimed soloists.

The Chamber Orchestra kept up admirably with this furious pace. The rhythmic impulse was, throughout each movement, absolutely wonderful. Pellant kept the orchestra driving, clearly articulating complex syncopations that both held the beat aloft for a moment in midair but nonetheless returned it to the ground with a cadence even more propulsive than before.

The result was a powerful but lighthearted end to a concert that brought a feeling of generosity and welcome to the audience.

The Lexington Chamber Orchestra rang in their new year with a smile and a cheery wave of the hand, and Lexington’s 2018 is the better for it.


Scene&Heard: When a senior recital rocks the house

Cities within a city, cultures within a culture, Lexington’s urban universities are living, breathing microcosms of the world at large. UnderMain from time to time likes to explore what’s happening on the campuses of the University of Kentucky, population 30,000+, and Transylvania University where some 1,100 students strive to shape their futures. Our latest Scene&Heard local music column turns over the page to Transylvania sophomore Taylor Mahlinger, entertainment editor for the campus student publication, The RamblerTaylor reviews the senior recital of fellow student Griffin Cobb. There’s a reason the venue was SRO.

Full of artistic talent and musical vision, Transylvania University senior Griffin Cobb gave a stunning final performance to a packed crowd at Transy’s Carrick Theater. He was able to showcase his multi-faceted music abilities while also letting his charismatic personality shine through, performing in jeans. Cobb majors in Music Technology and Spanish, with a Computer Science minor.

Cobb’s senior recital was divided into four segments. He opened the recital with a guitar and electronic synthesizer piece called Blue Stained Glass; he wrote the piece for Studio 300, which is Transy’s electronic music festival that comes around every two years. Cobb used a mix of pedal effects with different guitar tracks and some distortion, and he played live guitar over top during his recital. Cobb calls it “a study in electric guitar timbre.” He used the opening of the recital to demonstrate the full range of both his instrument and his playing ability.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Timothy Polashek

“In another section, I have three studio pieces that I invited some other musicians to come record tracks and mixed those,” said Cobb.

One of the artists Cobb collaborated with was Transy sophomore, soprano Ruth Choate. Both collaborated with drummer Brandon Trapp to cover the song “Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene” originally by Hozier.

“She [Choate] didn’t have any specific songs in mind. She just came in and we went through a bunch of songs that I’m into that I just had on my computer and eventually she was just like ‘I really like that one’ and we went for it,” said Cobb. Choate’s ethereal soprano vocals over top of of the guitar and drum tracks added a fresh take on the song.

Collaborating with other musicians and getting their feedback is also something Cobb will miss.

“I’ve played classical before, but I don’t do that anymore, and it’s really cool to get other perspectives.” Cobb’s collaborations with other musicians for this concert added a layer of depth and creativity.

The third section of the recital was comprised of a video game called Traffic Cop Hero 1000. Cobb and two other people created the game over last May Term for their Game Design course.

Cobb called it “a retro-style game, and I wrote music for that. I thought it would be fun to put in the recital, and I played that up on the projector.”

The unique mix of interactive visuals and elements was a fresh addition to a senior recital that concert audiences don’t usually experience. Cobb’s background in Computer Science allowed him to bring in this element of game design and incorporated the music with visuals, such as the colorful 16-bit graphic game playing on the screen. There was an interactive element to this section because Cobb actually played the game on the projector in front of the audience.

The last section of his concert included two different jazz ensembles made up of of a quintet and quartet. The quartet, composed of Cobb on guitar with bassist Tyler Turcotte, Danny Cecil on the piano, and Brandon Trapp on the drums, performed two pieces, Mr. P.C. by John Coltrane and Nardis by Miles Davis.

The jazz quintet included Trapp on the drums, Cobb playing bass guitar, Cecil on Piano, Sarah Schaaf on saxophone, and Evan Baber on trumpet. The quintet performed three pieces, All The Things You Are by Kern and Hammerstein, arranged by Cobb, Along Came Betty by Benny Golson, arranged by Cobb, and Insensatez by Antonio Carlos Jobim, arranged by Cobb.

The improvisational style that jazz creates combined with Cobb’s generosity gave everyone a chance to perform solos in the recital.

Cobb said there are many things he will miss about the music department, one being the artistic freedom he was allowed: “I feel like I could go into any project and I would get support from the music faculty, even if it’s not something that a particular faculty member is into, they’ll tell me ‘oh this person can help you out with that’ or they’ll just say ‘go for it’.”

On his post graduation aspirations, Cobb says, “I don’t know for sure if I’m gonna go back to Louisville, but probably, and I’m gonna try to make a living off of performing and maybe writing. Getting a job at a recording studio would be fantastic because I feel like I have the skills to be a sound engineer. I’ve gotten into acting again over the past couple of years, and I’d love to do that.”

“It’s entirely possible that I’ll try to do that and it won’t work out, but you might as well go for it” Cobb said with a laugh and casual shrug.

Some of Cobb’s pieces from the recital can be found on SoundCloud.


Hayden and Ross-Ho: Craft Revisions

“Thoroughly Modern: Women in 20th Century Art and Design” on view at the Speed Art Museum through July 1st, is being promoted as a sequel to the Speed’s next blockbuster, “Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism.” The achievements of female painters of the 1920s and 1930s are shown to consist of easel-sized, modestly-scaled works often accomplished in artists’ colonies -freer and less sexist environments than prominent art academies, which had only just begun to admit women.

Female artists also achieved prominence as designers of table wares in glass, silver and ceramics. Biomorphic and geometric ornament was vibrant and fully in touch with contemporary art in the period. It anticipated current concerns with the linkage between color abstraction and materiality, or ornament as an intrinsic element in visual language rather than an extraneous add-on.

“Thoroughly Modern” is also a pertinent prequel to the shows at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft (KMAC) of the work of Nathan Hayden, “What Was Magic of Numbers, Hypnotic and Wonders” and Amanda Ross-Ho, “Contents and Index.”

Amanda Ross-Ho, “Blue Glove Left #3” and “Blue Glove Right #3”, 2015, Dyed stretch cotton sateen, acrylic paint, cotton piping, armature wire, Courtesy of the artist and Shane Campbell Gallery. Viewer: Ted Wathen

Craft at the Speed show remains in the traditional domestic sphere, one realm in which early 20th century women could gain professional recognition. The twin exhibitions at KMAC reference and subvert traditional notions of craft and gender roles. Both Ross-Ho and Hayden employ craft techniques but move decisively from the dining table to the sculpture pedestal, from the living room to the art gallery. Abandoning utility is to assert their artworks’ independent authority and hospitableness to multiple meanings. The hand is the instrument of mystical automatist transmission for Hayden, and for Ross-Ho it is the touchstone of surreal engagement with the studio environment as an extension of consciousness.

Hayden – like a hip-hop/electronic music version of a Sufi whirling dervish – dances for an hour a day to induce otherworldly visions. A former Louisvillian, Hayden’s works from his period in Kentucky (2004-2006) are miniature works in ink and acrylic wash with delicate stippling. Subsequently, Hayden made ‘cards,’ small drawings that are the source of his larger works. The print curator Carl Zigrosser wrote about ‘multum in parvo’ (a lot in a little) works of art in which “a multiplicity of detail is concentrated into a unified principle, the particular is transformed into the universal, and a largeness of meaning is conveyed with the utmost economy of means.” Hayden’s drawing is a practice of faith and the cards are mounted on small earthenware lecterns like a medieval book of hours intended for private devotions.

Nathan Hayden, “Unfalconable”, 2015-2016, ink/found pigment on paper, ceramic sculpture, Collection of Aaron Pietrykowski

There is an intriguing tension between the imagery and its spiritual content. In “Unfalconable” accessibility and transcendence are in opposition.  The paper is divided into quadrants, each depicting a Manichean contrast between black forms made up of rectangles and triangles, a yellow-orange ground, and hieroglyphs suggesting mountains, vegetation, celestial objects or adobe structures.

The imagery is vaguely southwestern, filtered through popular colors and motifs of the 1970s, in turn based on 1930s art deco, ultimately deriving from Mexican and Native American symbolic languages. Hayden turns the regional sense of place inside out, making a someplace a conceptual no place or an any place, ironically re-capturing the original cosmological implications of his forms. His method is more devolution than deconstruction.

Nathan Hayden, “Shapes for Shadows”, 2014-2016, Table of ceramics, Dimensions variable, Courtesy of the artist and CB1 Gallery

Hayden’s larger works are earthenware forms in adobe pink clay and dyed wall hangings in industrial felt. The clay works are repetitive explorations of quadrilateral plinths with bisymmetrical curved or zigzag shapes. They provide a self-referential vocabulary lesson echoing the meta-language in the drawings and in their disciplined repetition of limited variations on winged flanges, harken back to 1950s and 1960s writers like M.C. Richards, whose book “Centering in Poetry, Pottery and the Person” captured the attitudes of ceramists like Shoji Hamada, Bernard Leach and William and Mary Scheier, who conceived of their potting as a form of meditation.

Nathan Hayden, “what was meant to be here was no longer”, 2014, ink on industrial felt, Courtesy of the artist and CB1 Gallery

Hayden’s large industrial felt hangings either adhere to the visual vocabulary promulgated in the small drawings and ceramics or expand into otherworldly Mandalas of radiating chevrons, bristling nodes, bursting suns, seedpods and spiraling vortices. Segmented and bisected but asymmetrical, the largest hangings, for example, “what was meant to be here was no longer” evokes cosmic visions and assert the universality of root systems and natural structures.

Hayden acknowledges the influence of the Swedish visionary Hilda Af Klint, who shared with Kandinsky, Jawlensky and other pioneering abstract artists the influence of theosophical speculations on alternate states of being. In his use of clay and industrial felt, Hayden extends abstract modes of presentation and the resurgence of the handmade.

Amanda Ross-Ho,”White Goddess #16 (LA COTE)”, 2008, Acrylic on canvas drop cloth, 114″ x 118″, Courtesy of the artist and Shane Campbell Gallery

Amanda Ross-Ho also references craft traditions, especially traditionally feminine realms of weaving and needlework. She does so in a way in which female subservience or do-it-yourself amateurism associated with those arts is undermined. The fifteen-foot tall “White Goddess #16 (LA COTE) is a simulacrum of macramé in acrylic on canvas drop cloth. The one at KMAC is derived from a 1970s craft magazine and copied from a projection. Gargantuan imitation gloves are transformed from rubber to cotton and like the macramé, serve as emblems of labor, but also as stage props in a theater of the absurd or surreal artifacts from a liminal state between dreaming and pre-awareness.

Amanda Ross-Ho, “Untitled T-shirt (World Map)”, 2015, Jersey, rib, thread, acrylic, mascara, 58”x84”x4″, Courtesy of the artist and Shane Campbell Gallery

The artist’s frame of reference is the studio and workplace. Shirts and gloves show accidental spills and offer a metonym for the creative process. “T-Shirt (World Map)”has an apparent sweat-stained collar. On the bottom of the shirt and on the sleeves are dashes and splotches of yellow, green, red and purple, like an abstract expressionist vocabulary lesson from a late painting by Hans Hofmann. “Untitled Smock (Accident)” is a retro purple smock with slash pockets and round snap buttons. It is stained with red paint, connoting a mishap, as the title indicates, or the feigned residue of the oeuvre of an artist using a poured paint technique, not unlike Helen Frankenthaler.

Amanda Ross-Ho, “Untitled Textile Arrangement (Towel Rack XL #2)”, 2015, Chrome towel rack, acrylic and dye on washcloths, hand towels and bath towels, Courtesy of the artist and Shane Campbell Gallery

Work and the conditions of artistic operations are also covert protagonists in the implied drama of “Untitled Textile Arrangement (Towel Rack #6).” Undermining the sanitary sterility of hotel  rooms, the viewer is left to speculate whether the black stained, neatly folded towels are the revenge of an irate chambermaid outraged by the oppressive conditions of her servitude, the side effects of an oil spill, or an expression of creativity in tie-dying. The clothes and towel racks broach the charged subject of employment. Art is work and the artist’s studio is the workshop in Ross-Ho’s imagery, parallel to other emotionally redolent work places that resonate with the hidden drama of diurnal activities.

Amanda Ross-Ho, “Untitled Still Life (Real Archive/I Know What To Do)”, 2011, Hand-drilled sheetrock, latex paint on folded paper, pushpin, found images, linen tape, map tacks, power bar foil backing, construction paper glare device, laser print, acrylic on plastic thumbtack, graphite and wine on Bristol paper, aluminum thumbtack, boot tape, Courtesy of the artist and Shane Campbell Gallery

The studio is also a model of consciousness in Ross-Ho’s work and self-reflexively represents the cerebral conditions of art-making. “Untitled Still Life (Real Archive/I Know What to do” offers a model. The artist utilizes a pegboard format drilled by hand in slightly unconventional dimensions but with the standard one-inch interval between holes. Continuing the labor theme of the over-sized garments, pegboard connotes a utility area, like a garage, storage shed or workshop. It is a hallmark of the well-organized craftsperson or home improvement enthusiast, who uses peg hooks to hang peggable products or tools. The hooks are supported by gravity alone, and the well-installed pegboard has an even weight distribution along several mounting points.

There are no tools on Ross-Ho’s pegboards and instead they function as a quasi- bulletin board: the comparison to Leo Steinberg’s description of Robert Rauschenberg’s “flatbed picture plane” – a receptor surface – has already been made in discussions of Ross-Ho’s work. Steinberg anticipated parallels between Rauschenberg and Ross-Ho in noting “it seemed at times that Rauschenberg’s work surface stood for the mind itself – dump, reservoir,  switching center, abundant with concrete references freely associated as in an internal monologue – the outward symbol of the mind as a running transformer of the external world, constantly ingesting incoming unprocessed data to be mapped in an overcharged field.”

There are 12 additions to “Untitled Still Life: Real Archive/I Know What To Do” ranging from identical squiggles on a folded piece of paper to a color photo of a lioness sleeping in the crotch of a tree with one paw and two legs dangling. Ross-Ho also draws directly on the pegboard, circling a nail hole, marking a right angle and writing in pencil, “I know what to do.” She uses a variety of means to attach her images, including  white linen tape, map tacks, book tape, aluminum thumb tacks and push pins.  In one instance linen tape is simply attached to the pegboard itself with nothing held.

The images are at once mundane and intriguing: a manipulated photo of two men looking at scrawls on a wall with a teddy bear in the corner; a piece of black paper with an opening showing a pegboard hole partially overlapping a photo of two men in shirts printed with electric guitar images, one squeezing a remote photo bulb; a bearded man in a hat under a rock overhang, the rectangle cut out and revealing nine holes underneath. There is also a picture of macramé; a page of scribbles and wine stains on Bristol board labeled “real archive, digital archive, copy machine;” and a vertical sequence of a gloved hand sponging color onto a wall. Some photographs seem to reference Ross-Ho’s father’s profession of commercial photographer: an advertising photograph of four wine glasses and an image from an interior design ad with the words “Excellent Quality” appearing upside down.

Ross-Ho’s stream-of-conscious is more measured and less crowded than Hayden’s (or for that matter, Rauschenberg’s), and the pegboard support indicates that the accumulation of images and the associations they prompt are the work in the work of art as well as a departure point for other art production.  Ross-Ho’s variety of adhesives may stand for the varying stickiness of memory, the place of the image in a hierarchy of the imagination, or a system of indexing.  Like the holes in a sponge, the pegboard’s perforations reinforce the illusion of the flatbed picture plane as an absorptive surface.  Contradicting the traditional role of the pegboard, and making it into an ersatz bulletin board – but a bulletin board without overtly pertinent or useful information – comments as well on everyone’s contemporary task of deciphering and sorting the daily welter of information and misinformation.  Linkages between the textiles and the pegboards establish an allusive environment and protracted meditation on the creative process.

KMAC’S current mission statement proclaims “Art is the Big Idea, Craft is the Process.”  Hayden and Ross-Ho fit neatly within that expansive rubric.


New Critic-in-Residence Program

On February 1st, the Great Meadows Foundation launches its inaugural Critic-in-Residence Program with Dan Cameron – an internationally renowned, New York-based contemporary art curator, writer and educator – kicking things off. His residency runs through March 31st, 2018. And his job? Well, to visit Kentucky artists in their studios and discuss a few things.

According to a Dec. 29th press release from the Great Meadows Foundation, “the Critic-in-Residence program is meant to bring a high level of discourse to our community of artists. The goal of the residency is to help strengthen and support the growth of Kentucky artists’ work and their engagement with the larger art world. Selecting residents based on their connectedness to artists, the foundation also looks to nurture ongoing interest in and build networks for Kentucky artists among curators from other parts of the country.”

Dan Cameron, Critic-in-Residence, Great Meadows Foundation, February 1 through March 31, 2018

As a curator, Dan Cameron, first came to prominence in 1982 with the exhibition Extended Sensibilities, the first-ever exhibition of gay and lesbian art in a U.S. museum, at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. In 1986 he gained international acclaim for his exhibition Art and Its Double at the Fundacion ‘la Caixa’ in Barcelona and Madrid.

Cameron was appointed Senior Curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in 1996—a post he held until 2005—where he helped raise the profile of the institution internationally, curating exhibitions by renowned artists while consistently maintaining a high level of exposure for younger artists.

From 2006 to 2011 Cameron’s attention was devoted to founding and providing artistic and executive direction for Prospect New Orleans, the largest survey of international contemporary art in the U.S. This triennial, which is now in its fourth iteration, was conceived as a means of bridging the gap between the city of New Orleans in its post-Katrina state of neglect and disrepair.

Opening in 2008, Prospect 1 exhibited works by 80 artists from 40 countries and attracted more than 50,000 visitors. From 2007 until 2011 Cameron also served as the Visual Arts Director at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) in New Orleans.

Then, as Chief Curator at the Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA), from 2012 to 2015, he oversaw an ambitious expansion of scholarship on the museum’s Permanent Collection and relaunched the museum’s signature California Biennial as the California-Pacific Triennial.

In 1988, Cameron was invited to be the first-ever US commissioner for the Aperto section of the Venice Biennale. Subsequently he has served as Artistic Director for the 8th Istanbul Biennial (2003), co-curator for the Taipei Biennial (2006), and curator for the XIII Bienal de Cuenca in Ecuador (2016). Presently he is working on a Midwestern Biennial, Open Spaces: A Kansas City Arts Experience, to be launched in 2018.

Along with his ongoing curatorial projects, Cameron is a widely published art critic, with several hundred books, magazine and catalog essays to his credit. Along with teaching on the graduate faculties of Columbia University, NYU and the School of Visual Arts, Cameron is a frequent lecturer at museums and university campuses around the world.

He currently serves on the Advisory Boards of the Madison Park Art Conservancy in NYC and the ARC/Athens Artist Residency in Greece. He has received numerous awards for his curatorial and scholarly work, most recently the 2010 Service to the Arts Award by the Anderson Ranch in Aspen, Colorado, and the 2015 Eminent Scholar award from the American Cultural Association/Popular Culture Association.

The 2018 Curator-in-Residence program is being supported in partnership by INhouse, an initiative of Louisville art collector and philanthropist Brook Smith. As part of this program INhouse will be a base for Mr. Cameron for the two months of his residency.

 – from December 29th Press Release, Great Meadows Foundation. 


Scene&Heard: Chelsea Nolan on Red Barn Radio

Nestled in the middle of downtown Lexington, once a week on Wednesday nights Red Barn Radio broadcasts and live- streams original music to the world. Sending Kentucky’s rich treasure of music to the masses, Ed Commons and the folks at Red Barn Radio represent and support a different local and regional artist each week they broadcast. On January 10, folks gathered inside ArtsPlace in downtown Lexington to see Chelsea Nolan take her turn at the mic.

A native of Stanton, Ky, Nolan is a recent voice that has skyrocketed out of Eastern Kentucky over the last year, and she is taking her place among the group of massively talented singer/songwriters from the region. “I feel like I got on a rocketship, and then I got in a slingshot and they flung me into outer space.” Starting with her first solo gig back in October 2016, Chelsea soon was making a name for herself.

“I was drumming for people and being in the background, and being the support. I am a drummer before I am a singer or a songwriter, and I feel that I’m good at supporting people too. It just hit me one day that I had my own songs to sing.”

Photo by Derek Feldman

Songwriting is very personal for Chelsea. Her songs come from personal experience, and phrases and ridiculous things that folks say around her. She is always listening and gathering lines here and there from the people in her orbit. Her songs become an emblem, a story being sung of the hills and the people who live in them and make music with her. She says songwriting for her is like doing a puzzle. “Once I’ve got all the corners together it just falls in, and I’ve got no control over it. Thirty minutes max is probably what I have in a song, start to finish once I’ve got everything I need. If I have to force it it doesn’t’ have to be written. It has to be natural and real. I put myself into strange situations, just so I can get some ammo. It’s bigger than me.”

Music has always been a huge part of her life, and the life of her family, a Stanton staple. Brother Josh Nolan is a strong singer and songwriter, as well, and played Red Barn Radio previously.

“A couple years ago watching my brother do this, I was teary eyed the whole time. It’s such a good opportunity, so many people listen to Red Barn. That anyone thought of me to do that is crazy. I am excited and humbled.”

As soon as Chelsea begins to sing, you can hear why her music career has gained such momentum. Her songs are real, and true, and well-crafted. And she is hilarious. Not just in lyric, but between songs she has the crowd laughing until our faces hurt. She takes us along on an easy ride with her. Sometimes it gets real, just a little heavy, such as “That Old Town”, when she sings of the pills and the depression all-to-present in many small towns in the hills. But more often you find yourself bouncing along with her as your foot can’t stop tapping and you can’t stop laughing. Her southern accent bites with a sarcasm that is brilliant, and her verses often end with a twist of wit.

She tells stories between her songs, of hollers and ponds glowing with sunset; of friends singing together; and of love. She sings of driving backroads and watching the lightning over the hills. Her songs are for healing and for laughing, and they tell of real lives that anyone, Kentuckian or not, can relate to.

“I don't care if people know my name, I just want to be able to do this. I want to share what’s on my heart with other people, because it's on my heart for a reason. I want to be able to help other people with their stuff, because this has helped me with mine. I want to sing as much as I can, as loud as I can, to as many people as I can.” Chelsea Nolan

For the first half of her set, Chelsea was accompanied by Kristofer Bentley providing a homegrown percussion beat on the cajon while Chelsea played the guitar and sang.

She was resolute that night, playing in spite of coming down with the flu that has afflicted so many this winter. She refused to miss the chance to play Red Barn Radio. Barefoot, with a thermos of tea close by, she sat astride a stool and poured her soul into her songs.

Performing thirteen originals and two covers that she made her own, Chelsea kept the crowd enraptured. With her bluesy, soulful voice and thick country twang that tells her stories with a realness that is refreshing. Her guitar picking is perfect and she can’t help but bop along to her own beat and you can’t help but join her. Between the songs, host Brad Becker asked questions that gave Chelsea an opportunity to charm the crowd and listeners around the world with her tales.

She’s fun. Real fun and real good.

That night was an apex for Nolan. Red Barn Radio, in it’s 16th season of sending original music around the world on various radio stations, also live-streams their shows and is compiling video for a thirteen-episode season on local television. To play Red Barn and sit between those bourbon barrels and get to tell your story to the world is a great opportunity. Having accelerated their viewership with their You Tube videos of Tyler Childers, Red Barn Radio is a big part of the national and global conversation being had about Kentucky’s excellent treasure of music and musicians.

Chelsea Nolan has earned her rank among that group of musicians we are proud to call ours. Standing her ground among a pack of mostly guys, she keeps everyone laughing with her unique and well sung songs that provide a refreshing take on the stories the hills have to share with the world. As she says herself, “I am in a beautiful situation.”

Listen to Cara’s conversation with Chelsea Nolan:

Listen to Cara’s chat with Red Barn Radio’s Ed Commons:

Watch Chelsea’s Shaker Steps video:


Scene&Heard: Divine Carama

Music isn’t just music for hip hop artist Devine Carama, it is everything. It is the backdrop to his drive, to his work, and to his life. He raps about a mission that he believes with all his heart, and his life’s work reflects that daily.

Friday night, the first of December, a diverse group of musicians took the stage at The Burl to embody and play for Devine’s mission about community. His non-profit Believing in Forever was hosting a Coat to Keep the Cold Away fundraiser that night, sharing the donations with The Nest and the Reindeer Express. All the funds for the show went to the charities, and cover could be paid in a new coat or toy for donation. The trade off for the act of kindness was a line up of some of Lexington’s finest musicians, boasting a wide variety of genres of high quality music.

Robert Frahm started the night with his tight guitar slinging skills, followed by Sunny Cheeba. Joslyn and the Sweet Compression went next and set the stage for Devine Carama, the headliner of the show and the organizer from the Believing in Forever non-profit. Devine Carama was followed by The Summit and the Johnny Conqueroo. Devine was on the other side of having recently performed a 24-hour Hip Hop for Hope marathon in front of the Fayette County Courthouse.

For the past four years, Devine Carama’s winter season has centered around the Coat to Keep the Cold Away campaign. The first two years, his organization raised funds and collected coats for low income kids and families in the Central Kentucky area. Last year they expanded to Eastern Kentucky as well and bought and delivered 1500 coats to kids who needed them. This year, the requests reached nearly 2800. So Devine went to work. He did the 24 hour marathon and raised almost $4,000 for new coats, but it wasn’t enough. Thus, the beautiful night of music at The Burl that Friday evening.

Joslyn and the Sweet Compression are a great act to follow. They always leave the crowd happy and moving and loving life and everyone in it. From there, Devine took the stage solo. His DJ wasn’t able to be there that night, so he used pre-recorded beats as his backdrop. He did a short intro about who he was and why were were all there that night, and then, he let the words go. Oh man, all those words…

Divine Carama | Photo by Derek Feldman

For twenty minutes Devine Carama slayed lyrics upon lyrics. His rhymes were tight and flowing and talked about so much, about what is real. About life on the streets and about poverty and disenfranchisement and unarmed black men getting shot and community and Africa and about so much. His lyrics are dense and vast and you follow along with him, line by line, as he tells you what it’s all about. He calls to the crowd and they answer along, following the beat with him, moving in time to the rhyme.

“Poetry and lyrics are so important for me…” Devine commented, speaking of the early days of hip hop and of “Diverse complex parallel rhyme schemes, when it really mattered, and substance.” He wants his lyrics to speak about the truth of the struggles he sees in his community and America daily, “things that are going on in the world. Charlottesville, a lot of unarmed black men dying, Trump in office. You rarely hear them mentioned in hip hop. I come from the era of Public Enemy and NWA” when hip hop artists spoke out against the subjects that “will be in the history books.”

His lyrics are packed full of these themes. It’s astounding, how someone can remember all those words, to stand up there and preach and say all the lyrics with emphasis and pathos. To remember and to move, to instill the message in the hearts of the crowd below. The fog on the stage mixed with the cold air from outside and swirled around Devine as he shared his poetry and his passion with the room. The bass bounced against the walls and moved The Burl to a beat it wasn’t as familiar with, and it liked it. You could tell. The room danced that night, from one performer to the next, and the feeling was real good.

Taking a break after twenty minutes, Devine spoke to the crowd about his non-profit, Believing in Forever, which was founded in 2014. Their mission is to inspire education, community service, mentoring and expressive art. They hold nine in-school mentoring programs, called Impact 859. Sons of Single Mothers is another aspect, which recently received a grant from State Farm. They also hold Youth Open Mics, do Philanthropy projects such as A Coat to Keep the Cold Away, motivational youth speaking, and mentoring. They try to inspire strength in the next generation in ways that are “a little different than the norm.”

Mainly, Devine Carama wants all the forgotten, disenfranchised folks out in the community to know that there are people who do see them, who do care. Those are the people he raps about in his hip hop songs, those are the people he works tirelessly for to give them the comfort of a new, warm coat that fits well, and the comfort of taking the time to help with homework, and mentoring them through the difficult choices and consequences life brings. Even free haircuts earned for good grades. And a place to express themselves through spoken word and song as well. All of these things build community, and community is what Devine is all about.

Believing in Forever had a goal to reach, those 2800 coats that had already been requested from all over central and eastern Kentucky. The goal was not quite met after Friday night, so, driven as he is, Devine committed to another hip hop for hope marathon. This time, for 48 hours. For two days straight he would sit outside in the cold and rap his hip hop lyrics every hour, on the hour, for twenty minutes or so each time. Even in the cold, dark night, at 4 and 5 am, he was out there rapping. That was the point, he commented, “The commitment- even when there’s not a lot of people around. [It] symbolizes those families that are struggling that not everyone knows about. Every hour on the hour…Every hour.”

I sat with Devine outside the courthouse during hour eight of his 48 hour marathon. It was a sunny day at 3pm, but the wind was blowing cold, driving the dry, dead leaves around in circles, and after thirty minutes I was frozen cold and couldn’t feel my hands. He had forty more hours to go. He rapped outside to the traffic driving by. Folks honked in support, or walked by to greet him and shake his hands or donate to the cause. Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergran Grimes stopped by to visit. And there were several interviews — including mine: 

Music is a strong force within a community. Whatever the genre, it can move people to act and to gather and to commune. When that music is joined with action, it can move mountains. Devine Carama channels his music from his soul, and imbibes it with his passion for community. When he puts that music to work for his beliefs, magic can happen. The magic of a kid getting a great new coat for Christmas, and the relief his parents or guardians feel with the gift of a stranger. The magic of a kid who passes a tough test because members of the community spent their free Saturday with him, working hard on helping him pass. When he does, he gets rewarded and praised and gets a new haircut. These are the differences that matter, this is the real magic of community. Devine Carama embodies that in everything he does.

“With the music I think its always about unearthing truths or emotions that are often suppressed in hip hop music. I’m an agent of change when it comes to that I am the voice that you don’t normally hear in hip hop music. The boy that doesn’t have a father, the young teenage girl who was molested. The underserved black kid that lives in a city that 90 percent don’t look like him. I want my music to be that, and I want my music to be uplifting to those who don’t have a voice.”

At the Burl | Photo by Derek Feldman


Art in Bloom: A Marriage of Media

Every two years as October sweeps the Ohio River Valley with hues of yellows, reds, oranges and browns, the Cincinnati Art Museum springs to life with a vibrant array of floral arrangements in conjunction with a variety of works from its permanent collection.  Since 2001, Art in Bloom has been inviting virtuosic, imaginative floral designers and arrangers to participate in their biannual event depicting the “marriage of floral interpretation and fine art.”

The intricately balanced floral composition for The Sacred Hour is a superb example of this union. The intensity of the blue delphinium, the red berries and carnations, and the varying shades of green of the fugi mums, kale and thistle traverses effortlessly from the canvas to the pedestal. The ruscus leaves rhythmically intertwine the white lattice (intimating the painting’s frame) anchored in an oval vase that harmonizes with the blue fabric of the women’s dresses.

The sacred moment for the viewer is a miniature garden of earthly delight. And in the hands of such a skilled matchmaker, this “marriage of floral interpretation and fine art” has been elegantly consummated. 

The Sacred Hour – Ferdinand Hodler | Arranger: Jackie Chesher

Now, for a point of total contrast, let us contemplate this 1880s bed and its connubial floral representation. The plastic arts (functional or otherwise) were also included on the roster of museum pieces from which the participants could choose, but the interpretation of three-dimensional works in a floral arrangement presents a special challenge because of the particular attention that must be given to form.

Bedstead – Ben Pitman,Designer; Adelaide Pitman, Carver; Elizabeth Nourse, Painter | Arranger: Beverly Mussari

Bedstead demonstrates jaw-dropping ingenuity in this regard. The metal container on which the tightly-clustered, copper-colored arrangement rests with a black gauze-like fabric draped over it and falling to each side strongly suggests the arches, the carvings, and the panels in the headboard.  What impressed me most is that the arranger lightened the weightiness of the bed by softening the bedding of the container with a looser spread of foliage. A challenge well met.

Simpler, effective, yet no less challenging is Arch, acrylic with fabric dyes on canvas.  Form is obviously tantamount for a successful matrimony between these two pieces but, as with any marriage, it takes more than one thing to make it work. 

Arch – Sam Gilliam | Arranger: Wren Hanson

First, there is the tent-like structure emulated by the openly framed bamboo pyramid that encases the flowers. Then the tinted colors of the fabric are deftly repeated in a small bowl that replicates the texture and the visual feel of the cloth it represents.  Finally, the fairly sparse and spacious arrangement, if you take a closer look, is an inversion of the shape hanging on the wall. This unique interpretation demonstrates a counterpoised blend of conscious thought and intuition that go beyond the obvious.

Many of the designers (70 in this year’s event) tended to migrate toward the museum’s traditional European collection for their inspiration such as The Liberation of St. Peter.  This Ikebana presentation was perfect for articulating the mannerist style of the painting and the dramatic single source of light that emphasizes line and motion of the two figures.  And in this instance, the subject matter is equally important.

The Liberation of St. Peter – Abraham Bloemaert | Arranger: Koukichi Uchiyama

When I spoke with floral designer Koukichi Uchiyama, he explained that for him there was only one way to communicate both the visual and narrative aspect of the painting—through abstract expression.  The lilies and the baby’s breath represent the angel and her ethereal nature with one of the buds actually pointing in the direction of the angel’s finger. The s-curved mums, on the other hand, represent St. Peter’s earthbound imprisonment in cuffs and chains further symbolized by the three steel rings placed in the mums.  Uchiyama commented that the foremost ring, which has fallen forward, is indicative of St. Peter’s ultimate deliverance. And his use of s-curved strips of mizuhiki rice paper masterfully bridges the gap between the physical and celestial worlds.  The result is a fascinating Eastern take on a Western work of art.

Always popular with museum goers are the romantic/impressionist landscapes and seascapes sacrosanct to any sizable permanent collection. And two interpretations in particular caught my eye for very different reasons. 

The presentation for Valley Marsh is a suggestion and a statement arranged via simple and calculated placement of pepper bush and pepper grass, lily and lily grass, goldenrod and aster—plants that could be indigenous to the blustery, windswept marsh portrayed in the painting.

Valley Marsh – Nacisse Virgile Diaz de la Pena | Arranger: Beth Bowers-Klaine

The arrangement manifests as an interpolation, an extraction of the landscape we see beside it. It is also an interjection because it only partially occupies the basin in which it sits. The basin, too, is a strong unifying component because its color and texture direct the eye to the frame of the painting and visible patches of earth within. The fact that the arrangement is placed off center and to the left makes the basin look a bit like a fountain begging for water much like the landscape to which it belongs.

In a slightly different vein, one of the goals of the impressionist school is to capture the “fleeting moment” and so is the intent of the beautifully integrated flowers and foliage in the spray that interprets Sunset, Vevey, Switzerland. Accentuated with roses, it offers up “soft pastels, warm apricot and taupe against a charcoal gray shoreline allowing viewers to be immersed in a specific moment in time.”  But it goes beyond even that.

Sunset, Vevey, Switzerland – Gustave Courbet | Arranger: Evelyn Streeter

The elements of this display (space, color, texture, and design) are so thoroughly aligned with the elements of the scene it depicts that it could easily be lifted from the pedestal, plopped into the painting and be totally absorbed—to the farthest reach of the imagination, molecularly conjoined—the two become one.

Far from conjecture, some of the more literal interpretations interspersed throughout the museum seem to take a greater degree of risk.  For an arranger to include an object that is actually in a painting seemed to me a little like fudging but how well this strategy works depends on how well the object translates from the painting to the arrangement and the arranger’s intent.

Without actually including the object in the astounding arrangement, Vanity Case, the designers instead literally interpret the essence of a peacock etched on the front of the object itself.

Vanity Case – Tiffany & Co. Gifted by Gates T. and Margaret K. Richards | Arrangers: Susie McCormick, Tori Armongero, Kelly Cengia, Jana Monzel, and Gina Velleca

This small, exquisite Tiffany vanity case sitting under protective glass to the left of the arrangement enabled flocks of viewers to examine it before they walked around the peacock in a curious state of disbelief.  Because feathers are not permitted in any of the floral designs, the team had to rely solely on nature and a remarkable vase to conjure up the likeness of this fantastic bird. Their use of White Orchids, Blue Born Orchids, and Bells of Ireland combined with Agonis and Egyptian Papyrus allowed them to create what is, in its own right, a work of fine art, albeit an impermanent one.

I would be remiss to not comment on at least one interpretation of an abstract painting and Romanian Blouse seems to fit the bill. While some entrants for Art in Bloom may steer clear of abstract art for fear of not understanding it or misinterpreting its meaning (if it has one), others are drawn to it because of the latitude it provides for full and open expression in relation to the basic elements of art and design associated with it.

Romanian Blouse – Henri Matisse | Arrangers: Priscilla Dunn and Nan Witten

Lines, shapes, patterns, positive and negative space, and blotches of color have an equal impact on this interpretive arrangement for Romanian Blouse. Although some of the colors have been substituted, such as yellow for gold and lavender for gray, others such as the whites, reds and greens make the necessary connections for us. The overall movement and feel of the painting is well conveyed—cheerful and contemplative.  Sometimes it is enough for us to say, “It works!”

Because “the marriage of floral interpretation and fine art” is at the heart of Art in Bloom, it is impossible to not become engaged when you see one of these exhibits. Interpretation is catching.  For starters, you have the arrangers interpreting the artwork and then you yourself reactively interpret the interpretation in front of you based on how well you think it executes the ideas expressed in the arrangers’ statements of intent and the plant material they chose to use. You also get to cast a vote for the top three on your list in order of preference, the same manner in which the arrangers get to select the work of art they interpret.

During the Art in Bloom four-day event, the museum invites two or three artists to come in each day and set up their easels and paint their interpretation of the arrangements, fostering a cycle of creativity and interaction with the artwork and floral designs for the duration of the exhibit.

So keep in mind that you as a visitor in October 2019 can also become a part of this cycle and be united with the wonderful world of fine art and its marriage to floral interpretation. And admission for the last three days of the exhibit is always free.

All images provided by the Cincinnati Art Museum.


Accomplishing Failure

In her essay, “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag calls into question the stability of the ways in which the likes of history, art, and theory are understood. To interpret something, Sontag argues, is to comprehend it, and she posits that the process of interpretation typically spurs from a network of social myths and beliefs. “Interpretation is not (as most people assume) an absolute value,” Sontag states.

Interpretation must itself be evaluated, within a historical view of human consciousness.

For many artworks, even those that are born out of experimentation or spontaneity, to be interpreted is to be considered successful in some sense. But how would an artwork behave, look, and exist—and how should it be interpreted—when failure is the predominant driving force in its creation?

Failure in Progress, Zephyr Gallery’s latest exhibition featuring works by five regional artists, expands the conceptualization of failure and all its implications, specifically the presumption that failure is temporary or liminal and rarely a sought out conclusion. The exhibition, curated by Jessica Bennett Kincaid, stands as an opportunity to evaluate what it means for an artwork to succeed or not, and how failure can be utilized as an aspiration or primary component in making a work of art.

Melissa Vandenberg, Conflagrate, 2015, sparkler burn on Arches paper, 22” x 30”. Courtesy Zephyr Gallery and the artist.

Allusions to failure are ubiquitous in Melissa Vandenberg’s Conflagrate (2015), a drawing—or perhaps more accurately, an imprint—of the American flag singed onto a piece of paper by sparklers. Some burns are so severe that holes in the paper have formed, or certain charred areas are so vast that the rigid contours of the flag’s stripes have vanished. Failure is prevalent through the use of materials: the act of burning something is inherently detrimental, and the drawing itself lacks many of the standards common in depictions of the flag such as color, geometric accuracy, and, most noticeable in Vandenberg’s work, stars. This particular rendition of one of America’s most striking emblems is filled with void. Additionally, the combination of iconography and material is charged with political and social connotations. Vandenberg submits a symbol of national unity in a destructive manner to imply that American stability is an illusion maintained by such images. Conflagrate, much like the conceit of Failure in Progress, suggests that deficiency is always present and, in some cases, inescapable.

Josh Azzarella, Untitled #125 (Hickory), 2011, 120:00:00, HD video, 5.1 sound, 1 custom computer, Edition of 3.

Deficiency is further explored in a black box on Zephyr’s upper-level, which projects Josh Azzarella’s Untitled #125 (Hickory) (2011), a video excerpt of the Wizard of Oz beginning when the tornado first enters the film and ending when Glinda the Good Witch greets Dorothy in Munchkinland. In Azzarella’s version, the segment has been extended to last five days, or 120 hours, inevitably blurring the clip due to limitations of technology. In developing the work, Azzarella layered his selection on top of itself multiple times, delaying the start time of each so that every frame is present at any given moment through the duration of the work, some more perceptible than others. The end result is a vague retelling of one of the film’s most pivotal scenes—Azzarella obscures familiar imagery to the point of illegibility.

It is the technological components of Untitled #125 that most pertinently incorporate notions of failure, but the references to failure permeate the content of the piece as well. For some, failure is an intermediary stage on the path to success. Similarly, the clip of Dorothy entering Oz is a fleeting yet crucial shift within the film’s narrative. Azzarella has completely fixated on this point, allowing the transitory moment to run on end, paralleling the thematic persistence of failure throughout the gallery.

Josh Azzarella, Untitled #142 (Bob Coe from Wasco), 2013, 2 HD video channels (4:00, 3:18), Seamless, endless loops, 10.2 surround sound, 2 custom computers, Edition of 3

Like Untitled #125, Azzarella’s Untitled #142 (Bob Coe from Wasco) (2013), a two channel video work playing edited loops from Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, centers on the moments surrounding the main action. Both screens in Untitled #142 display two characters from the film facing each other, standing with their backs near the edges of the screens. The characters bustle in place but their feet never move, effectively halting Hitchcock’s plot. Azzarella’s works in Failure in Progress compliment others well, including Vandenberg’s Conflagrate, which shed light on the ways in which fragments of popular culture are capable of holding divergent, conflicting meanings.

Alex Serpentini, Almost Something, 2017, survey responses visible through augmented reality interface, dimensions variable. Courtesy Zephyr Gallery and the artist.

Alex Serpentini, Almost Something, 2017, survey responses visible through augmented reality interface, dimensions variable. Courtesy Zephyr Gallery and the artist.

Collective memory is again at the fore in Almost Something (2017), an interactive virtual work by Alex Serpentini that activates when visitors maneuver an iPad to face various directions in the gallery space. Serpentini creates a program that projects disclosures of personal failures on the walls of Zephyr, depending on where the holder of the iPad chooses to move it. The admissions are frequently striking, and invoke experiences with college courses, romantic pursuits, and rugby teams that reveal insecurities and loss. Discontent is ever-present in Almost Something, which is at once the most aesthetically minimal and arguably the most powerful work in the exhibition due to the straightforward presentation and nature of its subject matter.

Gautam Rao, Everything Happens for a Reason, 2017, aluminum, steel, dimensions variable.

Outside in Zephyr’s courtyard, Gautam Rao’s Everything Happens for a Reason (2017) is amongst the most playful works in the exhibition. Rao offers what seem to be six regulation road signs: the shapes, aluminum, and colors deceptively operate as everyday warnings to stop, merge, or the like. But it quickly becomes apparent that Rao’s diamonds and octagons are instead covered with twisted lines or contradictory arrows that would prove unhelpful for drivers. Everything Happens for a Reason, as its name suggests, simulates the threshold dividing success and failure—these signs represent those endeavors that fall short of routine objectives. What’s more, Rao’s outdoor sculptures test our perception in a manner similar to the artist’s Sorting Cube Revised (2017), a modified version of a children’s learning toy that requires trial and error to complete.

Andrew Cozzens, End Game, 2017, mixed media (wood, electronics, motor, clay, time), dimensions variable.

There are many compelling reasons to view this particular exhibit on numerous occasions, not least of which is Andrew Cozzens’s End Game (2017), a series of six platforms lining the gallery’s widest wall, each holding a ceramic vase. Every platform is connected to a timer that, upon counting down to show all zeroes, triggers a lever, collapsing the platform so the vase plummets to the floor to crash and shatter with disorder. The timers are set in intervals that equally divide the exhibition’s duration into sixths.

Andrew Cozzens, End Game, 2017, mixed media (wood, electronics, motor, clay, time), dimensions variable.

Cozzens, fatally, demonstrates the ways in which interpretation is, in some cases, dependent on the notion of time. As for End Game, failure is both unavoidable and the goal. Success and failure are achieved by the same outcome. Indeed, Failure in Progress, with an exceptional array of artworks that contemplate insufficiency in varied manners, asks visitors to rethink their learned modes of interpretation. Failure is hardly a desirable feat, but the five artists currently showing at Zephyr have discovered methods of pursuing, facing, and adapting to setbacks with success.

Failure in Progress is on view at Zephyr Gallery in Louisville, KY until December 30th 2017.


Scene & Heard: Abraham Mwinda

“The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

― Maya Angelou, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes

According to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), globally, there are more than 65.6 million forcibly displaced people and, among them, 22.5 million are refugees. These are the highest levels of displacement on record and more than half of these refugees are children under the age of 18.

Refugees are defined as those who are forced to leave their home country to escape war, violence, or persecution. After fleeing their country, people seeking refugee status must register with UNHCR in a country of asylum and, of these 22.5 million, less than 1% of refugees end up resettled in another country like the United States. Most end up staying in the country of asylum to set up a new life or waiting with uncertainty until it is safe to return to their home country. The Trump administration plans to reduce the 2017 national number of accepted refugees in the U.S. in half and admit no more than 45,000 refugees in the coming year, including a limit of 19,000 African refugees.

Currently, Kentucky welcomes refugees from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, Cuba, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Pakistan, Palestine, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Syria. The largest community of refugees in Lexington is, undoubtedly, the Congolese, which is the fourth-largest resettlement of Congolese in the U.S.

Congolese-born and Kenyan-raised Lexington musician, Abraham Mwinda, is one of these refugees and has been living and making music in Lexington for 4 1/2 years. He speaks Swahili, Lingalas, English, and French. In July, Mwinda released his debut record, Dreamer, with a sold-out release show that raised $1,600 for 4 local non-profits organizations. Since Dreamer dropped, Mwinda won Song of the Year at the annual Sauti Awards in Atlanta and is finishing up his second album, Home, to be released in December.

“One of the hardest questions that I always get asked is “where are you from?” because I never know what to say because I was born in Congo, but I really didn’t fully experience it, and I was raised in Kenya. Kenya taught me pretty much everything that I know. It’s a process of trying to discover myself and my home in physical location, spirituality, faith, relationships, friendships, and just exploring all that stuff; and my discoveries.”

Mwinda started writing songs when he was 7 years old and, after moving to Kenya with his family because of the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, they applied for refugee status and Mwinda began exploring the Nairobi music world and writing songs about stories he heard from fellow refugees.

“When I was 14, we were so broke, so hungry, that you want to throw up but you only throw up saliva, because you don’t have any food in your stomach. My mom got this money to pay rent, but she was like, I think you should take this money and record that song that you sang for me the other day and she has been my inspiration since.”

In 2013, with the help of Kentucky Refugee Ministries, Mwinda and his family resettled in Lexington.

“The African refugee community in Lexington is big, it is really big. Maybe it’s just because I’m part of it but I feel like, everywhere I go, I turn around and see one person that I know. There is somebody, somewhere, everywhere – that’s how big it is and they are really united, they’re really supportive of each other and supportive of their communities, even their American communities. People are opening businesses,  making  friends, and adding value to the Lexington community.”

Mwinda started playing open-mic nights at Common Grounds Coffee Shop and got a job working at the University of Kentucky hospital. He then started to build a basic home studio to record his vocal tracks and, using a combination of producers from Nairobi and Lexington, Mwinda was finally able to find the positive Afro-pop sound that he was looking for.

“In Nairobi, they have studios. You have to go to a proper studio to do your music and recording. The other difference that I have seen here with the music industry is that there, if you call yourself a producer, you are able to play every instrument, mix, record, master, and do everything, and compose a beat. But here, one person does the mixing, the other person does the mastering, so in Africa, we don’t do that, we know everything, so I think just having that knowledge really helped me because I could do some of the stuff myself.”

The new album, Home, is heavier on using Yo Alex and other Kenyan producers than his debut and, as Abraham jokes, “I import beats from Nairobi because they are cheaper.” The album features a Swahili track called Domo, which means “cheap talk” and also features Proud Refuge, a rapper from California. The album’s title track, Home, was inspired by a conversation that Mwinda had with a teacher about DACA and the effects of being told to go back home when America is the only home that these children know.

“For most of these kids, the only connection they have to their home countries or their countries of birth are their parents. Some of these kids don’t even speak the languages from there. This is all they’ve known their whole lives. I can totally relate to that because, being born in Congo, my Congolese friends make fun of me because I actually have an accent in my Congolese language. I was born there but I wasn’t really raised there. I didn’t get to experience it fully. There were so many times that I was reminded that it wasn’t really home for me. Home is not necessarily a place, you know; it’s the people. It’s in friendships, it’s in relationships, it’s in culture.”

Check out Chuck’s interview with Abraham which includes tasty bits of his music at this link.


Victory Over The Sun: The Poetics and Politics of Eclipse

On August 21st, 2017, I was at Armour’s Hotel in Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee to witness the eclipse. We hotel guests were an eclectic group: a professor of Latin from Notre Dame University; an extended family from Gainesville, Georgia; a gang of young engineers from Baltimore – one of whom wore a superhero cape; Mary Ann from a few counties distant who drank her Zinfandel in a sippy cup to keep out bugs; Frank from Houston who drove a Tesla, my wife – a bourbon historian, and our friends who had chosen this location, a crochet artist and her husband, an oral historian/poet/re-enactor from Springfield, Missouri.

Happily the engineers brought along a high school physics teacher who told us what to look for: the crescent-shaped shadows on the ground that looked like ripples in a stream, sunset on all sides of the horizon, the grayish light akin to looking through a gray camera filter, the ‘diamond effect’ (a gold ring with a brilliant white light at the top), the eerie night light at totality, the sudden appearance of stars and the incredible beauty and precise contours of the waxing and waning sequences, like a celestial Ellsworth Kelly painting in motion. Finally there was the palpable drop in temperature and the uncanny silence of birds as if night had fallen.

Victory Over the Sun: The Poetics and Politics of Eclipse is a riff on some implications of this cosmological event and plays with some of the broader possible meanings of darkness, shadow and light.

Curator Joey Yates defined the parameters of the show:

Artists, who engage in acts of silencing, erasing, covering or masking, as well as conceptual gestures related to eclipsed narratives in American art and culture, will examine themes of blindness, censorship, obscurity and suppression.

The exhibition therefore was mostly tangential to astronomy and more about the subjective ambiguity of perception, erasure and re-inscription, and the uncoupling of common symbols from their traditional signification.

Lita Albuquerque, Fibonnaci Lunar Activation 2017, Polyvinyl acetate, pigment on panel, pigment on resin, 42” x 42” Courtesy of the Artist and Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

Fibonacci Lunar Activation by Lita Albuquerque is the only work in the exhibition to actually use an image of an eclipse – the black orb hovers above a white perimeter, against a charcoal gray background of an embossed Fibonacci number sequence. Her image has a startling sense of inner light as if the square were internally lit with neon. In her installations in locations as remote as the Antarctic, Albuquerque has interrogated light as the link between earth-bound order and the cosmological order, as well as exploring the tension between the limits of human understanding and the expanse of the universe.

Letitia Quesenberry, Hyperspace Installation 2015, Wood, lacquer, acrylic, film, LED 11” diameter Courtesy of the Artist

Comparably, Letitia Quesenberry provokes a meditation on the limits of reasoned observation with her wall of five disks asymmetrically placed and internally lit with LED lights that morph across the spectrum (the sequence from blue-violet to violet to red-violet is especially compelling).

The smallest ‘porthole’ is 11 inches in diameter, a medium sized one is 25 inches across and there are three large ones around 39 inches in width but vary as much as four inches. The pulsation of the disks makes it difficult to distinguish between the three large ones because of the compelling illusionism of the concentric bands of color. What in psychophysics is called the JND or “just noticeable difference” is at play: the stimulus magnitudes appear to be the same.

Suggestions that Quesenberry is following in the train of Josef Albers is false: there are no templates and no norms in her art. There are, however, parallels with Eastern European and Latin American art of the 1960s and 1970s. Like the kinetic and op artists of that era, Quesenberry’s use of engineering, science and machined imagery – that is, rational and objective means –are put at the service of a new subjectivity.

Marijke van Warmerdam, Light, 2010, 35mm film video, Duration: 1’30” Courtesy of the Artist

Marijke van Warmerdam does a simulacrum of the passage of day and night in Light, her one minute, thirty second video of herself strumming window blinds as if they were a stringed instrument. Sometimes her hand is visible, sometimes not; sometimes she uses her finger, sometimes an open palm; the speed varies. The pleasure of this work lies in the sublime simplicity of her performance with its flashes of light, intimations of concentrated time, and domestic exploration of sensory modalities.

Another group of works in the exhibition focus on processes of removal, just as the eclipse removes sunlight from the day. Censorship as striking out was the subject of several works.

Mel Bochner, Eradicate, 2017, Monoprint with collage, engraving and embossment on hand-dyed, Twinrocker handmade paper 90 ¼” x 58 ½” Courtesy of the Artist and Two Palms Gallery

In his monoprint Mel Bochner lists the words ‘eradicate, cancel, void, censor, delete, obliterate, purge,’ and ‘clear history’ in block letters. The mottled and cracked typography conveys a sense of aged materials. The highly tactile letters evoke an urban context, in part because of suggested underpaintings of yellow, orange, green or red beneath the different inscriptions, as if the words themselves covered other, more volatile messages.

Titus Kaphar, Moonlight, 2011, oil on canvas 96”x46 5/8”x2 7/8” Courtesy of the Artist

Titus Kaphar’s painting Moonlight cuts out the profile of a Victorian woman in the center of the canvas. Her hand rests on a green cloth as if she had just disrobed. She stands in front of a kitschy landscape, a rocky shore bordering a moonlit sea, beneath an overcast sky. The cut out denies the male gaze its ogle. The empty figure achieves, ironically, a kind of individuality and presence, in part because shifting shadows animate the vacated form against the white wall as one walks past.

Steve Irwin, Untitled, 2008, Altered vintage photograph, 11 ½” x 8 ½” Courtesy of Norm and Chris Radtke

Equally subversive of tradition but more poignant are three drawings by the late Steve Irwin. A hand, two arms embracing an invisible figure, and fragments of a face, shoulder and foot are the subjects. Irwin’s “rubouts” are abraded pages from vintage adult magazines: like the self-taught artist Bill Traylor, Irwin took compositional clues from the condition and edges of the papers he used.

Irwin’s anatomical fragments masterfully transform raw to tender. While most discussion of his work focuses on what he took out from the illustrations using solvents and abrasives, the delicate modeling and colored pencil modulations added to his found material mark Irwin as an extraordinary draftsman.

Bigert & Bergström, Moments of Silence, 2014 ,Sampled archival material, 14 minutes, color, stereo Courtesy of the artists

The popular favorite in the exhibition is Bigert’s and Bergström’s Moments of Silence a fourteen minute assemblage of vintage film and video footage showing a wide cross-section of people from around the globe observing a moment of shared grief. The moment of silence –commemorating and re-communicating with tragedy –is seen in over 20 vignettes.

Men in felt hats from Kyrgyzstan, Kenyan Muslims remembering in sorrow the Nairobi shopping center massacre by Al Shabaab in 2013, Japanese workers in hazmat suits, police and soldiers ceremonially removing hats or helmets, factory workers paused on assembly lines, pedestrians standing in silence at an intersection, taxi drivers stopping and getting out of their cars: the universality of this observation as secular ritual is a confirmation of our commonality. The cuts often provide close-ups of the faces of participants.

Then life goes on: pedestrians cross the street, cars start up again, road workers remount their heavy equipment, soccer players take to the field, and officials sit down again. Small details take on significance, like a green emergency exit sign with a running stick figure above a still, silent group of office workers, or a no-smoking sign beneath a clock.

A second eclipse-inspired exhibition, on view too briefly at UofL’s Cressman Center, was Overshadowed, an intriguing collaboration between Mary Carothers and Brian McClave that utilized slow scan photography to composite thousands of images into a single digital file. Photographers were recruited across the path of totality to record the momentary lack of light: it translated into streaks like the black lines that appeared on leader in old films.

Victory Over the Sun makes as much coherent sense as many other assemblages of diverse work. It brings to a local audience a stellar collection of international artists juxtaposed with work by local and regional practitioners.

KMAC provides an excellent free take-away pamphlet which re-prints the extensive wall texts and illustrates at least one work by each artist. I might have preferred a more narrow focus, but then I would have missed some works in this excellent selection. Bigert and Bergström’s Moment of Silence comes closest to my memory of sharing awe at a transcendent celestial event.

On view now through December 3rd at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, 715 West Main Street, Louisville, KY, 40202,, free admission.


Scene&Heard: The Vocal Firepower of the Lexington Singers

There are plenty of ways to sing that sound interesting. There are, while admittedly fewer, still many ways of singing that sound pretty, or powerful, or pure. There is no way of singing yet invented that can match a fully developed bel canto voice.

Bel Canto, a vocal technique developed in Italy from the sixteenth century onward, is the open and clear sound, usually sung with a quaver in the voice called vibrato, and that’s stereotypical of the opera, and of classical music in general. It takes years for a singer to develop a proper bel canto voice, and singing with it, drawing breath from the diaphragm and propelling to the back of an often massive concert hall, is not just technically demanding but physically exhausting. It’s a way of singing that makes you sweat.

When the young bass-baritone Reginald Smith, Jr. dabbed at his forehead with a handkerchief, midway through the first act of the oratorio that he sang on Friday night, that exhaustion was beginning to show. He didn’t let it phase him in the slightest. The oratorio—a kind of long vocal work that incorporates orchestra, chorus, and solo voices—was Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah, one of the most famous, and famously demanding, examples of the genre.

Reginald Smith, Jr. (publicity photo, from

The Lexington Singers had invited Smith, along with several other soloists and the UK Chorale, another choral group, to join them in a performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Performing in UK’s Singletary Center for the Arts (like many classical groups in Lexington), the Singers set themselves the challenge of filling up a concert hall that could swallow most bars or clubs without losing half of the seats.

When the Lexington Singer’s Chamber Orchestra joined the vocalists on the stage, the entire scale of the enterprise became hard to ignore—there were over one hundred singers, and nearly fifty instrumentalists, assembled for the sole purpose of creating over two hours worth of almost continuous music. The piece they were set to perform would require nothing less.

Felix Mendelssohn composed Elijah for an 1846 premiere; he died less than a year afterward, at only thirty-eight years of age. The oratorio, therefore, is the closest thing to a mature work that the young composer and former child prodigy left to the world.

Stylistically, Mendelssohn always made a habit of looking back to the delicate and precise music of the Bach and Haydn, as opposed to the radical innovations of contemporaries like Liszt or Wagner. While the early Romantic period that he lived through was in many ways defined by composers challenging the harmonic and structural components of the classical tradition, Mendelssohn would never push the boundaries of what harmony and traditional musical forms could convey—his chords are always clean, and they always lead exactly where you expect them to.

Nevertheless, Elijah strikes a balance between the old and the new of Mendelssohn’s time: while the overture has a formally complicated fugue motion that’s reminiscent of Bach, the thick orchestral textures and propulsive rhythmic intensity of the music point to an unmistakable Beethoven influence on Mendelssohn’s style. Creating those complex forms and textures requires not only a choir that can sing up to eight voice parts at once but a full orchestra to back them up.

Coordinating such a large number of people for a performance is a task that’s almost entirely reserved to the world of classical music (imagine a rock band with more than six or seven members at the most, and you understand why), and classical groups have a unique figure devoted solely to the task of keeping everyone on the same page of the score: the conductor.

Dr. Jefferson Johnson has served as the conductor for the Lexington Singers for many seasons now, and his ability to direct the choir, while formidable, clearly cannot compare to his ability to choose a soloist perfectly suited to the Singers’ performance.

Jefferson Johnson (Photo by © Sally Horowitz)

Smith sang the title role, with a style that can only be described, appropriately enough, as biblical. With a throbbing, richly textured tone that conveyed every ounce of emotion that played across his expressive face, Smith leapt from a roaring castigation of the wayward Israelite King Ahab to a soft, subtle lamentation of the fate of his people, and in a searching, haunting aria, he found his way back to a joyful, soaring vision of a flaming chariot come to take him up to Heaven.

Smith has a voice that is too flexible, too widely developed and able to convey a breadth of emotions to offer easy categorization or comparison. Suffice it to say that he is a singer in impeccable command of an extraordinary talent.

Shockingly, Smith is still considered a rising star in the classical world, not yet fully arrived as a star in his own right. However, if his performance in Elijah is anything to judge by, Smith will be drawing comparisons to premier bass-baritones like Eric Owens before long—and some of those comparisons will be favorable to Smith.

Reginald Smith, Jr. | Photo by Sarah Shaw

The Singers, as a choir, also acquitted themselves well. The piece is noted for its rousing and overpowering choral movements. As the music built to climax after climax, the Singers’ voices bubbled, swelled, and rose like a tsunami to crash over the orchestra, the audience, and the building itself in an exactly controlled roll of passion into passion.

The orchestra itself played with a frenetic energy that clearly fed itself off of the remarkable vocal performances. In particular, first cellist Benjamin Karp managed to play with such a fury that he frayed his bow; he then went on to play a tender accompaniment to one of Smith’s second-half arias.

The other soloists also demonstrated the kind of vocal skill that it takes to perform a piece like Elijah. Contralto Shauntina Phillips enveloped the hall in a low, warm sound, even as the orchestra roiled and churned at full intensity behind her.

Shauntina Phillips | Photo credit: National Association of Teachers of Singing

Soprano Amanda Balltrip pierced through the air with a light but wonderfully intense lilt as she sang, unexpectedly, from the back of the hall. Likewise, soprano Katherine Olson set her voice to fly above the assembled choral and orchestral forces and distinguished herself even among the talent around her. Tenor Taylor Comstock snaked his high, silvery voice through the audience and left the impression of a particularly delicate but beautiful flower.

That’s not to say there weren’t a few flies buzzing about the hall. Mendelssohn prepared the text of the oratorio in both German and English, but since its premiere in 1846, the English version of the text has predominated (to understand why you only have to listen to a few minutes of singing in German). The Singers chose to maintain the English text. Unfortunately, the chorus had a sometimes hazy diction that made it difficult to determine exactly what was being sung. There was also a consistent difficulty with the ‘sss’ sound—there were moments when it sounded as though the choir was beating back an infestation of snakes. Despite some minor setbacks, however, the evening was a remarkable success.

The story of Elijah is the story of a prophet reprimanding his people for wandering from the path of righteousness. If they wandered into this performance, even the taciturn man of God would be hard-pressed to find a reason to condemn them.


Scene&Heard: Justin Wells at Soulful Space

I’m fascinated by space.  Not NASA space necessarily, although the cosmic unknown is certainly worth thinking about.  No, I’m talking about a more general space – our space.  The space around us and my favorite – the space between us.  The spaces we create say a lot about who we are, our values, our philosophies, and our experiences.  Some people like big, industrial, empty spaces and some like small, cozy and cluttered. Some cover the walls with a story while others prefer a blank canvas. Some choose color, some choose white. There are spaces filled with light and there are dark spaces. We each create our space and when we’re lucky enough, we get to share it with each other.

Some people prefer to keep their space to themselves, and that’s okay. Not me. I like the messy, unpredictable, often disappointing yet more often exhilarating experience of the other.  It’s the greatest mystery: your experience.  I’ll never be able to have it and therefor it makes me insatiably curious.  I want to know your story. I want to be there when you’re doing the thing you love, no matter what it is and I want to hear why you love it.  This is my favorite space to be in; watching someone do what they love and having the honor of getting to know the hows and whys behind the process.  It is endlessly exciting.

A space that is dripping in history, where sound echoes between the walls, where silence has a weight and clarity of thought is effortless – we can call that a soulful space.  This type of space re-minds the occupant. It brings the physical brain and body in contact with the celestial mind. It connects the self to the collective.  These spaces exist all around us of course, but they are often overlooked and under-appreciated.   Lexington is lucky for many reasons, one of which is that we have a man among us who has set out to cultivate and promote this kind of space.  Shawn Gannon has worked hard over the years to create the Soulful Space experience and his efforts have not been wasted. 

Justin Wells | Photo by Unsung Hero Media

Set to the backdrop of the charming and peaceful Good Shepherd church on Main Street, the Soulful Space experience brings the community together in a unique way. Part spiritual, part rock and roll (if you can separate the two), and wholly soulful, Gannon’s creation has a feel all it’s own.

On October 26, 2017 Gannon and his crew created a space that was both spellbinding and sobering.  The show featured Justin Wells, with an opening by some of Lexington’s most talented literary thinkers, Erik Reece among them. The evening was a benefit for the Kentucky Writers and Artists for Reforestation group.    

In pews we sat as the poets and then Wells filled the church with melody and contemplation. It was a sweet evening for me as my mother was in town, visiting from New Orleans.  So I sat next to my mom in a church – there’s a first for everything after all, and we shared a beautiful evening.  It was a beautiful evening for the obvious reasons, some of which I’ve come to expect from Soulful Space – the music, the company, the space – but the unexpected beauty came as I sat in a pew and cried, my feet tap-tap-tapping the whole time. The night, for whatever the reason, dissolved my defenses and made space for a profound sense of loss. 

Soulful Space founder Shawn Gannon | Photo by Unsung Hero Media

When Gannon stepped on to the stage and read the opening Wendell Berry poem, a tradition that has historically been carried out by Brian Cole, the beloved Good Shepherd rector who recently left his post for another calling, you could hear the quiver in his voice.  An entire community has had to grieve, accept and deal with Cole’s departure and, according to several accounts, it has not been easy.

The now Bishop Cole (Diocese of East Tennessee) is one of those rare people who allows you to be just as you are in his company.  No judgement, no pretense. He is cool and serious … mostly he’s cool. And he will be missed.  I recently heard a definition for compassion that I love: suffering together. The Good Shepherd community has suffered a loss. But they have done it together and they continue on together.

When the poets got up to read their selections, each one carried with it a knowledge and a loss.  A loss of physical space, a loss of the sacred. As good poetry does, some of the prose left me with more questions than answers.  Mainly, the questions lingered, what can I do? How can I help? Poetry – has a reduction effect on me.  It takes all my ingredients and boils out the unnecessary water and air, leaving me with a flavor only achieved by loss.  Not all losses are bad.  The loss of the unnecessary, for example. The loss of ego, of greed, of selfishness, in some moments – of self all together, loss of mine, loss of judgement and defiance – all positive losses.  The words spoken that night begged for a loss of apathy. The poets invited a resistance to my comfort and the space provided an assurance that it was a worth accepting. 

As Wells got up and began to tune his guitar, I was brought back to a few weeks ago at The Burl when he and a handful of some of Kentucky’s most treasured local talent performed a tribute to the late Tom Petty. It was a special night with tears and sing alongs and shouting and dancing.  At one point I was head banging to a Petty cover performed by Mojothunder, a fairly new, albeit unfairly talented group of young and handsome musicians. Losing our heroes can be a difficult undertaking.  We take them for granted, don’t you think? And although their talents or wisdom or words will always live in our hearts and through our speakers, it is a small comfort. 

When the world is busy sanding us down, the distraction of music, especially music that reminds us of simpler times, is sometimes the only thing that reminds us who we are. The only thing that can bring us right back to the space we live in. It takes us out of our minds with the right mixture of sound and feeling just long enough to remind us that we are here. Right here. In this space.  Tom Petty was one of my heroes and Justin Wells and the other musicians did an amazing job honoring his life that night at The Burl.

Justin Wells | Photo by Unsung Hero Media

If you’ve ever heard Justin sing, you can imagine that hearing him in church is quite a powerful experience.  He is, himself a powerful experience.  His presence is equal parts intimidating and soothing. Standing at well over 6 feet and some considerable amount of inches, he is a giant man with a giant talent. Wells wails. He does so with a power that summons both the angels and the demons on to the dance floor. And on this night, he did it in a church.  His a cappella song brought tears to my eyes as I thought about how much he must have been enjoying the experience.  During his finale, the women in his life – his two daughters and his wife, made their way up to the stage and were dancing and holding hands.

On a night when Wells provided what he does every time he performs – a talent born from truth, a passion pulled from pain and an honesty honed by loss, it was clear where his heart lives. With twirly dresses and ribbons, the loss of a fast and furious rock star lifestyle gave birth to a gentle and beautiful family.  A family filled with laughter, love and lyrics.  All eyes, including his, turned to these three women and he smiled as he sang the last notes of the evening.

Justin Wells | Photo by Unsung Hero Media

During every loss in my life, music has been there to help and heal me. It has put words to things my experience prevents me from saying.  It has literally saved my life.  It is the best and the bravest thing. My mom taught me how to appreciate music.  Listening to The Bee Gees or Fats Domino on her record player in New Orleans, she used to scoop me up, twirl me around and belt the lyrics into the night.  Music has always been the way my soul communicates.  An on this night, sitting next to the woman who taught me how to do that, in a soulful space, I cried.  I cried over all that I have lost and I cried over all that I have gained as a result. Sometimes life is so damn confusing and beautiful, tears and music are the only responses I have.  And for them, I am grateful.

I go to many shows and I love them all, but there is only one Soulful Space experience in Lexington.  I encourage you to check it out as soon and as often as you can.  On November 11th, the Soulful Space community enjoyed the much anticipated Leonard Cohen tribute. Veteran’s day was a fitting date to celebrate the freedom that Cohen’s songs have brought to so many.

Follow the Soulful Space Facebook page for upcoming performances. This is not an event. It’s an experience. It’s the best kind of experience: an organic one that allows you to feel deeply, listen without distraction and be still in knowing that you are right where you need to be.

After all, what feels better than the loss of wanting things to be different?

Justin Wells | Photo by Unsung Hero Media


Scene&Heard: The Jettisons

Best Friend Bar is the quintessential classic college bar, nestled on the corner of Euclid and Woodland Ave. The geometric insides boast jutting ceilings covered with colored Christmas lights and shiny stars that hang year round. Posters and stickers from shows and bands past adorn the painted black ceilings and bathroom stalls. A small merch table is stuck back against a slanted wall, and band equipment is bundled up on the other side. Patrons clad in lots of black leather mill around the bar, getting ready for the three-act set as they order local drafts and burritos from Girls, Girls, Girls Burritos. The Jettisons are set to play second in a fully stocked night of promised punk music headlined by Sarasota’s Rational Anthem.

The Jettisons | Photo by Derek Feldman

The Jettisons is an amalgamation of four other previous bands from the Lexington area, a sort of supergroup of punk musicians. Brad Hagedorn, the drummer, and Travis Rosenbalm, the guitarist, were from Middle Class Mischief. They joined with Tom Blankenship, someone Travis had been wanting to do music with since Tom’s time in The Loaded Nuns and Slagsmiths. They all wanted Beth Jenkins on vocals. Her previous work in the ska band The Rough Customers boasted her vocals, a sound they all wanted for their new band. Cory Hanks, from Those Crosstown Rivals, was brought in for bass, and The Jettisons was born.

Musicians who have been part of the scene, each brings their own personality to the band, which they call truly democratic. “Definitely the most collaborative band I’ve ever been in,” says Tom, “…there is no established leader of the band, it’s a collective.” The musicians get together with a riff and a beat and record it. They hand it off to Beth, and soon she comes back with lyrics and they then pull it all together. When they had some songs compiled, they went into the studio with Jason Groves at Sneak Attack Studios and recorded an EP.

They all laughed about the experience and the astonishment when Groves put Beth in the drum booth to record her vocals. Once they heard the result, however, they were collectively in awe of both Grove’s recording skills and Jenkin’s vocal talent. “He’s worked with me before,” Beth jokes.

When they take the stage after local opening band Test Passenger and hit that first note, you can understand why. Beth’s voice is incredibly powerful and so direct. She wails up into high notes with flawless accuracy, then in the next breath screams out her gut-punching lyrics, only to go back to singing like she’s in a musical. Impressive. The band backs her with exact synchronization, their heads slamming in classic punk style, instruments slung low as they fill the small stage, their lead woman out front, in amongst the loyal crowd, the sound filling the small room and making the windows rattle.

Beth’s lyrics chanted and screamed, sung out like an aria, Tom and Travis adding perfectly timed responses to Beth’s calls, the chanting like prayers, and the crowd joins in. Small but fervent, the crowd slams and bounces and dances and pushes each other guidingly back into the middle where one dancer bounces and slams into Tom…while he’s playing guitar. A true audience participation show, a true punk show, the crowd and the band become one with the beat, and Beth’s voice guides them all.

The shambled room and the DIY sound gear is part of the charm of Best Friend Bar, in walking distance from most of the UK dorms. The air smells of the amazing burritos from Girls, Girls, Girls Burritos, a co-business with BFB, operated out of a door next to the bar. Amazing grilled burritos and quesadillas, chips and dip are served out of the door – your ideal edge-of-campus business. The punk vibes fit perfect that night, and the camaraderie and joy the crowd clearly felt were good for everyone.

Beth Jenkins, The Jettisons | Photo by Derek Feldman

“You don’t necessarily have to have a really big crowd at a punk show. Enthusiastic really matters…I’d rather see two people moving than fifty people not,” the band agreed. Dancing with their audience, Beth and Tom draw the crowd in on the floor while the band diligently keeps the beat behind, Brad’s drums the sidewalk they dance upon, Hank’s bass the beat of their steps. Travis and Tom support Beth out front, and the joy and experience and tight musicianship of the collective are quite clear.

Tom and Beth joke between songs, with the band, and with the crowd. The feel of the set is fun. Just damn fun, and they’re out there to have fun. This isn’t the punk I remember from the early days. These aren’t young kids who hate the establishment. Beth says, “Old punk is about trashing something, destroying something. Fuck this, fuck that. There is something to rebuilding. There is something to bringing something back.” And that is what The Jettisons clearly get across to their audience.

The term “posi-punk”, or Positive Punk, is the subgenre they have chosen,

“Posipunk…is maybe an overlooked subgenre, it’s something that a lot of us who grew up listening to this kind of music maybe should start leaning towards…in times like these” Beth comments, “let’s talk about rebuilding. Let’s talk about the rebuild.”

Travis agrees, “There’s never been a more important time to be positive, at least in my lifetime, as far as society goes.”

Their songs try to touch on this idea, to come together. To stay positive. A new song that will be on their second CD, a full-length album they hope to get out soon, Beth wrote for Travis when he was struggling with anxiety. “Watch the Sky” is a positive song that she wrote for Travis to understand that he was not alone. That is what The Jettisons want to convey in their lyrics.

The Jettisons having a big ‘ol time at Best Friend Bar | Photo by Derek Feldman

With that powerful message, along with Beth’s astounding voice, and the collective talent of the guys backing her, The Jettisons are creating a new wave in Lexington’s punk scene.

Meanwhile, out in the parking lot…


Scene&Heard: LexPhil abuzz

The Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra is about halfway through their 2017-2018 season, and the halfway point for the Lexington Philharmonic is unique.

Like any classical orchestra, each concert has an entirely different repertoire, and classical music is notoriously technically difficult to play, even for professionals. It’s all the more remarkable, then, that Maestro Scott Terrell assembled a concert that had the most adventurous and audacious program yet presented this season. It’s a testament to the skill and artistry of the Philharmonic that the concert was a jubilant experience.

LexPhil music director and conductor Scott Terrell

The first piece of the evening at the University of Kentucky’s Singletary Center for the Arts was a standard in the repertoire of any orchestra: Giacomo Rossini’s Overture to The Barber of Seville. As Daniel Chetel notes in his program notes for the Philharmonic, this piece is likely familiar to anyone, classical aficionado or no, as the score to the Looney Tunes’ “Rabbit of Seville” cartoon.

Rossini wrote in the full Italian style, emphasizing easily singable (or hum-able) melodies that work their way into the ear and stay there. The key to a good performance of Rossini, then, is to make the sound as clear and clean as possible. This was no challenge to Terrell and the Philharmonic, who obviously enjoy playing the piece.

It’s still a remarkable sight, no matter how many orchestral performances you see, to watch nearly twenty violinists move their bows in absolute unison. It’s a mix of technical precision and passionate artistry that’s quite peculiar to orchestra concerts.

That doesn’t mean that there’s no cutting loose, though. At one point towards the end of the overture, Terrell turned to the side of the podium facing the violist and—and I really can only use this word—boogied with him, while still marking time for the rest of the orchestra.

The main piece for the first half of the evening was a suite of music drawn from Igor Stravinsky’s 1920 ballet Pulcinella. Stravinsky, unquestionably the foremost composer of the 20th Century and possibly the greatest single composer since Beethoven, wrote this piece in the early part of his neo-classical period. After an early career in the 1910’s redefining the sound of not just ballet but the entirety of classical music with pieces like Le Sacre du Printemps and Petrushka, Stravinsky spent much of the next few decades attempting to turn back the musical clock. His neo-classical style looked back to the Baroque period, with delicate counterpoint and strict dance forms, as a basis for containing the seemingly infinite musical options available to the composer.

Igor Stravinsky | Portrait by Arnold Newman – 1946

Even within the supposedly restrictive forms used in the suite, Stravinsky created a sound world all his own. He spins from one musical idea to the next, never settling on one path for too long, but circling back to explore all the options available. Through just one moment of the suite, the orchestra goes from a delicate but cheery violin solo (performed both passionately and expertly by concertmaster Daniel Mason) to a booming thundering clamor from the bass instruments, and then right into a lush orchestral swell under a resumed violin solo; this all happens within perhaps fifteen or twenty seconds of music.

It takes a titanic effort simply to keep everyone together during those moments, and it’s obvious that not just Terrell but the entire orchestra are listening intently to each other.

Stravinsky’s music is always its own sound world— the melodies always sound half familiar, but still distinctly unlike anything that you would think of humming to yourself as you wash the dishes. Towards the end the trombonist and a bassist juggled a short set of phrases back and forth between them, only fully joining into one voice as the whole beast roared into a fanfare for the finale, creating an effect that is both predictable and surprising all at once.

There are plenty of traps for players in Stravinsky’s music— sudden stops for the stings, an out-of-nowhere flute solo that has to soar above the whole rest of the sound and glide gracefully back down— and lesser orchestras often trip up on these moments. Not the Philharmonic. When the violins drop out, they drop out as one, and when they return, it’s as though each bow is connected to the same hand.

The neoclassical style can sometimes sound simplistic or reductive, but Stravinsky orchestrates in an extravagant manner, and the Philharmonic was able to accentuate each part of the whole in such a way that the listener could observe not only the entire effect but the way that every component contributed to the entire experience.

After an intermission, the Philharmonic returned with Vaughan Williams‘ Overture to The Wasps.

Vaughn Williams conducts The Eastman School Symphony Orchestra | Photo courtesy of the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester

Williams wrote a whole set of music to play with a production of Aristophanes’ ancient play, but the overture has found a second life among orchestras. It’s obvious why the Philharmonic was attracted to the piece—it has a style that overflows the bounds of the hall, filling the air with thick and overwhelmingly pleasant harmonies.

Williams’ overture runs about nine minutes, and it’s an excellent example of what classical composers can do within that time frame. Whereas pop music tends to be shorter in length and quite focused in terms of form and aesthetic, classical composers often feel free to roam about and wander through their material. Williams offers an example of this—there are no moments of quick change or unexpected leaps to new sections, only a continuous unfolding of transition upon transition. In the capable hands of Terrell, the music flows in an almost out-of-time manner.

The main event of the evening, however, was last.

In his time at the Philharmonic, Terrell has been a champion of new music. In his comments to the audience before the last piece, he said that he believed that orchestras have an obligation to present the “voices of today” to audiences. To accomplish that, the Lexington Philharmonic commissioned a new concerto from renowned composer Chris Brubeck, to be played by the world-famous Canadian Brass.

The concerto, entitled No Borders, was an unequivocal triumph for both composer and orchestra. Brubeck has a style that’s reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein, with lots of irregular meters that shout this is genuine American music, and a relentless and optimistic rhythmic drive that throws the piece constantly forward. The Canadian Brass played not just spectacularly, but in magnificent combination with the orchestra—totally in sync, and the whole feeling was one of camaraderie and unity of purpose.

Brubeck’s jazz-influenced style moves effortlessly between a kind of joyous wailing and winging about and moments of passionate harmony that seem suspended in time. He comes by that influence honestly as the son of the great jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck. As the piece moved from a rollicking opening movement that brought to mind West Side Story and big band standards to a suave slow second movement, Canadian Brass and the orchestra, with seemingly no effort, demonstrated a graceful and subtle exchange between instruments that’s a hallmark of the highest level of playing in both jazz and classical music.

Canadian Brass performing with LexPhil

The final movement was like a tour of the Alps, moving from one glorious peak to another. With a rhythmic swing that bounces the head up and down and rolls the sound of trumpets and trombones (and tubas and horns) out into the seats and steps of the hall, a raucous and ecstatic energy carried the piece to a close and the audience to its feet.

Canadian Brass member and Lexington native Caleb Hudson

After a standing ovation that lasted for three separate bows, the Canadian Brass returned to offer two encores. The first encore featured Canadian Brass member and Lexington native Caleb Hudson showing off the infamously tricky trumpet solos of The Beatles’ Penny Lane. Canadian Brass also demonstrated exactly how fast their fingers could move with a second encore, featuring The Flight of the Bumblebee in an all-brass arrangement.

The final notes shot by at such a rapid clip that the audience had to give another standing ovation just to capture them as they flew by. 

Many left the hall that night buzzing with excitement over what they had just experienced.


Swoon: The Canyon

AEQAI reviewer, Cynthia Kukla brings us this enlightening review of Swoon: The Canyon: 1999-2017 on view at the Contemporary Art Center (CAC) in Cincinnati through February 25th, 2018.

In her opening lines, the author writes:

Swoon makes magic.

Swoon stirs souls.

The world needs more Swoon.

Cynthia Kukla’s thesis is that Swoon utilizes four strategies in her artistic practice to construct objects/installations/performances that succeed: her ability to draw, her willingness to bring her work to the streets, using just about any material to do so, and her activist agenda.

Swoon: The Canyon: 1999-2017 was curated by CAC’s Chief Curator, Steven Matijcio and was organized by the Contemporary Arts Center of Cincinnati.

On several occasions, we have partnered with the Cincinnati-based publication, AEQAI, which seeks to fill the void in the Greater Cincinnati region for critical discourse. The journal offers articles to invigorate the imagination and thought of its readers while stimulating artists and curators to produce better artworks and exhibitions.

UnderMain, Inc. – a Kentucky-based 501 (c) 3 – is relatively new to the game and we appreciate the collaborative spirit of Daniel Brown, AEQAI’s Chief Editor, a leader in the realm of art criticism.

Say What? What is AEQAI?

ÆQAI (pronounced ‘I’ as in ‘bite ‘ and ‘qai ‘ as in ‘sKY’ ) is a Cincinnati-based e-journal for critical thinking, review and reflective prose on contemporary visual art. The word ‘ÆQAI’ was selected as a mispelling from a reprint of Livy’s text for the ‘Aequi.’ The Aequi were the peoples that Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus of ancient Rome conquered upon his famous brief tenure as a ‘temporary’ dictator. He crushed their rebellion and then reintegrated them into the burgeoning empire. It is a playful analogy to the artist community since it implies the inevitable incorporation of the avant garde into mainstream culture. We creatives are the Aequi. – from the AEQAI website.


Drive: Photographs by Sarah Lyon

In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that everything you see through that car window is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.

On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.

Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Sarah Lyon’s show of thirty-two photographs at the University of Louisville Photographic Archives Gallery illustrates a motorcyclian world view: the work uncannily puts the viewer into the pictorial realm, in a relationship to the subject that transcends the vicarious. Travel photographs but in no way a travelogue, Lyon opens her experience to the viewer while ironically remaining very much the creative personality occupying these images. Spanning fourteen years of the artist’s work, Lyon describes the work as a “personal investigation of what happens with artistic process as life evolves and changes, while embracing the inevitable ebb and flow of inspiration and motivation.”

In that pursuit, Lyon subverts normative orthodoxies, revives the rebel ethos of the motorcycle rider, celebrates alternative lifestyles and serves as a road-wise guide, especially to “areas in the American west that draw and intrigue me emotionally, spiritually and aesthetically.”

Sarah Lyon, Consider Bonneville Salt Flats (Utah Phone), 2011

Consider Bonneville Salt Flats (Utah Phone), 2011. An open phone booth is centered in the photograph: below is a band of asphalt and a culvert, and beyond, a band of dirt, the luminescent salt flats, far off mountains, and cumulus clouds above. The phone booth enclosure is a chamber opera of light, shade and reflection: the reflections against the front plate and keypad, the mottled light through the side of the booth enclosure, sunlight falling across the front of the booth, and the curved wire cord to the handset, provide a frontispiece to the vast expanse beyond.

USWEST is the name of the telephone company and the implication is that this is indeed the true American west – vast, desolate, solitary, and silent. Sky takes up half of the 30 by 30 inch image. A series of color and shape rhymes reiterate the sense that human communication by phone is irrelevant or futile in this context: the pavement gray echoes the gray of the distant mountains, the blue of the phone sign is a washed out version of the sky beyond and the reflections on the front plate are pearlescent like the clouds. The shadow of the phone booth is suggestive of a squat phalanx warrior holding a shield, a shape repeated in the irregular concrete and drain on the left.

All are belittled and left defenseless by the scale of the landscape. At first a minimalist composition with its deadpan centering and regular bands of topography dropping back into the distance, Bonneville Salt Flats (Utah Phone) is convincingly not simply a place recorded by Lyon but a complex meditation on the folly of the manmade and mechanical in the face of the grandeur of nature.

Sarah Lyon, First Storm, Minnesota Self-Portrait, 2003

Two self-portraits are comparable in the use of deep perspective to draw the viewer in. First Storm, Minnesota Self-Portrait, 2003 shows Lyon with her back to the camera braving an approaching storm. On the horizon is a farm and distant band of trees. Rowland Barthes described the salient detail in a photograph as the punctum: “a photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me but also bruises me.” A red X at the perspectival endpoint (apparently headlights reflected in wet pavement) is the punctum in this image – as far forward in Lyon’s journey that the photograph records. In effect we are told, “this is the photographer, this is her motorcycle, this is her direction, this is the country she is traversing.”

Sarah Lyon, Salt Evaporation Plan Road, 2017

Salt Evaporation Plan Road, 2017 is comparable in showing the photographer from behind, this time with a cord trailing in the foreground to the unseen camera. Sky, again, is half the image. Lyon is deeper into the foreground than in the Minnesota photograph, suggesting an appropriation of the wide open desert scrub land as part of her consciousness and identity. Lyon juxtaposes herself with the distant end of a gravel road.

“Vanishing point” in Swedish is “flyktpunkt” – which may carry implications of flight or escape: ominous foreboding, intimations of mortality or future passage of time is implicit in this portrayal, an altogether different kind of punctum. (It may also be pertinent that “vanishing point” is a recurring theme in motorcycle safety courses, indicating the limits of the rider’s knowledge. By focusing on the point where the asphalt meets the horizon, the driver has the maximum time and maximum distance to react to hazards or surprises). The shutter cord is the viewer’s point of entry here as if we were collaborators in the making of the photograph. Again, Sarah Lyon brings us inside the frame.

A third self-portrait is a recreation of Danny Lyons famous 1966 shot of a member of the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club, “Crossing the Ohio.” Picturing herself (by collaborating John Nation and Maggie Huber) on the Kennedy Bridge in Louisville is a declaration of affiliation with older norms of bikeriders’ free spirits.

Sarah Lyon, Jessica Dulong, Fireboat Engineer, Hudson River, NYC, 2009.

Lyon may be best known for her series of photographs of women mechanics, a feminist response to the pin-up calendars that still appear in car repair shops. Jessica Dulong, Fireboat Engineer, Hudson River, NYC, 2009 portrays the engineer and author at work in command of the rich complexity of the engine room. If one includes the self-portraits, over a third of the 32 pictures in the exhibition are portraits of people acting in their professional setting: fireboat mechanic, conceptual artist, visual artist and chainsaw mechanic, blacksmith, performance artist , musician, D.J., and motorcycle parts dealer. Lyon works in the tradition of the “portrait d’apparat,” a baroque practice of depicting people exercising their profession.

Early American portraits, such as John Singleton Copley’s 1768 rendering of Paul Revere holding a teapot is notable for showing the artist in his shirtsleeves, his engraving tools in front of him. The silversmith appears with none of the trappings of power and respectability characteristic of 18th Century portraiture. Even more dramatic in its democratic implications is John Neagle’s 1827 full length painting of “Pat Lyon at the Forge.” (No relation to the artist).

A successful businessman and inventor, Pat Lyon began his career as a blacksmith, and commissioned a depiction of himself in that profession, mallet in hand. Lyon insisted that his portrait include a view of the prison in which he was wrongly incarcerated in his youth. Sarah Lyon continues that tradition and evades the voyeurism and class consciousness that sometimes afflicts documentary practice. She does so by either totally evading the formality of the traditional artificiality of posing, or in contrast, heightening it with improbable settings – for example, D. J. ‘Jumbo Shrimp’ in a sailor suit standing in a derelict boat, or performance artist ‘Narcissister’ upside down on a kitchen cabinet disporting masks. Again, borders disappear.

Sarah Lyon, Narcissister.

Sarah Lyon, Traveling with Bill Burke, 2012.

Traveling with Bill Burke, 2012, is a portrait by synecdoche of the veteran photographer and the character of his company on a road trip – lens, wallet, cameras, pistol, magazine, beer bottles, glasses, paper cup, radio and telephone on a motel bedside table, sum up the experience with inventorial aplomb.

Sarah Lyon, Badwater Road, Death Valley, CA, 2017

Motels also feature in a diptych Atomic Inn, Beatty, NV and Badwater Road, Death Valley, CA, 2017. Again Lyon stands in the road and brings the viewer inside the frame. The yellow brown rock formation on the left of a curved road in Death Valley has its color match in the knotty pine paneling and Navaho-Deco headboard in the motel. The distant white jet contrail above the landscape is paralleled by the white of the pillows on the bed. The crepuscular light of sunset has an echo in the twin bedside lamps: the white plug on the left is the punctum, emphasizing the artificiality of the interior illumination.

What is remarkable about Lyon’s work is not what she has seen but how she has shared it. The trip provides the overall narrative. Lyon makes it participatory, providing access to her forceful and independent vision.

Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive.

Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Drive: Photographs of Sarah Lyon is one of fifty-three exhibits in this year’s Louisville Photo Biennial. Lyon’s work may also be seen as part of Open Studio Weekend, 12 to 6, November 4th and 5th, at Quadrant, 380 Missouri Avenue, Jeffersonville, IN 47130.

Lyon is a member of the Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project.


Scene&Heard: NP Presley and the Ghost of Jesse Garon

Formerly an old Methodist Episcopal church built in 1866, the Southgate House Revival in Newport, KY has been remade into an amazing live music venue, just up the road from Lexington.

Photo by Scott Preston for

Offering an opportunity for local Lexington talent to expand their circles a bit, often to open for a national touring act they admire, Southgate creates a unique and gorgeous space for musicians and fans to share their time together. As opening band for the San Francisco touring legends The Flamin’ Groovies, NP Presley and the Ghost of Jesse Garon were the first of three bands to take the stage in the Sanctuary Room at Southgate.

Opening for a legendary band such as the Groovies was a gig that Nate, aka NP Presley, was proud to add to his band’s roster. “Southgate calls us repeatedly, and they ask us to open up for bands we really respect. I’d rather play for a band we really respect and look up to.”

The Sanctuary room is exactly what it suggests, the room where Episcopalians once gathered in worship, stained glass windows now flanked by acoustic paneling, pews removed from the wooden floors to make way for tables and chairs, and the organ piping now the backdrop for the fully stocked bar. The stage is set where the altar should be, and the choir’s balcony above is now a green room for the musicians who meander back and forth in what must be the coolest view from a green room, ever.

Southgate House Revival

Churches, I believe, make amazing live music venues, as they are made to project sound and music so perfectly. The walls seem to agree with the evolution, and the Southgate House is no exception. The side of the room boasted heavily visited merch tables for all three bands, and the fans filed in, devotees to a certain groove, and many greeted each other as friends. The room soon boasted a promising crowd, with room in front of the tables for a dance floor. NP Presley and the Ghost of Jesse Garon were the first set of three that night, to be followed by Tiger Sex, and then the headliner the fans were collected to see, The Flamin’ Groovies.

As I’ve noted in previous columns of shows past, the opening set has to be one of the toughest. You have to get the crowd’s attention as they’re filing in, greeting others, buying merch, ordering drinks and settling in for the headliner most have come to see.

NP Presley and the Ghost of Jesse Garon are devoted fans of The Flamin’ Groovies, and routinely cover their song Teenage Head. They had the opportunity to open for one of their idols, and their reverence and respect for that assignment, to warm up the crowd and get them ready to worship when the time came, was met with a devotion that was apropos for the building. They played their thirty minutes in full force and with great joy, drawing from their most recent CD “Broken Fantasy” as well as past works, and the crowd responded beautifully.

N.P. Presley and the Ghost of Jesse Garon is a big band with a long story. Boasting eight members, they are headed by NP Presley, aka Nate. Nate is the distant cousin to Elvis Presley, his mother was Elvis’ cousin and also a Country and Western singer in Nashville. NP recalls as a young boy being woken up by his father to watch his mother perform live on TV, then going back to bed. Jesse Garon, Elvis enthusiasts may know, was Elvis’ twin brother who died at birth. Nate sees the band’s name as an homage to “the spirit of rock and roll.”

NP Presley and the Ghost of Jesse Garon at Southgate House Revival

When they take the stage, the full band is an impressive display, Nate and others dressing to the nines from their brilliantly shined shoes to their neckties. Heather’s eyes are masked in black outlines that are mystical and beautiful and match her alluring voice. Eight in number, including NP Presley on vocals and guitar, Heather Parrish on vocals, Tex Dynamite on lead guitar and vocals, Matt Sigler on guitar, Chris Childers on bass, David Lee Hinkle on keys, Joe Linville on baritone sax and Whitney Mehringer on drums, together they create a well orchestrated and powerful sound.

While the name of the band and even the nice suits suggest a rockabilly sound, the sound of the band is quite diverse, as their tight thirty-minute set demonstrated. “We want to avoid defining our sound. I have metalheads who love us, gospel kind of people who love us, I meet hippies who like us, bikers like us cause we’re the sound of what it’s about really, freedom.

“We’re trying to be a big band…so far people have been really cool about it.”

They segued easily from rockabilly to punk to rock to even a gospel sound. NP dominates the vocals, with Heather Parrish on tightly emphatic harmonies, but for more than one song they literally switched places, mics and all, and Nate backed up Heather, with other band members adding in tight four and five-piece harmonies on several songs as well.

The elevated stage with that gorgeous archway backdrop was a beautiful setting for their sound. They filled every corner of the stage with their large presence and gave every bit of themselves while they were up there.

Presley, Mehringer and Parrish

Heather’s powerful voice rose up and around NP’s deep lyrics, filling them in like a well-wrapped package. Keys and sax slide in around the music, and the drums keep a strong beat going, making the crowd move along. NP and Heather are up there preaching, telling the crowd their story, and making sure it drives home. They want their crowd to be in it with them.

“My hope is to see people cutting loose, not worrying about the problems that are weighing them down every day,” NP said. “Because this is where I go to get rid of the problems I have…its really nice to see people in awe out there, stopping dead in their tracks with wide eyes and they didn’t expect what was happening. You want people to enjoy themselves. I do this to get away from reality, and I hope people can leave all the bad parts of their reality behind and enjoy the good parts, in the few minutes we get to make music.”

Taking full advantage of their half hour, the band moved with well-rehearsed precision from one song to the next. “The River Styx” was a deep, gothic song that told a story freighted with warning. Heather’s voice added a haunting quality that commanded the room. “Idle Dreams” had a southern gospel sound that was heavy with keys, the band joining in as a chorus that suited the setting of the old church.

NP Presley and the Ghost of Jesse Garon at the Southgate House Revival

The set was over too soon, but the band filled every second of it with some righteous rock and roll. The energy they exuded to the crowd was contagious, and the audience was begging for more when it was done. Happy to have headed north a bit to open for an amazing night of music for some of their idols, N.P. Presley and the Ghost of Jesse Garon represented Lexington quite well that night.

Listen to Cara’s conversation with N.P. Presley and the band:


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


Traveling Through Time With Italian Beaches

“You get, oftentimes, this interplay of multiple time signatures and so it’ll let you move to it and it’ll like change it up for you, whether you want it to or not. There is sort of this anxiety in Italian Beaches and I think the anxiety is expressed because of the fact that the band is a both a digital and an analog band – which is sort of how we are all experiencing our lives these days.

We have this like digital reality that is not the reality that any of us evolved for or with, and so, most people I know are experiencing a cognitive dissonance and extreme anxiety, and Italian Beaches tries to harness that and let us experience it, but in musical form.” – Reva Russell English

By oscillating time signatures with a futuristic wabi-sabi complexity, Lexington electro-jazz band, Italian Beaches, reaches new musical frontiers with their dreamy theatrical performances and their vibrant double-vinyl album coming out on November 4th via Lexington label, Desperate Spirits.

Italian beaches is a potent collection of live synths from Farhad Rezaei, pre-programmed and live beats by Dave Farris, and haunting vocals from Reva Russell English that accumulate into some kind of disorienting science-fiction reality; think Massive Attack but loose enough to be from some alternate dimension.

I sat down with the band at the North Limestone home of lead singer, Reva Russell English, and asked them about how the band and the concept for the album came about.

“Italian Beaches is this future-driven creation that has come back to the past, led by what is basically a sex robot, let’s be honest, she’s a companion, created in the future, for poor humans, who no longer know how to relate to one another because of artificial intelligence and phones. We’ve learned not to need each other and we’ve learned to be very lonely and this coming back to now, that Italian Beaches is doing, is kind of an attempt, sort of in Sun Ra fashion – without having a religion, to sort of like, say:

Let’s try again.
Let’s try again before it’s too late.
Let’s tell our story.
Let’s tell it faster.
Let’s tell it slower.
Let’s get to know each other again.
Let’s feel our feelings.
Let’s open up to love.
Let’s be ready.
Let’s make ourselves known.
It’s an invitation.” – Reva

In addition to Italian Beaches, it is important to note that all of the members of the band have more than 10 other current bands and musical projects between them. Reva plays guitar in clusterfolk group, Reva Dawn Salon, banjo in the proto-bluegrass outfit, Small Batch, and joins her husband, Andrew English, on his projects as Englishman. Percussionist and keyboardist Farhad Rezaei played with March Madness Marching Band and now plays with The Payback and joins Jeff Watts and Berea College drum professor, Tripp Bratton, to perform a unique mix of Middle Eastern and North African music with Hallwa. And finally, Dave Ferris is a Lexington institution and one of the busiest drummer in town; playing with The Tall Boys, Club Dub, Big Fresh, ATTEMPT, The Payback, C The Beat, and that’s just scratching the surface. All of these myriad influences concurrently accumulate into the fragile compositional details of the new Italian Beaches record.

“There are time when you’re trying to figure things out, but even then, it’s so easy – it’s not like you’re hurting my feelings. We’re ok with each other. It’s like having a conversation where you know your language; unlike me talking in English. You don’t hiccup. There is this fluency.” – Farhad

The first time that Reva and drummer Dave Farris played together was at The Green Lantern. She called Dave to book him for a gig because she needed a drummer and they didn’t have time to rehearse, so their first set together was live in front of people. Dave met Farhad Rezaei, at Nema’s Grill, an Iranian restaurant in Frankfort, when their bands were playing across the street from each other. Dave invited Farhad to come join him on-stage at one of Ross Compton’s Outside The Spotlight Jazz Series shows at the Mecca Dance Studio on Limestone spot and speak Farsi through an Echoplex.

Dave and Farhad started playing together in the band FUMA and Reva, when she had just moved back to town in 2010, saw them play in the building on Loudon Avenue that Bullhorn Creative is currently in. After FUMA ended, Dave and Farhad started a new musical project in early 2011 and invited Reva to come on board and sing. After playing together for 6 years and four-tracking recordings at practice, local producer and member of Big Fresh, John Ferguson, connected with the group, recorded and mastered the album, and is putting it out on his Desperate Spirits label.

“We would get together and record and work on stuff and, after a while, if I can’t get any idea, any inspiration, just think: playing a show in Italy, we’re on the beaches there. So, whenever there would be a block, just think Italian Beaches, okay?” – Dave

Reva added, “What’s wrong on an Italian beach?”

When I asked the band what they hoped that people will take away from listening to this album, their responses mimicked the delicate and thoughtful balance that their songs do. Reva hopes, “They feel themselves in their body, where they are.” Dave hopes, “It makes their heart feel something – hope it gives it the pitter-patter.” Farhad hopes, “That people will be happy, being there, being next to this thing that we made – just for a little while. Listen to it once and see what you feel. It’s not conventional music, it’s a conversation.”

Italian Beaches album release show
November 4th
Early set starts at 8PM
Late set starts at 10PM with a solo performance from Emily Hagihara
18 and over

The Burl is located at 375 Thompson Rd.

Listen below to Chuck’s interview with Italian Beaches and some tasty splices of music from their album.


Scene&Heard: Joslyn and the Sweet Compression

And just like that, on a sultry October night, Willie’s Locally Known was filled with a damn funky beat. 

Joslyn and The Sweet Compression, consisting of a diverse group of Lexington musicians, set the mood and laid the musical red carpet for Joslyn Hampton to take the stage and display her impressive vocals. Trumpet, sax, keys and drums joined guitar and bass to fill those wooden walls with some tight, high-quality music.

They started out with an instrumental, letting trumpet, then sax take the lead, each musician feeding off what the others had done before him, and then, Joslyn took the stage.  They had to make a big sound, see, to match her voice. Good lord, that voice.

Dancing with the beat between her verses, the entire package is a tight assemblage. Beckoning the roots of R&B, Joslyn and the Sweet Compression rock out originals and sprinkle in a few covers. 

Joslyn and The Sweet Compression at Willie's

It is a masterful scene, each musician clearly exceptional individually; collectively they give the audience a taste of great quality. Joined on stage by her step-father Marty Charters on guitar, Smith Donaldson on bass, Rashawn Fleming on drums, Stevie Holloman on a double set of keys, Joe Carucci on saxophone, and Jeffrey Doll on trumpet, Joslyn owns the room with her deep, solid and flawlessly consistent vocals. Joined with backing harmonies by Rashawn and Stevie, her singing quickly got the crowd up and dancing.

Raised singing in the church with her father’s family and her grandmother Vivian, Joslyn’s life has been one of singing. She received a partial scholarship to KSU and was in their Concert Choir, and took vocal lessons for a few years practicing opera, which she loved. That skill and training are clearly evident as her songs complimented her vast range of skill, moving her voice up and down the scale with ease.

As for influences, Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston, and Jill Scott are Joslyn’s big 3.

Marty cites Sly and the Family Stone, Chaka (a major point of intersection), The JB’s, Junior Wells and the Beatles. Also high on his list is Ohio funk hero Roger Troutman and his band, Zapp.

Personally speaking, nothing gets this music voyeur happier than a band that is clearly having a good time up on stage.  Talent helps, of course, and skill, but it’s gotta be fun to really draw the audience in, even if the music is sad in tone. The Sweet Compression, with their fearless leader at the mic, is clearly having a wonderful time up there. The range of the songs they play is diverse, moving smoothly from funk, to R&B, to reggae, then sliding nicely into a slower soul song, Joslyn’s voice never faltering. The backing harmony supports her so well, and you can hear the church background in her skill set.

Like most musicians, Joslyn has to struggle to make time for music between her duties as a Security officer at UK. “Go to sleep, go to work, go to a gig, go back to work…that’s my life.” Joslyn and the Sweet Compression has existed for about a year, and their entity as a band was created somewhat backward from the usual.  She and step-dad Marty pulled some songs and lyrics together and then headed straight to the studio with Duane Lundy at Shangri-La. After recording their CD, they then decided to form a band to get the music out into the clubs.

Starting from scratch, excepting Marty and Smith, The Sweet Compression evolved into the band of troubadours that rocked the stage at Willie’s in their current form.  “I enjoy seeing the growth and process of everyone, including me…We know each other so well that we kind of fall into the right thing…we all get along…I think we’re bound to get far.” Joslyn has a strong affection for her band and the support they’ve given her; “those are my boys.”

The next step, they hope, is to spread out in “little circles” to surrounding cities like Louisville, Cincinnati, and further. They’ve gotten their foot in the door already and will play Headliner’s in Louisville to open for the Victor Wooten Trio, of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones fame. The band is excited to spread their sound outside of Lexington, but is so grateful for the response they’ve had in the short year since they released their debut CD and began playing out around town.

They recorded a live video at The Burl awhile back and were so impressed by the love they received from the crowd. “I was very, very surprised by the positive response we’ve gotten from the community…it’s been enlightening and humbli