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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 Art21.live.

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.

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“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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Arts Tasting Menu

A handcut tasting of cultural delicacies from Lexington, the region, and beyond.

Appetizer

Lynn Sweet. New Editions Gallery, Lexington. Thru December 22.

Known over the years primarily for his woodworking masterworks, local artist and UK faculty member Lynn Sweet’s vivid frescoes of Kentucky countrysides and backroads evoke the beauty of the natural landscape.

Entree

Jibade-Khalil Huffman:Poems For Every Occasion. KMAC Museum, Louisville. Thru December 2.

Using text-based work, photographic images, video, and performances, Huffman creates an artistic commentary on American popular culture and the way that the American imagination is being subjected to and affected by the saturation of our increasingly image-based environment.

Dessert

Performances: False Face & Happy House. UK Art Museum, Lexington. Saturday, November 17, 2pm.

Two newly-commissioned twenty-minute plays by Silas House and Kara Lee Corthron, based on the photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, on exhibit at the museum, will be performed by the UK Department of Theater and Dance. The Meatyard exhibition, not to be missed, closes on December 9th.