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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

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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…

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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.

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Swoon: The Canyon: 1999-2017

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.

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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.

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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 Cincygroove.com

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:

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Dredging Memory and Disaster

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

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

Alison Saar, Breach, 2016, installation view.

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

Alison Saar, Breach, 2016.

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

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

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

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

Alison Saar, Muddy Water Mambo, 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Joel Darland

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Arts Tasting Menu

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

How about a trip to Louisville?

Appetizer

Project 20: Failure in Progress, Zephyr Gallery, Louisville

Five artists explore failure in production and reception of their work. Another in this contemporary gallery’s thematic group exhibitions. November 3-December 30.

Entree

Bruce Conner: Forever and Ever, Speed Museum, Louisville 

A major exhibition of the work of Bruce Connor, best known for his experimental work in film. Work included in this exhibition include not only film, but also painting, drawing, collage, printmaking, and photography, showing Connor’s endeavors across many mediums. Open November 11, thru March 2, 2018.

Dessert

Object(s) of Desire, 21c Museum Hotel, Louisville

After a big art day in Louisville, how about a stay at 21c, where the current group exhibition of photographs explores that eternally fascinating and confounding human emotion, desire. Thru November 11.