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Ghosts and the Clothes They Wear: Mike Goodlett’s Life with Art

It’s been a week or so since I visited Mike Goodlett in his sanctuary.

“Sanctuary” is one of those go-to words I never go to, but I’m going to it now, after having experienced its manifestation in real life.  Where Goodlett makes art is simply that: a place of refuge, of safety, sort of sacred but also a little scary, like a hiding place you go to in dreams when you are being chased by blurry creatures you may not be able to remember but then wake up and try to draw.

In this case, “sanctuary” is an anonymous farmhouse with a gravel road leading up to it tunneled in trees and vines.  The day I visited was all crystal-clear blue sky, a beautifully strange shine on and coming from everything, like a photograph that never gets taken but somehow still is a photograph.  The house is white-sided, two-storied, and gray-roofed, with multiple front and back doors, lots of windows, and all around it is yard going off into land, some of it barren, some of it treed, grass just now sprouting into life.

Mike Goodlett’s Studio

I parked and got out of my car.  There wasn’t any wind, just that bright chilly air.  Even though I had never been here before, it was like a returning.  Meeting Goodlett was like that as well.

He is tall and unassuming, very polite, and we shook hands after I called him on my phone, confused by which door I should knock on.  We both were awkward at first, but almost instantly we got down to business.  I was here to see his art, and this is where he makes it, so we went on in, an automatic transfer from reality to ghostliness.  Nothing unnerving at all about it though.  There wasn’t an abandoned-house fustiness, or even a feeling of loss; it was the smell and ambience of lives having been lived, dusty but clean, sunlight baking old wood and plaster into an atmosphere.

“I’ve always wanted to be left alone,” Goodlett said.  It was sort of a joke, but I think he meant it as a solemn introduction too.

“I mean, I can’t find a group I want to be a part of.  So being out here for me has made a lot of sense.”

The house is actually his grandmother and grandfather’s. They died 30 or so years ago, and since then Goodlett has used the rooms, and the vicinity, as his studio and headspace, creating batches of artworks made from the humblest of materials (concrete, plaster, thread, ball point pens, pencils, crayons, and spray-paint) but that exude a sophistication that belies the humility of their construction.

Goodlett escorted me through each room of the house, which is gutted mostly, emptied of hominess so it can supply this new form of utility.  The wallpaper is shredded at points, but still covers many of the walls in a handsome form of pentimento, like a shirt half torn off.  A small black wood-burning stove occupies the middle portion of the house, releasing that warmth and smell from my own backwoods childhood: wood-smoke almost like a cologne.  In the kitchen a long table covered in stacks of books, drawing paper, pen and pencils, a coffee urn.

In each of the rooms Goodlett displayed works he wanted to show me.  We started out, though, in a cold little side area where he was experimenting with spray paint and cut-out stencil-like netting.  There were chunks of sculptures in here as well.

He walked around showing me what he was trying to figure out, and then told me, “I love changing materials, figuring out what they can do for me.  Ideas, too. I move from one body of work into another that way.  I know a body of work is finished really when I don’t have any more energy for it, and when it has a place to go.  Energy and interest are kind of linked that way.”

This house itself was like his manifesto in a lot of ways: objects and ideas half-formed, trying to find each other.  An exuberance flashed out of everything that’s not finished, that was looking for a way to be something else.  At one point he showed me some homemade lace he’d constructed from thread, pastel cobwebs shaped into socks and little hats, creepy and droopy but also innocently tattered, as if made to be used by ghosts.

Goodlett walked us through a hall and into another first-floor room, which was crowded with more sculptural works, as well as pages and pages of his drawings spanning across the gray-painted wood slats.  His three-dimensional objects have a tenderness you can’t name, concrete/plaster-formed mainly biomorphic and/or humanoid shapes that have evolved from the drawings.  And conversely, the drawings often vacuum in the shapes of the sculptures, a sort of aesthetic circle-jerk that reminds you both of angelic visitations and, well, group sex.

Or, as Goodlett likes to call it, the intersection of “whimsy” and “pornography.”  That’s one of his main themes, he told me, a way of trying to figure out the meaning of those two usually unintegrated penchants, often seen as polar opposites.  Whimsy in visual art often can become a twee exercise in flirtation, pornography a way to shock or display street cred.  The drawings, on paper and cardboard, created through an enmeshing of ink and pencil, needle and thread and paint, get at that merger without losing a sense of vigor and intimacy.  They are shapes pulled from gestures and moans that have ballooned into myth.  Through that clarification process, whimsy connects to porn, and abstract goes concrete.

In a drawing from 2011 titled “Dress Socks” (from a show called “Dress Socks and Other Diversions” at Institute 193 in Lexington, Kentucky), Goodlett gets down to the whimsy of porn and the porn of whimsy through a delicate fetishization of everydayness.  It’s an abstracted image of socks, given a veil of obsession, but a delicate ritual line informs every aspect of the drawing, like a Spirograph finding its way to language.  The drawing’s beauty comes from Goodlett’s dedication to finding what makes something erotic when it is not, what makes something endearing when it’s just an object you slide your feet into.  That investigation is done without words but through an adherence to what drawing can mean and do, a visual language that does not ever need a thesaurus.

Mike Goodlett, Dress Socks, 2011, ballpoint pen and thread on paper, 19 x 15.5 inches

We went upstairs.

Witnessing all of Goodlett’s rooms on display in his own personal museum up on the second floor, I kept thinking of Philip Guston’s jazzy delinquency and Georgia O’Keefe’s penchant for curves – all of that aestheticism laid bare through a need to make something personal, to find relief.  Throw a little Dichirico in there too, especially when taking in Goodlett’s objects: that stony sense of stillness matched with a yearning for songs of love.

In a piece I saw in one of the rooms, “Untitled” (from the 2015 exhibit “Human Behavior” at the John Goodlett Kohler Art Center), the connection to all of the above references comes through clearest.  The shape is chandelier crossed with internal organs, all of that turned to stone and then clothed in gauzy spandex, like something a mummy-stripper might put on to take off.  The muted color gives it dreaminess and pallor, but also highlights the stalagmite seriousness of its existence.  The solidity of it is an elegant joke too, like a lead balloon, but also you feel enlightened by its sense of holiness somehow.  It’s something you might worship, like an Egyptian artifact after the fact.

Michael Goodlett, Untitled

Goodlett mentioned Osiris in this room upstairs. The Egyptian-ness of his pursuit.

“It’s like inviting something supernatural to come and visit,” he said.  “Like I’m making vessels to contain them.”

One of many Osiris’s many identities is “Lord of Silence.”  He also goes by “Ruler of the Dead,” probably the first Egyptian deity to be associated with the mummy wrap, containing the dead in supernatural fabric to protect them as they made their way out of themselves.

Goodlett also explained to me that he works in cycles. Each cycle gets determined through exhaustion and external deadlines.  He is constantly pursuing obsessions, materials, and subject matter with an eye toward perfecting what he can, reinventing what he invents, and repurposing what he gets rid of.  (Right beyond the back porch is a beautiful pile of tossed-aside concrete and plaster pieces, a little encampment of future shapes, ideas, connections.)

In each room upstairs, drawings and sculptures waited for us politely, leaned up against the walls, ready for whatever.  My mind went to J. F. Sebastian from the movie Bladerunner.  He’s the genetic engineer left behind on Earth after most people have gone to colonize other planets, and because of dystopian loneliness and boredom he creates a generation of toys and androids to help him feel a little less alone.

I’ve always considered J. F. Sebastian a beautifully realized portrait of an artist without the normal baggage associated with “being an artist.”  His connection to what he makes is sincere and real, and yet he also understands the purpose of his practice in a pragmatic, unadorned way. He needs to make things in order to have someone there at the end of the day to greet him, to break away from a world that may no longer be there for him.  He creates an ecosystem out of bits and pieces, and in a movie filled with bleakness and doubt his existence feels the most hopeful and ironically the most grounded.

At one point, in one of the rooms upstairs, Goodlett brought in a bunch of drawings and laid them out on the floor, an overwhelming overspill.  You could tell he doesn’t like to talk about his work until he starts talking about it. But once he got going, he seemed relieved to be able to say what he wanted to say.

“Solitude appeals to me,” he said.  “But I also know I need to have a place for all of this stuff to go.”

He mentioned Philip March Jones as one of those external factors who’s assisted in understanding where he might fit in the world outside of here.  Jones, funder of Institute 193 and currently its Curator-at-Large, visited Goodlett here ten or so years ago and would not take no for an answer after asking Goodlett to have a one-man show.  Now dealers and curators often come to him.

All of my talk about J. F. Sebastian and solitude and sanctuary might make you consider Goodlett an “outsider artist.”  I truly hope not.  I don’t really think those old-school rules of arbitrary classifications apply here or basically anywhere now.  Goodlett graduated from an art school in the 1980s (Cincinnati Art Academy), and he has had exhibits at a lot of high-end joints, write-ups in national media (BOMBmagazine and Artforum, just to name a couple).  His outsiderness really is not something to focus on or to conjure.  He is an artist living his life, using what he makes to keep his life and energy and interest going.

At the end of our visit Goodlett told me he had to go to the grocery store next.  He explained how he’s one of the only family members left who can take care of his elderly mom and his aunts.  He spends a lot of time making sure they are doing okay, and then he comes out here to pursue what he needs to pursue.

This farmhouse from his childhood is not Paradise Gardens, or a version of Watts Towers.  It’s just where he has wound up.  Somehow the journey and the destination have merged into both an artistic practice and a reason to live.  Making art, whoever is making it, weaves the inner-world into the outer-world in a way that allows you to recover and replenish and continue.  This rooms in Goodlett’s farmhouse are always evolving, changing, and he always struggles to figure out what fits where.  What drawing can give birth to three dimensions, what object can be sucked into two.  This space has given him permission to do the work he needs to do: making clothes for ghosts, making ghosts so he can make clothes for them.

“I guess you’d call everything I do part of an ongoing installation that never ends,” he told me.

Eventually, we went outside and did a little tour of the yard and surrounding area.  Just beyond his front yard is a thicket of tall trees where he’s installed a couple of sculptures.  One of them, sprouting from the mud like the hardened teats of a buried cow, is the perfect example of whimsy sliding into something a little less than charming and more guttural.  It’s ridiculous but also makes perfect sense.

Goodlett’s pursuit of art is converging the need to be seen with the need to disappear.

Right before the end of our visit, Goodlett talked about his legacy in terms of where all this work might go.  He told me he had a dream that he would have all of his works stored in an anonymous storage shed, and he would give the key to someone, right before he passes.  He smiled.

“The only problem is – who do I give the key to?”

I nodded my head.  We said goodbye.

The night  before visiting Goodlett, I went to an Iron and Wine concert, so I was playing Iron and Wine songs all the way here and all the way back.  When I arrived, and when I left, the song I was listening to was “Resurrection Fern,” from the 2007 album The Shepherd’s Dog.  The music is steel-guitar languish blurring into folk-rock lament.  Sam Beam’s voice has a cadence and warmth to it, like a voice you hear only inside your head when you’re dozing off in church.

“Resurrection Fern” starts with these words:

In our days we will live
Like our ghosts will live
Pitching glass at the cornfield crows
And folding clothes.

I won’t be able to hear that song now without thinking about the depth and amount of Goodlett’s work, the place where he makes it, and the life he’s lived in order to be able to do it.  There’s a poetry to his pursuit you can’t write poems about; you can only acknowledge his lifelong project by knowing his work is a journey toward making more work, and more work, until all of it will need to a final place to exist – a pyramid, a museum, a storage unit, or a haunted house. It doesn’t matter.  Wherever it all goes it will be called “home.”

Arts

Temporal Slippage at the MS Rezny Gallery

By nature, a palimpsest is a document that collapses time, bringing together two disparate moments juxtaposed one over the other. It is this temporal slippage that is at the center of Martin Beck’s current exhibition on view at MS Rezny in Lexington. Beck’s works function as the titular palimpsest (or Palimpsest 2 in this particular case) by drawing on the historicity associated with the nude in Western art history—both with regard to the long tradition of the nude dating back to antiquity and in terms of its usage in order to create a sense of the past by removing the sartorial markers of a present moment—while simultaneously imbuing the works with an undeniable sense of the here and now.

Taken from life, Beck’s figures contain a certain phenomenological quality that makes them undeniably present, particularly through the tactility of his chosen medium. Moreover, his drawings engage with the present through the inclusion of subtle and simple symbolic objects—including guns and even the hammer and sickle—that remind us of the highly contentious and politicized climate of our current moment. In so doing, Beck draws the viewer into a moment of deep contemplation of the conditions of their present state, both in front of the work and in our society on the whole.

Martin Beck, “Tuesday”, 2019, Mixed media on prepared paper, 29 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches

For all of the works in Palimpsest 2, Beck manages to blur the line between eternal and ephemeral. On the one hand, works like Tuesday engage with the long tradition of the nudes within the western canon. In this work, a young woman appears seated, legs stretched out in front of her as centuries of reclining female nudes have done before. Beck further gives her a sense of timelessness by rendering the setting completely illegible. Abstract coloration has taken the place of any scenery, including whatever implement she is seated upon, providing the viewer with no historical content to understand this appearance. With no such temporal signifiers, we are left with an eternal nude.

At the same time, this eternal quality is undercut by the tactility of the work and the fact that it is drawn from life. While Beck uses a variety of media in creating his drawings, the works are all clearly marked by the hand of the artist in the present moment rendering them not only visually compelling, but also imbuing them with a haptic quality. The gradations in texture and color as well as the clear imprints of the hand used to contour and shade all provide the work with a sense of immediacy and the momentary.

While the subject matter may feel eternal, the works are undeniably the result of an instantaneous and particular interaction. This momentary quality is furthered by the fact that all of the works are drawn directly from life. According to Beck, “working from life, the model and artist reveal the truth of a specific time, place and act. […] Rather than think of these as pictures of people, for me these are authentic depictions of selective experiences.” As such, Beck’s nudes are given an ephemerality and a temporality of the present, despite the lack of signifiers that would tie them to a time or place.

Martin Beck, “Ties That Bind”, 2019, Mixed media on prepared paper, 29 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches

Yet not all of Beck’s works involve the complete disavowal of present-day objects in order to create this collapsing of time within each one. Some works, like the piece Ties that Bind, include clear references to our current moment in the form of specific items, while still maintaining a sense of temporal ambiguity. In this piece, Beck depicts a woman lying on the ground, with her head at the bottom of the composition and her legs propped up on some unknown, wrapped object, holding an assault rifle next to her right hip. Beck unsettles the woman from time and space, not only through her nudity, but again through his abstraction of the background; Beck denies the viewer a concrete horizon line and thus she appears floating and timeless.

At the same time, Beck’s inclusion of the gun works to draw us immediately back to the present. Given the prevalence of gun violence—especially that carried out with assault-style weapons—it is impossible to view the rifle by her side and not consider both the carnage and the contention surrounding these objects in our current moment. As such, Beck uses these objects to further the sense of the present within each work.

Martin Beck, “Material Girl”, 2019 Mixed media on prepared paper 29 1/2 x 29 1/2 inches

Martin Beck, “Home Grown #4”, 2018, mixed media on prepared paper, 29 1/2 x 42 inches

While some of the items included in Beck’s images are unabashed signifiers of our present moment, others have a subtler allusion to temporal “now.” For instance, several of the works, including Material Girl, Lurid Red, and Home Grown #4, all involve nude figures—a singular woman in the cases of Material Girl and Lurid Red and a man for Home Grown #4holding a hammer and sickle. Unlike the assault rifle, the signification of these objects is less immediate; in the almost three decades since the decline of the Soviet Union, the hammer and sickle have become more historic signifiers than anything else.

Yet Beck’s inclusion of these object in works that—which through their tactility involve a sense of immediacy and the present—functions to dust off the historical characteristic of the hammer and sickle and force us to examine their role in the present. Given the current contentious geopolitical situation between the United States and Russia, and the outspoken desire of Russia’s president to return to the glory days of the U.S.S.R., these seemingly outdated objects do have a clear bearing on our contemporary existence.

Furthermore, the continued debates over “Socialism” and its place within the United States is also evoked, albeit not answered, through Beck’s inclusion of these items. In considering his works with regard to the palimpsest, this inclusion lays bare the fact that the same object or text can participate in different discussions at separate moments overtime, wherein traces of the past engage in dialogue withnew iterations in the present.

Moreover, in addition to the multiple temporalities at play in each work, the show evokes the sense of the palimpsest for which it is named when viewing the works in a conglomeration. As documents, palimpsests are multifaceted and often layered works, with newer text interspersed amongst the older. The result is a document that requires both close reading and a sense of distance in order to fully ascertain its full meaning. This oscillation between proximal and detached viewing is underscored in the way the exhibition is curated. Beck’s works adorn not only the surrounding walls of the gallery, but also a smaller, four-sided pilaster and both sides of a false wall.

These two structures divide the gallery so that only some of the works can be viewed from a single, distanced vantage point. Moreover, the placement of the pilaster requires us to get close to the images, and to even be surrounded by them. In so doing, we engage each image, phenomenologically speaking, with a close intimacy of the present while simultaneously being made aware of a larger continuum within the body of work, much as we would while actually reading a palimpsest.

On the whole, Martin Beck’s latest works call our attention to the present and its position within a larger temporal trajectory. The tactility of his medium and his use of live drawing bring us, the audience, into a particular ephemeral and instantaneous moment, while his subject matter—the nude—calls our attention to a longer tradition of history. Similarly, Beck’s use of abstract backgrounds works to remove us from a specific temporality, while the objects he often presents alongside his figures draw us back into our contemporary settings. Beck’s work thus demands both proximity and distance, presence and detachment, from his viewers, creating a layered and multifaceted experience.

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, http://middleland2010.blogspot.com/?view=magazine.

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UnderMain would like to thank The Great Meadows Foundation for support of our 2019 programming, which will include twelve in-depth studio visits of Kentucky artists. See our February submission related to this project: UnderMain critic Hunter Kissel visits Kentucky artist Harry Sanchez, Jr. 

The Great Meadows Foundation is a grant giving foundation whose mission 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.

Arts

Make your FREE reservation now at reservations@under-main.com

UnderMain invites you to attend Critical Mass III: In The Mid March 15th & 16th. In its third iteration, after being hosted in Lexington and Louisville, the conversation will now move to Northern Kentucky to be held at The Carnegie Center in Covington. The Critical Mass Series is based in a common desire to create a platform for critical thinking in the arts: including artists, art critics, and curators.

CMIII: In The Mid will center on the experience of art professionals living and working outside of the major art centers for contemporary art. The panel-community discussion will also examine the role that written criticism plays in engagement of regional artists and institutions in a national and international dialogue.

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Natalia Zuluaga, Featured Panelist and second Critic-in-Residence for the Great Meadows Foundation and INhouse.

UM is partnering with The Great Meadows Foundation and INhouse and their second Critic-in-Residence, Natalia Zuluaga. During her residency she will make 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.

Matt Distel, the Exhibitions Director at The Carnegie and moderator of the event, has also invited the following panelists to attend: Valentine Umansky, Annie Dell’Aria, and Sarah Rose Sharp. The focus of CMIII: In the Mid is Regionalism. Matt states that the aim is to discuss questions like ‘What is Regionalism and how does it inform opportunities for artists and writers?’ ‘What are the practical concerns for artists that are working outside of major arts centers?’ And ‘What role does art criticism (and critical dialogue in general play) in the careers of “regional” artists?

This event will bring forth ideas and topics relevant to anyone who values cultural critique with a focus on practical outcomes. The format promises interaction and discussion punctuated with artist presentations, accompanied by light bites and brunch cocktails.

UnderMain President, Christine Huskisson, thinks that the event will help build more meaningful and productive connections between people in the arts whether that be artists, curators, critics, or collectors. ‘My hope is that the Critical Mass Series, now in its third year, could become a space where we can discuss critical topics relevant to our growth as artists and develop a collective voice strong enough to be heard on the larger stage of the contemporary art world.’

Matt Distel believes the time is critical, ‘With any event of this nature we are really hoping to increase the level and, frankly, quantity of critical discourse around the arts. It’s such a vital component to the overall health of an arts community to receive and engage in dialogue around art projects and exhibitions. As mainstream news outlets drift further away from that sort of coverage, it feels like a really crucial time for the artists, writers, curators, collectors, galleries and administrators to ask what we want from the art critical conversation in this region.’

CMIII: In The Mid will take place on Saturday, March 16th at The Carnegie in Covington and will run from 10:00 AM – 2:00 PM. We hope you will join us the night before on March 15th for gallery opening of Open Source, featuring artist Sky Cubacub.

Make a reservation for free attendance at reservations@under-main.com. The Carnegie is located at: 1028 Scott Blvd Covington, KY 41011. You can reach them at their phone number:  859-491-2030.

Meet the Featured Artists:

Sky Cubacub is featured at The Carnegie’s Gallery opening March 15th. Cubacub first dreamed of Rebirth Garments in high school when they didn’t have access to buy a binder. Rebirth Garment’s mission is to create gender non-conforming wearables and accessories for people on the full spectrum of gender, size and ability.

“I am especially interested in Rebirth Garments being accessible to queercrip youth and I’m working on creating a program for making free/reduced priced garments for people in need… In my practice, the intensive handwork makes the process the most important part and gives me inspiration. For me, everyday is a performance where I bring my body as a kinetic sculpture into the consciousness if the people I interact with in passing and on a daily basis. I embody the spirit of Radical Visibility, and Rebirth Garments is my soft armor.”

http://rebirthgarments.com/#customclothes

Lindsey Whittle received a BFA, in painting, from the Art Academy of Cincinnati in 2007. She pursued a master’s degree in fashion at the Scholastic’s of the Art Institute of Chicago from 2012 – 2014, studying under “Soundsuit Artist” Nick Cave, all while maintaining her position as the Master Crafter at Kiki Magazine from 2012-2015. Presently, she co-instigates and co-coordinate unique art experiences at PIQUE art gallery and bed and breakfast.

“I am a fashion/performance artist that makes colorful transformable objects as as starting point to collaboration with others. A single piece of my work often has many applications and the work functions best when those applications are in flux. It can function as an installation, on the wall, as a sculpture or on a body etc. There are elements of exploration, change, transformation, interactivity and possibility in everything I do.”

http://www.sparklezilla.com/lindsey-m-whittle

Social Circle Site specific installation at The University of Cincinnati, Blue Ash. Found objects, enamel paint, screen print. David Wischer, 2018

David Wischer  was born in Henderson, Kentucky. He received his B.F.A. in Graphic Design from Northern Kentucky University and his M.F.A. in Printmaking from Purdue University. He has taught courses in Printmaking, Foundations Design, and Digital Art at both Northern Kentucky University and Purdue University and is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital and Print Media at University of Kentucky. Through his use of printmaking, animation, video, and sound, David melds topical humor, nostalgia and social commentary with his work. His prints and video pieces usually function as an inside joke for a generation that grew up absorbing their worldly knowledge through television and the internet. David’s work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, and he has been included in many private and public collections. His work is currently on view in The Carnegie’s Exhibition, ‘Open Source.’

http://davidwischer.com/

“I Am The LEAST Racist Person You Have Ever Met” – Harry Sanchez Jr,  2018

Harry Sanchez Jr. was born in El Paso, Texas in 1980. He was spent much of his life on the border with Mexico, bust he also lived in many parts of the country doing menial jobs such as working in construction and the restaurant industry, providing maintenance to a golf course and ushering at a movie theatre. His mobility allowed him to experience and understand life and this society from the perspective of people from different social classes and races. In his earliest works, he used the same tools and techniques he learned as a cake-decorator, but replaced the icing with oil paint. He squeezes oil with a pastry bag over the canvas to explore the relationship between painting, sculpture and abstraction. In his most recent work, Harry gas used installations, prints, and other media to make artistic statements from the position of a racialized minority in the United States. He uses his artwork to comment on global matters such as the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the double-identity of whistleblowers who are hailed as heroes or condemned as traitors, and to denounce the separation of families following the deportation of undocumented migrants.

http://harrysanchezjr.com

Rose (for MM), 2015. Wilted rose sprayed with a mist of Balenciaga Rosabotanica.

Joey Versoza was born in Michigan and currently resides in Northern Kentucky. He has been a professor at the Art Academy of Cincinnati since 2013, and received a BFA from the same institution in 2000. He has shown several solo exhibitions at institutions such as the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, and has shown in group exhibitions in Chicago, Baltimore and Louisville- to name a few. Speaking on his work he said, “It kind of exists as both; as a question and then also as an affirmation. His show, This is It at the Contemporary Art Center in 2013, was in part about “challenging the idea of masculinity in the midwest.”

Make a free reservation for CMIII at reservations@under-main.com

About UnderMain: UnderMain is a Kentucky 501(c)(3) dedicated to arts and cultural affairs in the region. Our vision is to become a digital meeting space that empowers Kentucky creatives by presenting 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.

About the Great Meadows Foundation: The 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.

About The Carnegie: The Carnegie is Northern Kentucky’s largest multidisciplinary arts venue providing theatre events, educational programs and art exhibitions to the Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati community. The Carnegie facility is home to The Carnegie Galleries, the Otto M. Budig Theatre, and the Eva G. Farris Education Center.  More information about The Carnegie is available at www.thecarnegie.com or by calling (859) 491-2030. The Carnegie is supported by the generosity of more than 40,000 contributors to the ArtsWave Community Campaign. The Carnegie receives ongoing operating support from the Cincinnati Wine Festival, The Greater Cincinnati Foundation, Kenton County Fiscal Courts, the Kentucky Arts Council and the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile Jr. / US Bank Foundation.

About the Featured Critic: Between 2007 and 2012 Natalia Zuluaga was the manager of foundation programs at CIFO (Cisneros Fontanais Art Foundation) where she managed the foundation’s core programs, and from 2016 through 2018 she was Artistic Director of the ArtCenter/South Florida, where she developed exhibitions, residency programs, artist development initiatives, and adult education programs. Since 2014 she has been the co-director of [NAME] Publications, a non-profit press and cultural office, and most recently she launched and is the co-editor of the bilingual online journal Dispatches (www.dispatchesjournal.org).

Savannah Wills is a Chellgren Fellow and senior at the University of Kentucky. Graduating with Bachelor Degrees in Art History and Arts Administration in Fall 2019, she previously coordinated Critical Mass II in 2018, and will be working with Under Main again to help coordinate Critical Mass III.  

Arts

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.

Arts

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.

Arts

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.

Arts

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.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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™
HD PERFECT™ VIDEO & PHOTO
Eric Cade Schoenborn, Designer, Culture on Demand
Raleigh Dailey, Pianist/Composer
Savannah Wills, Chellgren scholar
KMAC Staff

PANELISTS:

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. (www.under-main.com)

 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. (www.greatmeadowsfoundation.org)

 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. (www.kmacmuseum.org)

  

 

 

 

 

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

Arts

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! 

Arts

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.



Arts

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.

Arts

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

Arts

Dark Dualities: David Kenton Kring

David Kenton Kring, Get Out of Your Head, 2016, ceramic

Oh man, that is so creepy!

This, David Kenton Kring acknowledges, is a common response to his figurative works and that makes him feel just fine.

Kring is after a response from the viewer with his figural works and no apologies are needed if your first reaction is to be creeped out, turned off, or experience an unpleasant feeling of fear or unease. His motivation, however, is much deeper than mere shock value.

Kring wants to get your attention and then hold onto it long enough to present his intended juxtapositions – dualities that he likes to butt right up against one another. He pairs darkness with humor, contrasts smooth, brightly-patterned surfaces with blemished, crackled and peeling ones. And, with a broader brush, he hopes to examine the dual cultural realities of folk versus high art.

The artist’s figurative work is multilayered with metaphor and mystery, but the characters themselves come from specific memories of the ‘blue-collar folk’ that used to hang out in Kring’s family-owned clothing store in Frankfort, Kentucky.

While working his first summer job at Mitchell’s Clothing Store – where his father always had pot of coffee on – guys from the neighborhood would stop in looking for a little work. They’d tell dirty jokes and tall tales and, like the character referenced in I Can Do It Myself, always seemed to be just scraping by.

David Kenton Kring, I Can Do It Myself, 2014, ceramic

Kring admits that there is a little of himself in the figurative works as well. “Timid, for instance, recalls a specific point in my life when I was working non-stop in the studio,” Kring told UnderMain in our recent interview. “I was ramping up to begin a new and extensive body of work and I found myself too timid to go out and be with people – when I tried to take a break from myself, it was hard to take a break from myself.”

Timid

David Kenton Kring, Timid, 2015, ceramic

David Kenton Kring makes a living as an artist in Kentucky and getting to this stage in his artistic career had everything to do with taking it ‘slow and steady’. When asked what advice he might give other young artists trying to break onto the scene, he suggested that working for free – in the beginning – is necessary if you want to get connected.

At a critical juncture in his career, Kring found a job with Kentucky Mud Works where he realized that he could pay the bills by selling his pottery – coffee cups for the most part. But, he acknowledges that the figural work enables him to connect with his viewers in a much more meaningful way; they offer Kring the needed motivation to make art.

I am paying my mortgage with my pottery and then balancing my life with the figurative work, which inspires me most.