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Something More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arts

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

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

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

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

Preparation in Strecker’s studio

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

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

Strecker stitching over image photographed on Pine Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Real Virtuality

As is often the case, the appearance of new technology requires a reassessment of the ways art and art practice are defined. For HVREdev, a Lexington-based cooperative of game designers, developers, and artists, VR hardware offers opportunities to explore the intersections of technology, video games and art.

Part of the Studio 300 Digital Arts and Music Festival which showcased such projects in venues across Lexington, the Morlan Gallery at Transylvania University presented Senses of Place: VR featuring works by members of HVREdev and artists Dima Strakovsky and Richie Hoagland. These collaborative efforts attempt to push the boundaries of space, meaning, artist and audience.

Screen Shot from Strakovsky and Hoagland’s Virtual Realities, Photo Credit: Lydia Emeric

Attending a recent interactive performance of HVRdev’s Dreams project, one couldn’t help considering the somewhat tired question, “Are video games art?” While the ten “dreams” appear more akin to interactive art installations cross-pollinated with tech demos, they provide a means for the viewer to investigate the limits of the medium. The dreams run the gamut from enclosed rooms with collections of interactive objects such as the toy room of Dustin Peerce’s Toys, or a child’s bedroom in Zach Hunt, Shea Rembold, and Shylo Shepherd’s Shadow Play to more objective-driven experiences.

HVRdev’s Dreams project, Photo Credit, Joel Darland

Christopher Royse, Rembold, and Alexander Leverone’s Yennen’s Tale and Christona Hillard, Royse, Leverone, and Hunt’s SPAace resemble more traditional role-playing or puzzle games. Still others might be compared to rhythm or sound games, such as Rembold, Hunt, and Shepard’s bubble-popping game Bubbles or Sol Mates, a kind of life simulation and soundscape hybrid created by Royse, Hunt, Leonard Wedderburn, Vincent Mattingly, Rembold, and Leverone. Donning an HTC Vive headset, the viewer uses a wand-like controller to explore these experiences by entering rooms, touching and moving various objects, or observing situations that play out in response to viewer’s presence in the virtual environment.

Strakovsky and Hoagland’s Virtual Realities, Photo Credit: Lydia Emeric

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Strakovsky and Hoagland’s Virtual Realities, Photo Credit: Lydia Emeric

One of the more fascinating aspects of this project lies in the method of its presentation. As the viewer looks around the virtual gallery space of Dreams, a sort of impossibly shaped room with ramps, high angled ceilings, columns and other features, various objects are encountered. Each dream is represented by one of these objects, metonymic models of their respective experiences. Pointing the wand at a floating series of geometric objects and pressing the wand’s trigger transports the viewer into SPAce. The viewer encounters a long hallway that opens up to room full of large objects including a candy dispenser, perfume bottles, and a crate full of jam jars. Interacting with the objects changes elements of the room, an effect the developers describe as similar to the 1990s computer point-and-click puzzle game Myst.

Back in the gallery lobby, interacting with a slightly open freestanding doorway takes the viewer into Shadow Play, a bedroom where the viewer, sitting on a canopy bed, can open and close curtains and turn on and off various lights revealing comforting, strange, and even sinister objects that might inhabit a child’s dream world. While each of the games can be experienced passively, active participation produces a slew of diverse experiences, interactivity being an integral component of medium and fertile ground for investigating the ways these games bend and redefine the traditional limits of the relationship between artist, audience, and artwork.

Very Rad Vaporwave Racing Virtual Reality Addition, Photo Credit: Joel Darland

The question of the project’s artistic value, while not altogether explicit in the form or content of the individual games, is addressed through its muddling of real and virtual space. HVREdev’s ten dreams are accessed through a sort of virtual museum: each game represented by an object that, when interacted with, transports the viewer into the discrete virtual space of the individual dream. This virtual space is further nested with the space of the Morlan Gallery, which is also extended into the virtual worlds of Dreams.

And beyond that, the project is available for download via Google Play, and can be experienced anywhere and anytime using an android smartphone and Google Cardboard, a stripped-down VR headset. Though this iteration of the experience limits the viewer’s ability to move within the virtual spaces of Dreams, the functionality is identical. In a sense, the presentation of both Dreams and Strakovsky and Hoagland’s Virtual Realities in the gallery helps to contextualize the medium, in the traditional sense of its being an object on display in a gallery setting. But the real space of the gallery is only a starting point for both projects to explore the possibilities of art in the virtual realm.

Documentation of "Virtual Realities" performance. Richie Hoagland and Dima Strakovsky. Plus, parents and children.

Of course, the debate over video games and their relation to art is not new, but the appearance of and availability VR hardware, though still somewhat price-prohibitive, is providing a means for investigating the question directly as it relates to art as an encounter with art objects in a specific space. The difference here is that artists and developers like those in HVREdev no longer require the space of the traditional gallery or museum to legitimize their own art-making practices. Instead, they explore and innovate within their own virtual spaces.

The fact that Dreams is encountered both in the real space of the gallery and in its own self-contained virtual gallery lends both an urgency and opportunity to redraw the boundaries of art production to include a more a diverse host of people and practices. Even those that might not consider themselves artists in the traditional sense are using new media and technology to collaborate and produce compelling and challenging works of art.

To download and experience HVREdev’s “Dreams” visit https://goo.gl/3KHRkR or search “Dreams: a Virtual Reality Art Exhibit” on the Google Play store. The project requires an Android smartphone and the Google Cardboard app and headset.

Arts

Process as Subject, Materiality as Guide

Ceramics, as a process, is the transformation of dirt into something tangible through a series of construction techniques, firings, and the application of appropriate glazes. Objects that are made from the clay can be eclectic in regards to form and function: ceramists are beloved for making tableware, wall hangings, sculptures, and more. But dirt is fundamental—and so ceramists must respect the intrinsic qualities of clay and its properties if their objects are to be materially stable. As the capabilities of the ceramics becomes more inclusive, some artists working in clay find refuge in pushing the boundaries of the medium so that their final results are less likely to be material objects and are instead representations of conceptual thinking.

Forest Portal

Zoe Strecker, Forest Portal, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist and Morlan Gallery. Photograph by Katelynn Ralston.

Dirt Poets, an exhibition that recently ended its run at Transylvania University’s Morlan Gallery, was an exploration into how ceramics can to tend to conceptual practices and what the products of these practices may look like, all while remaining committed to dirt as material. Lexington-based artist and Transylvania University faculty member, Zoe Strecker, curated the exhibition that ran from March 1st until March 30th. Dirt Poets was the second in a two-part series of ceramic exhibitions, following last year’s Functional Clay: Works that Contain that was curated by Strecker’s husband, Michael Frasca. Whereas Functional Clay channeled the functionality of ceramics by exhibiting an assortment of vessels made for everyday use, Dirt Poets was a presentation of non-functional ceramic objects that addressed the circumstances in which they were generated. The artworks featured in the exhibition reflected innovative or involved processes that maintain a responsibility towards clay in realizing concepts.

Dirt Poets expanded the working definition of conceptual ceramics—mediums on view in the gallery included videos, hand-sculpted forms, slipcasts, and found objects. Strecker and the Morlan Gallery team built strong connections between the objects on display by creating multiple stations for each artist throughout the space that transitioned seamlessly between one another: a visitor had to journey through the entire gallery in order to understand each body of work, as well as the scope of the exhibition. For example, David Cushway’s Sublimination (2000)—a video time lapse of a bone-dry cast of the artist’s head deteriorating underwater—played on a screen on one end of the gallery while his Fragments (2012)—a slow-motion loop of a dropped teapot edited to run forwards and backwards so that the teapot would shatter and subsequently fix itself—was projected on a wall on the other. These videos acted as bookends for all other objects to rest between.

Upon entering the gallery one was immediately met with Ashley Lyon’s Pillows (2011), a pair of cast bed pillows hovering a few inches off the floor on a small pedestal. Pillows, shaped with naturalistic lumps and folds, evoked the tradition of trompe l’oeil, fooling the viewer into believing they were looking down upon two frequently used headrests. Each pillow was hand glazed and painted—one donned thin, elegant stripes and the other was covered in what appeared to be brown sweat stains. The shapes and finish of Pillows made clear that these objects were about the human figure, albeit through its absence. Lyon’s sly craftsmanship was humbling—spending time with Pillows allowed for a moment of reflection on the roles we assume when away from our most intimate spaces. Lyon could have easily presented real pillows to address similar issues, but her use of the medium underscored the history of the ceramics and the idiosyncratic nature of the material.

Positioned catty-cornered in the same entry space as Pillows was Strecker’s Forest Portal (2016), a kaleidoscopic video-montage of photographs the artist took while on a retreat in Pine Mountain, a ridge in the Appalachian region. Images of landscapes interchanged endlessly, appearing then vanishing within seconds and disrupting any opportunity of visual cohesion. Strecker furthered this sense of unfamiliarity by creating a flat disk of slip on the floor at the beginning of the exhibition’s run for the video to project on. While the slip was smooth and damp immediately following its transfer on to the floor, it eventually dried and began to crack, leaving a mound of fragmented clay bits by the closing of Dirt Poets. Strecker’s work emphasized the fundamental material that both the slip and the landscapes are made of—dirt. Forest Portal was a manifestation of Strecker’s interest in sustainable practices that addressed concepts like ephemerality and cyclicality.

RoughVase

Sharan Elran, Rough Vase series, 2011. Image courtesy of the artist and the Morlan Gallery. Photograph by Hunter Kissel.

Standing next to Forest Portal was Sharan Elran’s Rough Vase (2014-15) series. Elran subverted the notion of quintessential vessel design by using molds made from 3-D printers. Each mold was a puzzle of randomized parts: Elran divided a digital model of a vase into vertical and horizontal quadrants and then allowed a computer to randomize the arrangement of the separate pieces. The objects made from these molds were on display in the Morlan Gallery, each standing atop a thin pedestal. Whereas the impurities from the casting process would traditionally be scraped off to achieve a cleaner shape, Elran left them intact on his vases—he even exaggerated them by allowing the mold itself to retain spaces in which the liquefied slip could spread itself to dry. The artist was deliberate in allowing his craftsmanship to show in the Rough Vase series, and in doing so he exposed normal ruptures in a specific process that are typically unknown to the viewer. By stopping short of a more refined object, Elran posits the artist’s creative thinking as the subject of each object, rather than the functionality of vases themselves.

Dirt Poets advanced the understanding of how clay can be employed by presenting conceptual ceramic works that communicated intimately. Moreover, the exhibition managed to challenge traditional conventions of how clay can be utilized under the guise of fine art. Here, medium seemed like a beginning rather than an end—it assisted in articulating an idea instead of standing as the product of one. Strecker’s curatorial intuition carefully considered how this conceit could be realized. Indeed, the primary subject of each work was the method in which it took to generate it as well as each artist’s commitment to process. If this were an exhibit of canonized conceptual art practices, one may have had expected to see language used as the primary medium. Dirt Poets, however, was a presentation of conceptual ceramics—one that placed emphasis on how a commitment to materiality can take many shapes, forms, or ideas.

Dirt Poets ran from March 1st to March 20th, 2016 at the Morlan Gallery at Transylvania University in Lexington, KY.

Arts

To What Do We Belong?


Morlan Gallery, Transylvania University

HOME AND FIELD: Digital Explorations of Community

September 11 – October 16, 2015

Work by Michelle Jaffé and Stevie Morrison

Titled “Home and Field: Digital Explorations of Community,” the current exhibition at Transylvania’s Morlan Gallery, situates the work of two artists in the most mesmerizing way. Hollow and occasionally firm sounds from the show’s two clearly separate multi-media installations chase over and around a partition wall and successfully generate meditations on belonging and place.

The subtle movement in the work by budding artist and recent Transylvania University graduate Stevie Morrison challenge our relationship to familiar surroundings. A small house constructed of images from Google Maps taken at the 900th block in various neighborhoods around Lexington, Kentucky invites us to reexamine our relationship to place.

Morrison keenly sets up three vantage points – her two-by-two inch paper house hangs by a thin wire, it is also a large, off-kilter wall-projection, and a third image of the same house is present on the flickering screen of the recording projector. How do we know the place to which we belong? Can we be certain about any of it given subtle alterations in our vantage point? For sure these two audio-visual immersions allow us to contemplate a multitude of interweaving.

The occasional sound echoing from the static metal helmets in Michelle Jaffe’s “Wappen Field” move in the same way – in and out of our complete understanding of them. We catch this and that voice or phrase and try to hold onto it only to find something else around the corner. It is at the same time disparate and communal. Dissonant and familiar.

Brilliant in it’s pairing of these two artists – one nascent, the other established on the international stage – the curator of “Home and Field: Digital Explorations of Community” builds a small community of her own – one that deserves enough time to really experience.

NOTE: The Morlan Gallery will hold evening hours October 8 and 9. For more information, please visit their website.