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Retro Ralph At UK

While preparing to interview UK Art Museum Curator Janie Welker about the forthcoming Ralph Steadman retrospective, UnderMain’s Art Shechet combed through some of the artifacts that will go on display on February 16. And there it was: a sampling of the running, biting humor shared between the world renowned graphic artist and the man whose gonzo journalism he often illustrated, Hunter S. Thompson:

According to Welker, the retrospective will feature more than 100 original works by Steadman, “including his earliest published cartoon from 1956, and drawings seen in publications including Private Eye, Punch, The Observer, and Rolling Stone, to name a few.”

Also on display, illustrations for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and works documenting the 1970 Thompson/Steadman trip to the Kentucky Derby.

Art and Janie discuss the exhibition on this week’s edition of Eastern Standard on 88.9 WEKU. You can listen at 11 a.m. or 7 p.m. on Thursday, February 14, or at 6 p.m. on Sunday, February 17. Download the WEKU app to your device and listen anytime, anywhere. 

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Tom Martin is a co-publisher of UnderMain, producer and host of Eastern Standard on Eastern Kentucky University public radio station WEKU, a columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader, and Student Media Advisor at Transylvania University. 

Arts

Scene&Heard: Moontower ’17

Under an August sun in the peak of the sultry Kentucky summer, a gathering of great music, interesting art, inspired design and fun-lovin’ people will all come together in Lexington, Kentucky’s Masterson Station Park. For the fourth year, the Moontower Music Festival will fill the air of Central Kentucky with a wide menu of spectacular musical talent.

The brain child of Kaelyn Query and her event management company LexEffect, Moontower Music Festival started four years ago with just four bands and 1,000 folks in attendance.  This year, there will be two stages with fourteen bands in rotation, and Query hopes to top the 7000 who attended last year’s festival.

The desire to “present a new event for Lexington, Kentucky that would fill a niche” was the driver behind the festival’s origin, according to David Helmers, Kaelyn’s partner in creating the Moontower Music Festival for the last two years.

“We didn’t really have a popular music festival here in town” before Moontower, he said, and that’s what the festival is all about: bringing amazing music right into Lexington’s “backyard.”

The 2017 lineup is diverse – “from funk to blues to rock to progressive jam rock to soul to hip hop” – and full of great musical talents, both local and national. The local folks who will be sharing the stage with the touring bands are Daisy Helmuth and her band People Planet, the DeBraun Thomas Trio, Warren Byrom and the Fabled Canelands, and Tyler Childers and his band. They are four of the fourteen bands who will grace the two stages in turn, along with Umphrey’s McGee, Benjamin Booker, Cherub, Todd Snider, The Record Company, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, Blackfoot Gypsies, Elise Davis, and Vita and the Woolf.  

Festival organizers have obtained a special noise ordinance waiver to allow them to extend the show until 11:30pm this year, in order to accommodate the sunset and the phenomenal light show that Umphrey’s McGee is promising as the headlining act.  And there are other new additions to this year’s plan for the ever-growing festival, according to Query and Helmers.

Besides bumping up the food options –  nearly 20 food trucks will be on hand, free cold water and more shade tents will be available to fend off that Kentucky sun. Four beverage vendors will be on site this year. West Sixth Brewing and Rhinegeist will be serving cold beer and ciders in cans, Lover’s Leap Vineyards will offer wine, and Old Forester Bourbon will be selling bourbon beverages, including bourbon slushies.

Moontower Music Festival is a grass roots, organic, home grown effort that is intended to include the entire Lexington and Central Kentucky community. A festival that is family, pet and all ages friendly, it also is bringing together different areas of the community into a collective celebration.

This year, the festival has partnered with the UK College of Design and Architecture to create a summer internship opportunity for design students.  Developed offsite all summer, the winning design will be installed as the stages go up and will be on display during the festival. Helmers is hoping this program continues and each year they can display a new Moontower installation.

Also joining in the fun is the UK Art Museum, which will be setting up an onsite art museum with pieces that follow a musical theme.  Some special pieces were commissioned just for the event, and festival goers are encouraged and welcome to view the artwork during the day.

Collectively, Moontower Music Festival and its partners have put together a community-wide event for the people of central Kentucky. Encouraging attendees from all ages and their dogs, they are hoping folks take advantage of the mass of talent available for this day in late August, right here in Lexington. “It’s an important cultural event for Central Ky that we hope is accessible to the community at large.”

Moontower Music Festival is a home-grown, central Kentucky celebration of music, art, design and fellowship. Gates open at 11 am on August 26th, and the show continues all day until 11:30 when Umphrey’s McGee and their light show bring things to a grand finale.  The ticket price increases as the date gets closer so folks are encouraged to purchase early ($45.00 now, $60 at the gate).  Children 12 and under are free, pets are welcome, water is free. 

Arts

Collapsing Art and Life

(Photo by Guy Mendes)

At the beginning of this month, UnderMain began a series on Louis Zoellar Bickett, a Lexington-based artist who has made his life his canvas. For the first two installments of the series, please visit the links at the bottom of this post.

In this short podcast, Stuart Horodner and Louis Bickett share with us the details of the upcoming retrospective of Louis’ work. Stuart, the director of The University of Kentucky Art Museum, and Phillip March Jones of Institute 193 are leading this effort in collaboration with The University of Kentucky Art Museum and Hospital, Institute 193, The Lexington Art League, and 21c Museum Hotel.

Louis Zoellar Bickett in The Archive, Photo by Guy Mendes – commissioned by Oxford American, 2016

Also in this Series:

By The Hand of A Conceptualist

New Broom Sweeps Clean

Arts

Ways of Validation: Lawrence Tarpey at the University of Kentucky Art Museum

Standing alongside one of the region’s most distinguished research universities, the University of Kentucky Art Museum is as an educational resource whose exhibitions are more than just presentations of artworks—they are institutional endorsements that can spearhead an artistic career. When an institution like the UK Art Museum, located inside of the Singletary Center for the Arts, selects an artist for a one-person exhibition, particular questions arise regarding its conception: Why this artist? What is it about their practice that is worth investigating? Why now?

Lawrence Tarpey: Figures and Ground, a solo exhibition featuring works made by Lexington-based artist Lawrence Tarpey, answers these questions primarily through the stark presentation of selections from Tarpey’s most recent body of work. With little accompanying wall text, Figures and Ground relies on the ambiguity of the artist’s methods, the peculiarities of Tarpey’s subject matter, and neighboring exhibitions to illustrate Tarpey’s uniqueness amongst his contemporaries and cement his rightful place in broader conversations about current art world trends.

Tarpey is currently represented by Heike Pickett Gallery in Lexington and his paintings and drawings—he refers to them as “etchings” because the aesthetic he achieves evokes modes of printmaking—are typically shown in small numbers as parts of group exhibitions. As Figures and Ground demonstrates, however, his works are best viewed in large collectives and without a thematic umbrella, for Tarpey is a world-builder who uses his art-making to create dense scenes that explore notions of rebirth, apocalyptic anxiety, and dreams, as well as the nature of art-making itself. By surveying a generous selection of Tarpey’s etchings, secondary motifs, such as systematic ordering and the quotidian, also become clear.

In Figures and Ground, some eighteen of Tarpey’s etchings taken from the artist’s studio, Heike Pickett Gallery, and local private collections are hung in a row at eye level in one of the museum’s most conventional gallery spaces. This string of images keeps one’s attention with all-over compositions, human and animal subjects, as well as bulbous—almost venereal—shapes and forms. Moreover, Tarpey’s miniature objects distinguish themselves from many other works in the museum based on size alone: The average dimensions for all works in the exhibition measures at 9.5 x 12.6”–Tarpey’s figures and shapes from his body of work are consistently scaled across pieces. Although specific narratives in Figures and Ground are altogether missing from the works on display, the exhibition’s design helps articulate a connection between each image.

Yet there is one break in the otherwise continuous line of works, which almost serves as a modest suggestion from the curatorial team as an entry- and exit-way into the exhibition’s scope. On the wall to the left of the gallery’s entrance, Back to School (2013) floats above Another Fly By (2010-2013), wherein the exhibition’s standard for eyelevel is found within the few inches of exposed wall between the two similarly dimensioned images. But this break goes unnoticed until one is fully inside the gallery and does not function as a visual rupture from the exhibition’s evenness. Rather, by taking two etchings with comparable blue-tones and stacking them without interfering with the show’s design, this unquestionably emerges as one of the exhibition’s more successful moments. This covert pairing is a checkpoint for the viewer’s trajectory.

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Lawrence Tarpey (American, b. 1957), Creation Demonstration, 2015, oil and graphite on clayboard. Courtesy of the UK Art Museum.

Once inside Tarpey’s world, a viewer will encounter Creation Demonstration (2015), a monochromatic scene filled with humanoids cohabiting within the same atmospheric space. But without a definitive foreground or background for the multitude of its figures to recede into, Creation Demonstration fails to privilege any one figure over another. Instead, the etching’s lack of depth combined with the horde of faces—all of which seem to stare in different directions but never at each other—insinuates a kind of spatial and temporal disorientation. Indeed, Creation Demonstration, with detailed inclusions of UFOs and floating heads, maintains an uneasiness that prompts notions of physical embodiment and unfamiliarity.

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Lawrence Tarpey (American, b. 1957), Rush Hour, 2009, oil and graphite on clayboard. Courtesy of Ron and Judith Isaacs.

Like Creation Demonstration, another etching by Tarpey, Rush Hour (2009), features an asymmetrical, all-over composition. But whereas the former is crowded with discernable faces and bodies, Rush Hour is a staging of abstract forms that leads to an uncertainty of the scene at hand. This work stops short of affirming a decisive foreground or background, ground or sky, and some of the forms depicted will surely inspire anthropomorphic readings (this could very well be what Tarpey intended). But without an accompanying label to guide one’s viewing or an apparent focus point, it is impossible to know for sure if these are more than just shapes floating in an unspecified space. Here, Tarpey allows the visitor to determine what exactly is going on. Rush Hour, with its heightened sense of ambiguity, can be framed as a test of perception—our viewing habits inform our ability to generate meaning. Artworks that challenge traditional conventions of looking undoubtedly belong to creative trends developed in the 20th and 21st centuries, and Rush Hour is yet another example that does just that.

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Lawrence Tarpey (American, b. 1957), Tex Mex, 20176, oil and graphite on gessoed plywood. Private Collection.

Tarpey’s world also includes nods to popular culture. Tex Mex (2016) contains a highly stylized map partially blocked by figures in the foreground, one of whose forehead is labeled with the latter of the work’s title. Tex Mex personifies the relations between the United States and Mexico but—in a manner similar to Creation Demonstration—Tarpey only provides the beginning of a story. He allows the viewer to complete the narrative based on how they interpret what is presented. In a less representational setting, the meaning implied in The Weather Channel (2016) hinges on the obsessive use of blues. It could be that Tarpey means for feelings associated with rain—gloominess, melancholy, and cleansing—to be appropriate implications upon seeing the etching. But as the figures in The Weather Channel interact with the content from other works in the exhibition, it becomes just as plausible that Tarpey’s titling methods are only gimmicks that further the sense of ambiguity linked with the world the artist creates.

The objects in Figures and Ground were made by drawing, painting, and scraping on panels, making for both additive and reductive techniques—a true push-and-pull process. Tarpey is constantly taking and giving, destroying so that he can create again. By allowing a substantial amount of Tarpey’s objects to occupy the same space, Figures and Ground highlights the degrees in which Tarpey’s renderings allude to more than their depicted scenes. With the endorsement of a solo exhibition, the subtleties of Tarpey’s art are able to reveal themselves in ways they could not had only a few of his works been included in a group exhibition.

Lawrence Tarpey: Figures and Ground is positioned alongside an exhibition featuring works made by Natalie Frank, a notable contemporary artist who also incorporates fantastical elements and figurative subjects into her art-making, as well as a two-person show that pairs the staged photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Duane Michals. Tarpey’s validation as a noteworthy artist is enhanced by the accompanying presence of these three artists whose careers are marked by exhibits at major museums and galleries. While Figures and Ground serves as an endorsement of a cherished local artist, it is also a means of situating Tarpey amongst the broader art community.

Lawrence Tarpey: Figures and Ground runs from May 6th to July 31st, 2016 at the University of Kentucky Art Museum, Lexington, KY.

Arts

VIVIAN MAIER: ON THE STREET

University of Kentucky Art Museum

Through July 26

A Review for Under Main

First and foremost, there is the work. The photographs of Vivian Maier on exhibit at the University of Kentucky Art Museum are immediately arresting, thanks to her eye for formal composition. They are compelling, because of the crazy quilt mix of people depicted in the 1950s U.S. metropolis. And they are charming, owing to an arch sense of humor and an abiding affection for women and children. Seeing this small but insightful show leads one to a greater appreciation for the unconventional and ultimately unknowable woman we see peering out at us from deep inside her own obsession.

But the afterimages that linger beyond the viewing are as much about the backstory, or the Vivian Maier Mystery (as a BBC documentary calls it), as they are about the images. If you spend a couple of hours on the internet in Vivian Maier Land, it’s easy to see there’s trouble ahead and trouble behind. Nanny Strangest! cries a Wall Street Journal headline. The Greatest Street Photographer You Never Heard Of, says Mother Jones. Legal Battle Over Vivian Maier’s Work, reports the NY Times. In the six years since her death, there have been two films made about her, and five books of her photographs have been published, all thanks to a few collectors and dealers who found her work in dispersal sales and have been promoting it ever since. There are, of course, lawyers arguing over who should get the proceeds, competing genealogical researchers have identified different French heirs, and late word has it that a long lost brother, Charles, has turned up and been awarded the rights to the photographs by the Cook County (IL) Probate Court, which wants its own cut of the action.

Meanwhile, Vivian Maier’s life has been scrutinized and called into question. Because she made 150,000 negatives over four decades, showing them to no one, stashing them in storage units, only to lose them when she couldn’t pay the rent, she is now assumed to have been “a private, unhappy person” who left us with “the riddle of her sad life” (WSJ). It is reported that she wore men’s clothes and boots, and that some of the kids she nannied nicknamed her “Bird Lady.” Some of them loved her, to the point of taking care of her late in life, and others say she was cruel and abusive and speculated that perhaps she had been abused as a child. One person who knew her says she might have been in the autistic spectrum. The fact that she hoarded newspapers and other items along with her negatives, and that she became more temperamental with age led one writer to surmise that Maier’s behavior was symptomatic of “a haunted, morbid psychology.” But a piece in The New Yorker cautions that neither was she a Mary Poppins, nor a surrogate Mommie Dearest. “To suggest her choices were the result of some as yet uncovered emotional trauma is to assume that her life was lived in reaction to pain.” Poor woman–she didn’t ask for this dissection of her psyche. She has been made into a public figure, without her permission.

Vivian Maier was a spy in the house of love. With her French accent and German camera, she was a kind of foreign correspondent, disguised as an au pair, who amassed a voluminous dossier on urban American life, and then filed it away, her obsession satisfied with the acquisition and collection of images—and not with the dissemination of them. Perhaps she found her joy in seeing the world through the camera and making the exposure. When an image comes into focus on the ground glass, the world is seen anew. To look through a cameral is an adventure, and a form of play. When the shutter is tripped, a photographer feels that anything can happen. Vivian Maier’s twin-lens Rolleiflex was her passport into other peoples’ lives. It gave her the access she craved, but at the same time kept her at some remove—the strategy of a consummate observer.

Among the things she took pleasure in observing were reflections of herself. One of the self-portraits in this exhibit reveals a rare glimpse of her enjoying the chase. In it a worker lifts a mirror out of a truck, seemingly unaware that there is a woman in the mirror taking a picture. For 125th of a second, a smile plays across her face. That’s the woman that three of her former charges spoke of when they wrote this death notice for the Chicago Tribune: Vivian Maier, proud native of France and Chicago resident for 50 years, died peacefully on Monday [April 23, 2009]. Second mother to John, Lane and Matthew. A free and kindred spirit who magically touched the lives of all that knew her. Always ready to give her advice, opinion or a helping hand. Movie critic and photographer extraordinaire. A truly special person who will be sorely missed but whose long and wonderful life we all celebrate and will always remember.

As for the industry that has grown up around her work, it has endowed a Vivian Maier Scholarship to allow emerging female photographers to attend the prestigious School of the Art Institute. And without those collectors and gallerists—in the case of this exhibit, John Maloof and the Daniel Greenberg Gallery–no one would have ever heard of Vivian Maier in the first place. Are we to canonize her and place her in the pantheon of photographic heroines of the 20th century? Lord knows she may have suffered enough. Imagine what she went through when her archive was sold out from under her. But is she to be mentioned in the same breath with Helen Levitt, Margaret Bourke-White, Diane Arbus, Lisette Model, Ruth Orkin, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post-Wolcott, Imogene Cunningham, Bernice Abbott, Laura Gilpin, Evon Streetman, Francesca Woodman, Carrie Mae Weems, Mary Ellen Mark, Linda Connor, Annie Leibovitz, Lorna Simpson, Susan Meiselas, Donna Ferrato, Deborah Luster, Debbie Fleming Caffery and Sally Mann? Perhaps. We have seen only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to prints from Vivian Maier’s thousands of negatives. Hundreds of rolls remain undeveloped. When the legal wrangling is all said and done, we can expect that more of her work will be brought to light.

Other Streets: Photographs from the Collection

Speaking of wanting to see more, the UK Art Museum has put up an excellent selection of street photography from its collection to help place Maier’s work in a broader context. As you leave the thoughtfully-sequenced Maier exhibit, take a right and you will find prints by Magnum great Bruce Davidson. Take a second right down the next hallway and you’ll see images by Lexington Camera Club members Van Deren Coke, Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Robert C. May—early documentary work from the 1950s. Several of Garry Winogrand’s “Women Are Beautiful” photographs are on the opposite wall.

Together, the two exhibits remind us of the important role the UK Art Museum has played in the regional photographic community, especially over the past 18 years, since Bob May’s bequest begat the excellent lecture series that bears his name, and funds were earmarked for exhibits and the purchase of prints. The museum has expanded its collection and made photography a point of emphasis in its programming. We can thank Bob, and the museum staff for that.

Arts

Uncanny Nanny: The Intrigue of Vivian Maier

Six years after their public introduction, Vivian Maier’s photographs still exude mystery and prompt intrigue. Working as a nanny in Chicago during the fifties and sixties, Maier documented her surroundings — and often herself — but ironically we know little about her life. Vivian Maier: On the Street at The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky presents a monographic exhibition of thirty black and white photographs, including abstract self portraits and intimate glimpses into the lives of both Chicago’s working class and elite aristocrats.The scope of the exhibition provides a perspective of Maier’s surroundings, while at the same time offering viewers a deeper connection with the photographer and her Rolleiflex camera.

However socially and aesthetically infatuating, the legal underpinnings of Maier’s photographs remain overarching. In 2007, two years before her death, her negatives were auctioned off along with the rest of the contents of her storage unit as the result of nonpayment. Since then, her work has been reproduced, edited, and resold to private galleries and collectors. An onslaught of intellectual property debates and ethical questions still permeate Chicago courtrooms. In sum, Maier’s oeuvre has been posthumously constructed and aggrandized by those with a market share in her life and work.

While this aspect of Maier’s entrance into the mainstream is a basis for contention (but not entirely unique — this happens all too frequently in the art world), I think there is more at play in our vehement attraction to her photographs than just market controversy. Perhaps this is why On The Street resists a dialogue about ethics and legalities. Although the entrance wall text states that the selected photographs are pulled from the John Maloof Collection (Maloof is just one of the original purchasers of Maier’s defunct storage unit), no details are provided about the legalities of his purchase. Instead, the viewer is presented with another concern: the entrance of unknown “artists of consequence” into the canon of art history.

The works chosen for display for On the Street provide viewers with a multi-faceted view of city life through the lens of Maier’s camera. Each image seems at once familiar and uncanny — we can recognize the ebb and flow of city life, but only though Maier’s abstract angles and intense shadows. While some of Maier’s subjects are aware of their subjectiveness, others are oblivious — they are presented as anonymous, fragmented bodies. Ubiquitous shadows seem to be subjects themselves: Maier frequently makes them the focus of her self portraits. Indeed, there is something dream-like about Maier’s use of light and line, shadow and shape — her Surrealist predecessors applied many of the same techniques to their own photography.

Although the exhibition of thirty photographs seems small in comparison to the number of negatives available from the Maloof Collection, the time required to absorb Maier’s work is proportionate. Each photograph is remarkably detailed — and one journey through On the Street is not enough to fully immerse oneself in Maier’s world. The exhibition is comprised of single images and groupings of two and four photographs: children, city streets, women, transportation, and leisure, to name a few. Contextualizing these selected photographs provides a comprehensive survey of her subject matter, allowing viewers to connect her daily activities with the people and places she chose to capture on film.

On the Street is located in the back corner of the museum, which seems an odd fit for Maier’s work — the exhibition almost suffocates in its compact space. The intensity of Maier’s photography needs a precise “breathability,” something the back gallery ultimately lacks. Perhaps in attempt to mediate the small space, each photograph is surrounded with a large white mat and delicate silver frame. While this gesture helps aerate the body of work, the lack of space remains a dominant issue.

An observer of the everyday, Maier was able to capture the humanism and humor of daily life. This is evident through On the Street, which treats her work as both a time capsule and an autobiography. It succeeds by presenting her photographs as documents of a time passed, but also through examining the photographer’s importance and artistic resonance. While viewers are asked to question Maier’s undoubtable skill in relation to formally trained photographers of her time, I wish to offer a thematic addendum: should we ignore the fact she may not have wanted her life and work displayed publicly? Who truly owns Maier’s work — and should we be content with others profiting from her anonymity?

Arts

Big Changes: A Conversation with Robert Jensen, Director of the UK School of Art and Visual Studies, pt. 2

The School of Art and Visual Studies (SA/VS) at the University of Kentucky is going through an exciting, transformational period driven, in part, by its anticipated move to a new home in a completely renovated facility on Bolivar Street.  In addition, Stuart Horodner, Artistic Director of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, has just been named as Museum Director of the UK Art Museum after an extensive national search.

UnderMain’s Art Shechet asked Robert Jensen, Ph.D., Director of SA/VS to join us in a conversation about what we can expect from the new facility, how programs at UK will be impacted, and the potential benefits of the move for the larger Lexington community.  We also wanted to have a look into what we might expect from the changes at the Art Museum. Dr. Jensen discussed with UnderMain other issues of importance to UnderMain’s readers, like the much-suggested idea of a major Lexington art museum.

In the first part of the Interview Jensen discussed the new building that will become the home for SA/VS in 2015 (http://www.under-main.com/arts/big-changes-a-conversation-with-robert-jensen-director-of-the-uk-school-of-art-and-visual-studies/).  The second and final part of the interview explores some of the changes we might anticipate with the change at the top at the UK Art Museum, and Jensen’s thoughts about a Lexington art museum, and critical review.

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UM:  The search for a new Director for the UK Art Museum just concluded with the hiring of Stuart Horodner, the artistic director of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.  What vision for the Art Museum guided the search process?
Jensen:  I was not on the search committee, so I can’t speak to the “vision” that guided the search.  But I’m fairly ecstatic that Stuart was hired for this position.  He has broad and deep connections with the international contemporary art world.  How this will affect the museum’s programming remains to be seen.  But I hope that the UK Art Museum will join institutions like the Lexington Art League to expose audiences for art in Lexington to the many strands of contemporary art.  And as someone who finds contemporary art fascinating, entertaining and occasionally transcendent, I’m looking forward to what Stuart can bring to the job.  That being said, I’m sure he will be respectful of the many other aspects of the museum’s mission, from serving K-12 children to providing programming for those adult audiences with more conventional tastes in art.  I am really looking forward to working with him.

UM:  Of course, the new director has not begun his work at the museum, but what are some of the changes we might expect to see take shape in the relationship between the museum and the university community, and between the museum and the larger Lexington community?
Jensen: We often speak on campus at UK about the dangers of being siloed, of paying attention only to our individual programs without regard to what’s happening elsewhere in the university.  Under our new Provost Christine Riordan and our relatively new President Eli Capilouto, collaboration and interdisciplinary work are the new bywords under which UK hopes to operate.  I think that is what we can also expect from Stuart.  I think he is going to want to integrate the Art Museum much more thoroughly into the academic mission of the university than his predecessors have, and I think he is going to reach out to the local artist community and arts organizations in a way that the Art Museum has never done.  I am very optimistic about the positive impact Stuart and the Art Museum will have on the exhibition and appreciation for the visual arts in the Lexington community.

UM:  Since we are on the subject of museums, there has been lots of discussion over the past several years about Lexington needing a significant independent art museum.  I am interested in your thoughts as to whether that is a realistic proposition and how the conversation about the merit, or lack of merit of this proposition can be facilitated.
Jensen:  I don’t think most people really understand how expensive art museums are.  They might imagine that just building a building is the principal task of a fundraising campaign.  But an art museum is pretty much the same proposition as saying that the city needs to build a new concert hall/theatre.  Sure it would be great to have.  But even if the money were found to get the building built, who underwrites the labor costs of the technicians and the house administrative expenses involved in every concert, ballet or theatrical production?  Local arts organizations don’t have the money generally to meet these costs without raising the ticket price point much higher than the already modest public attendance at these events would bear.  Similarly, paying staff salaries, keeping the lights on, these are big ticket and unglamorous line items.  Creating exhibitions and hosting traveling exhibitions are very expensive propositions.  And we haven’t yet begun to talk about what is to go into such a museum.

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Important contemporary art, for example, is unbelievably expensive.  Collectors today are often paying more for a Jeff Koons than they are for a Claude Monet.  While there are local collectors with interesting collections all these collections combined, were they to be given in one great gift, would hardly suffice to fill out a museum collection of any real significance.  Lexingtonians would no doubt love to have a second Speed Museum in town, but I just don’t see this happening.  I think the UK Art Museum, which does have an interesting collection, will continue to be the city’s primary museum.  Now if we could find an off-campus location for it, and a significant recurring budget to support the new venue, that would be a great thing.  But it will take a great deal of money to pull off.

UM:  Finally, one of UnderMain’s core missions is to publish critical reviews of the visual arts.  What do you think are the most important elements of an outstanding critical review?
Jensen:  Art critics often remind me of the fashion mavens who comment on the runway dresses at the Academy Awards.  Every dress is wonderful until it’s not.  These commentators are very good at saying what is possible in the fashion industry at a given moment.  In the art industry it is much the same.  Most good criticism is able to identify what is possible at a given moment.  Art, which obeys its own fashion laws, needs that kind of criticism and it typically comes from writers who are contemporaries or near contemporaries of the artists whose work they’re writing about or who are themselves artists.  What is far more rare, in both fashion and art criticism, are those writers who are able to say why something is possible, not only what.  I am not saying that such critical writing has the ability to understand individual works of art better than the ordinary art lover.  In my view, the contemporary artworks that are internationally celebrated are also extremely accessible to anyone with a decent knowledge of recent art history, an open mind, and a willingness to engage with the art.  Art today doesn’t require a priest caste of art aesthetes to interpret the holy creations of artists.  But to explain why something is possible requires a broader perspective.  It is why I always have loved the art criticism of the philosopher Arthur Danto.  He comes to works of art with an open mind, always asking why something is possible as art.  And the recently deceased British critic David Sylvester is my favorite interviewer of artists, because Sylvester was always interested in how artists got their ideas, how they worked, and why.  It is surprising to me how few interviewers ask artists about their working methods and sources of information in any sort of serious, sustained way.  Good criticism does not talk down to the reader nor hide behind the fashionable jargon of the day.  If the goal is not to be understood, what is the point of writing?  (Hyperlinks added by UnderMain)

– Art Shechet