I was recently scolded under the broiling stage lights of Playhouse on the Square -- and had it coming, to be sure. Invited as a Flyer critic, I was to sit with a panel of art professionals, after a matinee performance of the delightful Art, and participate in a discussion concerning who and what in culture determines the value of art. Someone in the audience broached the subject of a certain regional exhibit, and I unfortunately uttered my summation of its merit with an indelicate quip. One of the artists in the show in question was present and rightfully pissed off by the acerbic tone and dismissive brevity of my remark. Using not-so-delicate terms of her own, she lit into me with the kind of loathing with which any self-respecting artist views critics.
"You can't just hurl a Molotov cocktail and not expect a reaction," instructs Marina Pacini. I had run into her at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art's new survey exhibit "Perspectives." Pacini, curator of education at the Brooks, knows the consequences of words, as she was studying the exhibit for the purpose of preparing docents to talk about the varied works. How interesting, I thought, since, gun-shy after my latest snafu, my hope was to curb the vitriol and to innocuously draw some parallels between what the curator and artists said about the work and the objects themselves. We both clearly have our work cut out for us.
Sam Gappmayer, director of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center and curator of the exhibit, chose 13 artists working within a 250-mile radius of Memphis, resulting in work by artists from Nashville, Little Rock, Jonesboro, and, of course, Memphis being included. From this relatively diminutive scope is a show that puts a limit on new faces to the Memphis art scene and covers a few beaten paths. Otherwise, the curator handled what he describes as the contradictory nature of putting together a regional survey -- determining the value of an artist's individual contribution while keeping in mind a desire for "holistic" cohesiveness -- with abundant grace.
"More than any other criteria, the artists included in this exhibition were selected based on the quality of their work," says Gappmayer, and one cannot argue with that. The artists bring a certain level of rigor to their art, as in the technical expertise in the paintings of Beth Edwards and the drawings of Ed Rainey. Then one finds refinement of narrative, which is the foremost feature in the cleverly convoluted devices of Val Valgardson, some of which prune and water plants by way of robotic gadgetry and electronic surveillance.
Valgardson provides his artist's statement, "As the World Turns," in a convenient booklet the visitor can take home. In it, the artist explains that he has "been drawing from the suburban landscape to create metaphors that prod questions about the social behaviors of ourselves, the environment we create and how we choose to live." Valgardson's objects seem to be commentary about the way human ingenuity is often parasitic upon nature. The rest of the document reveals, step by step, the nuts and bolts of how his high-tech greenhouse was built.
Cynthia Thompson is also driven by a social conscience. "My work focuses on the body, the denial of the body, and repressing of the body," says Thompson. Very similar to the work she included in the exhibit "Blemish" at the Memphis College of Art earlier this year, Heirlooms is a series of cameos cast in paper pulp of a dirty pink hue, which apparently represents the color of flesh. Each is marked by a stain, scar, or stitch. The tortured symbolism of the blemished cameos is painfully elucidated by Thompson's remark, "I am interested in the idea of the mark, a metaphor for time, something that contains a history and cannot be simply 'wiped away.'" This kind of preachy narrative and the reliance on multiple objects seem to be the last vapors of '80s agenda-driven myopia.
After not being overly excited about Christine Conley's spiral of paint chips at the Max 2001 exhibit earlier this summer at the University of Memphis, she totally threw me off guard with her series of drawings for "Perspectives." In fairness, Conley says the Max work inspired this latest permutation of the theme, in which tiny palette scraps serve as models for some very academic renderings. The minutely detailed and crosshatched drawings could almost pass as anatomical illustrations. The pulls, plops, and twists of liquid paint are akin to illustrations of muscle tissue. Her interest in the subject reflects her belief that "every moment counts, that even the smallest detail matters, and that leftovers are more than garbage." Her Taxonomy of Leftovers places paint chips in a display cabinet, imparting the notion of scientific artifacts, and it is a special treat to discover a paint chip in the case that matches one from the wall.
I was recently haggling with a circle of art fiends about the finer points of the Brooks show, when someone at the table expressed a particular affinity for the work of John Salvest but, without a trace of irony, inadvertently called him "John Salvage." For those of us familiar with his renowned cataloging of mundane objects, from cigarette butts to fingernail clippings, the misnomer incited a prolonged bout of hysterical laughter.
All joking aside, it becomes indelibly clear when looking at Salvest's suite of assemblages that his use of common objects to poetic ends becomes ever more concise. Pincushion is a simple dress mannequin, the surface of which is completely covered in straight pins. Perched in its clinical display case, the light gleams off the heads of the straight pins like the soft halo of a goddess. Perhaps some remark on the adversarial state of partisan politics, Salvest's Strike Anywhere is a shallow leather case open to reveal an outline of the United States on match heads. I don't know if it implies anything about his political persuasion, but Salvest used red matches.
Speaking of politics, Jan Hankins' written sentiments suggest left-leaning propaganda, except that the language is so cryptic that's about all that can be discerned. Consider the explanation of the painting Faith Based Space Race: "We will find the cost of a new arms race far beyond the high frontier. But would the fig-leafed Pinocchio of trickle-down puddle a brick if today's rope-a-dope shipment was examined to a T?" Hmm. Wow. Luckily, this nonsense doesn't hurt the efficacy of the paintings one iota. Hankins has long been one of the city's finest painters, and it is refreshing to see him get the respect he has long deserved, even if his message is buried beneath many delicious layers.
Pacini, when she discovered my particular thesis for this article, volunteered that the idea of artist's statements began for the purpose of supplying the docents with some idea of how to explain the work, and making it part of the exhibit was a late addition. Perhaps this might explain the various degrees of ambiguity and bad grammar. It also might shed some light on Greely Myatt's provocative compliance: putting a box with a button on the wall and instructions to press it for the artist's statement. Doing so activates a recording of birds tweeting. One has to wonder if this is some kind of protest, a little sarcasm concerning the high priority that discursiveness has in the art world.
Through October 21st.