Memphis art in 2005: awe, outrage, and pure sass. In a year filled with natural disasters, war, and political mayhem, many local artists did some soul-searching and reassessing. Some of the past year's most memorable exhibits were unabashed responses to life in 2005. The following are a few of these shows, some outside the mainstream. For a variety of reasons they stick in the mind's eye and serve as postscripts to a visually exciting and multifaceted exhibition year.
In a November exhibit at Material was Bryan Blankenship's Bed, a curious bed of nails in which 12 milk-white clay cones -- suggesting breasts and penises simultaneously -- pushed through a ceramic mattress painted a 1950s turquois-and-orange plaid. Sassy and serious, Bed told tales of outmoded attitudes (both moral and aesthetic) and of disquieting sleeps.
Blankenship's Terrene 4, a December Caseworks display at the Art Museum of the University of Memphis, was far eerier. Inside a violet-lit white cube, a broken clay rope was held up by six metal poles to form a bridge spanning the lower left corner of the cube to the upper right corner. The poles had been partially whited-out along the bottom so that they appeared to be floating or submerged. Terrene means "of the earth," but there was no solid ground here. It had been wiped out by a blizzard or maybe a flood like the one caused by Hurricane Katrina, and the bridge is broken and cannot be crossed.
For their collaborative installation, "Where I Draw the Line" at Second Floor Contemporary in November, Jeff Mickey and Bobby Spillman also had Katrina on their minds. Spillman drew cartoons of overturned houses and uprooted trees on a large canvas painted lime and lemon sherbet colors in Sweeter Homes and Gardens. His paintings' sardonic and volatile titles -- Neapolitan Neighborhood, You Said What, and Smoke, Smoke, Smoke -- spoke of upheavals inside as well as outside the homes.
Mickey dangled a tiny house on a wire beneath what looked to be the hands of a huge clock (Home at 8 Home at 9), topped a seven-foot wooden funeral pyre with a metal bed (Chester Pyre), and built a row of wooden bungalows on the slats of an empty tomato crate (Vine Ripened). Post-Katrina (and the Southeast Asian tsunami and Pakistan earthquake) and beyond TV sitcoms and political rhetoric about family values, Spillman's and Mickey's works drew a line that encompassed all of life, including its cataclysms, its slow decay, and the emotional as well as the physical.
In a March show at Second Floor Contemporary, Tom Lee responded to war and rumors of war by rewriting a children's marching song ("This old man/he play won/he play knick-knack/on a son") and creating a tale of mayhem complete with cardboard circular saws, amputees, bones, and, most harrowing, graphite cartoons of baby-faced bombers, with the sign of the cross on their tails, gleefully engaging in 21st-century holy wars for their religious and political patriarchs.
At AMUM's "MAX: 05" in July and August, Pinkney Herbert's white-hot yellows, orange-ochre, and liquid blues blasted through incinerated architecture and suggested a world capable of and seemingly bent on self-destruction (Inferno, oil on canvas). In March at Perry Nicole Fine Arts, Meikle Gardner filled the walls with a series of grids (oils on canvas) that kept us out (Fence(d)), drew us into Escher-like infinities (Spirit Ditch), and looked like an internal switchboard for a primordial mind (Shiva Saw).
Johnny Taylor's paintings in his June/July exhibit, "Texas Medicine," at Jay Etkin Gallery dealt with material goods, including soda bottles, antique typewriters, and light bulbs. In riverrun (acrylic on panel), three rows of antique Remingtons stood ready to type out an endless stream of words (including "riverrun," the first word in James Joyce's 1937 stream-of-consciousness masterpiece, Finnegans Wake). Instead of depicting a series of seductively smiling Marilyn Monroes, Taylor painted three Morton Salt Girls who had lost their flow (When It Rains It Pours 1-3). Trapped inside thick dark outlines, faces turned down and to the side, the girls were weary, perhaps, of their own mass proliferation and appeared to be looking for a means of escape.
In a November show at Perry Nicole, Chuck Johnson combined vintage photo portraits with encyclopedia illustrations, geometric patterns, abstract gestures, and small realistic paintings. How could so many genres work together without becoming jumbled and confused? Remarkably, as it turned out. This skilled mixed-media artist (he executes all the genres well) created nearly seamless mosaics that suggested fully lived lives. Among them were star child #2 and mother & daughter.
A couple of late-year photography exhibits provided poignant auld lang synes. For her November show "Blackbird" at David Lusk Gallery, Jeane Umbreit hand-painted black-and-white photos of crumbling pre-Civil War brick, a wounded blackbird, eroding commercial buildings, and the poised, penetrating gaze of a young African-American woman. With this body of work she wove a subtle narrative about slow, inexorable changes in the Southern ethos. Eric Swartz also invoked the passage of time with terse titles (Ram, Dodge, No, and Dash) and intensely saturate digital close-ups of rusted-out vehicles back-dropped by early-spring greens in the exhibit "Machines a Dyin' & Green Things a Growin'" at Gallery 314, which continues through January.
Underground art was at the P&H Café, where intense art-related discussions often continued past midnight. The later the hour, the more evocative the art became. For example, in October, Pink Grenade, Darla Linerode-Henson's transparent glass sculpture, appeared to be dribbling down the wall.
Mel Spillman capped off 2005 with some quirky Southern sass at the Vault Room, a new late-night art space inside R.P. Billiards on Highland. A group show in December included Keep Your Feet Out My Shoes and Six Feet High and Rising, two floral tapestries on panel that Spillman created with Mississippi water and mud.