With their current Delta Axis @ Marshall Arts exhibit, "Newcomers," co-curators Jeanine Jablonski and Cedar Nordbye prove that the adage "Those who can't ... teach" is seriously flawed. The show's seven "newcomers" are world travelers, community activists, and talented artists. Six of them also teach art at the college level.
Charles Johnson is a University of Memphis alum and instructor, who used to work as a painter/illustrator for the Pentagon. On 9/11, he was working at the Pentagon when the building was struck. That day, he decided to move back to Memphis, do his own work, and teach. His works in this exhibit are large mixed-media paintings that are mesmerizing syntheses of collage, abstraction, and realism. With layers of wax, oil pastels, and enamel spray paints, Johnson creates nearly seamless mosaics. He fills his canvases with miniature reproductions of vintage photo portraits, encyclopedia illustrations, geometric patterns, abstract gestures, numbers, letters, and small realistic paintings of animals. A masterfully rendered, threatening pit bull dominates the center of Full Moon Fancy Dancer (from Johnson's series "Best in Show"). This icon grounds Johnson's maelstrom of memory and information and reflects his determination to understand the events of his life.
Annette Fournet also teaches at the U of M. Her photographs are complex, fierce explorations of the world. Whether she is photographing Louisiana bayous, the Mississippi Delta, or Eastern Europe, her images celebrate wabi sabi (the beauty of the impermanent) and convey a sense of regret and longing. She expresses these sentiments in three, small black-and-white photographs from her series "Sticks, Stones, and Bones, Images From Transient Landscape." One of her images is of crumbling, headless stone figures in the Czech Republic (Untitled, 5). The other two are of eerie scarecrows in a field near the village of Kalimbina, Poland. Fournet's skillful handling of tonalities and the inexpensive lens in her 1960s plastic toy camera blur and transform the scarecrows into ominous creatures. Their conical plastic-bag faces and tattered clothing become the figure in Edvard Munch's Scream, a Klu Klux Klanner crossing a field at night (Untitled, 4), and a diaphanous-gowned Desdemona singing her final aria in Verdi's Otello (Untitled, 3).
The nude drawings and polymer prints of Kim Hindman, another faculty member at the U of M, are as tormented as Egon Schiele's self-portraits and as intimate and disconcertingly familiar as Marlene Dumas' graphite and ink-wash figures. Hindman's graphite drawing, Untitled, is a virtuosic theme-and-variation. The delicate contours that outline the headless, handless nude, her distorted abdomen, and her emaciated arms remind us that a "fine line" separates the sensual, the fragile, the distressed, and the diseased. To the right of this figure, smudges of powdered pigment echo the nude's form, and at the bottom right of the composition, three quick gestures recreate her body as left nipple, central meridian, and high point of right thigh.
Other notable works include Janie Cinzori's small, warm acrylic abstractions and MCA instructor Jill Wissmiller's wonderfully campy videos that compare 1950s sexual attitudes and dating behaviors with those of the 21st century. Like Wissmiller, Melissa Vandenberg, a Rhodes College sculpture instructor, creates art that is simultaneously serious and playful. If you stand under the bottomless crib that towers 12 feet above the floor (Fall from Grace), squat next to the high chair whose food tray extends 10 feet beyond the reach of its infant diner (Wean), and come face to face with the 3-year-old's dress pierced with a rusty key hole (Trivial), you might, like Vandenberg, find yourself unlocking some of the feelings and memories that shape your relationship to food, love, and family.
The new head of Memphis College of Art's graduate program, Sanjit Sethi, is an ingenious creator of art and a better world. For "(Dis)orientation Series," Sethi strapped a compass and a video camera to his left foot and walked city streets. In his video that plays at Marshall Arts, we see only the dark, shiny metallic compass endlessly gyrating to reflect every nuance of Sethi's steps. The artist has "compass walked" several cities. The footage seen here could be Sethi wandering Boston's streets and the MIT campus, his alma mater. This could be the artist discovering Memphis soon after his move to the city. Or this could be Sethi exploring Bangalore, India, where he and some local art students threatened to decorate the streets' potholes with images and written proof of government misconduct until nearby roadways were repaired.
The artistic chutzpah and experimentation of Sethi and the rest of these "newcomers" bode well both for their future shows and for the art students receiving their instruction.