As someone who has kept a sharp eye on the New York City art scene since the early 1970s, I must admit that some of my most memorable experiences have occurred in Tennessee. In 2012, it was the Tennessee State Museum where I saw and reviewed an exhibition of the politically charged, multi-media works of John Mellencamp. Later that same year it was the powerful and moving retrospective of the photography and videos of Carrie Mae Weems at The Frist Center for the Visual Arts, both in Nashville.
This time around I find myself in Knoxville, as I visit three different institutions featuring four very diverse selections of art and ideas. Ewing Gallery of Art, which can be found on the campus of the University of Tennessee, features Blurring Boundaries: The Women of AAA from 1936 – Present. The exhibition is comprised of art by 54 female members of American Abstract Artists. An institution begun in New York in 1936, at a time when the pioneers of abstract art, and to a much greater extent, their female counterparts were having a near impossible time finding a gallery to exhibit their work.
Blurring Boundaries: The Women of AAA from 1936 -- Present begins with few formidable examples of the earliest work from AAA’s archives. Initially, I am drawn to the painting The Red L Abstraction (1940) by Esphyr Slobodkina, an intimately sized spatial narrative that traverses an advancing perspective with active shapes and a sophisticated color scheme. You can just see the artist’s mind working here, wrangling with representation and abstraction in the pursuit of a purer, more universal and timeless aesthetic. Alice Trumbull Mason’s Magnitude of Memory (1962) has a similar feel with far less representation and increased rhythmic transitions that are suggestive of the kind of visual variances one sees on screen at the end of an old color film projection as it breaks free of its reel and quickly blurs into wiggling bands of color.
From here, the early work quickly moves to the diversity and the vitality of the current day and how well every piece here, despite the various media and messages, all fit together exceedingly well. Susan Smith's 2 ½ lb Irregular Grid (2012) is a reactive, jazzy jaunt of red lines as she riffs off of a flattened out, crisscrossed fast food container in surprisingly systematic and seamlessly expanding tangents. The wall label lists the media as collage, but I definitely see ball point pen lines and a slightly different color red in the areas surrounding the more obviously printed pattern on the crushed container; both indicating elements of added drawing. The painting Laughter and Forgetting (2017) by Cecily Kahn reveals an odd sort of control somewhere between the chaotic and the meditative. It almost seems as if when making this painting, the artist was moving back and forth mentally between a waking dream and focused frenzy.
Susan Smith, 2 ½ lb. Irregular Grid (2012), collage, 9 x 9 ½ inches
Blurring Boundaries: The Women Of AAA, 1936–present, which is curated by Rebecca DiGiovanna, runs through December 10, 2018.
The second exhibition is titled Mutual Muses. Here visitors will experience the work and vision of two late-career artists who inspired and complimented each other's productivity virtually their entire adult lives. Individually, they both are leaders in their chosen fields. Both are living examples of the transition between Modern and Contemporary Art. Mimi Garrard today, is an award-winning creator of videos that feature her beautiful and elegantly choreographed dance performances. James Seawright, her partner, who currently has his ground-breaking, multi-media light based work Searcher (1966) at the Whitney Museum of Art’s exhibition Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965-2018.
For this exhibition, the artists have created a number of collaborative prints that reflect a variety of sources including video stills that fracture and re-form into largely geometric or symmetrical shapes. Comprised mostly of curious marks that almost jump off the surface of the paper, each image represents a cross between organic and mechanical mapping. When looking at prints like Untitled (KY5) (2018) I keep picturing an army of artist/ants controlled by M. C. Escher in the rigorous pursuit of symbolizing a perfect balance between mind and body resulting in incredibly intricate patterns.
In addition to the optically opulent prints are intriguing examples of Seawright's more intimately scaled kinetic and light based art and Garrard's multi-layered videos of her stunningly choreographed dance performances.
Mutual Muses, an exhibition curated by T. Michael Martin, ends February 20, 2019.
At the UT Downtown gallery is an excellent show of portraits by Joseph Delaney (1904-1991) titled Face to Face. Most of the work here ranges in dates from the 1950s to 1970s when the Knoxville-born Delaney lived in New York City. The portraits featured throughout the gallery come from the time he spent at his beloved Arts Students League or participating in many of the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibits. I am told the subjects that are forward facing were made during his idle time at the Washington Square exhibitions, while the three-quarter and near profile views are most likely of the models at the League.
Delany an accomplished artist who painted numerous city scenes like his wonderful renditions of parades and nightlife despised abstract art. I sense, hearing stories about him, that he felt there is more than enough one can do with representation to expand the critical course of art making, therefore abstraction was an unnecessary endeavor, even an abomination in his eyes.
Being an artist myself, I know how my skills and level of concentration can vary from day to day and in these mid nineteenth century portraits by Delaney in a wide spectrum of styles and materials, anyone can see how the media and the mood of the moment can yield such different approaches and results. There is something iconic about the images rendered in charcoal; the overwhelming honesty in the graphite drawings, his distinct flair in the lines he produced with ink and brush; that wispy weariness in his watercolors and that odd sort of awkwardness in his pastels that all the results, somehow, reveal the substance of his subjects and the seductiveness of their souls.
Curated by Sam Yates, Face to Face ends December 8, 2018.
The University of Tennessee's graduate student gallery, Gallery 1010, maintains a very vigorous schedule with quickly changing exhibitions. This time around it is Dana Potter's No Good, Know How, an interactive, mixed media installation that challenges the senses while recording your responses. The basic set-up here is quite impressive as all the elements and states of her art-making process are present for everyone to see. From the computer cutouts that graphically represent artist’s equipment and every-day tools to the multi-layered prints they eventually make, Potter reveals a keen vision layered in mysterious methodology that slowly deepens with most onlooker's involvement.
At the core of the installation is the mapping of eye movements via computer relative to the instructions devised by the artist, a process that results in limitless possibilities as printouts. The way I end up dealing with the stresses of the challenge -- the self-imposed anxiety of playing a game on an interactive computer screen is a very effective and somewhat disorienting or reorienting experience for me. Additionally, Potter's prints create a new sort of edginess to the concept of aesthetic beauty -- and one that I can easily live with. I very much look forward to seeing what comes next in the promising career of Dana Potter.