If you've seen the film Into the Wild, Sean Penn's 2007 biopic about doomed, Alaska-bound drifter Christopher McCandless (or read the eponymous book by Jon Krakauer), then you probably know about the artist Leonard Knight. On McCandless' way to the great North, he briefly stops at Knight's "Salvation Mountain"— a big, painted rock in the middle of the SoCal desert.
Knight passed away yesterday at age 82.
Knight's mountain, visible on Google Earth, reads "GOD IS LOVE, JESUS I'M A SINNER PLEASE COME UPON MY BODY AND INTO MY HEART." It is painted (in bright latex) to resemble an Eden, a waterfall, a valley of the shadow of doubt, a Gethsemene. It backs up against Slab City, a neighboring desert community of off-season Burning Man attendees and trailer-dwellers. Knight spent over 30 years crafting his mountain in ascetic conditions, and the result doesn't look, or feel, quite like anything else in the world.
I got a chance to meet Knight a few years ago. He would have been about 79 when I passed through the area, and at the time he was still spry. He gave my friend and I (plus a prayerful full-leather biker and a group of wayward crust punks) a tour of the Mountain, pointing out sections that had been fabricated from old tires and rail ties, or else carved laboriously out of the rough ground. We brought him a bucket of hot pink paint because we'd heard it was customary to bring paint in exchange for his tour. He told us that his goal was to spread the love of God and that he was glad that his work was getting attention.
Knight has been written about as a visionary artist (an expansion on the term "self-taught artist", as many informally schooled artists have been called). His work falls in with that of painters Howard Finster and Bill Traylor, as well as with Memphis' own "Saint Paul's Spiritual Temple"—or Voodoo Village. Much outsider work (as it is also sometimes called) is spiritually-themed and highly colorful. But Knight's mountain is bigger and weirder and less salable than most outsider art, and so—even as it is the most visible piece in its genre—there are still concerns about its preservation.
Hopefully (and probably) Knight's work will meet a better fate than "Saint Paul's", which fell victim to vandalism and abandon after the 1960s. For now, if you're ever driving around in the desert south of Los Angeles, you can stop by and remember what Knight said about his work and faith in Into the Wild: "This is a love story that is staggering to everybody in the whole world."
Architecture is supposed to be the most accessible art form. As New York Times critic Allison Arieff wrote in 2012, "Architecture…carries a burden that the other arts don’t — it must reconcile aesthetics and ideas with user functionality. A painting or a novel need only please or provoke its audience; it doesn’t then also require setbacks, parking minimums and LEED certification." Buildings are everywhere. Not everyone collects oil paintings, but everyone uses buildings.
Arieff's op-ed ("Why Don't We Read About Architecture?") goes onto criticize writers for using words like "demassification" and "attitudinally" to describe architecture. These words are inaccessible for the majority of people (who, assumably, didn't have four+ years of theory education at the College of Their Choice.) Instead, she suggests writers use clean, simple, action-driven language to describe the functional arts.
But what to do when the architecture is not functional or accessible? Or, in the case of "Protoplastic," Igor Siddiqui's recently-opened exhibition at TOPS Gallery, when an architect has architected…well, art?
Siddiqui, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin, is a Yale-educated architect and the principal of Isssstudio, an architecture and design firm responsible for projects like "Mas Moss" (a curtain made from soy-dyed biodegradable cable and ball moss) and Ceramic Tesssseltile (an irregularly shaped tesselating tile that "produces the greatest degree of variation when multiplied across the larger field.") His design work is mathy and techy and Green, and the online descriptions of his projects throw around terms like "morphogenesis."
"Protoplastic" can be understood as a flexing of the same design muscles that shoulder the architect's professional work. The installation, designed particularly for TOPS, involves custom acrylic moulds and biodegradable reliefs. Sheets of bright-white plastic are impressed with radial patterns of lines. The sheets are arranged in a free-standing pattern around the space. In the small basement gallery, the viewer could conceivably feel as if she were in the middle of a large, elegantly executed rodent maze.
It is difficult to confess. Confessions can be genuine, but the "confessional" is a codified genre, with all the perks and failings of a genre. Starting with St. Augustine and perhaps continuing to James Frey, the confessional has seen some high and low points.
Chris Miner, the video artist and director of Crosstown Arts, knows this well. The artist's latest show, "The Gospel According to a Young American" is a comprehensive retrospective of almost 15 years of video art. Over 40 videos, broadcast on 20 boxy televisions, comprise a record of Miner's confessions— about marriage, faith and understanding. The pieces vacillate between Miner's raw, un-ironic self-professions and deftly ironized portraits of his surroundings.
At its best, the work is both on-its-knees and conscious of that well-worn pose. At its weakest, (and, perhaps, in the most genuinely vulnerable pieces, such as when Miner critiques his Mississippi heritage) the work seems to not know to whom it is addressed: God? Fellow men? The artist himself?
The exhibition, open through February 15th at Rhodes' Clough-Hanson Gallery, is loosely arranged like a church: pew-length tables and TVs are arranged in wings around the gallery, while a single alter-like television sits centrally in space. There is a small side-gallery with humble fabric benches and several televisions placed on low pedestals.
The televisions loop Miner's grainy clips, all shot on a camera and in a style that the digital generation has dubbed, reductively, 'VHS.' Miner favors a slow pace— single frames with minimal action, shots of old photographs, or frames of an unmoving landscape. If there is action in the shots, it is only to show the minuteness of human movement in an otherwise unerring stillness.
This February, Memphis will see the return of gallerist, art consultant, and painter Jay Etkin. Etkin previously operated first-of-their-kind galleries in the Cooper-Young and South Main neighborhoods. His South Main gallery closed in 2008, and Etkin relocated from Memphis to Santa Fe. After six years away, Etkin will re-enter the Memphis art scene by opening another Cooper-Young space, at 942 S. Cooper, only a stone's throw away from the location of his first Memphis gallery.
The new Jay Etkin Gallery is an old storefront space (formerly an overstuffed odds-and-ends shop) incarnated into a large, track-lit white room. Floating display walls are buttressed by steel columns. Etkin worked collaboratively with architect Jeff Blackledge to leave parts of the building's original structure revealed: cement floors and wooden rafters provide some context for the white box gallery space.
Hayes uses steel and "altered books" to form his works. The steel is exactingly cut to form parameters for old book pages. The pages are arrayed so that attention is drawn to the mass of their edges— gilded, watermarked or tiered, drawn from antique reference books. The steel pieces that support the pages could be seen as parabolic book covers, but the visual analogy is not a heavy-handed one.
Lester Merriweather has been doing a lot with Memphis art for the past decade, but 2013 may have been his most remarkable year to date. In addition to curating the University of Memphis's new Fogelman Gallery, he was featured in group shows at The Cotton Museum and Material and held two excellent solo exhibitions, "BLACK HOUSE" and "WHITE MARKET", at South Main's TOPS space. He produced an entirely new body of collage pieces, worked with ArtsMemphis and the UrbanArts Commission, and was a constant presence at openings and events throughout town.
The first time I visited Lester's studio, I found him standing several rungs up on a ladder, affixing a picture of a bejewled female wrist to the top of a 12 foot canvas. He was putting the finishing touches on the body of collage work that would form the first half of his solo exhibition at TOPS. Around us, glossy magazines were stacked floor-to-ceiling, along with Tupperwear containers full of carefully extracted clippings.
The collages, many imposingly large yet sparse, feature delicate wreaths of jewels, sunglasses, watches, lipstick, and other luxury ephemera. These images are interspersed with deconstructed pictures of celebrities, or parts of celebrities. The works are about wealth and race and pop culture, and about how human bodies are co-opted by the brutality of capitalism. In following weeks, hanging in the grimy TOPS basement, they looked both bleak and luxe.
I recently visited Merriweather in his studio for a second time, to talk about 2013 in Memphis art and in his work.
Flyer: You devoted this year to making work and showing work in Memphis. As an artist who has shown internationally, but who has spent his career here, what was that like?
LM: It's a mixed bag. You always have positives and negatives from situations in which you are exhibititing work. There were high moments, like being able to do the 100th show at Material. I think everything came from just wanting to focus on changing things in my studio, and developing different bodies of work that I had started on, and just wanting to get actual ideas materialized.
There is a long way to go for Memphis's communities, in terms of how they receive, understand, and support art. But a lot of my work, this year, was to achieve that specific goal [of making and showing work in Memphis]. TOPS was a highlight, because I felt like I got a chance to do several different types of work, and make them all work within the space. There are two other Memphis shows coming up on my radar. But I want to use this next year to travel [my work] to other museums and other spaces, and other places….The thing about Memphis is— you could say sometimes— the audience is relatively particular… it is not like you will be blackballed from the art world if you make a misstep here in Memphis. I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted to do.
"I just enjoy all of my paintings. When I started assembling the wall grouping, friends said 'you're not going to group all of these in one large grouping?' I did because I just like to be able to sit and look at all the works at one time." — Mrs. Joe Pless, from a 1970s Commerical Appeal article
I recently ran across this headline while looking through old clippings in the Memphis room of the Central Library. It got me thinking: who collects art in Memphis these days? We have big-time collectors, like retired NBA player Elliot Perry, or businessman John Jerit, whose folk art collection I covered for the Flyer earlier this year. We have out-of-town art enthusiasts who lend parts of their collection to the art museums around the city. But whenever I ask, "What does the Memphis art world need?" I hear a chorus of "more buyers, more buyers, more buyers."
Memphis does need more buyers, and not just big time collectors, but micro-collectors: those of us who choose to spend any extra cash on a painting rather than a new margarita machine. I am curious about Memphis' every day art collectors. How do we come by our mini-collections? Galleries? Kickstarters? Friends? How do we display the works? Does anybody still display art in "groupings", a la 1970s home design?
My guess would be that people buy art because they know the artist, or because they fall in love with a particular work, or because they need some decoration for above their couch. But maybe, with Etsy and Kickstarter and the strange art-purchasing animal that is Saatchi Online, the landscape for art buyers has changed.
Valerie Pirainowill be giving a talk at Crosstown Arts tonight (Wednesday, Nov. 20), 6 p.m.. The emerging artist, who lives and works in New York, was previously a resident artist at The Studio Museum in Harlem, and has shown work at Queen's Sculpture Center and Chicago's Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. Her Crosstown show, "Reconstruction" combines recent works with earlier installations.
Piraino works largely with transfer process, a method that she says is "very much embedded with photography." Most recently she has been working with fabric transfers, though her Crosstown show contains earlier iterations of this interest: slide projection, printmaking, even embossed wax seals.
The show consists of five correlated installations: an array of small, handmade prints depicting old furniture; a row of vignette-shaped, framed mirrors; 11 wooden frames that contain projected slide images from several decades ago; and another slide image, projected into a corner at slightly below waist-height. The gallery space is bisected by a makeshift wall, giving the room a sense of front and back.
The idea of a transfer operates in "Reconstruction" in a couple different senses. There is the obvious transfer of one material to another, but there is also the thematic transfer of memory, both personal and historical. Piraino's work attempts to reconstruct personal and family history but pays material reference to Victorian-era (read: American Reconstruction-era) furniture.
Piraino began this work when she inherited a large collection of family slides. She says, "Much of the context [of the photographs] has been lost as family members passed away. All of that has since been folded into the work and has really become a central question for me... how to you reconcile having personal objects with very little context?"
History, in Piraino's work, is repressed, evidenced only by its inexplicable leftover objects. Her row of vignette-shaped mirrors are marked with a centered, creme-colored wax seal. They cast ovals of light onto the gallery floor. There's a domestic simplicity and beauty to the mirrors, but the work is frustrating. It doesn't tell a viewer what she or he wants to know. It does so purposefully, with reference to one of the most egregious "forgetting" of civil rights for African Americans, post-Reconstruction era.
Piraino's work elegantly conveys a sense of muted history, the artifacts of which have an undeniable coldness. Her installations are less about what were, than what could have been, were history better remembered.
Memphis-based illustrator and comic artist Derrick Dent has drawn for Wired, The New York Times, and The Oxford American, among other publications. His brush and ink illustrations have the technical edge of a careful paintings and the caricatural verve of comics. His distinctive comics style takes its cues from the American graphic underground but deals with text and pacing in a way reminiscent of classic Japanese Manga. Dent’s most recent work, a graphic novella entitled MAJOR SLUG 2, follows the ups and downs of a “guy who compulsively punches people.”
I sat down with Dent recently over a cup of Otherlands' coffee. We talked about dive bars, social media, MFAs, and brush quality. Dent, who is in his late 20s, likes “internet diets” (diets from the internet, not diets found on the internet), teaching, and character studies. He doesn’t like weird pick-up lines or artistic comfort zones.
Memphis Flyer: You brought your sketchbook. Can I take a look?
Derrick Dent: Sure, sure. At one point I fancied myself the kind of sketchbook artist and illustrator who would go to dive bars and draw people. The activities always ended up being mutually exclusive— I never ended up drawing and talking at the same time. Sometimes people would tell me weird stories. Sometimes [the stories] were complete non sequiturs.
... And you would end up illustrating those?
I would end up with the story in the back of my mind, but I always wished that I’d recorded it, if only for posterity, so that I could have held on to the narrative for some illustration project. It was a fun thing, for awhile. It was always a way for me to get out and talk to people.
Somebody is always going to talk to you if you are drawing in a bar.
Yeah, yeah. At the very least it is a “What are you doing?” or “I don’t see that happening very often.”
Anyway, this sketchbook is for this really informal community thing online called InkTober. This concept artist named Jake Parker started it and basically you’re making an ink drawing for every day of October, until the month is over. … That’s what this sketchbook mostly has been. There are times when a note or a small anecdotal detail slips in there.
The final tally for the online vote for the 2013 Flyer Box Art contest was very close, with Lindsey Penn pulling out in front for her Burning Man-inspired box she describes as "chaos."
Congratulations to Penn, who received $500. You can see her box at 665 S. Highland in front of Oasis Hookah Lounge.
Thanks again to the Art Center for their generous support of the contest.
Two very different exhibitions currently on display in Memphis galleries share a formal attention to shape, light, and color. Huger Foote, a photographer of the understated, makes work that matches something in the character of Holly Cole’s rhythmic, geometrical sculptures.
Foote, a Memphis-born and New York-based artist, is showing a new collection of color photography, “Sixteen,” at David Lusk Gallery. The show runs through November 16, with an opening reception tonight, October 18th, from 6 to 8 p.m. Displayed alongside is work by painter Libby Johnson.
Foote’s lens is focused on moments of long-lit quiet. In one photograph, a metal fence casts an array of shadows. In another, grass grows patchily near the lip of a sidewalk.
The work pays clear tribute to William Eggleston, but is less atmospheric and more formal. In many of Foote’s photos, a single, vertical element divides the frame. Spare instances of saturated color are noted against pale backgrounds, a technique that serves to emphasize shape and line within the composition.
And, if you haven't voted yet for your favorite box — the winner receives $500 — you still have time. Voting ends on October 31st. Vote here.
If you’ve never been to Repair Days or, heaven help you, never been to the Metal Museum, this weekend is the time to go. The museum itself (currently exhibiting works by Master Metalsmith Thomas Latané) is hands-down one of the best spots in Memphis, and Repair Days is the museum’s largest event of the year.
I spent a minute trying to come up with an analogy for what Repair Days is in comparison to the city's other annual events. I was pretty unsuccessful. Repair Days is not “like BBQ Fest for blacksmiths.”
The weekend is, as museum director Carissa Hussong puts it, “...its own organism.” It is an informal reunion for craftspeople, a teaching event for young metalworkers and hobbyists, an auction, a dinner party, a family day, and a many-tiered repair market. This is the event’s 34th year.
Matthew Hasty, a landscape painter and featured artist in this year’s Art of Science exhibition (opening Friday at Hyde Gallery), has no idea what cell mitosis looks like up close. His painting, The Echoes of Pneuma, would flop in any science fair, due to its imaginative take on cell walls (Hasty: “I used beef tripe for reference”) and inclusion of some antediluvian forms that seem, at best, misplaced in the cell world (Hasty: “...those parts kind of looks like Grover?”)
It’s a good painting, even if (actually, because) it makes a human cell look like a Dantean underworld. For the hard science side of things, there’s Dr. Sharon Frase, an electron microscopist whose research was Hasty’s inspiration.
Frase and Hasty will both be on hand at this Friday’s opening to answer questions and talk about their work.
This is the third year that St. Jude has put on the Art of Science, a project that partners local artists with St. Jude’s scientists. This year’s pull includes video installation, dance, clothing design, painting, sculpture, and graphic art.
5 Faces from the Flyer's Art Box Contest
Here's the tiniest preview of the winning designs from this year's Flyer Art Box contest. The boxes will be unveiled at Wednesday night's Best of Memphis party, and a profile of the winners will run in the October 3rd issue of the Flyer.