It's Academic 

"Twenty @ 20" at the University of Memphis chronicles the shifting meaning of art.

I have recently been corrupted by the collected writings of Joseph Kosuth. Introduced to me by painter Dick Knowles, whose work is prominent in the 20-year retrospective at the Art Museum of the University of Memphis, Kosuth was a writer and conceptual artist who insisted that the role of the artist in society is to question the nature and purpose of art. In his essay "Painting Versus Art Versus Culture," Kosuth writes, "The point is that the creative work of the artist in art-making is not in making another object in a commodified world full of objects, but in having an effect as a maker on the meaning of art." This, I considered while perusing "Twenty @ 20," an undoubtedly handsome collection of professional artists' work that, with a few exceptions, ultimately struck me as a flat and conservative affair.

Knowles has labeled himself a "Kosuthian," which is peculiar, given Kosuth's rhetoric regarding traditional painting's demise and Knowles' own dogged pursuit of abstract painting. About this apparent contradiction, Knowles is unfazed, indicating that he can appreciate the rigor of Kosuth's argument for a broader definition of art and the limitations of formalism while continuing to benefit from a rich studio practice. What Knowles finds most appealing in Kosuth is the notion that the "validity of artistic propositions is not dependent on any empirical, much less any aesthetic, presupposition about the nature of things" but that the meaning of art is defined by its creator.

Consistent with the artist's evolving art-making process, Knowles' Aerial View #3 and Mississippi Valley, which are from 1981's "Views," are defiantly modern, painterly abstractions structured after maps and aerial photos. The artist's most recent work, with its many drips, pours, and splatters, reflects an escalation of the intuitive component of his process. Knowles says, "Starting in the '80s, I wanted to somehow avoid structuring, reducing, idealizing nature [in favor of] letting the means of the paint application reflect the seemingly chaotic -- at least, highly complex -- and unpredictable way that nature herself forms. From that perspective, these aerial views can be viewed as 'objective,' in that I attempted to remove my will to order and mimic nature's ordering."

Tony Moore and Hugh O'Donnell engage in a more postmodern-friendly version of abstraction, avoiding the hazard of navel-gazing formalism by basing their work on the body. Moore's paintings from 1990 incorporate Celtic and medieval heraldry but also "[Barnett] Newman's ratio for symbolizing the shape and presence of the human figure." Similarly, O'Donnell encouraged the students who worked on the drawings for 1995's "Body Echo" to introduce the natural movement of the body into the process. But if not for the wall texts conveying their pertinent social contexts, these scrawls, blobs, and doodles would pass as good, old-fashioned abstraction.

Wall texts are also significant in a series of photographs for "Czech Out Memphis" by Petr Lysacek and David Horan from 1994. Lysacek, collaborating with faculty and students, assumed the role of Elvis for staged copies of famous PR shots, like the one of the King shaking hands with Nixon or posing as Brando. Leslie Luebbers, the museum's director, says that the subject of the enterprise was "Lysacek's humorous confrontation between Eastern-European conceptions of America and his actual experience of it." One must assume that the scant objects on view (the photos and humble T-shirts he wore for the pictures) are mere mementos rather than the essence of the art's meaning.

Kosuth credits Marcel Duchamp as the artist responsible for the ideological shift in art's meaning, writing that the introduction of the readymade "changed the nature of art from a question of morphology (mimesis) to a question of function." Greely Myatt's Monument, from 1990's "de Nada for Terry," is a pile of chairs and birdhouses that rise in a huge jumble, which, Luebbers points out, leaves the objects unusable, mirroring Duchamp's readymades. What is unmistakable in Myatt's work, built from seemingly useless scrap lumber and old signage, is the potency of his humorous commentary on art history, which mimicks and mocks the work of art-world big shots like Duchamp and Philip Guston. For Myatt, the appearance of the art, despite its ample craft, is subordinate to the idea intimated.

"Twenty @ 20" also includes work by Kiki Smith, William Eggleston, and Jene Highstein, among others. Dorothy Sturm's From the Book of Solomon series from 1937, exquisitely rendered watercolors illustrating biblical themes, and a couple of drawings by Caroll Cloar are perhaps the most dated works on view, reflecting Memphis' regionalist roots. The rising status of folk and outsider art during the '80s is indicated by the inclusion of Memphian Joe Light. For the most part, however, the exhibit is a veritable time capsule of the last few decades -- academic proclivities in art, once fresh, now petrified in amber.

Through September 7th.

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