Art Farm Heals 

Alternative art spaces are essential.

Larry Giacoletti’s Stovetop at Art Farm.
The graffiti reads "Art Farm Kills Art." Regardless of the circumstances that led to the tag on the street in front of Art Farm, one victim of this dust-up is the exhibit now showing at the artist-run gallery. The simple fact is that alternative spaces like Art Farm and other non-commercial venues fill the void that established museums and commercial galleries will not. Furthermore, short of endowments and capital, such enterprises have long depended on the pockets of independent artists and curators. One would think that there are more deserving targets for young revolutionaries.

"Inside Out: Images of Suburbia" is the most ambitious project to grace the Art Farm gallery in a long time. Curated by Allana Clarke, the exhibit examines the patent homogeneity of suburban life and the ultimate vacuity of the American dream. Clarke laments, "A suburban neighborhood in Seattle is indistinguishable from a street on the outskirts of Atlanta," adding that "these communities have grids of streets with matching split-levels or perhaps cul-de-sacs emanating from every street like split ends. Suburbs are responsible for obliterating regional charm and creating instead a depressing redundancy that has swept the nation."

The four artists of "Inside Out" regard the subject of suburban life with the same sense of dread expressed in Clarke's essay. Kim Beck's Mall Parking Lot conveys the dull ubiquitousness of urban sprawl, depicting the expanse of uniform parking spaces as ultimately dehumanizing. The awesome power of Beck's drawing is due both to her deft handling of atmospheric effects and to the work's colossal scale, which mocks the inhospitable ambience of acres of hot blacktop. Several relief prints by Beck -- of a tennis court, swimming pool, and dwellings -- emphasize the blandness of suburban life.

If the depiction of such environments laments the encroaching homogeneity of American culture, Alison Oulette-Kerby's ensemble of objects reveals the attendant alienation and the futility of living in such a world. Self Portrait (I Think About You All the Time) is a three-legged pedestal on wheels that, when pushed, activates a set of gears and cogs that spins a bust of the artist that Clarke says "introduces feelings of anomie, feeling alone in the crowd, just as the sculpture is trapped in a repetitious cycle of the same movement over and over."

I didn't think much of Delta Axis' new exhibit, "Exit 23B: Young Artists from Jonesboro," but I'm still damn glad they are willing to get out on a limb. The pitfall of this show is the same one that revisits many Delta Axis offerings: the proliferation of half-baked conceptual art.

For instance, Brian Wasson shoots for profundity with his suite of used aluminum painting pans (the kind used to charge latex to a roller) transformed into works of art by being boldly displayed on the wall like paintings. I always get the feeling that people who do this sort of thing think they are being transgressive or that I should be wowed by their Richard Tuttle-like slackness. The truth is, this kind of schtick is old, boring, and usually just slack.

Dusty Mitchell's Suggestion Box appears to be quite ordinary in function and design, yet when the suggestion is placed into the slot, it is immediately shredded and falls to the floor below. Likewise, the joke is on the unwitting participant that peers into Mitchell's See Yourself, a simple microscope that startlingly casts a reflection of one's own eye. Such works challenge the passive role of the viewer by being confrontational. While such baiting might be initially potent, the novelty wanes quickly.

What do Sigmund Freud, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Mike Tyson, Satan, and Mark McGwire have in common? This I pondered while standing before Catherine Sullivan's portraits of these men in her series titled "Vagina Envy," in which every painting is cropped so as to include only the lower third of the face, particularly the mouth and chin of each subject. Perplexed and annoyed by the title, someone finally pointed out to me that every fellow represented sports a goatee, an obvious allusion to the pubis. Sullivan is a gifted painter technically, who obviously labored patiently over every solitary brushstroke but what a convoluted setup for a groaner of a punch line.

A block east of the burgeoning South Main Arts District is Second Street Studio, established by Charlie Agnew and Tom Delaney, who converted the ramshackle building into an exhibition space. The building's owner has taken up where Agnew and Delaney left off and is now running the enterprise.

Currently at Second Street is an exciting new photography exhibit titled "Pieces of a Whole" by graduating students of the University of Memphis. Gray Clawson's pictures capture the chaotic beauty of old-growth forests -- the tangles of underbrush, the massive trunks of trees and of light passing through translucent foliage. Justin Fox Burks follows in the tradition of Cartier-Bresson, taking "quick, decisive" photos of people participating in myriad forms of worship at temples, mosques, synagogues, etc. Anastasia Laurenzi offers an installation in a darkened room, with film positives of self-portraits illuminated by light boxes that convey a sense of isolation and despair. The passing glimpses of people in Kelley J. White's diminutive Polaroid transfers are charmingly mysterious the top of a head here, a pair of legs there.

My criticisms notwithstanding, the existence of alternative spaces and the artists and curators who operate them add much to the cultural life of Memphis. Support them.

"Inside Out: Images of Suburbia" through December 2nd.

"Exit 23B: Young Artists from Jonesboro" through December 15th.

"Pieces of a Whole" through December 17th.

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