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Is this art?

JUNE 15, 1998:  The problem with “MAX: 98” isn’t the art.

“MAX: 98” is a collaboration between the University of Memphis Art Museum, where it is exhibited, and Delta Axis, a somewhat vagabond local organization whose most recent claim to fame was removing an exhibition of Elvis art last summer at the behest of offended Elvis fans. The first in what will purportedly become an annual exhibit, “MAX: 98” was curated by Village Voice art critic Kim Levin, who selected this exhibit from slides and studio visits.

There is no discernible theme in Levin’s curation and the exhibit is, by and large, a rather benign (if not quite bland) affair. In her catalog essay, Levin eschews any idea of regional art and seems somewhat fixated on the Jonesboro school shootings which just preceded her visit. How that fixation translates into the exhibit is not clear; it seems rather a subject she’d prefer discussing over the art. She ends with apologies for not making the exhibit more politically correct and with a few platitudes about “emerging talent” and “new energy.”

The best of the work in “MAX: 98” is formidable; the worst isn’t totally to the blame of the artists. Levin’s selection of artists is supposedly divided equally between students and professionals – in lieu of a theme, we have a formula – although the actual lines seem a bit blurred and probably unimportant. Only the installations by Pat Natseway and Elizabeth Bellamy Sorba seem student-like (i.e., unprofessional) and the blame there lies with the curator. Levin apparently felt that in these students’ cases, their studios were more interesting as a whole than their work was as part of that whole. Thus, we have the college studios of Natseway and Sorba recreated at opposite ends of a gallery. While such free-for-all installations are currently a fad in New York, the idea is trite – Lucas Samaras did it first in the early ’60s, and it’s gotten dumber each and every time it’s been done since. Yes, Sorba collects and arranges a lot of stuff in her space and, yes, Natseway writes poems and stories and quotations on his walls. Maybe both should be encouraged to incorporate those elements into their otherwise lackluster artwork. If that is Levin’s advice – and it obviously is – she could have offered that privately. Clutter is never a substitute for content.

Trapped between these two cacophonies, like a virtuoso listening to static on headphones, are Jeremy Earhart’s meticulous renderings. There is a delicious irony in Earhart’s work, depicting technology in the most tedious, handmade fashion – appropriating the style of architectural rendering and engineering diagrams, making lines by punching thousands of holes, layering colors and images with transparent sheets of plastic film. Earhart, a recent graduate of the Memphis College of Art, reemphasizes the point by presenting tiny, actual objects – coaxial cable, batteries – as pedestaled shrines. This work is more direct and more literal than that seen recently at Marshall Arts, which used the forms of architectural site plans to create an abstracted landscape. I miss the ambiguity (the beauty, perhaps) of those pieces, but the bold figurative simplicity of a work such as Splice – a 7-foot tall blowup of a section of electrical cord – is undeniably evocative, at once warmly sensuous and coldly matter-of-fact.

I first encountered Virginia Overton’s work at the University of Memphis’ most recent student exhibit, jurored by Buzz Spector and Coleman Coker. I was struck by the simple humble intellect of her art. Can intelligence, like innocence, be wide-eyed? If so, Overton’s work fits the bill. In “MAX: 98,” she covers a long wall – which separates the main gallery from the second and extends down a dismal hallway – with Ziploc bags filled with nothing more (and nothing less) than her own breath. Breath, as the installation is appropriately titled, suggests several different homologies: Duchamp’s 50cc air de Paris, a padded cell, Warhol’s Mylar pillows, a quilted down jacket. “My breath is precious,” Overton says in her catalog statement, “too valuable to throw away.” Conceptual art is infamous for its cynicism. Overton is part of a new generation of conceptualists, putting a human touch to an intellectual enterprise. Leaving traces. Fingerprints. Saving her breath.

Also exhibited in the dismal hallway are the miniature landscapes of Norwood Creech. Anomalous to the rest of the exhibit, Creech’s paintings are mundane depictions of a mundane panorama – big sky above flat Arkansas delta. One might argue that this is the sort of art that only an outsider would notice, would see as speaking to the particulars of the region (curator Levin, in her catalog essay, waxes briefly on the highwayscape between Memphis and Jonesboro, tellingly invoking the arch-realist painter Rackstraw Downes), whereas we might ignore or miss it due to our familiarity. On the other hand, we might ignore it because it doesn’t merit our attention.

Speaking of Jonesboro, at either end of the dismal hallway are the works of two students from Arkansas State University. Brian Wasson offers a guaranteed show-stealer with his untitled installation of cast wax hands cupped over flashlights. Pre-exhibition photos show a more interesting arrangement, a sort of loose, sprawling diagonal, than the cramped symmetry of the “MAX: 98” installation. But the central image, the flashlight glowing through the wax hand, still evokes a universal childhood memory with strangely blended connotations of innocence and threat and humor. Likewise in a smaller piece, wherein cast feet morph into wading boots a la Magritte, Wasson manages to communicate effectively with a visual language informed by shared memory and unburdened by logic.

Bryan Blankenship, Electric Mother (Protector of the Crisco), detail, mixed media, 1998, 104” x 54” x 14.5”
Closeted at the other end of the dismal hallway, in an emergency exit alcove, are two works by Bryan Blankenship. The closest “MAX: 98” comes to controversial imagery or subject, Blankenship’s mixed-media altars wed Catholic imagery to gay bathhouse culture. Electric Mother (Protector of the Crisco) presents a niched Virgin Mary nightlight, complete with condom offering, above a can of the shortening-cum-lubricant. Cleanliness is Next to Godliness is part shrine, part fountain, and part enema, with its central niche occupied by another form of lubricant – a bottle of vodka sitting in for holy water. Blankenship’s work is well crafted but still obviously student work, tending toward the obvious and the simplistic. Its suggestion of shared ritual, be it sexual or religious – sacred or profane? – or a combination of both, however, is a rather tasty dichotomy.

The remaining five artists in “MAX: 98” share the cavernous main gallery, with Terri Jones’ Eclipse greeting visitors at the front door (a cramped and distracting location for the piece). Comprising sheets of glass on angled steel brackets, Eclipse dances in staccato steps up the high wall, playing with the difference between physicality and invisibility. Jones’ best work is art that is almost not there, that skirts the edges of our perception, and this piece fits well with her best previous work. Each sheet of glass bears the etched image of a spoon; in its configuration at “MAX: 98,” the piece offers a diagonal cascade of small spoon-shadows. This would change were the lights angled differently or were the piece installed elsewhere; visible images would become invisible, invisible images would become visible. Jones’ poetic message is further honed with Eclipse: part fleeting truth, part fleeting image, part secret, part hard fact.

Sara Good’s work is, by contrast, very physical, charmingly clumsy in its respect for its material as well as its material presence. Wish and Wishful are raw allegories, thickly plaited and twined fibers that resemble appliance cords but represent very human images and sexual stereotypes. There is little subtlety to Good’s imagery, neither in its symbolism nor its execution; this is expressionist minimalism, Eva Hesse made representational, art from the hand and the gut and the heart.

Marian Lea McKinney’s Social Stamina – a wedding dress made from camouflage material and mosquito netting and fitted onto a steel armature – was awarded Best of Show at the recent University of Memphis juried student exhibition. It is joined at “MAX: 98” by a companion piece, Moon Dancing, a gown made from rough burlap and lined with fake fur. These are strong images, playing absence against presence, like empty armor or discarded exoskeletons. Levin may be correct in largely discounting regionalism in this day and age, but work like McKinney’s is still peculiarly Southern; its associations speak like regional fiction to the odd and variable station of women in this culture.

Tim Crowder is, no irony intended, the most original appropriationist I’ve ever seen. He skillfully lifts imagery from classic children’s literature and makes it his own, dropping it into his odd compositions where it lives happily ever after. Or, at least, ever after. He also lifts images from actual children’s art – from his own children, as a matter of fact. The combination of appropriated imagery with Crowder’s singular, pseudo-surrealistic viewpoint makes for paintings which are at once arresting and disturbing and funny and haunting. The meanings behind Crowder’s paintings are ambiguous, and all the more powerful for it. The work in “MAX: 98” is earlier than Crowder’s recent exhibit at Ledbetter Lusk Gallery; its images are more in the classic illustration vein and rather less direct. The uncertain narrative here is more mysterious, more Gothic, than in the more conceptual works shown at Ledbetter Lusk. Either way, it’s fascinating for its psychological intrigue and its nearly impeccable presentation.

The phrase “impeccable presentation” fittingly brings us to John Salvest, whose work is nothing if not impeccable; most would use the word “obsessive.” Salvest’s work is the embodiment of intelligence and ingenuity, with a large dose of inhuman patience tossed in for good measure. With the massive Meditation 7:21, Salvest achieves perhaps the epitome in what Levin appropriately calls “absurdly logical” behavior. With more business cards than one would care to count, he has created an enormous “scroll” – 86 feet long, wrapping along three walls – which speaks eloquently and inevitably to each and every person whose cards make up the piece. “Soon you will have forgotten the world and soon the world will have forgotten you,” is the message spelled out with colored business cards on a white business-card field, each one individually thumb-tacked to the gallery wall. Fatalism brought home to roost and placed squarely in the vest pockets of our business attire. Where it belongs, in the clothes we wear when we do the least important things in our lives. Sometimes art can speak truths that cannot be spoken elsewhere so magically and so appropriately; John Salvest is unusually fluent in both truth and magic.

No, the problem with “MAX: 98” is not the art. The problem is partially the curation – and not simply the inclusion of studio recreations and mediocre landscapes. “MAX: 98” simply doesn’t read as an exhibit that was considerately curated. It has no flow; its motion is instead jerky, playing leap-frog from one artist and one idea to the next. In other words, it reads more like a juried survey. There’s nothing wrong with juried surveys, but “MAX: 98” isn’t billed as such and raises expectations a little higher than what is actually delivered.

But the problem isn’t just the curation, it goes a little deeper than that. It lurks behind and beneath and before the curation. Caution is part of the problem; in the wake of the Elvis debacle, there is a palpable, admitted timidity to “MAX: 98.” “These are not artists who are interested in offending people,” museum director Leslie Luebbers was quoted in the daily newspaper. “I had listened to several artists assert that their art was not meant to be aggressive, confrontational, or (heaven preserve) offensive...,” she repeats in a catalog essay. Artists Crowder, Blankenship, and McKinney are likewise quoted with statements that attempt to allay potential misunderstandings or offenses, and the “g-word” is conspicuously absent in any discussion of Blankenship’s work. Art, of course, need not be shocking to be effective, but an unwillingness to be so is hardly a virtue. Delta Axis’ faintheartedness slips into the exhibit like a low-grade fever and weakens it from within.

The deepest problem with “MAX: 98” is its attitude. Do we really find anything in “MAX: 98” that wouldn’t have been discovered by a local curator given the same resources? Allison Smith, Jay Etkin, David Lusk, Marina Pacini, Debora Gordon, and Patty Bladon are among the directors and curators to have previously selected these artists – indeed, some of the same artwork – for local exhibition. Was their previous insight somehow less valid? Is it not really art until someone from elsewhere (i.e., New York) confirms it as so? Delta Axis and “MAX: 98” would seem to be telling us just that.

This sort of chauvinism is just as offensive as any feared affront to conservative sensibilities. “Is this art?” the publicity for “MAX: 98” asks in rhetorical condescension. It is, it already was. A high-profile exhibit is a valuable opportunity for the artists involved, but it is they who confer validity upon “MAX: 98,” not the other way around.

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