Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer New and Improved

By Cory Dugan

SEPTEMBER 22, 1997:  In a recent interview, the once-young painter David Salle says, "Cultivating the extreme has always been, will always be, recreational for the young and the young at heart." I'm not certain I understand or agree with his use of the term recreational. Cultivating the extreme should be the business of the young and the young at heart.

The crop may not be ready for harvest yet, but the busy cultivators in Rhodes College's "Young Memphis" exhibition have managed to coax a few healthy seedlings from the moldy and unreceptive aesthetic soil hereabouts. Fresh from art school and thus far shown locally only at alternative spaces, the six artists display varying directions and levels of accomplishment. They share a vigorous and as-yet uncompromised sense of exploration; while influences are often obvious, these artists also already demonstrate a healthy sense of artistic identity.

Process and material are central to the work of Candi Farlice, Cleo Winn, and Arnold Carlson. Farlice's Calendar is an arrangement of small packages on the wall, flat bundles of paper sealed in wax or resin or twine and containing hints of scraps and objects which aspire to be a day-by-day document. Part conceptual process, part craftsy scrapbook, the piece founders by being not quite either. Although visually appealing as a ragged, motley grid, Calendar eventually lacks commitment. I was left wanting either complete mystery (no clues to the contents of the packages or the reason behind them) or complete disclosure (put the scraps in numbered and dated Ziploc bags).

Cleo Winn's wall-sculptures, on the other hand, revel in mystery. The main feature being long strands of dangling thread or woven moss, these structures accomplish a weightless, weblike presence in the gallery. In Drain, the strands hang from eight inverted sink drains, mounted on a panel and encrusted with paint and wax. In Hotbed, they trail from a fiber-filled pad, spray-painted a radioactive-warning shade of red-orange. Evoking both the primordial and the post-industrial, the two pieces (Winn's other offerings are far less successful; not weightless but lightweight) promise an unconventional vision melded with an equally unconventional eye for found media.

Arnold Carlson's eye for media may be a little more conventional -- wood, metal, cloth, plaster -- but his eye for form and space is informal and wittily perceptive. Preaching from the Wreckage is a sprawling, narrative installation which incorporates a Puryear-esque airplane wing and other expertly rendered "remains" -- the proportions and spatial correlations perform a balancing act between accident and measurement. Silent Observers is a small gem: a crude framework of welded steel rods with handles, a likewise handled plaster-and-metal ball, a seemingly haphazard arrangement of stained white cloth -- a rare and unpretentious human artifact which nonetheless embodies an abstract nobility.

Of the two painters in "Young Memphis," one is personal and the other political. Sarah Voelker's works on paper teeter precariously on the edge of self-indulgent art therapy. In Sublimation, a series of 36 small paintings hung claustrophobically close together, Voelker offers up her psyche in the form of a cardboard box -- sometimes gift-wrapped, sometimes open with escaping clouds of white gas, sometimes with flora-like tentacles, sometimes beneath falling bricks or bowling balls. It's an engaging, non-linear serial replete with slapstick and pathos. And then there's Voelker's Trinity Portrait, wherein she presents herself in three large drawings as a pear-shaped, mime-faced woman -- part nun, part ballerina, part spread-eagled female, part spread-eagled male, with GOD on her T-shirt and a bunny on her bib. This is painting on the edge of performance. Or on the edge of embarrassing post-adolescent angst. On the edge, period.

Laurie Nye has obviously looked at the paintings of opening quotee David Salle a few times. From his trademark diptych format to his overlaid and appropriated figuration, Nye has assimilated all the postmodern Salle-esque gimmicks. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. First of all, Nye is a much better painter than Salle. And, secondly, she chooses more interesting images to appropriate. Instead of the banal and quasi-pornographic, Nye opts for vintage WWII photographs as her subject -- warplanes, battleships, period portraits -- and renders them in colors which approximate duotone printing. Atop and adjacent to these subtly executed images, she juxtaposes painted ribbons and quickly jotted figures.

Men Still Say This Was Our Finest Hour in particular is a painting of impressive depth and ability. Bisected by a black bow, the images dance and drown in rich color, ranging from filmy transparency to expressionist aplomb. The final statement in Nye's paintings is political, pacifist, feminist. But they are more interesting than the flags and banners that political paintings too often become. Not because the message is original or profound -- it's neither -- but because the painter promises the ability to be both --if she's careful and continues to develop her own style. A powerful and impressive debut.

The sixth and final artist in "Young Memphis" is Jeremy Waak, who fits no category and already recognizes something that most artists will never recognize -- or admit. Waak realizes that art is, by its nature, folly -- a totally useless endeavor -- and that is its most endearing charm. Waak is a consummate craftsman, and his work is on par with the most skilled woodworkers and metalsmiths, displayed as theirs would be in locked glass vitrines like priceless artifacts. But Waak makes only one product, in numerous variations, and it is, well, nonsense. Gorgeous, thought-provoking nonsense.

Waak designs and manufactures numerous versions of the One Kernel Popcorn Popper, fastidious little contraptions of polished wood and brass and silver, devices with springs and levers and triggers that resemble guns, manually operated, apparently functional, and beautifully crafted. They are, of course, completely superfluous and absurd. They are high wit, even higher art. This is mature and conceptually complex work; please flap your Flyer open and shut repeatedly in approximation of my applause.

Clough-Hanson Gallery is a small, cozy space which is hostile to art -- too much glass, not enough walls -- and exhibits there tend to be overcrowded. This exhibition is sometimes confusing in its installation and labeling, the floorpieces invade one another's space, and the separation of Voelker's three-part painting inexcusably damages an already tenuous piece. Less work, fewer artists, better choices of artwork with the gallery's limitations in mind -- any of these considerations would make for a better installation.

That cavil aside, "Young Memphis" is still an excellent exhibition; it is also a valuable resource to be encouraged for showing Memphis the new artists it needs to see. The Brooks failed miserably in its short-lived Biennial series by focusing on the usual suspects; the commercial galleries obviously don't have a clue, as evidenced by their collectively dismal "Introductions" exhibition. "Young Memphis" is at present a biennial effort; it should be annual.

Young Memphis
Clough-Hanson Gallery, Rhodes College
Through October 10th

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