With the explosion of art crawls and receptions that has accompanied the blooming of our local art scene in recent years, Nashvillians are becoming increasingly familiar with a phenomenon gallery goers in bigger cities know all too well: You say to yourself, "Wow, that was a great reception! I'll have to go back in a few days and actually look at the art." Sure, you manage to check out a few pieces, but only the most diligent (or antisocial) attendees tune out the social and libationary temptations long enough to really digest any of the works on display.
But not even Andy Warhol returning from the grave could have distracted viewers from the art on the walls at the opening reception for Soul Train, Joel Lamar Batey's solo show at Ovvio Arte. Indeed, the most posturing of hipsters could be seen scrutinizing Batey's paintings with a curiosity and fascination sincere enough to get them banned for life from American Apparel. The buzz in the air wasn't from the wine or the pheromones bouncing off the walls — it was from Batey's art, a gripping combination of surrealism, humor, eroticism, violence, beauty and grotesquerie that suggested Nashville was witnessing a true coming-out party for an exceptional talent.
And a homegrown talent at that. Batey, 32, grew up in the J.C. Napier Homes and attended Glencliff High School. He studied intermittently at TSU, Nossi College of Art and Watkins, and credits Nashville artists James Threalkill and Michael McBride with mentoring him.
Batey currently lives in a loft on Seventh Avenue just down from Jack White's Third Man Records, a location that in part inspired the Ovvio Arte show. A true struggling artist, Batey has no phone and doesn't drive. Relying on his feet for transportation, the painter often finds himself standing for several minutes waiting for the train that crosses Seventh Avenue to pass before he can proceed. (As Theo Antoniadis, who co-owns Ovvio Arte with his wife Veta Cicolello, relates this story, a train passes outside the gallery's window, on the very same tracks that pass Batey's home several blocks away.)
As he stood watching the trains pass by, Batey envisioned paintings on the sides of the cars. Instead of using canvases, he rendered his oil paintings on a bunch of salvaged metal shelves. The shelves more or less have the proportions of railroad cars, and Batey's original intention was to have all of the works hanging in one long row, as if they were a train. (Ovvio Arte doesn't have enough wall space for such an installation, so the works are displayed in two rows.) The holes that run along the top and bottom of each shelf are far from an obstacle — they work to Batey's advantage, creating a sense of linear motion and tying the pieces together.
Batey describes Soul Train as "a celebration of mother nature, giver of life," and to be sure, the female form dominates the exhibit. But this is no feel-good earth-mother stuff you'll find hanging in stalls at craft fairs. Interspersed around images of naked women are knives, guns, bombs, sharks and the occasional cartoonish devil. There's nothing blatantly violent going on, but the juxtapositions are striking, to say the least. "Thick," for instance, features a large knife hovering over a naked woman's body — bachelors on the make might want to think twice before hanging it over their sofa. (One major art collector, who owns work by Picasso and Miró, was torn about purchasing a painting. According to Antoniadis, he was overheard saying something like, "I need to know that in three weeks' time, I'll walk out of my bedroom and see that piece, and I won't be disturbed.")
Likewise, "Competition" teeters on the line between erotic beauty and mutilation. The right half of the painting features a nude female torso next to a female head, all against a light background. The left half features hands waving knives at a devilish creature and a blue head with a gun barrel protruding from its mouth, all against a predominantly black background. The cartoonish nature of the elvish little Satan gives the proceedings a comic edge, a playful tone that permeates much of Batey's work. The two halves together suggest the timeless battle to resist the temptations of the flesh, though such a facile interpretation doesn't do the work justice. More likely, it's just the fruit of a fertile and fearless imagination that doesn't censor itself or turn away from the dark corners that inhabit all of our brains.
What's most compelling about Batey's work is the delicate balance between surrealism and humor. The surrealism isn't of the Dali-esque, magnificent-illusion variety (not that there's anything wrong with that) — it's a more subtle form of mindfuck, preferring to hint at its fantasy world rather than spelling it out. The humor is similarly dry and ambiguous, yet undeniably present. Both strands weave together beautifully in "Smart Bombers." At first glance, the viewer sees three baby heads, but with airplane wings instead of arms. One of the adorable little bombers has released some of his munitions. A longer look at the painting reveals a reclining naked woman. One of the bomber boys is sucking on her breast and it even appears that the woman's pubic hair could be the cloud of smoke from an exploded bomb. Call it creepy-cute.
In addition to the 19 paintings that make up Soul Train, two large works on canvas hang on opposing walls. Though stylistically apart from the rest of the work, they share similar humorous accents, and are even more extreme in their hallucinatory intensity. One of the most gorgeous and sensual pieces in the exhibit, "Clash of the Totems" is a symbologist's wet dream, with iconographic images — a tiger, frog, an apelike creature scratching his head, what appears to be an African mask and, at the center, a vaguely Hindu-looking woman — blurred together in a gorgeous tangle dominated by rich gold and copper hues. "Cannibal Couple," meanwhile, features the titular naked duo, he with a large pierced penis, she with large pierced breasts. But what stands out most is a small, Betty Boop-like character sitting on one of the woman's breasts with her legs crossed.
Huh? A detailed work that screams out primitivism and African roots, topped off with what looks like a tattoo you'd see on a rockabilly girl on Lower Broad? Perhaps that's the point, or lack of point, to Batey's art. If you're prone to mundane pursuits like asking "What is the artist trying to say?" then prepare to be flustered. Searching for meaning in these works is like trying to outline the narrative thread to Harmony Korine's Gummo. But after all, isn't the best art ultimately trying to say, "Quit trying to figure out what I'm trying to say and just look at me, dammit!"
If that holds true, Batey is clearly on to something. And if public response is any indication — Nashville gallery regulars were in almost unanimous agreement that this show was truly remarkable and groundbreaking — then the rest of the art world will be on to Batey before long.
Ovvio Arte is open Saturday and Sunday noon-3 p.m., or call 838-5699 to set up an appointment.
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