For every artist who has made a name in the South, just as many have migrated to New York. You can’t really blame them: For almost a half century, the city has firmly held its position as the art capital of the world, exerting a kind of magnetic pull on artists from virtually every region of the country and abroad.
So when artists like the Tennessee-born Will Berry return home from the Big Apple to share their bountyas he has with “Finding the Familiar,” the group show he has curated for Zeitgeista natural curiosity wells up in the community. This doesn’t happen because Nashvillians are dazzled by the goings-on in the big city, but rather because what rises to the top in New York stands as a kind of benchmark by which artists everywhere tend to measure and compare their own work. And indeed, Berry’s exhibit offers local viewers a chance to see a solid collection of accomplished, forward-looking artworks.
Thanks to the constant pressure for more inclusiveness in the art world, regional artists are finally coming into their own. At first, this drive allowed women and African Americans to begin forging their rightful place in American arts and letters. But now there is a new openness to the voices of Americans from all walks of lifeboth ethnic and regionalas well as the slow breakdown of “isms.” No longer must art look only one way, clothed in the radical fashion of the day.
Thus Berry and his five cohorts in the Zeitgeist show can be seen not only as New York artists, but also as artists whose visions are fundamentally attached to their own native grounds. The show is a fine example of how art benefits from the conversation between local influences and the contemporary experiments that go on in the art world at large.
As curator of the show, Berry is aware of all this. In the handsome catalogue he has compiled, he explains that his selection of artists was based on what he sees as their “strong relationship with nature.” Essentially abstract, the works here draw on the makers’ early memories of nature, both conscious and unconscious; they bear little obvious kinship to the realistic, regional landscapes of a Thomas Hart Benton.
For instance, Berry likens the dozens of small, Sumi ink drawings in David Dupuis’ “Carnal Knowledge” to the multitudinous shapes of black and white rocks found along Dupuis’ native Seattle coast. He compares Tom Waldron’s steel sculpture “Barge” “to the rocks forged in the heat of the Southwest desert” where Waldron makes his home. Likewise, Berry compares the swirling lines that populate his own paintings to the plowed furrows that engraved the farmland of his youth.
As much as each artist here conjures up a sense of placeor perhaps better put, the memory of placeBerry’s fine curatorial eye has also united the artists aesthetically by their reliance on line. In “Susurrus,” by the talented, Kentucky-born Elliott Puckette, the artist’s graceful, curvilinear lines work in concert with her dramatic darkened landscape, much the way lyrics respond to and accompany music. Rather than expressing experience through the process of layeringamong the most frequently utilized approaches in making art todayPuckette, like all of the artists on view here, employs a line that attempts to amalgamate experience, to hold onto all of it at once, in a process much more akin to the compression of poetry than to the narrative exegesis of prose.
“I want to work on something until it becomes a record of everything I have thought about,” Berry says. “When I am painting, my mind is not wandering, and it is not a layering.” As in Puckette’s work, the evocative, intelligent lines that pervade Berry’s canvases bear similarity to the gesture paintings of the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollacka painter, it should be noted, who considered Thomas Hart Benton his great mentor. But while Pollack is famous for splattering and splashing paint on canvas in a dervish-like frenzy, Berry admits to a time-consuming and meditative process. (Interestingly, recent X-rays of Pollack’s paintings have uncovered underlying images that probably acted as guides for the paintings.)
In fact, Berry’s sweeping lines function like calligraphy. “In the West we think of calligraphy as the prohibition against the human form, but it gave Islamic artists a way to express themselves through the power of shape,” he explains. “The calligraphy of the East was about the glorification of God through the mathematical potential of the line carried to infinity, through the meditation on form. For the East, the decorative arts aren’t just pretty. But if that’s all one gets, it’s enough to recognize the beautiful. That’s what nature does too. It makes us stop and consider.”
One of the primary arguments against regional art is that it all too often remains merely descriptive, that it fails to direct itself to the higher spiritual goal of art in general. But this criticism cannot be imposed on the works in “Finding the Familiar,” a show that points to an important new direction in art today. And just thinksome of it was inspired by the rolling fields of Middle Tennessee.
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