There's a branch of cultural anthropology that views a person's garbage as the most accurate window into their life. Name-brand toothpaste rolled from the bottom and neatly stapled receipts, or cheap beer cans and moldy Chinese takeout boxes? You can tell a lot about a person based on what they don't want you to see. But if you want to really understand how someone wants to be perceived, check out the art they collect.
Often displayed front-and-center in a person's home, a personal art collection has maintained its power as a status symbol, from the French salon days of floor-to-ceiling masterworks. Today little more than a smartly placed Damien Hirst is all you need to signal your with-it-ness to the world, sort of like how having a Warhol print of yourself became such a signifier of wealth that by the 1980s it was often a prop in TV and movies, like in Kelly Taylor's bedroom in 90210 or Bette Midler's penthouse in Beaches.
But as well as being a status symbol, a carefully selected piece of art can show you everything from a person's political leanings to how well they can articulate their personal taste.
Herb Williams has been helping people build their own art collections as The Rymer Gallery's chief curator since its inception in 2007. "I try to include as many local artists as I can in my shows," says Williams. Now, at OZ's second TNT ("Thursday Night Thing") event, he's turning that concept on its head by combining highlights from various personal collections with his own work.
Personal Best is a one-night-only exhibition of Williams' sculptures flanked by works of art he's borrowing from some of Nashville's most interesting collectors. "I'm working with seven collectors who've donated one to three pieces each," he explains, and each of the collectors is vastly different from the others. Hope and Howard Stringer have lent a Warhol portrait of George Gershwin to the event, while Mark Kocourek and Jaime Heller are sharing one of Shepard Fairey's "Obey" prints.
Street artists like Fairey, with whom Williams has exhibited previously, make an interesting choice for an exhibit of contemporary work. Fairey began making these prints as a riff on skateboarding culture in the 1990s, and after his "Hope" print of Obama garnered fame during the 2008 presidential campaign, he became a household name — even in houses unfamiliar with contemporary art.
"I want to show people that Nashville is a city that supports art," Williams says of his exhibition's point of departure. Betsy Wills, who runs the popular arts blog ArtStormer and will chair this year's Frist Gala, is lending work from her collection to the event. Original prints by Hatch Show Print's Jim Sherraden will be on view, as well as work by artists as diverse as Natalie Dunham and Red Grooms. A painting by Chris Scarborough, whose work we've most recently seen in the group show The Medium's Session at Zeitgeist, will be a highlight.
"Every year," Williams says, "Chris creates a large-scale oil painting. I bought this one from him the year of the BP spill." Scarborough's canvas is like an anime landscape that's gotten stuck in a coding glitch, so its distortion seems methodical and extremely frantic at the same time. But Williams appreciates the grace with which Scarborough handles his subject matter even more than his use of formal elements. "The explosion of color is propped up on wooden scaffolding that emerges from this oil slick that stretches to the horizon," Williams says. "Chris' use of color is hypnotic, but what is so interesting to me is how he blends abstraction with a nod to social commentary."
Williams will also include his own work as part of the exhibit — a bold move considering he's admittedly surrounding himself with work by his favorite artists and has given it a title like Personal Best. But Williams is more interested in the question of influence than with fitting in.
Williams — whose practice is often prefaced with the factoid that he's one of the only independent buyers in the world to maintain an account with Crayola — makes sculptures out of the brightly colored wax sticks. In "Mixed Givings," for example, white crayons line up like soldiers marching up the side of a mountain. The edge of the sculpture is curved, like a wave of bark that's been left behind after the rest of the tree was chopped down. Williams uses brilliant colors to represent the tree rings here, which is a nice deviation from the otherwise straight-ahead replica.
Personal Best marks the first visual art exhibition OZ is hosting, and only the second of the TNT events, which take place the third Thursday of each month. A one-night-only art installation — for work that already has an owner and is not, at least formally, for sale — is an ambitious endeavor, but Williams is hopeful that it will open a conversation about how art collecting can help define an artistic community. And without all the coffee grounds and rotten banana peels of dumpster diving.
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