Lain York, "Salient Point"
Will Berry, "Worlds Lying Out to Sun"
Through Jan. 22 at Zeitgeist
The French have a word, patrimoine, which refers to the body of cultural stuff left by previous generations, and I've seen it used specifically in reference to a city's heritage. Leaving aside its inherent grammatical sexism, the word does help concretize the culture of a place by pointing to its embodiment in the things people made or brought there. I imagine culture physically accreting, as paintings, buildings and books build up.
Thanks to persistent activity and a distinctive style, Lain York is one of the artists who define our city's visual culture. Many Nashvillians who look at art have seen one of his paintings, identifiable from their images of African or pre-Columbian carvings. Through his involvement in several essential groups and galleries, like Untitled, the Fugitive Art Center and Zeitgeist, his work shows up in multiple venues, but often we see his work as one piece among several or many. His current show at Zeitgeistwhere he works in what he describes as an "A&R capacity" for the galleryputs these paintings at the center of attention, sharing space with Will Berry's.
The painting "Moxico" brings together the essential elements of York's style. A large, rounded woman's head fills the right side of a large picture frame, set against an abstract background of a solid vibrant green. The sculptural head faces in three-quarter profile, the eyes downcast and closed, giving it a solemn tone.
York paints on boardactually a flat wood box. He starts by covering the surface with layers of paint, building up from light colors to dark browns. This allows him to compose in a sculptural manner, removing layers of paint by scraping and sanding the surface to reveal lighter tones underneath, sometimes going all the way to the wood. This results in complex combinations of color as bits of lower layers peek out or traces of outer layers remain behind. In "Moxico," the removal of paint leaves a corrugated pattern in some places, and a light area around the chin dissolves into an indistinct multicolored passage that reminds me of J.M.W. Turner's nearly abstract seascapes.
He also carves patterns into the wood, some before the paint goes on, others stripping it away, as with the leafy plant frond that crosses the face in "Moxico." He also draws in pencil over the paint: in "Moxico" you find simple geometric shapes, the outline of a flower and other rudimentary gestures; in other pieces, the drawings include columns of numbers, architectural plans, ornamental patterns, collections of lines and curves that could be musical notation or scientific plots, or abstract scribblings. These patterns and designs give an abstract sense of cultural coding systems without becoming readable. You would assume the masks and sculptures themselves belong to a particular belief system or civilization, but they are hybrids York has assembled from multiple sources. They point to the ideas of mythology, ritual and cultural significance but lie beyond literal reference.
These works raise an unavoidable question of what to make of the artist's reliance on images borrowed from non-Western cultures. I made a point of York's standing as a Nashville artist, but the pictures evoke Africa. If York were African American, I might not question his use of these images (maybe too readily), but in this case the work prompts us to confront the West's use of cultural material from the South and East. Western art is filled with images appropriated from other cultures, a practice that has been criticized as a form of cultural imperialism, but also produced great work like Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon." Non-Western influences have refreshed the visual vocabulary of Western art and serve to embody forces outside or hidden within conventional society. Such borrowings can easily devolve into a fetishized primitivism, a cheap exoticism or an overly idealized attempt to compensate for perceived spiritual deficiencies in our society.
Charges of naïveté do not stick easily to this artist. He studies cultures, not just pictures. In describing the way he uses images, York talks about the role artists had in the societies he draws on. In some African traditions or in Voudoun, someone with a problem would go to a priest or shaman, who would instruct the person to have an artist make a certain kind of sculpture. The person would bring the completed sculpture back to the priest, who would use spells to charge it, give it spiritual power. Understandably, the idea of an artist as part of a spiritual economy has a strong appeal for York. By comparison, Western artists can seem useless.
York's paintings of sculptures point to a lost or never achieved artistic function, but remain trapped in the detached relationship of viewer and object (unlike Adrienne Outlaw's interactive "Vessels of Grace" installation at Vanderbilt Medical Center, for example). In spite of their sculptural qualities, his pieces present themselves first as images occupying their own space, not residing in three-dimensional space continuous with us.
His fixation on masks and sculptures with ritual power raises the possibility that art can be more than something to gaze upon and that spirits and vitality could course through the world. His chosen subject suggests people need something more than entertainment. They need the things power objects could offer.
This body of work asks how to reclaim for art that power which can even heal, but it doesn't constitute a full answer. The paintings obviously do not function in the same way African sculptures did. We can assume no one buys one of York's works and asks the local witch to cast a spell over it (although nothing keeps you from doing that). Active spiritual power resides here largely as frustrated yearnings. York doesn't quite possess the magical key, maybe a couple of words or a single gesture, that would awaken in the images a radically transformative force.
However, even in a society where artists don't collaborate with shamans, artworks take on some life in being grasped by viewers. The pieces may not get charged by the good offices of a priest, but they might catch fire more like a compost heap: as the stuff piles up, heat slowly accumulates. With artworks, meaning accumulates, and at some point people in a place may realize a body of work made there has shaped the community.
Will Berry shares this exhibit with York, and his work shares some of his exoticism. Berry, a former Nashvillian now based in New York, translates his experience of the color, light, shape and motion in Oaxaca, Mexico, into abstract paintings and prints.
In his paintings, he lays down a patchwork or long columns of paint brushed on thinly. In two of the paintings, "Memo" and "El Loro de Los Pinos," he sweeps away some of the still wet paint to make nearly white lines and curves, in the latter work highlighting the spaces with dark brown lines. The base colors have the geometric quality of fields or geological formations, overlaid with markings that could be decoration, signifying markings or dispersed patterns within nature. In "Memo," the thinness of the paint layer results in spots where the color fades out toward a white that comes across like glare in the strong Southern sun. The compositions are balanced and graceful, and reflect a place where natural patterns and human design live in close proximity and mutual influence.
Berry's print series "La Luna" consists of diptychs that use the same ground of black glyph-like markings, which take on the abstracted forms of birds, plants and landscapes. He covers these patterns with simple, contrasting shapes in varying tones of red or green that differ in each version of the series. Like the paintings, they are elegant and pleasant designs.
Berry's work does not stretch at the seams of its own significance the way York's does, and seems much less ambitious. York's paintings carry an undeniable monumentality and aspire to communal influence. Berry offers pieces that function more as a traveler's private recollections.
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