In a town of Nashville's size, calling someone a seminal figure may be a bit grandiose. But the phrase fits Don Evans. A retired Vanderbilt professor, Evans championed a wide-open experimental approach to art that seems incongruous in a conservative institution and town. He had a big impact on students and friends, and stories of Evans-instigated "happenings" and performances constitute part of the city's alternate history.
That makes Evans the gravitational center of the group show now appearing at Tinney Contemporary, where guest curator Andee Rudloff has brought together five artists who have no previous direct relationship. It's that lack of obvious linkage, paradoxically, that invites a viewer to look deeper for connections—some easy to spot, others more subtle. By virtue of his reputation, however, Evans becomes the focus of the show, and he earns that status with the most compelling work.
The Evans pieces here are direct and intimate, a series of doodles he did during AA meetings in 1999 and 2000. (Evans has been sober 11 years now.) They document his passing thoughts day by day during the meetings, snapping up snippets of conversation, lines from the language of therapy and recovery, references to the Titans, portraits of fellow group members, memories, and fantasy cartoon people, animals and contraptions.
The drawings are dense, made more so by the fact that he often filled up part of a page, then turned it 180 degrees and drew some more, so you have words right-side up and upside down. The drawings are a brain scan of an intense person going through an intense process, with reality and imagination colliding every which way.
Of the other artists, Myles Maillie shows the most direct connections to Evans. His cartoon-like images, constructed in a relief style painted with bright colors, recall the visual style and comic qualities of Evans' drawings and cutouts. Maillie's most effective piece here is "Airport of Love," a web of tracks, ramps and spheres suspended above a background surface. The whole thing is painted white—except for color underneath some of the suspended elements, which casts a faint neon glow onto the background.
Ellen Stevens provides a traditional drawing and an installation made from blankets laid out to form another sort of drawing. In the drawing on paper, a rainbow arcs out of a dog's mouth. The rainbow seems to point to a set of rolled-up blankets tucked onto a narrow ledge in the stairway where this is all displayed, and that leads to some blankets hanging on the next wall. The blankets are just a way of applying color to the white walls.
Stevens' underlying idea—that anything can be turned into art—is very consonant with Evans' work. But cloth as a drawing medium was used to better effect by Nick Stolle in his July exhibit at Twist, Etc. in the Arcade. Stolle went much further with the idea, creating multiple levels of interplay among the original objects, their fundamental qualities of color, shape and texture, and objects he mimicked in the ways he arranged scraps of cloth, wood and plastic. His references ping-ponged between pop art cartoonishness and Constructivist abstraction, providing more densely layered content than Stevens' relatively simple composition.
After Stevens, the remaining artists in the Tinney show are Keith Harmon and Brandon Donahue. Harmon has long painted visions of nightlife and is represented here by one large-scale panorama that would look tremendous behind a long bar. Donahue is presumably the youngest artist in the show, a senior at TSU. He has the ability to create bold, iconic images, and like many young artists, he shows some traces of his teachers, like the birdhouse in "Escapism" that could be an element in a painting by TSU professor Sam Dunson.
But it's Donahue who may embody Evans' spirit most, especially in a painting of Michael Jackson created for this show. The image of M.J., painted on a reused door, shows him in silhouette up on his toes against a baby-blue background. The painting has Jackson's own sense of drama and glamour. The decision to paint him in silhouette has another effect—his face appears in pure black, as if Donahue is reversing the changes that distanced him from his blackness, or pulling away the layers to reassert his stature as a distinctly African-American cultural figure.
In the Jackson painting, Donahue reacts to life (and breaking events) with an immediacy much like that of Don Evans' spur-of-the-moment doodles. By framing this show with two ends of that experiential spectrum, curator Rudloff has pulled off some nifty sleight-of-hand. At this point, Brandon Donahue represents potential as much as achievement, and it's way too early to say whether he will have an impact to rival (or carry on) the elder artist's legacy. But like Evans, he has to start somewhere.
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