North and South 

The Arts Company spotlights three artists influenced by their dual identities as Tennesseans and New Yorkers

The Arts Company spotlights three artists influenced by their dual identities as Tennesseans and New Yorkers

Emerging Artists

The Arts Company

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Nashville’s visual arts community has grown remarkably in the last decade or so, but New York City is always going to lure away homegrown young artists. Whether rightly or wrongly, it’s still considered the place to go for anyone serious about pursuing a career in art. But even if the artist leaves home, that doesn’t mean home necessarily leaves the artist. Works by three Tennesseans currently on view at The Arts Company offer proof, reflecting the urban energy of the artists’ adopted New York City home while also drawing inspiration from their Southern roots. It’s a combination that creates intriguing imagery on the canvas—and dual allegiances within the artists.

Among the three, Gavin Zeigler is perhaps the most notable, having generated attention in national art magazines and in New York galleries with his found-object mixed-media art. No matter how much big-city acclaim he garners, though, the artist admits a part of him still feels connected to the farm where he grew up. “The environmental sensitivities fostered on my family’s farm in Franklin still live strong and speak loudly,” says Zeigler, who has lived and worked as an artist in New York City for nearly 20 years. Eight years ago, he won first prize in the First Annual Juried Small Works Christmas Exhibition at the Chuck Levitan Gallery in Manhattan. The award was a solo show at the gallery’s SoHo location, which helped establish Zeigler in the New York visual arts community. This year, Art & Antiques magazine named him as an artist to watch and featured a full-color spread on his art.

While Zeigler’s works have an urban feel and an abstract look that seem to belie his rural roots, the Tennessee connection is there if you know where to look. New York critic Marion Wolberg Weiss, reviewing his “Cityscape Series” completed just before Sept. 11, noted that Manhattan’s “transcendent quality has been perfectly captured by Mr. Zeigler in an effectively subtle way, a quality we are reminded of every day since the attack.” What Weiss didn’t point out was that the canceled checks and time cards used by Zeigler in the series are actually from an old Nashville-based business.

In his latest works, the artist combines old keys, coins, time cards and canceled checks with paint to reference manmade pursuits and human concerns, but without ever actually depicting the human form. “The items incorporated into my mixed-media compositions have all been held, handled and in some cases discarded by people,” says Zeigler. “It is in their usage that the objects develop an individuality that is unique to them alone.”

For Zeigler, coins represent manmade artifacts that are universally identifiable but anonymous, while keys signify the people who have touched them, cared for them and used them, passing on human qualities, histories and secrets to the objects. Zeigler attaches the coins and keys to canvas or wood panels using a combination of gel medium and modeling paste; he then applies several coats of acrylic paint over a period of weeks and sands the surface after applying each layer. Finally, he selectively strips away layers to create the finished work. As a result of human use, each object holds paint a little differently, adding an element of chance and mystery to the artistic process.

Zeigler comes by his fascination with found objects naturally. His father ran an architectural salvage business in Franklin in the early 1970s, long before such stores were popular in Middle Tennessee. “My father was ahead of his time when he opened Rack & Ruin,” Zeigler recalls. “He made countless trips to Europe buying architectural antiques for his store. Opening these containers and finding various items such as statues, doorknobs and stained glass fueled my passion for artistic geometry, while also introducing me to the beauty of everyday items.”

Today Zeigler remains consumed with what he calls “discovery within the common,” and his works challenge the viewer to make similar explorations. Viewed at a distance, the keys, coins and other items in his pieces merge into an abstract design, but up close they reveal themselves as familiar objects. “It is the transformation of these everyday items that compels the viewer to reach out and touch my paintings,” the artist says. “Tactile interaction is something I encourage.”

Zeigler’s parents encouraged their son’s early artistic ambitions and arranged for him to study with the late Nashville artist/teacher Bunn Gray. With Gray’s help, he landed a scholarship to Atlanta College of Art. But he didn’t consider tackling the New York art world until a friend suggested it. “New York City had never been on my mind until my best friend from childhood challenged me to make it here as an artist,” Zeigler admits. “His argument was that if art is your life and your passion, New York City is the place to prove your mettle.”

Greg Decker also grew up in the Nashville area, but now lives in the borough of Queens, just across the East River from Manhattan, with a view of the famous skyline from his studio. “That in itself is an inspiration, even though most of my paintings are figures in a kind of pastoral, fictive landscape,” he says.

The artist’s classically inspired nudes may be more directly linked to his employment at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I’ve worked part-time there for the past four years,” Decker says. “I take families through the collections and also spend much time actively studying the art. I believe in painting that is solid, colorful and formful. I feel that the theme—the story within the painting—generates the form, the color, the light and the movement. One reason Rembrandt is so powerful and intriguing is that form embodies theme in his works.”

Decker returns regularly to Tennessee to exhibit and paint, drawing inspiration from the natural beauty of Tennessee and the openness of its residents. “When I come back to Nashville, I enjoy the trees, fields and water, but mostly, it’s the people,” he says. “Nashvillians seem genuinely interested in the arts and especially in representational painting. I think that has to do with the sense of story and narrative in Southern art, particularly in literature.”

While Zeigler and Decker are both committed to living in New York, native Nashvillian K.J. Schumacher is more ambivalent about the city. “While on the one hand New York inspires action and creativity, being in Nashville has allowed me time to develop my art more personally, without the influences and distractions of a city as dynamic as New York,” says the 24-year-old artist, who returned to Nashville 18 months ago. “Being in Nashville allowed me to step back from certain elements of urban infrastructure that I wasn’t able to properly see in New York.” The result is a new series based on the interchange at 440 and I-65: “I had always wanted to paint roadways like that in New York, but it’s difficult to step back enough to actually see them there. I once tried to do it along the Major Deegan Expressway in Queens, and all I can say about that effort is that I wouldn’t advise anyone to try it.”

Schumacher’s images of urban roadways, overpasses, pedestrian stairwells, power lines and trees are painted on birch panels—a surface material that subtly references the natural world that lies beneath the manmade structures the artist depicts. “Technically, the series represents a shift in my work,” he says. “I chose to work on birch panels, whereas I had always used canvas, linen or paper before, and I also simplified the process of actually painting a picture.” Using very thin layers of paint, the artist presents isolated elements of urban infrastructure rather than complete scenes. The stripped-down approach results in works that are realistic but move toward the abstract—plus some that cross over firmly into abstraction. All of the works use the same blue, orange, black and white color scheme, which unifies the different styles within the series and also suggests a link between the world experienced through the physical senses and the one perceived emotionally.

The challenge of bridging different, often conflicting, worlds is one that resonates with Schumacher and his fellow Nashville/New York artists. “If I could, I would prefer to have studios here and in New York, but that’s not quite possible now,” says the young artist. “I’m considering moving back to New York in the fall, and I know that, as exciting as that is, I will regret leaving. Nashville is home for me and New York is New York.”

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