On the Edge 

Adventurous art center offers provocative, unusual exhibits

Adventurous art center offers provocative, unusual exhibits

Works by Heidi Steinke and Michael Merrill

Through April 8

Fugitive Art Center

440 Houston St.

Open by appointment; call 256-7067 or visit

http://www.fugitiveart.com.

The Fugitive Art Center has been open a little over a year, but it has already racked up an impressive number of art exhibitions, film screenings, and poetry readings. It has also staked its claim as the most avant-garde arts space in the city. By comparison, Ruby Green, Nashville’s other alternative art gallery, looks positively traditional.

The space is unique in a number of ways, not the least of which is its location. Houston Street, where the center is located, is a narrow, unevenly paved byway in a light industrial district off Chestnut Street near Greer Stadium. The art center itself is in a 19th-century warehouse that was originally occupied by the American Syrup and Preserving Company and later became a Styrofoam plant. The 15,000-square-foot space has been divided into several artist studios and an 1,850-square-foot gallery. With the exception of the more finished gallery space, the look of the center isn’t too different from the days when molasses and Styrofoam were being produced here. The rough wooden floors sag and squeak, the stone walls are rough and dingy, and the lighting is utilitarian. The heating is subsistent and the cooling not even that—it gets hot enough inside that the center is considering closing for the month of August.

The center also differs from other Nashville art spaces in that it is artist-founded, artist-run, and artist-funded. Greg Pond, who teaches at the University of the South in Sewanee, and Bryan Hunter, a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, cofounded the center in March 1999. They were later joined in the venture by artists/board members Bob Durham, Terry Glispin, Richard Mitchell, Tim Murphy, Donna Tauscher, and Lain York. Besides building out the space themselves, the founders and board members also jointly run the space, choose the exhibitions, and fund the center with the rent each pays on his or her studio at the back of the warehouse.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of Nashville’s literary past will recognize that the center’s name gives a nod to The Fugitives, a group of poets and writers associated with Vanderbilt University in the 1930s who considered themselves outside the literary mainstream. That ”outsider“ status suits the arts center as well. Its stated mission is to ”present strong, innovative work without concern for commercial viability.“ Or as installation artist/board member Donna Tauscher puts it, ”We’re not profit or nonprofit—we just want a space where we can show the kind of art we want to see.“

Judging by the current show, the kind of art these new Fugitives want to see is pretty risky—by Nashville standards, at least. Both the paintings and drawings of Heidi Steinke and the color photographs of Michael Merrill use male and female nudity to explore some hot-button issues. Steinke uses her art to confront society’s disturbing eroticizing of female innocence and to address the clash of sex and romance in adult relationships; Merrill explores sexual appeal and the overweight male.

Steinke’s works include an oil portrait of a golden-haired child beauty queen, replete in fluffy white dress and rhinestone tiara, that calls to mind the sad specter of JonBenet Ramsey. More explicit still is a sketch of a wide-eyed little girl whose naked body is childlike save for a pair of bulging breasts. In another variation on the theme of innocence lost too soon, the image of a frilly girl’s dress floats unoccupied across a canvas.

Steinke also addresses the contradictory nature of adult romance in a series of ink on zinc works that mix Kama Sutra-like sexual poses with mushy text worthy of the worst Hallmark card. The juxtaposition of nude couples in acrobatic sexual positions and thoughts like ”I memorize the moments I share with you“ is both amusing and disconcerting.

Merrill’s color photographs are also thought-provoking. In three photos of a nude fat man, Merrill explores how the human body, even in a form judged unattractive by most standards, can impact its surroundings in a visually fascinating way. In another series of 11 photographs called ”A Straight Line in Curved Space,“ Merrill celebrates the sexual appeal of the stocky guy. These depict a variety of regular Joes, all clothed and viewed from the back, as they survey their domain at the beach, at the carnival, or in the park.

Taken together, Steinke’s paintings and Merrill’s photographs don’t always present a pretty picture, even though the imagery is often deceptively attractive or humorous. What these works do offer is a chance for viewers to confront and respond to their own views on prickly issues like sex, obesity, and gender roles. Art exhibits like this one are rare anywhere, but especially so in Nashville, where most art asks to be seen but not heard. For that, the Fugitive Art Center is to be applauded—and supported.

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