Survey Course 

Faculty exhibit at Watkins College of Art & Design gives Nashvillians a look at work by members of the city’s visual arts community

Faculty exhibit at Watkins College of Art & Design gives Nashvillians a look at work by members of the city’s visual arts community

Watkins Faculty Exhibition

Through April 9 at Watkins College of Art & Design

The “Art of Tennessee” show at the Frist Center made it clear how important colleges have been to the development of the state’s art community. Throughout the 20th century and continuing today, many of the artists represented in the show came to the state to take a university job. Since our art scene doesn’t include a robust art market that can support working artists—some artists make a go of it, but they are exceptions—Tennessee needs art schools acting as employers of artists.

Historically, Memphis had it all over Nashville in the number of schools employing and producing artists, but recently that has started to change, due in no small part to the revitalization of the Watkins College of Art & Design. The current Watkins Faculty Exhibition, on view in the school’s Brownlee O. Currey Jr. Gallery, demonstrates what the institution is doing for us.

The show itself is, like any faculty show, a hodgepodge without unifying themes or curatorial vision. Some of the works are competent but unremarkable—as artists, the faculty members don’t have a uniform level of gift, although all evince a technical skill appropriate to teachers. However, many of the works demonstrate a strong voice and deserve comment. Here’s a rundown of the most notable ones.

Barbara Yontz has the strongest piece here, a wall-mounted construction made of pig intestine, silk thread and rice paper. She sewed the pig intestine into a kind of cloth that hangs and billows like drapery in overlapping sections. Yellowish and crinkled, the intestine material gathers into rounded forms that look like organic blooms. Long strands of silk thread fall from these forms all the way to the floor, where they brush rice paper that has been laid next to the wall. The piece has much delicacy—the pig intestine fabric seems extremely fragile and thin, the silk threads nearly weightless, and the rice paper lining the floor suggests an act of almost ritual care to protect the thread from damage and soiling. Yontz’s materials are deeply earthy, their names invoking specific natural sources and a link to food and the processes of living.

On the opposite end of some spectrum stands Dona Berotti’s sculpture “The Price We Pay,” which consists of a Plexiglas cube filled with refined oil. The dark-brown liquid seems incalculably heavy, like a terrestrial black hole. This may be the most effective piece of political art I’ve seen in the last year, a time in which the Bush administration has inspired a lot of it. The piece makes its statement through the mute and ominous presence of the object itself. It also has the potential to outlive the current political moment and give way to the less topical experience of this stark cube as a concentration of dark force.

Terry Glispin’s “The Warmth of Matriarchy” is a clever composition that plays games of revealing, hiding and mixing maleness and femaleness. A photograph captures a nude man’s torso from just below the chest to just above the knees. A hood of multicolored loose crochet work mostly covers his penis, and the same fabric covers the picture’s frame. From behind him, a woman wraps her arms around his torso and folds her hands over his belly. You can see her legs behind his, but they are covered in dark hose to blend in with the background. At first glance, the arms look like they belong to the torso, so the smooth-skinned arms combined with a much hairier male body give you something hermaphroditic. When you notice the separation of characters, you see that this man is being covered and warmed by women—the person standing behind him and holding him, and the woman who we would picture making the crocheted fabric. There’s something incestuous about seeing the crochet covering his penis, which is far too intimate contact with mother’s handiwork. The photo also creates a sort of hedged exhibitionism. I imagine that it is a self-portrait, but framing the shot well below the head provides a degree of anonymity, and the loose strands of the crochet hood hide the penis enough to introduce a sliver of modesty.

Anderson Williams also contributed a work with political overtones. Titled “of America,” the painting depicts a four-quadrant pattern that could be a plan for some sort of fortress, residential complex or prison. The bright colors and two-dimensionality suggest the output of a bureaucratic office. Three of the four quadrants have a green area in their center, crossed by light lines that could represent garden courtyards. The fourth quadrant is predominantly gray without internal features—perhaps depicting an off-limits area in which the design details are classified, like the black budget of the Pentagon or a section of a document marked out by censors. The entire piece indirectly evokes the frame of mind needed to order and control society.

Lesley Patterson is represented by her triptych “Lower Case I,” “Diagnosis of the Disorder” and “The Influence of the Antidote.” I touched on this piece in a review of her show at TAG Art Gallery last September. The work has particularly nuanced psychological content, depicting varying manifestations of psychic disorganization. All three pieces feature the outline of a woman’s head, with an apparently refined appearance and pose that reminds me of Julianne Moore’s character Cathy in Far From Heaven. In the first image, a row of “i’s” run across the figure’s neck, and that section of the paper is cut out, like a slashed throat. In the next, the figure has broken into two heads that overlap and share elements. In the final one, Patterson inserts botanic elements into the figure. A plant seems to take root in the woman’s chest, sending its stalk up through her throat and out from her head. In addition to the notion that this figure has “gone to seed,” the plant elements roughly track some of the chakras, opening up the possibility that healthy, organic energy is asserting itself.

Finally, some quicker mentions:

Brenda Long-Brown has created an online work that can be found at blbstudio.com. It consists of a century’s worth of postcards from 1903 to 2003, with the original messages accessible and screens on which viewers can contribute their thoughts. Some of the cards were sent to the artist, and the others look like they were sent to family members in years gone by.

Jack Dingo Ryan also used postcards as the basis for his piece in the show. He arranged 60 or so cards, all pictures of mountains, into an elongated elliptical pattern and over each card suspended an elliptical ring of clear plastic. Each plastic piece sits at a consistent distance above the mountain peak depicted, giving it a kind of halo. He refers to the piece as a “calculation,” and it has the quality of working through a simple relationship on a couple of plains—clustering the images, then using the same shape to draw attention to the predominant visual element.

Kristina Arnold contributed one of her biomorphic sculptures made from plastic, string and wire. This one consists of five red plastic globes mounted on wire extending from the wall. The positioning of the globes relative to each other has a grace and curve that remind you of the beauty that comes from the self-organizing patterns of natural systems.

Dan Brawner’s digital print “The Legend of Muffler Creek” uses some of the childlike imagery found in his current show at Zeitgeist. The paintings at Zeitgeist are stronger. In those, Brawner uses his own childhood drawings as backgrounds, bringing his past and present into the same space. I strongly advise everyone to go see that show, which remains up through this weekend.

John Watts offers his sculpture “World Wrestling for Justification of Deities (WWJD),” a hilarious diorama in which various deities—Jesus, Ganesha, Buddha, some Egyptian gods and so on—are represented as action figures wrestling each other in a ring. The piece provides a salutary break from the atmosphere of piety that prevails today maybe more than ever.

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