Through Aug. 14
Ruby Green, 514 5th Ave. S. 244-7179
Zeitgeist, 1819 21st Ave. S. 256-4805
All over the art world, summer is the season for group shows. Zeitgeist is no exception, and this year it teamed up with Ruby Green for a joint exhibit of 16 artists. In this collective effort, each artist gets a piece in each of the two galleries. This format makes for an interesting viewing experience, depending on the elapsed time between visits. When you get to the second venue, in some cases you immediately notice the companion work to something you saw in the first place, but in others you have to remind yourself what the other piece by the same artist looked like.
In a group show with this many participants, all of whom attain a generally high quality level, you can't comment on everything. "Empire Builders," which closes this weekend, gives us a chance to check in on some relatively familiar local artists, and get a quick look at a few out-of-town artists who show less frequently here. We'll have to wait to see if the show boosts any ambitions for art-world empires that the galleries or artists may harbor.
Kristina Arnold is one of the locals in the show, and we find her represented by her familiar constructions made from string and plastic. The piece at Ruby Green is particularly strong. In "this is your brain on drugs (Prozac Nation II)," a bundle of pink string hangs from the ceiling, holding a ball of Plexiglas about a foot from the floor. The underside of the ball has a cloth cover, with red circles of cloth and sequins sewn into it. This hangs over a mirror, and five '60s-style flower graphics made from red candy sit on the mirror. Sometimes I don't know if Arnold's pieces have specific referents in microbiology, but this piece connects to issues of mental health and medicine that are easier for a non-scientist to grasp. The strings could be the bundle of nerves that connect the eye to the brain. The piece enacts a kind of hiding and pseudo-revealing: the stitch-work on the bottom of the plastic ball is hard to see without crawling onto the ground; the mirror would provide a way to look at it while standing, but the flower shapes obscure the view. The mechanisms designed to clarify seem to make perception more difficult. The flowers themselves, made out of candy, bring to mind sugar placebos, the control factor in a pharmaceutical trial. Recent stories about the pharmaceutical industry indicate that too often there is no great difference between the impact of the sugar pill and the expensive drugs. In the case of widely prescribed drugs to manage depression, Arnold's piece suggests that these pills themselves are the placebo: they replace other sorts of efforts to deal with psychological problems and may make it harder to see oneself.
Perception also becomes a problem in Atlantan Rose Barron's black-and-white photos. She casts herself as a character in these pieces, like Cindy Sherman. The image in "Closing Time (from the Blond in Atlanta Series)" at Ruby Green is hard to translate. You can't tell if the woman in the vignette is coming in or going out, and her face is obscured by shadow. A black man in a uniform stands behind her, with an expression that's hard to interpret. The characters crowd to the front of the field of vision, giving the photo a dark, claustrophobic and confused feel that conveys an incidental alienation.
Steven Thompson's "Top Down Bottom Charm" at Zeitgeist is an effusive collection of wooden elements that could be a model or train set waiting to be assembled. A kind of tunnel constructed from very thin slats of wood curls across the wall, surrounded by plastic packets containing strips of wood that have been trimmed and drawn on in a fine-lined style like scrimshaw. Packaging the wood strips in plastic creates some hiccups in viewing. A viewer can wonder whether she is meant to look at these contents carefully, or are they just raw material whose importance lies in their collective state of disassembly? Is this the thing, or is it the demolition of a thing? As you look at the packets carefully, they do set up a format that creates layered patterns between the pieces, with an immense amount of detail. Thompson's piece at Ruby Green, "Number 5," is more modest and requires up-close viewing to make out the faint marks on its sea-green surface. The shape of a cresting wave that looks like it could have come from Hokusai's woodcut recurs through this piece. Thompson extracts the foam on the edge of the wave and repeats it several times in a work that has very fine detail but an understated impact.
Melody Owen's pieces at Zeitgeist are surrealist objects that incorporate broken windshield glass. In one, she cut holes in either side of a black case, out of which a sphere of this glass protrudes. The other piece here is a photo of a woman wearing sleeves made from bits of the glass somehow stitched together. These works resonate well with Owen's drawings at Ruby Green, which depict human hands holding animals (a snake, bird and lizard). The drawings, in a very simple illustration style, capture a tenderness of touch that either contrasts with or gets amplified by the touch of glass to skin shown at Zeitgeist.
Andrew Kaufman, an MTSU faculty member, participated in a good show of installations with his wife Donna Stack at Ruby Green earlier this year. For this show, he has gone in a new direction with two-dimensional digital work (titled "Fantasy Remix") constructed by sampling and reassembling images from comic books. The surface is slick and stridently artificial, although it turns out he hand-painted the name cards that accompany the pieces. While technology figured in his installation pieces, those did not exist so thoroughly in the digital world as these images do.
At Ruby Green, Sara Good constructed a floor piece out of flowers and dirt of different colors carefully laid into concentric circles. She called it "Mat (for the Better Home and Garden)." The work reminds me of a mandala, a construction that serves as a focus for contemplation and meditation; Wolfgang Laib's painstaking work with organic materials comes to mind as well. Each circle has its own texture and color; I particularly responded to the richness of color in the dirt, and to the act of collecting dirt uniform enough to express distinct colors. Unfortunately, "Mat" was too apt a title, as the piece has been inadvertently stepped on several times. Down on the floor, it too easily disappears from sight. You could take the disintegration of the mat caused by accidental footfalls as an indication of the transitoriness of human effort, or even the futility of domestic workthe kitchen floor never stays mopped. That doesn't keep me from mourning the lost chance to see the materials in a more pristine condition.
Let me finish with quick comments on a few of the other artists:
♦ Local painter Sara La had excellent work in a Watkins show last year, but her pieces in this show do not have the same subtlety in their surrealist combinations of elements. The best of her paintings here is "Double Happiness" at Zeitgeist, a large canvas filled with the scarlet color of a traditional Chinese robe.
♦ Beth Seiters has constructed objects in beeswax. The piece at Ruby Green consists of a series of simple, almost spherical cups filled with water. The water evaporates, giving it a temporal dimension. Working with beeswax also draws attention to smell as a dimension of the work.
♦ Rocky Horton makes classic monochromatic minimalist paintings. The paintings have subtle changes in tone, texture and surface that produce elegant geometries.
♦ I wrote about Nashville Scene contributor Julie Roberts' video work in an article last week. Her self-portrait at Ruby Green is particularly interesting in its manipulation of time, which forces the viewer to engage in a semi-conscious act of decelerating perception to take in the work.
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