The Young and the Restless 

A broad look at Middle Tennessee’s next generation of artists

Art has always revolved around the passions of young people and the fascination of audiences watching them. The Frist Center has made the unusual move of opening its galleries to a selection of current (or recently graduated) students from all of the major programs in the area.
Art has always revolved around the passions of young people and the fascination of audiences watching them. By the time Picasso was 21, he had started his Blue Period. Many writers are commenting, or complaining, that today’s art market, overheated by Wall Street bonus money and the good fortune of the wealthy, is obsessed with youngsters straight out of school. This may be a good thing, representing rejuvenation and a wellspring of talent and ideas, or silliness, but it suggests that we should pay attention to the young artists here in Nashville. While our city is one of the few major cities where you can’t get an MFA, Middle Tennessee is home to many undergraduate visual art programs.

The Frist Center has made the unusual move of opening its galleries to a selection of current (or recently graduated) students from all of the major programs in the area. This includes 10 schools—Austin Peay, Watkins, Tennessee State, Fisk, Belmont, Vanderbilt, Lipscomb, Cumberland, MTSU and the Appalachian Center for Craft. That’s a lot of art students, so the curators at the Frist asked the faculty at each institution to select works for the show. Choosing among their students may have been a thankless job, but they know the work, and it means the selections offer insights on the values of each program. The results give a flavor for what is happening at each school, but more importantly, they show young local artists making work that holds up well in a museum setting.

Future/Now makes a good case for the vitality of local art education. In spite of administrative controversies, Watkins has emerged as a serious art school. Vanderbilt has made new commitments to its studio arts programs, with a new building, a new undergraduate degree and a new chair. Lipscomb’s program seems to be increasing its visibility. The most nationally renowned program, the Appalachian Center in Smithville, maintains its strength in ceramics, glass, metal, fabric and wood.

The exhibit presents a view of the philosophy and strengths of each program, but you shouldn’t read too much into that. The Watkins students seem most engaged with the frontiers of contemporary aesthetics, Vanderbilt less so, but that depends on which pieces you focus on. Many artists from the historically black colleges Fisk and Tennessee State acknowledge the visual heritage of African American art, but it’s wise to resist thinking about those programs in a reductive way. The schools’ contributions include as many pieces that do not hew to an easily identifiable “black” aesthetic.

As with any group show, one way to approach Future/Now is to find particular works that hit their marks, and many here do. Almost all of the pieces from the Appalachian Center are exemplary in some way. Watkins student Ken Nakamura’s sculpture “Grain,” in which a single grain of rice rotating on a spindle is “played” by a tone arm stylus, operates on several levels—a sardonic reference to his own ethnicity, a source for complex patterns of abstract sound, and an embodiment of decay and degeneration as the stylus wears down the rice. In his painting “Little Brother,” TSU student Brandon Donahue combines realistic portraiture, more stylized renderings from graffiti tagging, and graphic overlays to create a vocabulary to reflect on dilemmas of African American youth experience.

You expect passionate topical engagement from young people, and that is in evidence here. Works by Mandy Shafer and Ash Lusk of TSU and Kathy Keith of Cumberland address the Iraq War, and a surprising pair of works from Lipscomb students Deidre Byrum and Andi Senatro revolve around “bad girl” celebrities like Britney Spears. There is an immediacy in these students’ responses that can only come from youth. They and their peers are the ones asked to fight in Iraq, and they are the targets of the most intense consumer and celebrity marketing.

The strongest engagement comes from Fisk student Paul Edoho-Eket. His painting “The Exodus” shows a student in graduation robes and mortarboard nearly flying out of the canvas. Behind him are the buildings of Fisk’s campus, with storm clouds gathering over them and sunlight on the horizon (the last embers of day or the new day rising). Below this scene stands a line of graduating students in silhouette, a signature style of Aaron Douglas, once chair of the Fisk art department (and the subject of a retrospective at the Frist opening in January). The painting looks good, with vibrant colors, and it wears its symbolic content on its sleeve. Storm clouds and sunrise/sunset might be obvious metaphors, but in a case where a university of long standing (founded in 1866) and great reputation (ranked one of the top five historically black colleges) faces the prospect of closure, who needs to hide meaning within puzzles? Edoho-Eket uses Fisk’s artistic traditions to reflect his concern for and connection to the school. You sense an urgent desire to speak to and for his fellow students, the work of an aspiring public intellectual driven by a sense of communal responsibility.

The national art market’s youth obsession means that young people coming out of some schools are making big money selling art. In general, that will not be the case with the students from our art schools. Most won’t even know for several years where art fits into their lives. For now, this exhibit gives us a chance to look in on them and get their take on the world, not as art students, but as artists.

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