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Thursday, August 8, 2013

Ambitious “7 Borders” Seeks to Define Kentucky's Role in American Art



Taylor Baldwin, The Body, 2012, Single-channel HD video.
 Image – Taylor Baldwin.

The 7 Borders: Mapping Kentucky's Regional Identity
Curator Joey Yates

Review by Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2013, Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

It is tempting to want to discuss any group exhibition on democratic terms, where the various artists are each given equal time and weight, yet the subjective response is undeniable. In this ambitious exhibition, curated with a daring eye by Joey Yates, all of the work is exemplary; but a handful of pieces occupied my mind more than the rest.

Taylor Baldwin's "The Body" is a 41-minute video that dispassionately observes the deconstruction of a life-size dummy of the artist's own construction. Although it is not a realistic human form, the action of opening it up follows the procedural schematic of an autopsy, with the outer "skin" slit by blade and forcefully peeled back to reveal innards of inorganic found materials. Their careful placement heightens contrast of color and texture and mimics human physiology enough to make the experience unsettling but fascinating. The context of the gallery and the benign materials give the viewer permission to examine a normally gruesome spectacle at some remove, and it takes some time to recognize how deeply one has been made complicit in the violation of the body. It is a fascinating exercise reinforced by a deceptively compelling soundtrack that heightens and elevates the mundane sounds of cutting and tearing. While the activity is not exactly violent, it is nonetheless destruction of the human identity in a highly disturbing fashion.

There were several photographs from Rashid Johnson, but it was his "Self-Portrait as the Black Jimmy Conners in the Finals of the New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club Summer Tennis Tournament" that lingers in the memory. The title tells you most of what you would ever need to know about the artist's intentions, and the over-size image is filled with detail both evocative of the period in which Conners was winning tennis championships and the connotations of racial identity confusion. It may not be as subtle in its effect as the other images included from Johnson – stark and penetrating portraits of homeless men – but it is a dominant piece in this exhibit.


Brian McCutcheon, Trailer Queen II, Weber grill,
speed parts, steel, automotive paint. Photo – KMAC.
The curator's statement mentions an interest among some of the artists in the suburban environment, and several vivid examples stand out. Brian McCutcheon's "Trailer Queen II" is a kitschy mash-up of iconography representing middle-class suburban masculinity – a charcoal grill customized with automotive details including exhaust pipes and flames. It neatly injects muscle car chic into one the most mundane yet evocative suburban artifacts and turns it into a true object of desire.

That object would be seen in the backyard of one of the houses included on the second floor here. Leticia Bajuyo's preoccupation with the peaked-roof house as form has grown (literally) from the use of tiny Monopoly pieces to the life-size blue insulation and styrofoam construction that is the centerpiece of "Pre-Fab(ulous) Environments." It is accompanied by a medium-size partner as well as a floor filled with dozens on a scale suitable for dolls, added by viewers from die-cut, ready-to-fold supply provided by the artist. A natural relationship is exploited by placing a series of photographs by Joel Ross that place his yard sign texts ("I Had A Dream That I Lost My Favorite Hat") on various suburban lawns. Ross asked the owners’ permission for these, but more typical is "False Promises," in which a lighted sign of his design is placed alongside a road and left until whatever appropriate authorities catch on and have it removed. The spooky, nighttime image is highly suggestive of some undefined yet palpable threat and taps into the archetypal dread of the empty country road.

Joel Ross. False Promises, 2008, Archival pigment print.
Photo – pleasechaeme.com.
Then, as if swiped from the porch of one the houses, Tony Tasset's "Smashed Pumpkin" is an extremely realistic depiction of a jack-o-lantern dashed on the sidewalk, toothy grin split in two by the impact. The painted bronze sculpture only lacks some impersonation of the slimy, decaying quality of the rotting pumpkin flesh to complete the illusion.

Other impactful images, from Gary Monroe's charismatic and graphic charcoal and pastel drawings teeming with snakes, to Todd Smith's playful photographs of trees filled with colored light trails charting his climb through the branches of each one. Denise Burge brought overt political messages into the exhibit in three quilts that communicate environmental statements more effectively than they achieve aesthetic harmony; and Hawkins Bolden is represented by several found object sculptures that come off as far too random and lacking in sufficient evidence of the artist's intention to feel satisfying.

Both The Speed Museum and the Louisville Visual Art Association have juried regional exhibitions from the same group of states in their histories; but this curated take on Kentucky's unique sharing of seven borders with Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia attempts to do more than represent a range of artists. The intention is well articulated in the full curator's statement, where  "a new regionalism" is cited and illustrating Kentucky's position as a "central force in the American art scene" is the goal. As much as it tries, the exhibit fails to fully realize its grand ambitions; but it does deliver a tantalizing taste of that potential. I think it needs more work than the space allows, and a few of the artists included here, despite the strength of the work, are an uneasy fit for the declared mission. When the intention reaches this far, every piece needs to speak clearly in helping to communicate that mission. If every work shared that voice as effectively as Leticia Bajuyo, Joel Ross, or Rashid Johnson, this would have been one for the ages.  

The 7 Borders: Mapping Kentucky's Regional Identity

June 28 - September 1, 2013
Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft
715 W. Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
502-589-0102

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