Rural is in. When Mark Errol relocated to Tifton, Georgia, from Atlanta in 2014, he could not have envisioned that statement would come true. After selling work out of his ceramics studio, MarksMud, he and his partner, Glenn Josey, opened Plough Gallery in the small town in 2015. Originally naming the gallery after the ubiquitous farming tool in fields in the area, Errol also draws a comparison to artists who work with the land in a parallel fashion—transforming its clay and other raw materials into something that provides sustenance. The gallery was so successful that they decided to expand. Now Plough Gallery has opened a much larger new space in an old building in the town’s historic district. One room features the various artists represented by the gallery, working not just in ceramics but also wood, glass, and fibers. Another room offers a studio for a new residency program, and three rooms feature rotating exhibitions.
Errol is not the only one who thought that a rural gallery might just work. Lately, artists working outside the New York-LA mainstream art world have been getting more attention (see here). And Errol had his time in big cities like New York and Atlanta, where he earned his MFA from Georgia State University in 2014. But artists are fleeing the high rents and fast-paced, competitive lifestyle of those art centers and finding more fulfillment in smaller communities where openings draw a cross-section of the population instead of being dominated by art world insiders.
It’s not just artists either — small towns and main streets in many places are being reclaimed by urban expats, such as chef Vivian Howard, who decided to move back to Kinston North Carolina (and who is now featured in the TV show A Chef’s Life). In Tifton, the old movie theater has been restored and the storefronts on the main strip are filled with antique shops and local businesses. After Plough’s opening, I enjoyed a farm-to-table meal at The Local, where I chatted with the chef about the shrimp she drives to the Georgia coast to source directly from Brunswick and the grits she buys from Gayla’s Grits in nearby Lakeland.
This sense of community was on display at Plough Gallery’s grand reopening, thanks to the timing of Hurricane Irma. The opening was scheduled for the Saturday before the storm, when all of South Georgia was thrown into the chaos of preparing their homes and businesses, or evacuating, or helping evacuees from Florida and the Georgia coast. With most people in the Tifton area hunkering down for the storm, the opening was a welcome opportunity to get out and see each other, and see a two-person show by Kristy Hughes and Sean Hurley.
Like Errol, the two artists are transplants to South Georgia, where Hurley teaches Foundations and Printmaking at Valdosta State University. [Disclosure: I just began teaching at Valdosta State, where Errol and Hurley also teach.] He met Hughes in graduate school at Indiana University, and now the artists work side by side as husband and wife. Though they’ve been talking about their art with each other for years, Errol’s invitation was their first chance to show together. Their styles could not be more different—Hughes’s work is very abstract and colorful; Hurley’s work is black-and-white and almost photorealist—though both talk about the importance of formalism and composition. Even their underlying themes are the same, a connection they knew from breakfast table conversations but had not had the chance to see so explicitly until this show.
Calling the show “Appearances,” Hughes and Hurley talk about their work as engaging the dichotomy of chaos and order. Hurley’s drawings and prints look orderly, and yet represent chaos: a pile of laundry, a stack of moving boxes, an old factory crumbling into entropy. Hughes’s collage-based works feel chaotic, and yet depend on the order of process. Viewers can see that process quite clearly: the tearing of paper, the pasting of bit to bit, the building up of a composition. As Hughes says, “I tell the truth and Sean tells a lie.” Or, as Hurley explains it, “I’m creating an appearance that masks insecurity.”
Hurley’s mission is to draw the mundane. He tends to choose subjects from his daily environment, such as the door to his studio or a corner of his home. Never using photographs, he commits to drawing the subject from direct observation—in such detailed renderings that he spends hours and hours with that subject. “The detail is insane,” said one guest at the opening.
Corner 1 (graphite) was made during his residency at Stutz Artist Center in Indianapolis, and it plays with light and dark by contrasting the darkened studio door to negative space on the right. Above the door is a detailed rendering of a jumble of pipes and electrical boxes, and yet those pipes are rendered with almost no detail as they fade to the right side. It’s the sort of infrastructure mess that is usually hidden by a drop ceiling, but left visible in industrial spaces.
In My Studio (graphite, 2016), Hurley spent about six months drawing his graduate studio. The panoramic large-scale drawing features a table at the left—a work station for an iMac, next to a sketchbook teetering on a stack of crumpled papers, pieces of wood, tools, and wood glue—and a table piled with curling sheets of paper on the right. A bike is propped against the table. A stuffed chair offers a spot to rest. Drawings are pinned to the wall, but Hurley has left those areas blank, as if unfinished, or choosing to not show us what they represent. The perspective is almost dizzying—the result of using at least five different vanishing points. It hangs next to Hughes’s Adidas (latex paint, collage, décollage, pastel, fumage, spray paint on panel, 2017), a much smaller square format work that manages to match the spiraling vortex feel of Hurley’s drawing. A chalky blue background frames a chaos of arcing cut paper and painted shapes that circle around a scratched and empty center, recalling the negative space at the center of Hurley’s studio drawing. Here the action is in the play of colors and shapes: a mint green arc, a bright yellow shard, purple polka dots that move toward the center from the upper right corner; black strokes at the bottom lend a sense of stability. The layering of pieces creates a rich texture, almost like a relief sculpture.
Hurley’s studio is certainly mundane—its appearance gives us no insight into his art—and that is the paradox of his work in general. Appearances are merely appearances, it reminds us. They may mask what is truly going on, or even contradict it—as in the extreme order of Hurley’s precise style contrasting with his mess of a studio. Hughes’s interest in the mundane is in her choice of materials—collected bits of paper, junk mail, trash, paint remnants, etc. She starts by pouring a blue paint onto the surface, then pastes bits of paper on top of that, and then uses an X-acto knife to cut back the paper and add new layers until she finds the right composition. “I want this textural mess to make sense,” she says. Making sense out of chaos—a process that she compares to reconciling her feelings for likable people with political orientations she finds incomprehensible.
Some of Hughes’s works were made with scraps left on the studio floor after making her 2-D works. Here the rectangular format of the canvas is no longer a given, and the grid more clearly balances the amorphous shapes of the fragments. For Everything Stays the Same and Everything Changes (trash, scrap paper and wood, plastic, 2016), leftover bits of wood used in framing were stapled together in a checkerboard grid with undulating rounded edges. Paper pieces were added on top, and the resulting agglomeration bulges out from the wall like an El Anatsui. Her contemporary touchstones are Mark Bradford, Julie Mehretu, and Leonardo Drew, but the collage aesthetic clearly has historical precedent in Dada, especially Kurt Schwitters, who also worked with trash.
Hurley’s touchstones go back to early 20th century American artists in Precisionism, the Ashcan School, the WPA era, and Regionalism, as well as certain Photorealist artists from the 1970s. The Precisionist and WPA influence is most explicit in his earlier work on display, etchings of old factories in Rockport, Massachusetts, that he used to explore while living in nearby Gloucester. “I’ve been drawing the same things since I was seven years old,” he explains, beginning with drawing what he saw from his mom’s car as they were riding around. As his work progressed, he learned how to edit the details and pick and choose what to present to the audience. He enjoys turning mundane subjects into highly polished and beautiful work. Perhaps his process of redemption inspires his audience to look anew at their own messes, whether a housekeeping mess or an emotional quandary.
Both artists work to make peace with chaos—not to clean up the mess, but to learn to live with it. It’s the kind of message that hits home when a hurricane is heading your way.
Rebecca Lee Reynolds is a lecturer in the department of art & design at Valdosta State University, where she teaches art history.