The late writer and MacArthur Fellowship ‘Genius Grant’ recipient Dr. Guy Davenport famously quipped, “Living in Kentucky is like living in the Balkans.” And, on one sweltering August afternoon in his un-air-conditioned Bell Court library in Lexington years ago—we were discussing whether there was even such a thing as ‘Southern Art’—Davenport said to me, “Lexington is nothing but a stinking, decaying Southern town.”
Yes, the Lexington art scene is small and isolated but the talent is rich and industrious. We are not New York City, but we are not exactly Sarajevo either. Much has changed in the years since Dr. Davenport’s reflections.
I’ve lived in Lexington since the spring of 1982. I’ve seen great change in the city and the art scene. It is hard to imagine this emerging scene without the enthusiasm of Lexington’s current Mayor Jim Gray. He alone is perhaps the most important cultural voice and symbol the area has ever witnessed. He is a tireless advocate for what the arts do for a community and he puts his money where his mouth is. He buys regional art with abandon.
In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Lexington art scene was dominated by our two academic institutions, the University of Kentucky and Transylvania University. That dominance has nearly washed away: At both schools, the shows are nearly always of an inconsistent quality or so steeped in the past as to seem redundant.
From the University of Kentucky, Ebony Patterson emerged nationally with strong and appealing works, Gerald Ferstman has quietly produced an amazing oeuvre and Arturo Alonzo Sandoval, an internationally acclaimed fiber-artist, could fill the Cow Palace with his post-Cranbrook production.
At Transylvania—in past decades an exciting and happening place—Kurt Gohde (Professor of Art) and Kremena Todorova’s (Associate Professor of English; Program Director) main thrust is community involvement and engagement. Their well-known and well-exhibited project [DISCARDED, Land of Tomorrow, February 18-March 18, 2011] that involved the photographing of various subjects on curbside discarded furniture borrowed too much from Horst Wakerbarth’s thirty-year project The Red Couch to make me feel comfortable; but, their presence in Lexington is unmistakable and they make the scene more interesting with their passion.
Both universities program’s submerged below two of the most important exhibit venues in the South: Institute 193, the brain child of Phillip March Jones, and LOT Lexington (Land of Tomorrow) the brain child of Drura Parrish. Without these institutions, Lexington would be as arid as the Gaza Strip. There is no commercial art scene that is leading the way. The exception would be M.S. Rezny Studio and Gallery. The currently running show, not (2) BIG, shows great promise in what a commercial gallery can present.
As for government funding, the Lexington Council for the Arts’s main charge is money raising and distribution. With Jim Clark as president and CEO, they do that very well. The Lexington Art League has struggled for two decades in an attempt to throw off their past ‘art guild’ reputation as a collection and exhibit space for ‘Sunday painters.’ Both Institute 193 and LOT have presented the area with exciting shows, often breaking barriers, allowing the town to escape the idea of what they thought art was, could, or should be.
Lexington has a smaller number of serious artists producing here than the largest city in the state, Louisville, but the quality is outstanding, and the talent, I think, is more deeply rooted:
Aaron Skolnick, before he graduated from the Unversity of Kentucky in 2012, had his first one-person show at LOT Lexington, Cowboys, in 2011 and Kardashians at LOT St. Louis in 2012. His association with Drura Parrish has been a successful and productive one: He curated a show of artists from the roster of the famed RARE Gallery, NYC, for Parrish’s LOT Louisville venue. Skolnick curated the show Wayward Bound for RARE in NYC that is currently on view [June 25-August 8, 2013]. Also on view at RARE is Skolnick’s large, magisterial installation of his Jackie-O drawings. The drawings employ various techniques and styles that have historical references. They are all based on a single image of Jackie Kennedy taken by a photographer on November 22, 1963.
Phillip March Jones, executive director of Institute 193, is also a visual artist working from Lexington and Atlanta. His recent installation of photographs of roadside memorials was successful in every way. The Polaroid format is perfect for Jones’s subject. The images, quickly taken (often while avoiding traffic) seem immediate and uncalculated. There is a precious, intimate quality that goes beyond the photographic medium. The coloring refers to the antique. I think, as they slowly fade over the coming decades (as Polaroids mostly do, unless kept completely out of light) they will become even more interesting. They will become like relics. Jones is also a painter. He produces journals and notebooks that I think are simply ‘out of this world.’
Guy Mendes has worked as a photographer in Lexington for over thirty years. His body of work—mainly black and white portraits and landscapes, but also with a healthy delving into color and digital—is an enormous archive of historic work. Black and white analog photography does not get better than Mendes. His images are as pure and rich as Cunningham and Weston.
Aurora Childs is a young, recent graduate of the U of K (2012); Childs produces installations and tableau vivants that suck the viewer into a world of floating clouds, installed walls of string dripping with flesh colored wax and cast wax cakes filling up whole exhibit spaces. There is a light and airy way to her work with a menacing undercurrent.
R Clint Colburn produces paintings, drawings, collages, journals and sculptures that all emerge from his interest in graffito and the restructuring of the narrative line.
G. Haviland Argo III, a Harvard graduate with a degree in urban planning is an inventive and inquisitive art maker. His production, ranging from sewn elements gathered from the trash to techno inspired works involving light help us to view the world in a more unfettered fashion.
James Whitefox works in a variety of mediums: drawing, collage, painting, journals and photography. In the past he has produced two very interesting Polaroid series: Drag Queens and The Exposed Penis. In the latter, Whitefox would approach a man, usually unknown to him, in a bar or club and ask if he could photograph their penis for an art project.
The sampling of the seven listed above (certainly not a complete list) presents, I think, what great variety and range exists in the Lexington art scene, a scene that is alive and quite well. As to the future of Lexington’s art scene health, there is reason for nothing but great optimism: The planned 21c Museum Hotel in the historic McKim, Mead & White First National Building on Main Street will catapult Lexington from a strong regional position to one emerging as a national force. 21c’s reputation for daring and excellence, personified by the Wilson/Brown encyclopedic collection of important contemporary art will enliven the scene to no end.
Louis Zoellar Bickett, an archivist and writer, is a three-time Kentucky Al Smith Fellowship recipient and a recipient of a YADDO Fellowship. Since 1972, Bickett has produced The Cultural Memorabilia Project. It is an archive-based work that consists of several hundred black binders containing letters, photographs, postcards, obituaries, household bills and receipts and anything else that can fit into a plastic archive page. In addition to those volumes, Bickett has tagged every article in his house and studio with a laminated descriptive tag and made a computer database list of the inventory.
An extensive aspect of The Cultural Memorabilia Project is Bickett’s production New York, Paris, Lexington. It is a digital documentation and archive of those three cities that comprises over half a million digital images (including scanned images of the original black and white photographic analog documentation). New York, Paris, Lexington has been in production for the past twenty-five years and is ongoing.
Bickett maintains a studio in Lexington, KY.
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