NASHVILLE—On July 13, Nashville’s Zeitgeist Gallery opened its first group exhibition, The Medium’s Session, in the gallery’s new location at 516 Hagan Street in the Chestnut Hill district [July 13-August 31, 2013]. Curated by Zeitgeist artist Patrick DeGuira, The Medium’s Session is one of the most cohesive group shows Nashville has seen in recent times.
Bringing together eleven artists from across the country, including five of Nashville’s own—Emily Clayton, Ron Lambert, Chris Roberson, Chris Scarborough, and Brent Stewart—the title, The Medium’s Session, can be interpreted depending on how you choose to define the term medium: references to medium as material and medium as channel; the positioning of the artist as a medium, mystic or shaman-like link between the corporeal and spiritual worlds—a vehicle through which ideas pass from one to the other.
In regards to medium-as-material, the show runs the gamut: sculpture, video, photography, installation, collage, and paintings. The artworks collectively achieve a form of meditative harmony thanks to DeGuira’s curatorial knack for providing minimalist art the space it needs to breathe. The simplicity of each artist’s work, when partnered with the others in the room, becomes exponentially more poetic. If installed alone in the space, any of these works might seem ascetic or cold. But together, they vibrate with a knowing spirituality, chanting softly as if sharing a common language. No work takes center stage, as they each play an equal and important role.
While all the works seem simple from viewing afar, they share a common attribute: deceiving the viewer’s first glance. Nearly every work in the exhibition is a double entendre of sorts: secret layers, hidden meanings, second lives. For example, the monochromatic paintings of Brent Stewart and Lars Strandh initially read as straight-forward and monolithic squares of color. Get closer, however, and you find an intimate world of patterns, colliding colors, and obsessive layering.
Frances Trombley‘s Box (Broward Paper and Packaging) (2008) and Box (Paper Mart) (2008) look like two discarded cardboard boxes left haphazardly on the gallery floor. Upon closer inspection, the boxes are actually meticulous surrogates made with hand-woven fabric, embroidery, and packing tape. Trombley goes to great length to embroider the minutest of details, such as printed numbers and hand-written scrawls.
Upon approaching Chris Scarborough‘s large-scale photograph, The Sea (2012-2013, 30 x 37.5 inches), your mind immediately registers a tranquil beach scene. It takes a moment to realize the image isn’t just a rock-lined coast hugging a shimmering body of water. Somewhat camouflaged into the foreground (as much as can be) is a massive dead squid. But the beached creature manages to not disrupt the tranquility of the photographic moment, instead reminding us of the realities of and balance to be found in the natural world.
Perhaps the most bold visual element one notices upon entering the gallery is Chris Roberson‘s Drub (2013), a dense MDF and enamel parabolic sculpture installed well above eye level. The black, U-shaped curve juts out with staid strength, immediately activating the negative space through both physical form and its dramatic shadow. The sculpture is echoed numerous times over in Roberson’s drawing, Smile Variations #2 (racked) (2013), where he drew two-dimensional versions of the sculptural form—this time more easily recognized as illustrations of a smile. Formally, the drawings are a testament to the unflagging power and authority of line. Conceptually, the work reflects on blurred boundaries between work and play. Roberson uses paired-down geometric forms to reference the spectacle of professional sports, an industry that produces its own brand of mythology and godlike figures. The smile form becomes somewhat of a symbol for a grin-and-bear-it cultural mentality.
Also touching on the idea of spectacle—this time in the form of the artist-as-performer—are two works by the Nashville-based artist Emily Clayton. Untitled (Bummer) (2012) is a large piece of fabric hand-dyed in a chalky black hue and hangs listlessly on the wall, a gesture of failure perfectly exemplifying the works’ title. Theatrically vacant, the drapery becomes a photographic backdrop with no sitter, a stage curtain with no performer. Coupling (2012) is one from a series of photographs documenting Clayton interacting with various textile pieces. In this image, the artist is obscured within the backdrop, highlighting the push-and-pull between actor and stage. Clayton’s finesse in execution is mesmerizing. Often in photography, the analysis of the subject matter overtakes the reading of its formal elements. Here however, the true poetry lies in the image’s fundamental visual components—line, contrast, and composition.
In Philip Andrew Lewis’s projected video work, Spyridon (2013), the artist creates a narrative functioning as metaphor for the cycle of defeat and salvation. Standing still in the frame, a young tree still planted in its plastic pot is suddenly assailed by a violent gust of wind, the source of which is out-of-frame and unknown. We watch as the scrawny tree struggles to remain upright during the assault; its branches and leaves flail desperately in front of a white background. Eventually, after minutes of putting up its best fight against an increasingly overpowering wind, the tree succumbs and topples over. As the tree hits the ground, the wind stops. All is motionless. The tree lies collapsed at the bottom of the frame for what seems like a lifetime. You can’t help but wonder if that’s it for the tree, if the story is over. But after a few hopeless moments, a hook appears at the top of the frame. Attached to a string, it begins to slowly descend toward the fallen plant, making its way down until it hooks itself onto the skinny trunk of the tree. The string retracts, causing the hook to lift the tree back up to a standing position. The violent wind returns and again you watch the cycle repeat.
Lewis’s metaphorical narrative taps into the human condition. The elements—a tree, a hook, an angry wind—are basic enough to be applied to a range of scenarios that occur throughout our lives. For many of us, we empathize with the tree—struggling to stay on our feet in the midst of violent storms. Others will identify with the responsibilities the hook carries or maybe even the guilt of the antagonistic wind. But if we imagine the tree is symbolic for you and me, then we can’t help asking ourselves, “What is it that saves us? What descends from above to pick us up when we’ve fallen?” Maybe it’s a god, or a deeply held belief, or perhaps something even more mystical and indefinable. Lewis’s video is deeply human, and like any great work of art, it stays with you long after you leave.
Sara Estes is the gallery coordinator at Fisk University and curator of Threesquared. She lives, writes, and works in Nashville, Tennessee.
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