Nashville-based artist Brandon Donahue is one of the city’s busiest, most prolific creators. His exhibition “No Look Past,” on view at the Nashville outpost of David Lusk Gallery through September 29, is the artist’s third solo exhibition this year, following “Outta Bounds” at Vanderbilt University’s Space 204 and “RIP” at Elephant Gallery. Donahue’s multimedia practice has produced two very different shows so far this year, and the artist’s followers have learned to not assume they know what to expect from him.
Despite this, “No Look Past” also feels slightly like a visual primer designed to introduce Donahue to frequent patrons of DLG who are just getting to know the artist’s work. It recycles some works from “Outta Bounds” but abandons the more overt social commentary found in Donahue’s other recent displays. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One of the most memorable installations in “Outta Bounds” was comprised of a handful of basketballs balanced on wooden posts—the balls were variously styled with rows of tight braids, fuzzy mohawks, and other hairstyles. The leather spheres made a playful comment about connections between black identity and black hair. Donahue’s show “RIP” was an airbrush elegy to victims of gun violence in Middle Tennessee. Now, in “No Look Past,” Donahue’s social consciousness is still present, but his messages are less direct and more poetic.
One of the most dramatic works in the show is a massive, diamond-shaped assemblage of road signs altered with airbrush and spray paint, installed on the gallery’s back wall. Street Vernacular offers a visual cacophony of arrows pointing in every direction: a “SCHOOL ZONE” sign accompanied by an airbrushed portrait of Tupac Shakur; an “ENTER” sign that visually leads viewers into a tropical sunset rendered in impossible pinks, oranges and blues; a “MEN WORKING” sign that’s been edited with construction yellow paint to read “MEN WOKIN.”
Street Vernacular is flanked on either side by two called Custom Genes that conflate the building blocks of biology with dungarees. One pair of jeans has been painted bright blue; the other is bright red. Both are stuffed and standing upright, and each hosts what appears as a cotton plant sprouting up from their waistlines. While potentially appearing funny at first glance, the sculptures serve as a reminder of Southern black communities’ historical and cultural connections to the working class, to agriculture, and—ultimately—to the legacy of slavery.
The main gallery space is dominated by a broad selection of Donahue’s Basketball Bloom sculptures presented in an ebullient, salon-style display—it nearly feels like these things are about to bounce off the walls. Here, Donahue disassembles found basketballs before mixing and matching various textures, sizes and designs into the flowerlike forms that give these their names. Each assemblage is sewn together with shoelaces.
In a previous review of Donahue’s work in the Nashville Scene, I claimed that “these are the most iconic signature objects being made by any artist in Nashville,” and I’m doubling down on that proclamation after seeing “No Look Past.” Donahue’s Blooms offer an essential distillation of the artist’s practice. They’re playful. Their recycled origins are clearly indicated, and the final works result from a radical transformation of materials. At the same time, the Blooms evoke a conversation about the historical connections between basketball and black male identity. That’s a lot to ask from a bunch of old basketballs, but Donahue makes it look like an easy layup.
Brandon Donahue’s “No Look Past” remains on view at David Lusk Gallery in Nashville through September 29. His work is also included in the group exhibition “Vivid Memories of A Blurred Past,” on view at Atlanta Contemporary through December 15.