Nashville’s long been known as the capital of commercial country music, but the city also has a deep tradition of storytelling on paper: Nashville’s home to publishing houses and presses, respected writing programs, fantastic university and public libraries, and a craft printing tradition that’s evidenced in everything from entertainment show bills to personal, experimental fine art. The Frist Center’s “Anthology: Visual Narratives from Nashville’s Print Community” presents images, words, and stories that present an array of Nashville printmakers and their dynamic medium. The show includes work by 24 artists in a display that fills the Frist’s Conte Community Arts Gallery [through Feb. 7].
Nick Hay’s Selection from the Piedra Archives is a visual interpretation of Birth of the Centaur, a 2014 book by E.C. Piedra that connects the murder of a German businessman to the launching of the Voyager I space probe to illuminate covert Cold War activities in the 1970s. Hay uses inkjet printing, ink, and thread to offer up a montage of images that includes allusions to the Voyager mission, an astronaut in a white helmet, an abstract landscape, and some text from Piedra’s book. The overall effect left me hoping that Hay and Piedra might team up on a graphic novel version of Centaur.
Celene Aubry’s 26 Plus 1 pairs digitally printed photographs with text in a quirky alphabet book that’s charming but also odd-seeming in that its ABC’s aren’t cuted-up for kids. Aubry is the manager of Hatch Show Print, one of the oldest letterpress poster and design shops in the country. The artist’s handset text conveys a voice I’d associate more with a contemporary realist than an author for the earliest of readers: a train traverses the tracks through town.
Zack Rafuls is a curator Nashville’s Packing Plant installation space, along with Ann Catherine Carter, but “Anthology” puts Rafuls on display as both an artist and a subject. A Portrait of the Artist as Olive Oyl, is a photo plate lithograph painted with watercolors. While the lighting, props, and composition all recall classical portraiture, the bearded artist is depicted in cartoon drag. The work conflates the styles of kids’ comics and old masters in a contemporary gallery setting, upending traditional gender expectations that equate masculinity with the attributes of a certain stuttering sailor.
Katika Afrika (In Africa) is an artist’s book by Cynthia Marsh chronicling a three-week paper-making adventure in Tanzania. The artist uses wood type to create her blocky, black text that pairs perfectly with her colorful, digitally printed images. The best parts of the project are the small, found twigs that Marsh incorporates into her binding, bringing a piece of the place into her remembrance of it.
The imagery in Amber Lelli’s silkscreen triptych recalls the kind of art you’d find in a book of cut-out paper dolls. But, upon closer examination, The Dark Triad: Investigation A, B, and C is a study of mental illness that references conditions like narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathology. The work’s pretty presentation subverts its own aesthetics with disturbing details like faceless figures, creating an analog for the charm that might mask cunning or the friendliness that can be a means of manipulation.
Lester’s Loafin Lounge is a real bluegrass picking parlor located in a converted general store in Goodlettsville, Tennessee. Heather Moulder’s small letterpress poster presents the lounge complete with silhouettes of a whiskey jug player and a fiddler in the windows and its alliterative name rendered in red-and-yellow flames. It’s a great example of the kind of country music show bill that’s made Hatch Show Print famous. Moulder works at Hatch, and her poster is a must-have inclusion for any survey of Nashville printmaking given Hatch’s role as the revered cradle of the scene.
Printmaker Jennifer Haston’s Squirrelly Squirrel Maker offers one of the show’s most whimsical images as well as one of its most poignant. Utilizing silkscreen and monoprint techniques, Haston pictures her subject as a gentleman in a black fedora whose joyous whistling erupts into a squiggly pink line that eventually resolves itself in the rendering of a goofy cartoon squirrel. The work makes a statement about ephemeral creative processes, but it also points to the rambling, sensual, often illogical twists and turns that differentiate storytelling from a strict listing of facts, causes, and effects.
“Anthology: Visual Narratives from Nashville’s Print Community” is on view at the Frist Center’s Conte Community Arts Gallery through February 7.
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist, and intermedia artist in Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.