Nashville’s Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood is home to the city’s best gallery scene, centered on a warren of small spaces inside a former meatpacking plant. The monthly Arts & Music at Wedgewood-Houston events on October 1 provided predictably strong opening exhibitions that shared similar aesthetics, reflecting what writer Sharon L. Butler dubbed the “new casualism” in a thoroughly insightful essay in the Brooklyn Rail in 2011.
At Mild Climate, the group exhibition Pulp features work by Astri Snodgrass, Jessica Lund-Higgins and Matt Christy. Christy’s The Declarer Declares is a drawing on paper mounted to a board framed in dark fur. The drawing features mirror images of a red man in profile. They’re drawn in such a way that the pair form the twin halves of a third figure like the male figure on a restroom door. A palimpsest-like drawing in thin black lines disrupts the anthropomorphic totem. The lines evoke a pair of vaguely reptilian monsters having an argument dictated by tangles of looping lines. Christy’s haphazard aesthetics, rough craftsmanship, and the ugly-on-purpose combination of materials all speak to what Butler describes as “concern with multiple forms of imperfection: not merely what is unfinished but also the off-kilter, the overtly offhand, the not-quite-right.” Christy’s work has reflected these aesthetics and values since he was a student at Nashville’s Watkins College of Art, Design & Film in the middle 00’s, and these current trends are recasting artists like Christy as prophets of this new school cool.
It’s a look that’s been part of the Wedgewood-Houston art scene for years, driven by artists like Christy and his peers, but it was specifically celebrated in the pioneering Packing Plant gallery space that has morphed into Mild Climate. The original space was co-curated by Ann Catherine Carter, who championed student work and emerging artists almost exclusively, establishing a visual identity for the space along with co-curator Zack Rafuls. Carter’s own show currently on view at Sauvage includes photography, painting, and drawing in unexpected combinations: Carter displays a sheet of geometric tattoo flash she’s designed, and also includes her black-and-white self-portrait in which she turns away from the camera to display one of the tattoos on her shoulder. A large poster features an image of a huge red abstract painting on canvas that Carter dragged into a wooded area before photographing it alongside the upright dolly she used to move it. The poster is covered by a plastic sheet on which Carter has added a big red sticker in the shape of a stylized arrowhead. Carter’s art reexamines itself through trial-and-error combinations; Butler’s article connects this generation’s preoccupation with experimental processes and materials to familiar 20th- century artists like Rauschenberg.
While Butler’s article focuses on abstract painting, many of her ideas and the ideas she cites can be applied to other mediums. Christopher Roberson’s work at Zeitgeist features large black and white ink drawings featuring messy loops and lines along with figurative elements like an alligator’s smiling head. They look like a kid’s’ scrawls and contain the same elements that I’d have put to paper at about 8 years old. In addition to the drawings, Roberson includes Chum – a 7-foot-tall, anthropomorphic candle that’s drooping at the wick, evoking a dripping defeat. Appearing to lope along in big cartoon shoes, the urethane sculpture looks like it just wants to leave the gallery. The sculpture and the drawings each give us two different takes on “failure,” and the diverse use of materials and techniques speaks to the same description Butler offers for her “restless” and “expansive” new abstract painters who include various non-art materials in their work “just for the hell of it.”
Knoxville’s Fluorescent Gallery also popped-up in a vacant space in the Packing Plant in October. In a show of small paintings, Kayla Rumpp’s works stood out as displays of diverse materials like paint, fabric and wood. They presented self-reflexive aesthetics like wooden panels wrapped in fabric swatches stitched together to mimic colorful woodgrain designs. They also boasted an unfinished nonchalance – raw, exposed wood and excess fabric bunched together instead of neatly trimmed away.
There’s a lot of humor in all of these works, but this is serious fun. Johnathan Edelhuber’s “Cognitive Fields” show at Channel to Channel is the gallery’s first show at the Packing Plant since moving from the May Hosiery Mill a few blocks away. Edelhuber’s paintings collect small bursting abstract designs in compositions that crackle with candied, cartoon color. The work is full of crude characters, symbols, letters, and unidentifiable shapes and forms that evoke the same combination of warm whimsy and manic weirdness as Dr. Seuss. Looking at images of Edelhuber’s work on my phone I’m reminded of the great doctor’s words: “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”
Joe Nolan is a critic, columnist, and intermedia artist in Nashville. Find out more about his projects at www.joenolan.com.