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Tops Gallery Showcases Generations of Memphis Artists

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Installation view with John McIntire’s Untitled (game sculpture) in the foreground, ca. 1990s, marble mounted to concrete.

It is not just the gallery’s subterranean location that gives the exhibition the feel of a core sample. Located in a basement a few blocks away from the historic Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, “The Voice of the Turtle,” on view through February 8, brings together works by different generations of artists who have spent time in Memphis over the years. Art dating back to the 1960s, Kenneth Lawrence Beaudoin’s collage of magazine imagery and text, for example, finds a home next to work from 2014.

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Curated by gallery owner Matt Ducklo, this exhibition begins with one of the godfathers of the local scene: the late John Fahey. The show’s title is taken from Fahey album from 1968, the year of King’s assassination. The musician is represented here by a painting—a small explosion in marker and tempera circa 1999. Fahey has claim to being the most inventive, and inclusive, guitarists of the 20th century. He brought blues, folk, and bluegrass together with sound ranging from classical music to noise. He also painted in similarly open-ended fashion. Haphazard washes of paint, gusts of spray paint, pencil slashes, and even the odd coat of bug spray manifest a spectral presence on paper or cardboard. Fahey created many of these works in the last years of his life, bartering them, giving them to friends, or just leaving them behind.

On left, John McIntire, Fahey Sketch,  1962; marker on legal paper, 12½ by 8½ inches; on right, John Fahey, untitled, ca. 1999; tempera, marker on paper, 9½ by 7½ inches,
On left, John McIntire, Fahey Sketch, 1962; marker on legal paper, 12½ by 8½ inches; on right, John Fahey, untitled, ca. 1999; tempera, marker on paper, 9½ by 7½ inches,

Similarly ephemeral is a yellowing pencil drawing of Fahey sketched by Memphis patriarch John McIntire. For those unaware of McIntire’s outsize role in American culture, Robert Gordon’s book It Came From Memphis is heartily recommended. McIntire owned the famed Bitter Lemon coffee shop in the 1960s (the Byrds came through, so did the Stones) and taught generations of students sculpture at the Memphis College of Art. Here, he provides the most substantial piece in the show—a nearly 4-foot-tall sculpture made of a smooth marble punctured with thumb-sized holes and set atop a concrete cylinder in the center of the gallery. The sculpture’s pure form is shot through with humor (the holes are actually chutes for toy marbles) and time (it spent an unknown period outside, so most of the holes are clogged with cobwebs and bits of soil). It looks like unearthed modernism, or perhaps modernism flipped on its side and turned into a game table, surely a contemporary gambit.

The sculpture’s chief frisson, besides the one of stodgy history and humor, is between the silken marble and the abrasive concrete support. The relationship between these textures finds several echoes in the small gallery. Resting on a wooden shelf high up on the wall is a slight sculpture by Jim Buchman, who uses a rotating device akin to a potter’s wheel to shape concrete forms. After the shapes have been delicately mutilated, they teeter somewhere in the realm between biology and architecture, between the body and brutalism.

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On floor, Terri Phillips, Tower of Song, 2014; hanging on back wall, Peter Bowman, untitled, 1977; oil on canvas, 3 by 4 feet.

On the floor, Terri Phillips’s Tower of Song begins with a mound of brown clay that seems like a melted version of Paul McCarthy’s Saturday morning scatology. Rising from that is a pristine structure of sugar cubes. The textures and pleasures provided by these three sculptures alone justify descending into this basement gallery.

Looking from the walls are women of uncertain origin and Scandinavian physiognomy drawn by the self-taught Guy Church. The artist, who spent many years in Madison, Wisconsin, creates works as delicate and hardy as homesteads long gone by. Church’s vision is equally tranquil and frightening—like the first moments of Blue Velvet or the last of Hedda Gabler.

The biggest name here is William Eggleston, who supplied five marker drawings. You could squint and opine about how the confined scale and oblong twists of the markers somehow resemble his trademark diminutive point of view, about how his Prismacolor palette alludes to his once-heretical use of color film stock, but somewhere along the way you’d stop listening to yourself. Instead, we have a series of doodles that he has almost laughably completed with the word fin. Perhaps this is just another one of the show’s jokes and he is referring not to “the end” but to the fin of a turtle?

Hunter Braithwaite is a writer and literary editor of the Miami Rail. He contributes to the Paris Review, Artforum.com, and other publications. He lives in Memphis.

William Eggleston, five untitled drawings, 2012; marker on paper, 7½ by 5 inches each.

 

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    terri phillips
    February 3, 2015 at

    The artist’s name is Terri Phillips, not Smith. Thanks for a wonderful review.

    Terri Phillips

    • Stephanie Cash
      Stephanie Cash
      February 5, 2015 at

      Thanks, Terri. We’ve made the correction.

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