The artworks that exhibition juror Raymond Padron selected for inclusion in the National Juried Exhibition of 2019 – on display 9 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays through Feb. 22 at the Emporium Center, 100 S. Gay St. – cover a range of media from traditional oil, acrylic and watercolor paintings and metal sculptures to recycled materials from crates and furniture and old tissue paper clothing patterns and used tea bags.
Much of contemporary art in recent years has a sense of deception about it – not the kind that’s intended to tell a lie, but the sort that has a layer of misdirection or mystery or deliberate obfuscation intended to get viewers to think beyond the surface of what they are looking at to understand the work’s meaning.
The three pieces awarded prizes certainly fall under this category, but so does another piece that got passed over that deserved a second look.
Knoxvillian Judy Gaston’s beautiful vest, titled “HouTEA Culture,” looks like a stunning piece of high-fashion clothing woven from raw silk, with decorations of sheer cotton applications. In reality, the woven fabric is made of vintage tissue paper dress patterns cut into strips for weaving. The sheer fabric embellishments are used tea bags and slightly ragged fabric strips that imply something that has worn out its usefulness. The work speaks to the era when society women dressed in elegant garments intended to impress other women at afternoon teas, events that are far less common than they used to be now that many women are an important part of the workforce with little leisure time.
Justifiably awarded a Juror’s Citation is Knoxvillian Virginia Derryberry’s painting “Expect the Unexpected,” oil on canvas with attached canvas and found object. It’s a large, horizontal two-part painting that, unfortunately, is hung in a location that forces it to be viewed (and photographed) from an angle because harsh light from the opposite side of the gallery causes too much glare on the painting’s glazed surface.
Derryberry’s work involves layers of meaning that must be interpolated from the information one can see. The paintings themselves appear to be straightforward images of ordinary events, but some piece of information in them encourages the thinking viewer to consider other intentions. “Expect” has a detached arm and hand that’s painted on a completely separate piece of canvas that’s been glued to the painting’s surface, then painted in. There’s also an unidentifiable, amorphous shape near the center that has no logical reference to anything else in the picture. The archer on the right is aiming her arrow above the object. Is it something dripping down from a previous arrow’s hit?
Also deserving a Juror’s Citation is Oak Ridger Herbert Rieth’s wall-mounted, painted sculptural assemblage “Mockingbird,” subtitled “Wish Me Luck.” It’s a combination of urban and domestic scene, with pink gingham fabric on cloud shapes, on which is mounted a pair of wings made from wood slats that might have been parts in an old heddle loom or other working construction. A road and skyline silhouette is painted at the bottom. A wood chair wearing shoes on its front legs holds a box contraption on which is painted a near-naked male walking past a bar. The bar’s “Go Go Go” sign, implying both fast food and dancing, also instructs the streaker to move on quickly. Is the mockingbird of the title actually “naked as a jaybird?” In any case, the piece is recalling memories of growing up.
Padron awarded the Best in Show prize to Knoxvillian Annie Rochelle’s fragmented painting “Change Configuration After Audubon.” Paintings that are layers of one or more images, broken into fragments by other overlaid pieces of images or color blocks, are one of the most current painting styles. Works done in this format are getting attention in shows across the country because they capture our visual world of images that constantly flash past us on our media devices. As such, they are very much art that reflects the moment in which we live.
The biggest disappointment in this show has nothing to do with the art at all, but directly with the exhibition space at the Emporium. The Arts and Culture Alliance is an organization that is funded, in large part, by public money, with donors contributing to the organization’s mission.
ACA is essentially a pass-through organization that distributes money to arts organizations and individual artists through grants. To the great detriment of exhibitions like this national invitational show, very little money has been allotted to the exhibition space itself.
For a city like Knoxville, which prides itself on the high quality of its arts organizations, it is an embarrassment and disgrace to have what is essentially the city’s exhibition space lit with warehouse lighting and clusters of temporary clip-on fixtures with inadequate fluorescent light bulbs. High-quality LED exhibition lighting would have a front-end installation cost, but it would pay for itself with significantly lower operating costs.
If staging national exhibitions, which are important to show the quality of work being done by local artists in relationship to art across the nation, matters to the people of Knoxville, then some of the money that comes to ACA must stay home to create an exhibition space, lit with proper exhibition lighting, worthy of high-quality art and deserving artists.