Artists From Near and Far Herald a New Season with 'Nexus 2013'

Our city's scraggly but lovely little trees, celebrated in one way or another for almost 60 years each springtime, are about to unfurl their distinctive petals. And with that transformation comes a variety of arts-related events. A relative newcomer on the Dogwood Arts Festival's roster is the annual Nexus exhibition at the University of Tennessee's Downtown Gallery, featuring sculpture and other 3D constructions that likely defy past notions of what constitutes the festival's offerings.

This year's third Nexus show is as interesting as prior ones, with work by both recognized and emerging artists selected by sculptor Durant Thompson, a UT alumnus, with assistance from exhibition co-chairs Jason Brown and Brian Jobe. Gallery-goers have only a few more days to see the show, but First Friday will be action-packed, with an awards presentation at 6:30 p.m. and live performance throughout the evening by sculptor Caroline Covington.

Quite a few artists in Nexus 2013 are from Tennessee; other participants are from Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, New York, and Texas. Viewers might ask why a somewhat small-scale and location-specific event would seek submissions from beyond our region. One possible answer would be that art drawn from a broad base often improves upon what's displayed. Furthermore, it keeps local artists on their toes. Despite having no predetermined theme, the show has a decidedly earthy coherence, with allusions to forces of nature, plants, and animals and their habitat. Pieces that don't fit in are generally so terrific that their exclusion would be a shame.

As usual, the gallery space retains its open feel by limiting the amount of art presented. On two of three pedestals are a somewhat traditional marble sculpture titled "Elegant Aggression" by Bill Cook and a mixed-media rooster by fellow Knoxvillian Dean Yasko Jr. A third pedestal supports "Ice Portal," a painted concrete oval by Sherri Warner Hunter of Bell Buckle, Tenn., its hollow lined with sharp chunks of blue glass. At approximately 3 feet in diameter, it's one of the larger objects on view. There's nothing monumental like the diving board from last year's exhibition, but numerous works are sizeable, serving to balance some particularly small pieces. Covington's video, projected on both a wall and a monitor, assumes yet another version of scale. Documenting the artist hacking away at earth with a crowbar both here and in Maryland ("Beatings: Baltimore"), the video conveys a manic energy, if not anger. Accompanying it are plaster casts of holes Covington has created, many caked with dirt and presumably representing emotionally charged action in somewhat tangible form.

Covington's other work in the show, "Chop," is an expansive wall-mounted arrangement of 23 Kona cloth-covered ducks with a corresponding number of webbed feet in a row above them. The installation is, if nothing else, an intriguing shape. And multiples, by virtue of sheer repetition, often make icons of individual components. But "Chop's" implied flight in formation is, in my mind, confused by the addition of detached feet.

Speaking of smaller pieces, they're displayed here on cantilevered shelves and tend to be humorous and quirky; the bronze-and-iron "Germination 002" by David Marquez, of Kentucky, is the only imposing shelf-mounted object, and funny it is not. Instead, with its looped automotive-looking pipe linking grenade-like pods, it could be sprouting in a post-apocalyptic Detroit. Truly amusing are Kevin Kao's "Dinnertime" stoneware piece and Shana Kohnstamm's wool, wire, and seashell "Hydrotopia." From Knoxville and Nashville respectively, the two artists have fun with their work without sacrificing solid conceptual design and impressive craft. "Dinnertime" resembles a root vegetable with a disgusted human face—perhaps that of a child presented with rhubarb or kohlrabi, but not necessarily the gold carrot on a chain Kao has hoisted by tiny fists above his scowling figure.

"Hydrotopia"'s elongated bud shape, held aloft by talon-like shells, resembles a jewel in its pronged setting—the shells' spikes emerge from a mossy green, six-legged stool of sorts. Kohnstamm mixes warm and fuzzy with a dash of menace for good measure. In fact, the organic bent of Nexus 2013 as a whole is not without some dark edges. Chicago artist Bobbi Meier's "Sampler 1," despite its use of frilly textiles, incorporates fleshy blobs of wax and crude stitching, perhaps referring to wounds or plastic surgery. What seem to be torn portions of scarves and pink lace panties add to the overall squeamish effect. A.C. Wilson, yet another Knoxville artist, has placed a taxidermy rabbit atop a magician's stand next to a face-down picture frame. A scenario of loss, "Appear and Disappear" might be straightforward to a fault, relying on too-obvious symbolism for impact.

Another Chicago resident, Matt Irie, presents a surprisingly simple but unique and visually memorable piece titled "Saucepan." The absurdity of a 53-inch-tall high aluminum pot is somehow both charming and amazing, although the means by which it has been produced is no mystery. "Folded Blue," by Jonathan Whitfill, of Lubbock, Texas, is likewise a handily realized but extremely clever construction made from encyclopedia volumes reduced to a 4-inch height (becoming 4-inch depth when hung on the gallery's entrance wall). Arranged in a fanned circle 16 inches in diameter, the colorful pages are divided into three sections separated by sections of blue book covers.

The origins of "Folded Blue" are obvious, yet the form its parts take is nevertheless unexpected. Not unlike the difference between hard green buds and the blossoms they explode into come spring.