KMA's 'Contemporary Focus'

Exhibit features the works of three UT artists

The University of Tennessee's Art and Architecture building must have been especially quiet last Thursday. Or half of it, anyway. That night at the Knoxville Museum of Art, a free public preview of its newly opened Contemporary Focus 2010 exhibition was held. The crowd skewed young, and to say that the event was well attended would be an understatement. On a large placard KMA asserts that "contemporary art is experimental, provocative, exciting—it is an investigation into new ideas that change the way art is made." Well, then, fasten your seatbelts. While this work is surely conceptual, what really ties these artists together is the current state of their CV—all three artists are more or less recent hires at the university.

First up, Nick DeFord (who has taught drawing at UT since 2009) plays with how we explore the physical world and the otherworldly. But his symbolism (cartography, Ouija boards, and flying saucers, all hand embroidered) is so loaded, the pieces have trouble achieving lift-off and repeat a stubborn lack of resonance. Maps of unfamiliar places are only superficially mysterious as DeFord suggests that our ordering of the world is insufficient, correcting what I didn't realize was a long-standing societal assumption that maps illustrate the character of a place. And when at last there appears a hint of a more sympathetic notion of orientation in "Pennantgram" (five tourism souvenir pennants arranged to form a pentagram, each pennant tip pointing to an [embroidered] postcard), you may suspect it's almost in spite of itself.

At the far end of the gallery is Emily Ward Bivens' contribution to the exhibit, titled "Waiting for Helen." (Bivens has taught at UT the longest, hired as an assistant professor of art in 2006.) On a large pedestal sits a life-size earthen alligator, covered in a delicate sprouting of grass, which has lenses for eyes and will display the picture of you inspecting it via one of two large, hazy projections on the back wall. Admittedly there's a magnetism to the texture of the sculpture, surrounded as you are by the smooth white surfaces of a museum gallery, but Bivens relies heavily on narrative charm and whimsy. There's a placard that tells the story behind it all where you'll learn that "alligators love marshmallows." So you know.

The center of the gallery is devoted to two pieces by Evan Meaney (assistant professor of time-based media since 2010) involving manipulated video. When every month brings an easier way to capture and disseminate your ideas and Beyoncé dance routines online, there's no doubting the abundance of information itself. Useful or not, we take it for granted that information is available. Meaney toys with this personal expression and perpetuation, recording video to distance information from communication.

On one side, nine modest monitors in a clean row display, soundlessly, medium shots of people (all ages, all races) in front of a white backdrop—sometimes talking, sometimes mugging for the camera, sometimes alone, sometimes with others—while their images are stretched, blurred, and otherwise interrupted. The warping can periodically create some unsettling pictures, but the manipulation feels more like the particular comfort of an indifferent universe. Nearly all the people filmed project a state of calm or relaxed joviality, and the center monitor shows a middle-aged man wearing sunglasses indoors with a black poodle on his lap. What could be more chill? Turn around to view Meaney's second piece, and the combination of simplicity and fragility that comes with capturing our lives in binary becomes even more striking. Rapidly changing scenes familiar to daily life (parks, subways, city streets) as well as special, but humble, occasions (a play in a small theater, home movies of holidays) are projected on a large swath of wall while being just as quickly overtaken by blocks of color—big and bright, yet soothingly ordered, and sort of beautiful.

I doubt it will change the way art is made. Regardless, to get to it last Thursday, you had to slide around a pair of 30somethings, and then, when you'd had your fill, shimmy past a group of students chatting up professors to make viewing room for a middle-aged man who'd been waiting behind you. It was almost as exciting as any of the things on the walls. m