'Nexus 2012' Challenges Notions About Dogwood Arts Festival Art

One of numerous art shows and events in Knoxville's 2012 Dogwood Arts Festival, this year's Nexus exhibition at the University of Tennessee's Downtown Gallery presents sculpture and other three-dimensional pieces in a refreshingly pared-down way. With art ranging from small found objects suspended in solid epoxy to a diving board looming atop a gallery wall, activating sizeable space around it, Nexus 2012 includes work by both local and international artists and runs through April 14.

What began as a guided drive through Sequoyah Hills in 1955 has turned into quite an event; by the mid-1960s, music, arts and crafts, food, and other offerings were part of the celebration. But fine art was not as prevalent in prior festivals as it has become—certainly not on the Occupy Gay Street scale of the 22 outdoor sculptures that make up the Art in Public Places exhibit. Nor was festival-connected art on display in farther-flung venues such as Bearden until somewhat recently.

And, although sophisticated crafts have long been part of our city's springtime festivities, unless I've overlooked ceramic wind chimes resembling Alexander Calder mobiles on Market Square, I don't recall fine art from past festivals being particularly modern, let alone cutting edge, so Nexus represents movement in a stimulating new direction.

The 17 works on display at the Downtown Gallery were culled from almost 100 submissions juried by Savannah College of Art and Design professor Allen Peterson, with Knoxville artist and teacher Brian Jobe acting as the Nexus exhibition committee chair. Two especially interesting masks by New York-based John Cichon are mounted near the gallery's entrance. With their Pop Art sensibility, use of discarded materials, and humorous bent, they could be seen as emblematic of the show. Cichon's foot-tall "artifact" "My Archeology" employs three pounds of beer cans in the form of patches over a cardboard skull. Despite its jaunty medieval feel, the piece's three concave eyes—innards of cut-off cans—are reminiscent of the fallout shelter symbol, lending it a somewhat sinister air.

Cichon's larger, actually wearable "Ze Monsta" is friendlier, sporting a wide grin with more than 50 plastic forks acting as spiky teeth. Multi-hued paper that's folded, fanned, and snipped looks like sloppy origami from a messy park picnic. Among other memorable wall fare are the aforementioned small epoxy pieces by Jan Chenowith, her "Walking Away" encasing a plastic soldier, his backside to viewers. A rusty chain hanging from a nail, its bottom link embedded in the soap-like but hardened epoxy substance, resembles a noose framing the soldier's head.

More ethereal—even wispy—is Jessie Van der Laan's "Disguise," an eight-inch thick, four-foot-by-two-foot construction composed of a cage-like wood trunk crowned with a flourish of rolled, screen-printed paper forming a colorful feminine fringe. Flowing from the base of the wood section, handmade netting is shaped into a gestural sweep that's more like a bridal veil than a fisher's net, and shadows cast on the wall are an integral part of the object.

Floor pieces include French art student Marie Herrbach's collapsed, soft-sculpture wheelchair titled "How Many Roads Must a Man Walk Down" and Quintin Owens' "Goods" (cubes on wood) and "Protective Coloring" (a shag rug-deep six-foot-by-six-foot installation). Owens' larger piece is a combination of cast terracotta logs and birds positioned on a sprawling square of gravel-like crushed terracotta. "Goods" is also made of clay, this time an extruded low-fire clay painted off-white. Its four cubes appear to be made from twigs, and herein exists a contradiction: The geometric shapes, neatly-arranged like milk crates on a wood palette, suggest contained chaos; tangled components seem that much more frenzied given their strict confinement.

Herrbach's wheelchair, presented as a limp heap with warped wheels, reflects the mangled body it might transport. An homage of sorts to the sculpture of Swedish-born Claes Oldenburg, it nevertheless distinguishes itself from that artist's work by projecting pathos rather than humor.

Among the objects rounding out Nexus are pedestal-mounted works such as Barron Hall's industrial yet earthy "Unemployed/Freedom," a piece with chunky ceramic gears propped within wood framing. Complementing Hall's work is the smaller "Seed Monolith" by Durant Thompson, consisting of iron bolts emerging from a block of wood, its function unknown. Verina Baxter's phallic "Tower No. VII," a 20-inch-tall bronze cylinder with protruding alabaster resembling a dome of lipstick, references Art Deco and is likewise mysterious in terms of purpose.

In a category all its own is Olive Durant's "Gourd Re-Assembled 3," looking like a one-man band in the form of a blueberry root with quirky gourd parts projecting from its twisted center. It brings to mind work by the late Bessie Harvey.

Regarding new directions, Jobe enlisted students from his gallery practices class at Pellissippi State to come up with layout ideas and help install the Nexus exhibition. Perhaps we'll see art by those very students within an even more contemporary context in Dogwood Arts Festivals to come.