Terra Esoterica: 11 artists from the Culture Laboratory Collective Consider Land and Place

I rarely feel frozen in my tracks when contemplating a particular exhibition. When I do, it seems a good thing to have to stop and rethink how I think about fine art, even if it means having to reach for the antacid when trying to digest complex works and their relationship to one another. However, art that challenges the viewer to think is not necessarily the same thing as art that is the result of too much thinking. In his book Aesthetic Theory, philosopher Theodor Adorno writes, "Today it goes without saying that nothing concerning art goes without saying, much less without thinking." To which I say, chew on that one.

On Location: Land Portrait, an exhibition by members of the Culture Laboratory Collective at the University of Tennessee's Downtown Gallery on display through July, includes everything from minimalist sculpture to photography and a printed-word piece. Founded in 2009 and originally connected with the RJP Nomadic Gallery in Lubbock, Texas, the Culture Laboratory Collective "operates as an ongoing investigation in media interchangeability and aesthetic fluidity," according to the group's Facebook page. In fact, social media plays an important role in the collective's ongoing existence—what Knoxville-based Land Portrait curator Brian Jobe considers a "virtual relationship," as some members have never met in person.

Artists within the collective address whatever theme they've chosen in many ways, and the works in Land Portrait could be labeled landscape, symbolic imagery, and installation, among other things. As for what's currently on display, some works relate more or less clearly to the designated topic.

At the "more" end of the spectrum, Loren Erdrich presents "Exit Strategy," a photograph of a barefoot young woman climbing a ladder into the sky. Beyond the illusion of a ladder extending unsupported from a field into the ether, the image's fronds of wheat looming in the foreground produce the effect of a person in miniature. After all, anyone who's ever traversed Kansas grasps how minuscule a person feels in such vast, open space. Erdrich's odd shift of scale is furthered by her print's small size—small enough that she provides viewers with a magnifying glass.

Shreepad Joglekar's "Common Ground #2" is likewise a fairly straightforward response to the land theme, albeit with a twist. "Pigment prints" showing patterns in mud are quite literal, yet the given subject matter, when removed from reality and framed as such, becomes abstraction.

On the other hand, objects like Piotr Chizinski's paper sculpture "Badlands of Modernity: Levittown, Pennsylvania" require the context of the gallery itself in order to allude to an environment. Resembling a barge in flood waters (water in this case being the floor), Chizinski's work is rigid, yet constructed of flimsy material, an apt metaphor for the isolated sterility of post-World War II suburbia. Like watercraft, developments epitomized by Levittown appear to float, as alarmingly disconnected from their surroundings as their inhabitants are from each other.

Some people seeing "Yesterday's Tomorrow," a ceramic and mixed-media piece by Ian F. Thomas, might consider it an installation, as well. With the ceramic portion (like an ill-conceived bundt cake with glaze running down its sides) positioned on a worn bench, a pile of charcoal and scattered fragments marking the ground beneath it, "Yesterday's Tomorrow" is visually captivating. But what it has to do with land or any identifiable place is hard to tell.

Dryden Wells' "Straddling Fences" is also ceramic, but in this instance, fired clay is combined with a cross-section of wood acting as a shelf. And its relevance to the exhibition, like that of Thomas' work, is difficult to pinpoint. Resembling hardened chewing gum spit from the mouth of a volcano, Thomas' red blob atop visible tree rings perhaps represents transmutable form alongside the passage of time.

I can't help noting that every participant in the show has earned an MFA. Since I'm still paying for mine, I dare not call that accomplishment inconsequential. Instead, it might be too consequential. I hold nothing against artists emerging from—or creating within—academia, but there's something to be said for work produced outside of that realm. Quite simply put, there's a tendency among artists with advanced education to overthink what they do.

The decades-long domination of "concept" in art, often in the guise of self-conscious cleverness, makes me long for the drunken days of Jackson Pollack flinging paint at canvas like a man possessed. That could mean that I'm stuck in the past. But the intelligence and insight of what artists included in Land Portrait have to offer cannot be denied. And new technology is affording them avenues of connection that will undoubtedly benefit art well into the future.