Two New Shows at Räla and Downtown Gallery Launch a New Decade for First Friday

In case you've not heard, this month marks the 10th anniversary of First Friday events, and the associated art offerings are as varied and impressive as ever. Currently, Union Street's Räla presents paintings by Cynthia Markert, while the University of Tennessee's Downtown Gallery hosts an installation titled Ossuary. Addressing both exhibitions in a single review means fewer paragraphs devoted to each one. Yet the format seems fitting, given how jam-packed both shows are. And its dual purpose exemplifies the diversity of downtown venues for artists in a city that's come a hell of a long way in 10 years.

Speaking of decades, I can't recall Markert's work not being firmly planted in Knoxville's creative landscape. In fact, her paintings are so well-known and widely collected here that some people likely take them for granted. After all, at any point in time, Markert's art can be found in one place or another—a gallery, shop, restaurant, or even on the street, as an esoteric version of graffiti. And her distinctive women tend to suit whatever space they're gracing.

Included among Markert's paintings at Räla are small portraits as well as works on plywood measuring more than 5 feet tall. Despite the cramped retail surroundings, the paintings all but leap off the walls due to their striking sinuous figures and color intensified by layers of varnish. An untitled piece shows two lanky women holding hands, a less-defined female positioned behind them. With predominantly gold pigment, the painting is anchored by sparingly used black and Markert's signature red.

An unmistakable Pre-Raphaelite sensibility often permeates Markert's efforts. Nevertheless, that movement, which influenced English art nouveau icons like Aubrey Beardsley, is clearly not her only influence. Viewers have compared Markert's incorporation of elaborate pattern into long, rectangular paintings to the Wiener Werkstätte ("Vienna Workshops") style associated with Gustav Klimt. On occasion, she subtly evokes the illustration of children's book author Maurice Sendak, especially in pieces like "Life Tapestry #3," its background figures either donning a crown or wearing a pointy-eared hat and standing beneath a parasol topped by a cat's head.

Markert has also been told that her subject matter is reminiscent of Edward Gorey, known for his drawings of quirky people in Edwardian-era clothing. But to link her to artists known for using pen and ink is to regard her paintings as solely content-driven. Her works are indeed narrative, but how Markert paints is equally captivating. Furthermore, what is possibly a new direction can be seen in pieces like "Red Haired Woman With a Journal," its overall emphasis being on shape unhindered by detail.

Ossuary occupies a very different venue, and with pieces by approximately 300 artists working in all sorts of media, it requires every foot of the Downtown Gallery. The remarkably ambitious project, conceived by the artist Laurie Beth Clark, is expansive—that is, new work is continuously being added. And like a stone gathering moss as it rolls from city to city (originating at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where Clark is a professor), Ossuary is as visually mind-boggling as the bone-filled repositories from which it gets its name.

Whether or not the art in Ossuary is made from real bones, its interest resides in the range of associations bones inspire and the ideas they express. Knowledge of the Czech Republic's Sedlec Ossuary, adorned with skeletal remains of a purported 70,000 humans removed from graves when space was scarce, makes bones-as-art a familiar notion. However, Ossuary doesn't combine parts to create a singular whole. It instead presents a broad range of artistic responses tied to the aforementioned associations, be they abstract, surreal, elegiac, or comical in nature.

The above terms describe the angles adopted by Brian and Katherine Bambrick Ambrosiak, among others. Their "Luna Ossuarium," made up of a wood substrate with plastic bags containing "nocturnal seeds" and digital prints producing a pale lunar center, effectively connects "the sacredness of life with the mythology of the moon." "Sticks and Stones," Randy Arnold's drawing depicting a person gripping a divining rod and traversing a bone-slatted bridge, is decidedly surreal. Conversely, Robmat Butler's "Twenty Two by Nine" commemorates the very real loss of his father. Reproduced in various cast materials, a prosthetic hook, necessary after his father's cancer-related amputation, serves as Butler's sculptural theme. Dayna Thacker crafts an amusing, marionette-like figure from chicken bones in "Rock Head," and Carl Gombert cleverly employs rubber-stamped skulls and crossbones, fish, and skeletons in his "Bone Mandala #5."

Other contributions to Ossuary utilize bones to convey the expected emphasis on mortality and ritual, whereas some applications function as evidence of mass murder or conquest. In certain instances, bones are used as strictly visual elements. But more often than not, bones in the show have specific connotations. Generally speaking, they represent exposure, and they acknowledge the here and now versus the there and then. In our present state, at the brink of what will hopefully be many more First Fridays, we can celebrate where we are, where we've been, and where we wish to go. m