Art In the Afternoon

The KMA's new Higher Ground exhibit holds a few magic tricks

If you want to take a break from all the political stuff, the hate stuff and the attack ads and the county political stuff—and I think we could all use a break—have a look at the upper left-hand gallery at the Knoxville Museum of Art. It's called Higher Ground, sort of an episodic history of art in the Knoxville area, and the KMA's first permanent exhibit.

Not that it won't change; most of these works are in private hands, and the owners will likely want them back after a while. So it's kind of an evolving exhibit. Have a look at it soon.

I walked over last week. On a bright August afternoon on the Clinch Avenue viaduct, where shadows fall sharp and unambiguous, and silhouettes of children dance in the fountains, you can feel like a figure in a modernist painting.

Knoxville is not famous for visual art; most of the artists represented in the exhibit were on their way somewhere else. Some were hardly here at all but exhibited at one of the three major expositions held at Chilhowee Park from 1910 to 1913, an important time in American art history. There's a Robert Henri and a Childe Hassam, here for that reason.

Knoxville bred one noted impressionist, Catherine Wiley, who grew up in a house still standing on Laurel Avenue, two blocks from the museum. A couple of Wiley pieces here are nice ones I've seen before. Her mentor, Lloyd Branson, the successful journeyman portrait artist who worked 9-5 in his studio on Gay Street, but now and then could turn out some real art, is here, both his portrait of maverick Republican Horace Maynard and his best-known painting, the 1910 almost-impressionist study in sunlight and sinew known by several titles but here called "Hauling Marble."

Wiley and Branson's other contemporary pals, like Adelia Lutz, are represented here, and there's an odd 1923 oceanfront landscape by Hugh Tyler, who was then better known than his nephew, writer James Agee.

Those are artists you'd expect in any survey of Knoxville art. It may be too easy to tell the history of Knoxville art by touching three handy bases: the turn-of-the-century Nicholson Art League, which included Branson, Wiley, Tyler, Lutz, and others. Then the Delaney brothers, Beauford and Joseph; the exhibit highlights a great huge urban landscape by Joseph and an incandescent self-portrait by Beauford. Then the Knoxville 7, the 1950s group of UT academics like Buck Ewing and Carl Sublett who challenged Knoxville's conservative tastes with hardcore modernism. The most specifically Knoxvillian canvas from that era is Robert Birdwell's "View of the City (Gay St.)" from 1962, a chaotic collage of fragmented light.

But a few here don't fit that pattern, and caught me off guard. The earliest is from 1861, a big classic oil on canvas called "Belle Isle," by Scottish-born James Cameron; it's a depiction in oil of what was, before landowners blocked it from public gaze, one of Knoxville's best-known attractions, the actual view at Lyons View.

Ansel Adams, the photographer known almost entirely for his stark western landscapes, spent some time in the Smokies, circa 1948. Who knew? I didn't. Adams said he found our mountains "devilish hard to photograph." Maybe it's hard to back up far enough to get the sort of sweeping vistas he found in Utah. Only three Adams exposures of the Smokies are known to exist, and two of them are hanging on a wall right here, a shot including Mount LeConte, and a misty scene in a forest.

Charles Rain's work was new to me. His 1940s paintings like "Eclipse" and "The Magic Hand" look like sinister fantasy or just Daliesque surrealism, but some describe his work with a phrase I'm more used to seeing in connection with South American literature: "magic realism." The plaque says he was born in Knoxville but raised mainly in Nebraska—but library files indicate that his father, a prominent Knoxville physician, remained in Knoxville well into the artist's adulthood.

The one that slapped me in the face, though, is Charles Griffin Farr. A once-well-known California modernist who grew up in Knoxville and attended Central High, he was a painter of the stark realism school, something like Edward Hopper, especially in his 1950 canvas, "Cocktail Hour," of a woman in an urban apartment drinking alone. It turns out Farr's also called a "magic realist," to account for his tinge or the surreal—a coincidence, considering Rain and Farr probably didn't cross paths here. Except for the fact that that phrase is attached, their work's not much alike.

One piece I'd never even heard of before is called "Street in Knoxville," dated 1947: a scene of several pedestrians, all black in a sunlit but vaguely menacing downtown street. A sailor lurks in the foreground, out of sight of the others. The scene is a modest block of two-story commercial buildings, with an angular intersection and a double-steepled church in the background: I didn't recognize it, but there's one specific clue, a sign for Bell Laundry. I looked it up. No such business existed in 1947 Knoxville, which for a moment confirmed my suspicion that the whole scene was made up, an artist's prerogative.

But Farr's dates were 1908 to 1997. In the ‘40s, he lived in New York, Europe, California. He would have remembered Knoxville at a much earlier time. So I checked farther back. And in his youth, I found it. Bell Laundry was a small cleaning chain that thrived here from 1906 to 1928. Its logo in old ads is identical to the logo Farr used in the painting. If it's a real scene, I can't tell where it is; maybe a now-demolished stretch of Asylum Avenue.

The KMA is free through the end of the year, an experiment of which I approve. I'm no expert, but purely for narrative value, it's as interesting as a big-city gallery, and an intriguing way to kill a hot summer afternoon.