Blackballed without Whitewalls

What will the future hold for local artists?

At the Armory Exhibition in 1917, organized by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors and held at the armory of the New York National Guard's 69th Regiment at

26th street

and

Lexington Avenue

, the art world received a serious spanking from a savvy Frenchman named Marcel Duchamp.

On display were two of his pieces that seemed ordinary enough: In Advance of a Broken Arm (an everyday snow shovel) and Fountain (an ordinary urinal). The hubbub surrounding these "artworks" became philosophic cacophony, as Duchamp insisted on calling these things his "art."

make

form,

"But this is the 21st century," Karnitz responds. "Maybe we're working with old models." In a digital age, a cultural revolution has the ability to be more nebulous and abstract. Ideas can be exchanged, Karnitz says, without a designated art zone, as long as it's still capable of bringing energy together and creating a cohesive voice that brings all kinds of art together—as long as it gets people excited about art. "We just need artists to visit

Knoxville

," she says. "I like to encourage people who think a little bit differently on how to do this."

towards a truly vivid strata

Gallery

At the Armory Exhibition in 1917, organized by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors and held at the armory of the New York National Guard's 69th Regiment at 26th street and Lexington Avenue, the art world received a serious spanking from a savvy Frenchman named Marcel Duchamp.

On display were two of his pieces that seemed ordinary enough: In Advance of a Broken Arm (an everyday snow shovel) and Fountain (an ordinary urinal). The hubbub surrounding these "artworks" became philosophic cacophony, as Duchamp insisted on calling these things his "art."

It wasn't actually the works that caused widespread cognitive dissonance; it was the fact that Duchamp dared to do something that had never been done before, thus challenging all existing definitions of art and sending philosophers on a madcap race to rack their brains and ask, "What is the criteria for art status?" That question would have never seemed so pertinent, and the definitions of art wouldn't have evolved as much as they have if there wasn't a venue for Duchamp's quirkiness. Today, almost 90 years later and hundreds of miles away from the art world's epicenter, Knoxville's ever-growing community of artists asks, "Why not here?" and "Why not now?"

A quick flip through this paper's calendar of events reveals listings for more than 50 galleries and other sundry showplaces for artworks. We've got jewelry, watercolors, abstract landscapes, photography, craftwork, graphic design and even nanotechnology exhibits. That's a fairly broad range of works, but what worries undiscovered artists is a lack of exposure, the lack of avant-garde whitewall galleries to allow works to breathe and speak for themselves without sales as a prima facie reason for exhibition. Art for art's sake— Ars Gratia Artis —is what they want.

"I feel that Knoxville doesn't have a traditional gallery," says Alison Oakes, a painter and Knoxville native. "We need a gallery here that's like a gallery in other cities. Everything here is based on whether [the art will] sell." Many artists tend to agree with Oakes, especially those who have recently graduated from UT and are trying to get a foot in the door of the art world, artists who oftentimes don't adhere to any of the traditional definitions of art. "I love that idea that you can change people's opinions [with different kinds of art]," Oaks says, "make them question their opinions and ask, 'Why does this bother me?'" But there's a fine line between art and kitsch when experimentation takes place. The solution, then, may require a kind of filter. Or, stated more simply, a well-rounded artistic community.

Oakes' current frustration with the local galleries stems from a lack of support for her work, which focuses on the naked female form, a form that many gallery owners feel isn't marketable here. "I went to Bennett Galleries," she says. "They're a pretty commercial gallery, and they said, 'This is Knoxville, you can't sell nudes of random people. No one's gonna buy them.'" Nevertheless, Oakes feels that Knoxville is a pleasant city to live in. "I get great vibes when I'm here," she says. "I think it has a lot of potential."

Those vibes felt by Oakes and other nascent artists haven't gone unnoticed. Knoxville has a history of artistic experimentation and cultural risk taking, and there's no shortage of new ideas, whether it's guerrilla art on Gay Street, bohemian metalworkers at the Spaghetti Bowl, a photograph of the male genitals on display at the University Center, digital anarchy at Maryville-based www.dogubomb.com , fractals in the UT math department's on-line archives, or even the plucky Fistfull of Crows frontman, Will Fist, busting into a Waffle House during the early morning hours for an impromptu jam session.

"There's a lot of talent here, in both the visual arts and performance arts," says Lauren Karnitz, owner of the Three Flights Up gallery that has been a part of First Friday since November. "I want to help bring that energy together to create a cohesive voice that brings all kinds of art together."

The Three Flights Up gallery, a loft at 120 S. Gay Street, between Summit Hill and Jackson Avenue, is just one example of what's emerging in an art community that's coming into it's own, apart from the university system. Karnitz's gallery arrived in Knoxville on the heels of the wild, and often experimental, gallery at Yee-Haw Industries. Yee-Haw, along with Bliss, Arts and Culture Alliance and the 5th Floor Gallery of the Woodruff Building, to name a few, have helped inject some extra spice into the downtown area.

Now, with the redevelopment of downtown, and with more people being exposed to the often quirky, often innovative, downtown scene, Karnitz feels that the public is finally starting to believe that we're capable of having a truly vibrant climate for artists to develop. The arts have always been an integral part of redevelopment. That's what happened in SoHo, that cultural hodgepodge in New York. And, if things continue to grow at the current pace—if brave entrepreneurs and art lovers of all kinds continue to have the chutzpah to promote all culture, all the time—then Knoxville should become ripe for artistic experimentation on all fronts, a scenario that would surely put an enthusiastic smirk on the face of any future Duchamp.

Enter Taylor Wallace, a young, idealistic UT grad who wants to take local art up a notch. "The momentum has started with all the downtown redevelopment," Wallace says, "but for it to actually be pushed to the level that people want it to, there has to be some sort of interconnectedness." That notion of "interconnectedness," the pulling together of ideas, theories, styles and genres, is the name of the game for any kind of new art, and Wallace hopes to tap into this newfound creative vein by opening a new gallery, a whitewall gallery that's only a few steps from the Old City, across from the bus station between Magnolia and Depot Avenues.

Wallace hopes that his gallery—if it becomes a reality—will act as a kind of sponge, soaking up the vibes from the happening downtown music venues. "My idea," he says, "is to have people walking to my gallery like they do in big cities, to have some sort of all-encompassing recreational nightlife going on." Let's call it Wallace's Model for Artistic Expansion , which proposes a centralized locale for all art, all the time, allowing for a free and continuous exchange of ideas. It's a model that evokes images of Greenwich Village, circa 1940.

"But this is the 21st century," Karnitz responds. "Maybe we're working with old models." In a digital age, a cultural revolution has the ability to be more nebulous and abstract. Ideas can be exchanged, Karnitz says, without a designated art zone, as long as it's still capable of bringing energy together and creating a cohesive voice that brings all kinds of art together—as long as it gets people excited about art. "We just need artists to visit Knoxville," she says. "I like to encourage people who think a little bit differently on how to do this."

However the art scene changes in the years to come, as it becomes more interconnected, there should be more of an influx of culture in Knoxville, more than the current scene allows. At the same time, both Karnitz and Wallace don't want to dismiss the work done by other local galleries. "There's a niche for the other galleries here," Wallace says, "and I'm glad they're doing what they're doing." KMA, Bennett, Yee-Haw Industries, Bliss, the Emporium Center, 10-10 Gallery and the like each provide something different, but they can't foster a cultural upswing alone. Each gallery, from needlework to the Walker Evans photo exhibit that was hung at the UT Downtown Gallery, is an integral steppingstone towards a truly vivid strata of artists. The idea—the next step—is to offer more venues for art, as many as the city can sustain.

"I don't know if we have all of the groundwork in place, but even if you take the horse to water it doesn't necessarily drink. We just need to work hard and believe," Karnitz says, adding: "I have no doubt that in 10 years Knoxville will be a cultural center." Sam Yates, director of the Ewing Gallery, compares the recent attempts to embolden local culture to the canaries once used in mine shafts to test whether the air is capable of sustaining life. So far, the canaries haven't asphyxiated, because the drive to make something out of nothing hasn't died. "Contemporary art is not about being shy about what's on the walls," Wallace says. "I think there are a lot of intelligent people in Knoxville who just haven't been exposed to new kinds of art . I'm not talking to the 50- and 60-year old crowds; I'm trying to talk to these people who are buying these lofts downtown, who want to put fresh, new work up on the walls, people who aren't interested in Thomas Kincaid."

Looking back 24 years, a similar development was in the works when Ted Saupe, now an art professor at Georgia, and a motley crew of intrepid artists got together to open a gallery in the then-sparsely populated downtown area, in the building that now houses Barley's Taproom. It was aptly named the 200 East Gallery. "It attracted a broad range of people," says Whitney Leland, assistant professor of painting at UT. "You'd see artist-types and people in tuxedoes." It was, perhaps, the first time in recent memory that a large portion of the public was excited about artistic development, but it only lasted a couple of years and has since faded into local folklore. There's hardly a written document to prove it ever existed.

"When you have a coöperative gallery," says Tom Riesing, a former member of the 200 East crew, "there's always an ebb and flow . I just lost interest after three years. It was a lot of work."

Now, in the wake of the somewhat surreal memory of the 200 East Gallery, new artists who have matured in Knoxville are working to jumpstart the vestigial creativity that Saupe and his buddies left behind. "Once people realize that there's a creative community," Yates says, "once they realize that they're not alone, the arts community will be viable." And, when that happens, galleries such as Three Flights Up foresee an increase in the number of artists who make Knoxville their home and an opening of conversations between our local artists and the communities in Nashville, Atlanta, Asheville and other parts of the South. But, as Riesing says, "You'd be surprised by the number of students who are staying here [after graduation] . I think there's certainly room for more of them."

It's easy to say that the arts in Knoxville are somehow deficient, but that would be a disservice to the other galleries that have been pushing artistic evolution for years, each in its own way. A former New Yorker now living in Knoxville says there is plenty of gallery space, but not enough good art to fill them all. At the same time, there are artists who simply don't care about building vibrant art communities and are perfectly content making art that's not meant for the public. Then again, maybe there isn't yet a niche for these currently unknown artists.

"If you build it, they will come," Wallace says. "I really believe that. And I know that it'll be a struggle." There's hope for the future of Knoxville as a cultural center, but it currently exists as a mental byproduct, in the minds of Wallace, Karnitz and other like-minded visionaries.

"I know there are people who aren't ready for it," Wallace adds, "but I want those people to see it, too. I want those people to see it and talk about it. Creating a buzz with the work that's on the walls can help create new art genres. I'm not presuming that that will happen in Knoxville, but it could."

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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