Two Small Shows, One Big Thrill
Sculpture, photography offer style with substance
by Heather Joyner Spica
An occasional combined art review makes sense for various reasons, particularly when a venue presents terrific stuff but not enough of it to warrant an entire column. Such is our dilemma concerning the Knoxville Museum of Art’s b9 furniture show and a collection of black and white photographs now on view at Old City Java. Given either event (both first solo exhibitions), we end up wanting more. Another reason to consider two shows at once involves a kind of complementary dynamic; a shared awareness that makes each display more fascinating when related to the other. The work of both b9’s Critz Campbell and photographer Carie Thompson exudes familiarity with—and admiration for—a variety of trends in 20th century art and design.
Established in November 2000, b9 furniture produces what can only be called sculpture that functions as furniture. Alongside a hammock and numerous chairs, the KMA also presents two wall-hung works by Campbell that feature large cut-out dresses with tabs alluding to paper doll clothing. As such, they are reflections of social values as well as visually interesting objects—in this case, referring to past and present gender-specific playthings. Their inspiration might be nostalgia for comfy domesticity or a host of other things (similarly motivating the “Luna Dress” lamp, fashioned from a ’50’s Simplicity pattern, speaking of simpler times), but like other b9 fare, Campbell’s “dresses” transcend sentimentality. What could amount to little more than kitsch instead evokes cultural associations and consequently assumes deeper significance.
The Mississippi roots of b9 founder Campbell inform his furniture as well as his cut-outs. Beyond expressing an especially Southern reverence for the past and quirkiness reminiscent of Faulkner and Welty (for whom Campbell’s “Eudora Chair” is named), the artist has created extremely graceful pieces. And within that grace—amusing as it is at times—exists a sort of timelessness. Even chunky, Le Corbusier-inspired “Rode-E Chairs” with aluminum edging project a streamlined agility. Resembling rolling cases that roadies use to transport concert equipment, they have handles, and some light up—in one group glowing red, white, and blue—suggesting commercialism and increasing mobility.
The KMA presents Campbell’s aforementioned “Eudora Chair” as a lovely pair of illuminated pieces crafted from fiberglass and polyester resin coating vintage floral fabric. Only the b9 hammock, with its Keith Haring-esque shape of a human figure, seems out of place (unlike Campbell’s other work, it feels self-consciously clever). With designs licensed by Crate and Barrel in addition to products sold through b9, Campbell is enjoying well-deserved recognition. Educated at the Art Institute of Chicago and Parnham College in Beaminster, England, the artist participated in the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum 2003 Triennial and has received NEA grants and other awards.
In part, it is the illumination of different b9 pieces that distinguishes them from other innovative furniture out there. And it is, of course, light that is the essence of photography—an element Thompson handles with ease.
Like Campbell’s show, Thompson’s selection of 14 stylized portraits and nudes at Old City Java includes just enough to tantalize us. Adept composition and sheer visual oomph reflect the photographer’s graphic design background, yet her images are not overwhelmed by a design sensibility. Although most of the pictures are quite striking, their strength does not rely solely on the instant gratification factor we associate with images made for advertising or other media.
Some of the staying power of Thompson’s work comes from its connection with key movements in the history of photography. For instance, “Jailhouse” without a doubt refers to work by both Edward Weston and Man Ray. A nude study with black horizontal stripes on pale flesh (shadows from light coming through a venetian blind?), “Jailhouse” is sensuous, but it’s mostly about seeing—elevating a captured visual occurrence to the level of high art. “Prepare” and “Sway,” apparently utilizing the same female model, benefit from absolute directness; the poses may be just that—not at all spontaneous, but they’re compelling and full of implied meaning.
Thompson’s close-ups of faces likewise salute past masters. “Clara” and “Cry,” with its smudged mascara and dark, brooding eye, could also be Man Ray shots. “Dana,” with its youthful and tilted smiling face, is simply exuberant. The artsy erotica of “Laura” and the almost-too-perfect lighting in “Ballerina” make them somewhat cliché, but they’re damn good photographs anyhow.
Subjected to the above comparisons, Thompson’s work might sound terribly unoriginal. However, simply capturing specific moments that include specific people makes her efforts unique. Visiting the photographer’s web portfolio at www.flickr.com/photos/cariephoto allows a more in-depth look at her work, and it’s remarkable to think that hundreds of varied but equally memorable images online were all produced within the past two years. I’m sure that given more time, Thompson will develop a perspective as distinctive as her talent is promising.
All in all, what Campbell and Thompson have in common is an eye for style that is backed by substance, and each artist emanates joy in his/her respective vision and its realization in two- or three-dimensional form. That’s a mouthful, but it’s just a taste of what’s presumably to come. We can hopefully look forward to seeing much more.
What: Design Lab: b9 Furniture and photographs by Carie Thompson