It appears to have happened overnight, but Knoxville suddenly feels like an art town. First Friday’s monthly gallery events are its nucleus, drawing black-clad, artsy patrons of all ages to hit the downtown pavement and survey the local scene. Knoxville artists themselves are more ambitious and prolific than ever, evident by the numerous flyers and Internet postings promoting their openings and performances. Galleries from Fourth and Gill to Market Square have become hotbeds of creative activity, fueling the momentum by challenging artists to produce new bodies of work for group and individual shows.
Even downtown shops and restaurants have gotten into the art game by filling their spaces with local artists. It’s a symbiotic affair: Artists garner additional exposure for their work while luring fresh faces into the storefronts and cafés. Plus, most galleries boast sporadic hours at best, so long after First Friday is over, these downtown businesses are places where one can revisit favorite works—or even purchase them.
To its credit, Market Square’s Tomato Head has been successfully working this angle for years. Part of its appeal has always been the ragamuffin staff and the wildly varied art offerings that give the restaurant its insouciant vibe. For its February show, middle-school art teacher and local musician Holly Briggs (she fronts the band may gray) is the featured artist, and her works include a dozen photo-printed canvases embellished with painted details.
Briggs’ portrait-sized images convey an idealized, even sentimental, notion of personal space. Her dream-like color photos taken in her own apartment show the intimate details of a home that only its inhabitant could discern. Briggs draws emotion from the rumpled quilts and colorful pillows she presents. In “Stove and Ivy,” a potted ivy plant’s leaves inch along the rounds of a stove eye, somehow creating a still life remarkable for its familiarity.
Just across the square is another downtown business known for its reputation as an art destination. Bliss Home has scored a high-profile roster of local artists, such as Brian Pittman, whose intricate drawings of cathedrals have made him a local favorite. This month, photographer Brian Wagner’s show of recent works adds to Bliss’ collection. His black-and-white and color photographs are shot documentary-style and illustrate the artist’s playful curiosity. The 20 or so images here almost seem like they’ve been swiped from the pages of a photo journal, possibly the product of an intense cross-country road trip. In one photo, a shirtless man proudly shows off the tattoos adorning his bulging torso. In another, a mysterious musician enjoys a fat cigar, his face obscured from the smoke.
Old City Java is yet another downtown establishment that’s been showcasing local art for years, and its new owners are committed to sticking with this tradition. Once a smoky den, this coffee shop has recently undergone a much-needed facelift and has emerged looking more like a streamlined mod café found in Portland or Seattle. The change is also good for art-lovers, as it provides an environment that is more welcoming to pensive visitors who enjoy perusing the works lining the walls of the shop’s two rooms.
This month, Old City Java features printmaker Daniel Maw’s comics with a twist. The University of Tennessee printmaking grad student presents two bodies of work, both deeply rooted in the ordinary daily activities that fill our lives. In the Incidental Theatre series, Maw plays with the conventions of a comic strip by re-arranging its traditional elements, like the text balloon and repeated settings, to show the absurdity of modern life and its pointless activities. The series shows a stressed-out duck performing mundane daily routines heightened to the level of an existential crisis. The Implements of Banality works are enlarged image cutouts of the random objects found in the Theatre series, like an alarm clock and typewriter. Maw draws from the imagery found in advertising and children’s games and has created his own amusing, confounding world.
Local cafes and retail spaces shouldn’t replace the traditional art venues, but they do offer something for the art lover seeking a nice surprise during the mid-month lull. These shows also deftly argue that inventive local art doesn’t just hang in the big galleries on First Friday.