Each semester, the University of Tennessee art department enlists a new artist-in-residence to provide a jolt of fresh insights for students and a contemporary edge to the school’s vernacular. The artists featured in the Ewing Gallery’s current Artist-in-Residence Biennial—all New York-based painters—represent diverse educational and ethnic backgrounds and have some big group and solo exhibitions under their respective belts. Essentially, as artists-in-residence, they serve as catalysts for the budding art students, offering broad perspectives on theory, technique, and subject matter, as well as life as an artist in New York’s hyper-competitive gallery scene. They also combine for a stunning collective exhibit of contemporary art.
The spring semester brings to the UT campus Munro Galloway, whose contribution to the show, “Green River,” includes 50 small-scale paintings and drawings on paper, in which the artist randomly intersperses new and older works in a grid on one entire wall of the gallery. In the show’s catalogue, Galloway claims to make one of these 22-by-15-inch paintings daily, mostly as an experiment to work with new techniques. His subjects include murky abstract landscapes, eerie figurative portraits, and reworkings of old punk album covers. The result is an array of images that allows the viewer access to a fleeting moment, or its representation.
Unlike Galloway’s work, the ethereal paintings of Jessica Dickinson, artist-in-residence for the 2006 fall semester, take several months to create. In the works “Crack the Night” and “Bring Forth the Shine,” the viewer enters a subjective Rothko-like realm in which light and forms evolve through introspection.
Enter Wallace Whitney, artist-in-residence for spring 2007, and his large paintings. In works like “Natchez,” Whitney builds on the gestures of abstract expressionism and infuses them with his own marks and bursts, evoking a personal experience or landscape by using color and subconscious associations. In Jeff Gaunt’s back-gallery installation, personal landscapes introduce mundane items found in any suburban home and make their way to the foreground, albeit through precise, two-dimensional forms and fairy-tale colors. But it isn’t the sterile environment you might imagine: In his artist statement, Gaunt say he wants his work to “invoke this feeling of something just out of reach; a vast allusiveness both terrifying and seductive.”
Just across Henley Street, UT’s Downtown Gallery has its own stellar line-up of artists in its latest group exhibition, Crave, on view through February’s First Friday. The show’s curator, Matthew Garrison, claims that primordial cravings and their denial or fulfillment serve as the driving force behind exploring new conceptual themes and methods of creating art, and here five artists with very different interpretations of the theme present works to illuminate his theory. But don’t expect traditional depictions of objects of desire; here the process is inherent to the craving.
Amanda Sparks’ immense pop-up book, “Half a World Away,” took her a year to complete and is filled with her own family photographs juxtaposed with images obtained from the Internet. The result is a weighty chronicle of a generic family and its desire to live the American dream. There are sections featuring the perfect two-story cottage, double-layer cakes with intricate icing, and sun-drenched family vacations. Thomas Weaver also collects disparate images from domestic lives, but his are stenciled or drawn on paper and then tacked together to form a nonlinear storyboard. In “Little Orgone Box,” Weaver’s cinematic montage ultimately reveals a family struggling from its members’ own hidden cravings, even suggesting a murderous ending.
Only Joel Carriero hints at craving in a sensual sense; his collage-style pieces stir an unabashedly emotional response to his work. In “Medieval,” he reassembles small squares of fleshy images lifted from Renaissance and Baroque paintings into his own collage. The artist also uses cut-up porcelain figurines from 18th century commedia dell’arte, a type of Italian theatre with elaborate sets and costumes, to create a dizzying circular pattern over a dark plane in “Unidentified: A Brief History of Love.” The result is a play on passion and desire, deftly disguised as a compulsive exercise to achieve order.
Both of these shows are fine examples of group shows that actually work. The Ewing Gallery’s open floor plan provides each artist some breathing room, which is especially crucial for painters like Whitney and Gaunt whose large-scale works inhabit the space. The more intimate show at the Downtown Gallery really took a conceptual leap, and it proved a good choice. It’s rare in Knoxville to have so much great work at hand by such diverse artists; this is your opportunity to make the most of it.