If you’ve picked up the recent summer issue of Artforum, you might be surprised to learn that the cover star Seth Price studied art here in Knoxville at the University of Tennessee. It shouldn’t be too surprising, though. Several UT graduates are currently leading figures in the international art world, although it didn’t happen overnight. Price, as well as Wade Guyton and Kelley Walker, were undergraduate art students in the ’90s whose works have landed shows in the world’s most prestigious galleries and are coveted by top collectors. And even though the art market has recently suffered recession blues, these artists won’t be getting day jobs any time soon.
Of the three artists, Guyton has been the most prolific as well as the most controversial. His early works included geometric sculptures and drawings that first featured his trademark black Xs, which eventually made their way onto his infamous “paintings.” By using a common office printer, Guyton began printing Xs onto paper and fabric, manipulating them by hand as they print from a simple computer file. Guyton allows the computer to produce the simple design rather than painting or drawing it himself, and then uses the printer to do the labor for him. The result is a series of highly conceptual works that provoke and challenge the notions of what paintings really are and how they are produced. They are smudged and streaked as they are pulled through the printer, but require little labor from the artist himself.
As you can imagine, Guyton’s work has been fodder for some heady essays on the state of painting, and he has been included in many group shows throughout the United States and Europe, including the 2004 Whitney Biennial in New York. His 2007 solo show featuring all black paintings at the Friedrich Petzel Gallery in New York was listed in many top 10 lists for that year, and his work appeared on the cover of Artforum’s summer 2008 issue. Reportedly there is a long waiting list to acquire Guyton’s paintings—not bad for a guy who doesn’t sweat too much for his art.
Guyton also frequently collaborates with fellow UT graduate and his close friend Kelley Walker under the moniker GuytonWalker. The two just landed a prime space in this summer’s Venice Biennial. In late June, they also opened a show at New York’s Greene Naftali Gallery. Their new works feature an array of colorful, pop-inspired still lifes and dizzying collages, offering a sharp contrast to Guyton’s solo work. Imagine Warhol’s Velvet Underground-era bananas swiped with checkerboard prints and interspersed with other tropical fruits for a deceptively alluring effect.
Walker has also made quite a name for himself with a pop aesthetic that highlights the dark side of American consumerism and politics. He uses painting, printmaking, and collage techniques and relies on repetition and the appropriation of iconic images to create his own large-scale works. His piece “Black Star Press,” which was entered in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, features an image from a 1960s race riot in the South and illustrates how we become desensitized to the violence and corruption presented by the media.
Guyton has also recently started his own publishing company, called the Leopard Press, and his first book was Price’s already out-of-print How to Disappear in America. The book collects underground and bohemian tactics from the Internet and vintage pamphlets to help someone literally disappear from society. The book serves as a reference to Price’s video works and explores the idea that artists are always assessed by their works, and cannot escape from their affixed identities. While Price might be exploring the idea of escape, it will be harder for him now that he’s on the cover of the country’s most formidable art publication.
These aren’t the only notable artists who have lived and worked in Knoxville during the last decade or so, but their mark on contemporary art is indelible. Both Guyton and Walker have served as visiting artists for UT’s School of Art during the last few years. Their success, coupled with recent Guggenheim Fellowship recipient Jered Sprecher’s acclaim, certainly bodes well for young artists here in Knoxville.