They say you can never go home again, but you can always swing by to pick up a plaque. That’s just what the University of Tennessee Office of Alumni Affairs has made possible for Bill FitzGibbons (class of 1972) and Creighton Michael (class of 1971), recipients of the Accomplished Alumni Award who returned to UT last week as working artists invited to show and collaborate on an installation (their second) titled Filament at the Ewing Gallery.
Michael has spent a career contemplating the how and why of drawing—he’s painted about drawing, sculpted about drawing, and happened upon a serious affair with ink even when he isn’t using any. Throughout Michael’s career, the minimalism of his concept (what is this thing we make on paper?) is manifested in a way that’s almost perverse, repeated and layered into works that are deeply lush, composed and colored by the book (or the wheel, as it were) while remaining vibrant and magnetic. Michael’s solo portion of the gallery is filled with his recent MOTIF series, bright clusters of acrylic brush strokes topped with equally brilliant, inky oil lines that bring patterns to life. Deliberate with a sort of old-fashioned carefulness, his explorations are strikingly focused, a master class not necessarily in how lines are made, but how they become more.
If Michael’s work is particularly at home in the studio, FitzGibbons’ career has taken the world as its playground. He’s spent his career in public installations, manipulating existing structures into splashy attractions. While Michael seems incapable of decadence, indulgence is built into FitzGibbons’ work: neon, immersive sound, occasional pyrotechnics, and dancing light displays washing over building facades are his stock in trade. Even his new, more subdued series Fire Drawings, hanging at the Ewing, carries titles like “Vortex,” “Portal,” “Loki,” and “Oroboros.” They were made by taking an oxy-acetylene torch to canvas, a process you can watch in the gallery via video projected onto a large slab of black steel. While putting industry into art is nothing new, it’s a bit explicit for a man whose job it is to make tax-funded structures as inviting as possible.
But what you’ll first see as you enter the Ewing is Filament itself—two walls creating a narrow six-foot-long passageway lined with pieces of thick black rope bent in various ways and made rigid, these lines then installed in a vertical line mid-wall, with more rope pieces installed at your feet. From above, projectors shine down into the corridor shadowy images of hands and tools at work. Meanwhile, speakers placed at a remove on the gallery’s permanent wall play the scraping sounds of Michael’s ropes being manipulated and whooshes of FitzGibbons’ torch firing away. As the title indicates, this is everything at work all at once: object, creator, and process fused. The projections don’t so much display recognizable actions as they create a pleasantly textured netting of light that flits from wall to floor, high and low, to loosely cradle the whole.
When FitzGibbons isn’t frolicking in, as the joint statement refers to it, “the sensual nature of drawing” with a blowtorch, he’s been busy creating a light installation for the Knoxville Museum of Art. The roughly 30-minute program happens on the north side of the building every night, where from World’s Fair Park Drive in front of the museum, or even looking up from the fountains at the north lawn of World’s Fair Park, you can watch the choreographed beams bathe the outer wall in color. At the reception at the Ewing, a student behind me suggested to her friend, “Let’s get really drunk and go watch it.” Like most ideas of the kind, it probably sounds more fun than it would be, but why not? It’s a step up from watching the permanent purple glow on the downtown Hilton.