Prior to the Arts & Culture Alliance, now in its 10th year, Knoxville had the Arts Council, established in 1974. If people involved with that original organization could have seen 37 years into the future and observed one of our city’s crowded and hip First Friday events, I think they would have been astonished.
I remember Knoxville in 1974. At that time, area drive-ins were still competitive with indoor movie theaters, some school teachers said “ain’t” and tied unruly children to chairs with rope, and TV ads for Cas Walker Supermarkets featured black children slurping “thumpin’-good” watermelon. And that was only two years after this town legalized liquor and wine by the drink. Now there’s a fancy wine shop on Gay Street and an incredible number of East Tennessee venues, museums, attractions, and organizations (as well as individuals) currently included in the Alliance’s membership—everything from the Alexia School of Middle Eastern Dance to the WordPlayers, who describe themselves as “a community of theatre artists dedicated to ministry through the theatrical exploration of Judeo-Christian values.”
Anyone living here, no matter what interests him or her, can benefit from checking out the calendar at knoxalliance.com. At present, it lists an exhibition with seven pieces by each of seven artists, a show on view upstairs in Gay Street’s Emporium Building through July 29. Included are paintings, photography, and mixed-media works, and although the show has no real theme and there aren’t even any discernible connections between its participants, it is a look. In fact, with all the overly intellectual, high-concept exhibitions out there, it’s sorta cool to mount a show that’s a matter of artists simply presenting their stuff so that it can be seen.
Paintings in oil, acrylic, and watercolor dominate the show, and they represent a range of approaches and subject matter. Stephen Brayfield’s Appalachian-themed watercolors—men playing the banjo and mandolin, a girl perched on an old red truck, an instrument on a chair, and feet alongside a guitar reflected in polished hardwood flooring—are Andrew Wyeth-like in their clarity and precision. In my mind, the point of using watercolors is to let loose with their fluidity, and these works are pretty darn tight. Furthermore, the subject choices are tired, even cliché. But Brayfield’s attention to detail and sheer technical ability convey a very straightforward, almost documentary sensibility.
The Alliance’s press release states that oils by Terri Jordan are “based on the artist/muse Suzanne Valadon”—Maurice Utrillo’s mother who, in 1894, was the first female painter admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris. And yes, the canvases in Jordan’s “suite” could hardly be more French. Most of her somewhat small paintings include artists’ models and cats rendered in very dry brushstrokes that lend them a generally flat appearance. One exception to Jordan’s usual picture plane-glorifying application of pigment is her rendition of fabric in “Nude on Chaise,” a reclining figure not scandalously wearing shoes but nevertheless reminiscent of Édouard Manet’s “Olympia.” Jordan pays homage to Henri Matisse and yet another Édouard—Vuillard—as well as Valadon. Only “Unconditional,” a portrait of a mother and her typically blasé teen son, looks contemporary.
Two large images and a massive triptych by Chuck Jensen also have a dry look with heavy outlining, but in this exhibitor’s case, the handling of paint is less successful than it is in Jordan’s work. One portrait is of Janis Joplin and the other depicts Jimi Hendrix. Says Jensen in his artist’s statement, “My artwork combines a cartoon-like quality, in extremely vibrant color.… I prefer working in large scale and use acrylic paint because it is fast and that defines my quick stroke painting layered technique.” All I can say is that the work indeed looks fast. Often sloppy, in fact. Jensen also says, “My abstract paintings are done to music in which the rhythm, sound, and the beat drives the outcome of the artwork.” Oddly enough, his triptych (not necessarily inspired by music) is more muscular and lyrical than the portraits.
Terrie Boruff-Yeatts’ paintings feature European scenes, a Brooklyn sky, and a pair of crows. The crows, seen in two matching square canvases—one titled “Looking at You” and the other “Treasures You Brought Me”—are quite graphic against patches of color within black vignettes. “Brooklyn,” with the unique perspective of looking upward at winter branches that create a pattern fracturing buildings and clouds above, is very striking. Its fragmented streetscape, if shrunk, might resemble cracks that form in frost on a windowpane; the image as such can shift from scene to surface to scene again.
Photography in the show, when found in the mixed-media work of Dawn Kunkel, makes sense. However manipulated the photography of Regina L. Garner (whose straight images are interesting enough) and Linda A. Waterhouse, it really belongs in another kind of show. As for Kunkel, her lively collages evoke what Frida Kahlo, Henri Rousseau, and Paul Gauguin might produce if stranded together on an island with an unabridged dictionary. As assemblages, the artist’s small works (most approximately 8 inches by 12 inches), many of which are peppered with single words, aren’t breaking new ground in terms of how they’re made, but their scale and imagery feel both intimate and original, like friendly secrets overheard being whispered. And Kunkel’s integration of different materials is seamless without being slick.
Presenting as it does different levels of accomplishment and a variety of media and perspectives, “The Balcony Show” most certainly is not slick. And that’s likely a very good thing.