The Knoxville Museum of Art's Contemporary Focus

The KMA charts a fresh direction with challenging works by East Tennessee artists

At 7:30 p.m. on a mild, early September evening, several late-arriving guests at the Knoxville Museum of Art walk away from the front entrance and move toward the adjacent garden. Perched on the grassy expanse are several large metal towers, similar to etageres, standing about six feet tall, with pint-sized clover plants housed within their shelves.

It's part of the museum's opening exhibit, Contemporary Focus, and the installation is typical of the non-traditional art featured at the show. Inside, in one of the small main-floor galleries, the works range from arresting video displays and installations to small-scale abstract paintings and sculptures.

As its title implies, the exhibit (which runs through Nov. 8) aims to introduce current pieces by East Tennessee artists who work in new media or who explore more conceptual themes. While the KMA has featured local art before, it's been rare to see challenging contemporary work, particularly from new-media artists who live and work in Knoxville. It's a fresh perspective for the museum.

But will the conceptual works and local connections push the museum in a new direction? David Butler, KMA's executive director, believes it might bring some new visitors through its doors, as well as help connect KMA to the burgeoning local art scene.

"This is part of a new emphasis at the KMA on serving and reflecting our region," Butler says. "We are, after all, the Knoxville Museum of Art. Contemporary Focus continues the narrative established by Higher Ground, our permanent installation devoted to the art and artists of East Tennessee over the past 100 years or so. As we move toward the present, that narrative is still being formulated.

"Contemporary Focus provides a snapshot of a very interesting, diverse, and increasingly dynamic artistic scene that is rooted in this region but very much engaged with new developments at the national and international level. Local doesn't have to mean provincial. We will continue to bring in work from all over, but want to keep a spotlight on what's happening in our backyard."

Finding the right balance between cutting-edge contemporary art and crowd-pleasing popular exhibits is a constant challenge for museums. Traveling shows that survey prolific, well-known artists or culturally significant periods in art history bring in people and revenue. But museums are also expected to push public understanding of new media or relevant contemporary trends in the art world, as well as forge connections with the local art community.

It's a balance some mid-sized Tennessee museums seem to be getting right. In 2005, Nashville's Frist Museum opened a conceptual show that illustrated its relationship with local artists. The Fragile Species: New Art Nashville included paintings, photographs, sculptures, and video art by 20 artists from the Nashville area. The large-scale show was a hit and raised the profile of some of the city's most challenging artists.

Chris Molinski, a recent addition to the museum's curatorial team, might provide just the right touch to foster this kind of relationship in Knoxville. Molinski brought some conceptual punch to Knoxville's gallery scene with the Art Gallery of Knoxville, bringing in works from international artists, often interspersing their shows with pieces by local artists. His curatorial choices often explored important social issues like class and race, as well as the relationship between copyright laws and artistic license.

Butler credits the new direction to the museum's curatorial team, including curator Stephen Wicks, assistant curator Clark Gillespie, and Molinski, who is the associate curator for education and adult programs. The team selected the artists for the series, which is set to be an annual show. Butler says the group was "looking for innovation, diversity of approach, and, I suspect, for a bit of ‘wow' factor. I think they nailed it."

Contemporary Focus, while modest in size, is an introduction to three Tennessee artists with significant Knoxville connections. Hunt Clark's delirious video works and installation are riveting and original. David Wolff's delicate abstract paintings are lyrical, while his sculptures convey a playful nature. And Patricia Tinajero's outdoor installation is both technically savvy and conceptually challenging. Here's a closer look at each of these impressive artists.

David Wolff

A few weeks before the opening of the KMA show, it looks like David Wolff hasn't stopped working in months. About a dozen completed canvases are hanging in his large studio, interspersed with stacks of smaller paintings and screen prints on paper lying on the floor. In one corner sit several sculptures composed of small wooden strips that have been painted and nailed together. A broom leans against the wall, and several chairs are scattered around the space, which is lit by a flood of light from the windows.

Wolff, a Knoxville-based artist who was born in California, has been showing work regularly in town for the last several years. After moving here from Chicago in the 1980s to study painting at the University of Tennessee, Wolff took his time after graduation to explore other media. He now works in painting, drawing, and sculpture.

Wolff's art seems to respond to the challenges that arise when working with several media. For a 2008 installation, Wolff painted large-scale adjoining black spheres on a corner of the gallery's wall and floor to a create an ominous, if impermanent, alteration to the space. Similarly, a series of abstract pencil drawings alluded to architectural renderings or maps, similar in vein to the works of Julie Mehretu.

For the KMA exhibit, Wolff has assembled a body of work he has titled "The Lowly Hand." He says that he's playfully addressing the question of how art is created: Is it from the hand or the mind? It's a poignant thought, a starting point for a series of abstract paintings that consist of delicate gestures and muted colors, including the series of small-scale works that are in the show. The paintings seem to almost fold in on themselves, and they are a highlight of the show.

Wolff has also been instrumental in the success of Knoxville's popular First Friday gallery nights. Wolff opened the Fluorescent Gallery on Central Avenue in 2005 just as the monthly art crawls gained momentum. He also uses the gallery space as his full-time studio and lives in an adjoining apartment. The gallery is a spacious second-story atelier with tall windows overlooking Broadway.

"Having the gallery just allowed me to have conversations with people about art, which was difficult for a while," Wolff says. "I would take trips up to New York pretty regularly for a few years and I would go to museums and galleries, and that was pretty stimulating for that period of time, but I haven't been able to get up there for a few years. I just needed something to happen here. It's just starting that dialogue. It's allowed me to do critiques and studio visits with more folks. It's been a real boon, not just for the city, but for me as well."

The impact of the gallery on Knoxville's art scene has been palpable. Because of its location, just a few blocks north of downtown, it didn't take long for a flurry of art openings and events to expand beyond the confines of Gay Street, including events and openings at the Birdhouse in Fourth and Gill and Ironwood Studios just across Broadway on Central.

But it's the gallery's reputation for experimentation across all media that gives it a conceptual edge. From installations and group video shows to UT graduate student thesis shows in painting and printmaking, Wolff readily rises to the challenges presented by the artists he books.

"It's definitely not organized like a business," he says. "I'm not trying to sell books here. It's more like the spaces I think of in New York, just a big white space with no real agenda other than to allow people to put their work up. It's a big deal to see your work in a space that's just devoted to it like that."

Wolff is grateful to now have the time to arrive at his own conclusions about his work. He quit his full-time job as a chef at the temporarily defunct upscale restaurant the Orangery two years ago. He had saved enough money to focus on his work and the gallery, which continually operates at a loss, but he's not actively selling his own work at other galleries. He has participated in some high-profile group shows and was a visiting artist last year at the Webb School, but he hopes the KMA show will raise his profile as an emerging artist to watch.

"I thought the idea of being an artist was rather pie-in-the-sky, mysterious, magic," he says. "It has a certain aspect of that. These days you can go to seminars and things like that to promote your work and there are all these different ways to go about it. But when I quit the restaurant, things just felt like they were expanding. It was just time."

Wolff, who turned 50 last year, is thrilled to see his own work in a more formal setting at the museum. "For me it's unprecedented," he says. "It just adds a new perspective to the work and it makes it seem more professional. From my experience, every artist has thought at some point, ‘My work looks just as good as what I've seen at the museum.' But to actually see it there is something extraordinary for me."

Patricia Tinajero

Patricia Tinajero's studio, housed in a spacious warehouse close to the UT campus, is full of the detritus that she uses to create her art. She works in a variety of media, primarily sculpture and installation, and reinvents the discarded trash and construction materials she collects into dreamy landscapes and functioning sculptures that provide a social and political context to her work. Much like Rauschenberg's Combines, Tinajero takes what other people have tossed aside to build something meaningful and imbued with symbolism.

It's striking how much material she collects. There are milk cartons, plastic soda bottles, lots of netting and wire. A recently completed piece composed of milk cartons stands in one corner on a bamboo tripod; it's been plastered with magazine photos of luxury homes. The forms resemble tiny prefab houses, although the bottoms have been removed. It's her statement on the empty dreams that development and construction often promise, and the missing floors literally refer to the housing market's bottom falling out. By confronting the viewer with the evidence of society's blatant misuse of resources, she often provides a strong commentary on cycles of production and consumption.

Tinajero, who's an assistant professor in the UT sculpture program, has shown work in Knoxville as part of a faculty show and with a collaborative collective, but she's clearly excited having her solo work at the museum.

"Since the museum is close and I don't have to ship the work, it allowed me to go larger and I'm experimenting in a way," she says. "It's challenging me as well. And another reason it's great to work with the KMA is I do work in academia, so it allows me to extend out beyond those school connections. It's also great for the students to see that we are connected with other institutions and other communities."

For the KMA show, Tinajero created an installation for the museum's outdoor courtyard. The work consists of a series of tiered metal constructs that hold small clover plants in makeshift plastic containers. There are a dozen of these towers, and the viewer can walk around and underneath them. Honeybees from Beardsley Farms, just about a mile away, will travel to the site to act as "social ambassadors." While there were no honeybees in sight at the opening, the idea of connecting the disparate communities of Knoxville is a strong theme in Tinajero's work.

The piece is similar in vein to another of her works, "Sprouting Water," which was displayed in 2008 at the Nurture Art Gallery in Brooklyn. The interactive installation featured a fully functioning water filtration system that collected and cleaned rainwater. Gallery visitors could view the entire process as well as drink the water and eat the bean sprouts and wheat grass that grew from the purified water. The piece struck a chord with the art world; it is currently featured on the International Women's Museum, a virtual online museum, and will be exhibited in Atlanta in October.

Tinajero says she challenges her students to rethink sculpture as just a static form and to look for alternative materials that are readily available to just about anyone. Last year she taught an eco-materials course in which students collected their own materials without buying anything, and then used them to build sculptures and other forms.

Born in Ecuador, just miles from the equator, Tinajero studied painting at a young age and eventually earned a business degree. After traveling in Europe, she began experimenting with sculpture, which led her to study in the United States.

But she is also compelled to respond to the negative effects of consumer culture and its associated problems. She has seen firsthand the effects of introducing modernity to her own country. She has frequently collaborated with Argentinian artist Ariadna Capasso and composer Damián Keller on multimedia projects, including "Green Canopy," a piece that explores the nature of ecosystems and consumption.

"Here there is great management and systems in place that provide some structure for dealing with waste," Tinajero says. "But when you go to some of the more isolated places in South America that does not exist.

"Everybody deserves development and we all deserve to live a better life. But there it doesn't always improve life, it's just the consumer end, which is the bad part. It's not really a friendly introduction into modern life. It's the worst of it and it's very irresponsible."

Hunt Clark

Hunt Clark's contribution to the Contemporary Focus exhibit includes a video that shows flocks of birds flying across a horizon and landing on telephone wires. The video is projected on four large rectangular screens made from white paper tubes cased in a Plexiglass frame. Its rapid movements and minimal imagery create an impression of nervous excitement; it's as if the birds have multiplied in mere seconds.

It's an absorbing piece, indicative of the scope of Clark's art. Throughout his career, Clark has built a body of work that explores the subtle relationships among forms, images, material, and movement. He often uses video clips that he has recorded himself and projects them onto an array of materials to create a direct interplay of elements. The materials have included water, large-scale inflatable fabric forms, and metal, as well as his own sculptures. Some materials absorb light, some are reflective, while others actually alter the subject matter, adding additional context to them.

Clark's often subtle manipulations can create a dizzying effect, which is also evident in his other work for the show.

"In the piece titled ‘Gas Can,' I present a video projection of a loaded and common object," he says. "The documentation is straightforward, with a minimal background and centered in the frame. The handheld movement in the projection is to give the image the anticipation that we bring to a video that doesn't always exist in a photograph."

Also an acclaimed sculptor, Clark is known for his innovative technique of carving; he often shapes the exterior portion of the wood to follow the lines of the interior. The wood sculptures are ethereal, organic, yet strangely unfamiliar. Their subtle curves and smooth surfaces often belie the fact that they are technically difficult and labor intensive, sometimes taking several months to complete. The pieces are housed in several international private collections, and one sculpture became a recent addition to the prestigious permanent collection of Yale University.

"I think of the sculptures as experimental and technical challenges, each representing my decisions at a particular point in time," Clark says. "Through the work I investigate the relationship of shape and how it is affected by gravity. With each sculpture comes new engineering challenges. In certain pieces the flipped-out edges and convergent points become as much about structure as aesthetics. By making the walls of the sculptures thin and consistent, that is when the line of the interior is parallel with exterior and then the shape becomes convincing."

Of the three artists in the Contemporary Focus exhibit, Clark is the only one who was born in Tennessee. He studied painting and sculpture at UT beginning in the late 1980s; in 1991 he founded Selma's, an artist-run studio and exhibition space housed in the basement of an old church. During the mid-'90s he was an active member of the A1LabArts, Knoxville's most progressive art space at the time.

In 2001, he and his wife, the artist Deborah McClary, moved their studio to downtown Knoxville, often hosting other artists and fostering a community of creative exchange. Known as the Underbelly—or the Spaghetti Bowl, for its location beneath a winding, interconnected stretch of interstate—it was popular for hosting challenging works and was a place for artists to experiment.

"The Underbelly created an enormous amount of energy," Clark says. "The artists were left alone to do just about anything while right in the center of downtown. During this time I was building robotics and electrical tracks to travel video projections through my installations."

Clark and McClary, who met while studying at UT, currently live in the Middle Tennessee town of Sparta, about halfway between Knoxville and Nashville at the base of the Cumberland Plateau. They live in a rural setting where they can focus primarily on their work, and both enjoy busy exhibition schedules across the country.

The two have shown some work together; their 2007 show at the Downtown Gallery in Knoxville was reviewed in Art Papers. While they live together and share studio space at their home, they prefer to keep their work separate. "Basically we've only collaborated on one show," Clark says. "If Deborah has one, I'll be the assistant and do whatever she needs, and vice versa. But very rarely do we come together and work on a concept together."

It appears the KMA show is just a natural move for Clark, a clear link to the foundation he built here in Knoxville.

"Knoxville has always had an active underground art scene," he says. "I think it is great that the Knoxville Museum of Art has created Contemporary Focus to promote progressive work in the region, and I'm honored to be included."