by Kevin Crowe photos Raffe Lazarian
Craig Kandelâ’s left arm has a huge scar, where the skin has healed over a third-degree burn, a reminder of an old childhood accident. There are pencil-thin cuts running up and down his arms, too, telltale marks of long nights in the studio and the drunken revelry that comes afterwards. A few lines are carved across his face, barely discernible in the dim light at Host Clothing where he works in the Old City. All are forgotten battle scars, earned by staying up too late and waking up too early, constantly fueling his body with adrenaline wherever he can find it.
The art at Host, much like Kandelâ’s ragged, paint-covered, art-punk exterior, is a dedication to creative chaos, a manic state of pure, arrant possibility, where destruction and creativity seem to be mutually inclusive. Host itself is an oddity, where anything can happen on any given night. Basically, itâ’s an all-purpose studio, and the space can be transformed on a whim, as a gallery, a workshop for young artists to hone their craft and a concert venue, where many of Knoxvilleâ’s roughest acts have come to obliterate eardrums.
Kandel can be found many nights in the Urban Bar, nursing a few drinks before he heads back to the shop, business as usual. One night last year, outside of Blue Cats during a GWAR show, Kandel emerged, drenched in the bright red fake blood that Oderus Urungus had poured over the crowd. Kandel was sweaty. It was late. He headed back towards Host to start printing t-shirts. Out on the fringes of Knoxvilleâ’s burgeoning art scene, there is no rest, only more work to be done.
For many, Host has been able to enliven a different group of artists, folks who wouldnâ’t normally find their works hung on the whitewall galleries along the 100-block of Gay Street. Kandel and his supporters have built a community that only seems to fully come to life every few months. The art is equal parts DIY bathos and bloody, unmitigated solipsism.
Itâ’s loud, sometimes offensiveâ"but rarely boring, capable of bringing a new sense of creative exigency to the First Friday experience. The work may be an essential growth of our creative community, as a few unknown local artists come together, riffing off of a single theme, just like a jazzman interpreting an old standard. The end-result is usually slightly warped, but totally sincere, even when the art flirts with ridiculousness.
â“Weâ’re always too busy to document properly,â” Kandel says, remembering his favorite shows at Host. â“Everythingâ’s kinda at our own pace.â”
Theyâ’ve brought monsters to the Old City, a horde of costumed maniacs who had a battle royale amid a collection of papier-mÃ¢chÃ© skyscrapers. The ogres, fairies, cyclopes, gremlins, vikingsâ"whatever costumes people wore that nightâ"spilled onto Jackson Avenue, eventually entering the Pilot Light for another round of nihilistic destruction. The devastation was beautiful; even after the last of the buildings were pulverized into rubble, the cultic acts of senseless brutality continued. Maybe they were dancing, a few dozen beery artists, all of them worked into a frenzy not only because of the destruction, but because someone had taken the time to make it happen in the first place.
There was a guillotine as well, erected at the front of the gallery a few months later. A masked executioner systematically beheaded the cartoonish likenesses of celebrities, politicians and other sundry douche-bags, most notably Karl Rove and Oprah. Each time the guillotine fell, it was met with cheers of approval from the crowd, a makeshift proletariat, joyfully mocking and jeering and creating a spectacle that was, for just a moment, perfect theater. Each time Host opens its doors to artwork, thereâ’s an overriding theme, something that all the contributors base their work around. Sometimes itâ’s exactly whatâ’s expected. Sometimes, as was the case with the guillotine, it becomes a performance.
â“Weâ’re always looking for people, â’cause then we can do more stuff,â” Kandel goes on. â“If anyoneâ’s got any ideas for shows, come down and talk to us.â”
â“Worms and dogteeth!â” declares Adam Deal, who has been an integral part of the Host phenomenon since itâ’s inception. Worms and dogteeth: Thatâ’s a simple way to talk about where they find inspiration.
â“I was wondering what the next show was going to be,â” Kandel says of the latest show, which took place this past Friday and was designed around the idea of the leviathan, a mystical beast that appears in just about every mythology the world over as either a source of cosmic creation or destruction. â“It became what I like about artwork, yâ’know: Creatures. Thatâ’s why I started building these things.â”
Thereâ’s a large dragon head currently hanging above the entrance to Host, which was originally molded around the base of a rocking chair. Next to the foreboding head is a sign that reads: Watch your head, one final reminder that this is, in fact, a functioning studio space, not just a den of wayward boozehounds and barflies. Thereâ’s a method to the apparent madness, and it continues to become more sophisticated with each show. Thereâ’s always the possibility of something greater, never a loss of potential.
â“This show was gonna be huge. It had a really grand scale in the beginning,â” Kandel says. â“It looks good now, Iâ’m happy with it.â”
Most projects here begin on a grand scale. â“For this one, we had a little more planning. We knew kinda what was going on,â” he says. For nearly a week, a small group worked late into the evenings, transforming the gallery into a kind of mausoleum, filled with grotesque and oftentimes tongue-in-cheek interpretations of cultural mythology.
Outside the gallery, a few hours before the crowds began to arrive last Friday night, a car pulled up to the curb, and three girls yanked a giant teddy bear from the backseat. When they popped the bear out of the car, a shiny, silver dildo clanged into the asphalt, bouncing down Jackson Avenue. They retrieved it almost immediately, because it was to be an integral part of the â“Care Bareâ” installation, complete with a giant bottle of Bulleit Bourbon.
â“I drank the Bulleit Bourbon,â” Kandel says the next afternoon. â“That was supposed to be just for girls, and there were five guys in there, drinking the Bulleit Bourbon.â”
Deal adds, â“Passing the vibrator around.â”
â“I turned it on, and threw it in front of some squares,â” Kandel laughs, trying to piece the rest of the night together. â“Our work can be a little more sincere,â” he continues, suddenly turning serious, â“even when itâ’s being ridiculous. All of this has some degree of soul to itâ. I like it when people walk in off the street, and they trip out on the place. Itâ’s pretty cool.â”
â“Potential of the art scene?â” Kandel muses. â“Like, I dunno. Who is the art scene? You got Gay Street and the Emporium, and thatâ’s like a whole other world.
â“Places like that could take over, and they could make the whole of downtown into a strip mall. Orâ. more DIY places could spring up. Iâ’d love to see that happen.
â“We donâ’t rely on foot traffic. Unless you give someone a fucking reason to come down here, they wonâ’t come down here. Theyâ’ll come down here to drink, and see rock â’nâ’ roll.â”
And Host continues to give people a reason to walk through its doors, not just on First Fridays, either. Each month, local poet Michael Watson organizes a reading he calls â“Antarctica.â” Last month, Host was packed for his poetry reading, an unusual sight in the Old City.
â“I like having a space available for people who donâ’t have time to pursue an art career, but they are artists,â” Kandel goes on. Heâ’s never held a juried show, nor has Host ever charged a hanging fee. â“We donâ’t do any of that shit.â” Thereâ’s never been a cover charge, even when Host turns itself into a concert venue. Sometimes theyâ’ll have three bands on the lineup, and there always seems to be a crowd, people who are ready to see whatâ’ll come next.
â“Iâ’d like to see Host stand on itâ’s own two feet,â” Kandel continues. â“The workshops, the gallery shows, the music, poetryâ. Thatâ’s all a part of Host, tooâ. Weâ’re definitely an alternative to plasticized pop, soulless artwork.â”
After the show this past Friday, drunk on whiskey, Kandel passed out on the floor of the gallery, exhausted and triumphantâ"exultant for a single night. Only to come back to life at 8 a.m. and start it all over again.
â“Right back to it, yâ’know?â”
For more information, you can contact Host Clothing at email@example.com . The gallery is located at 105 W. Jackson Avenue, next to the Urban Bar in the Old City.
All content © 2007 Metropulse .