Interview: Slow Drag: In Conversation With Artist Karen Seapker


This month, through February 24, Nashville’s Zeitgeist Gallery premiered “Sentinels: Karen Seapker,” a high-key exhibition of monolithic paintings that ruminate on temporality. Seapker, a Nashville-based artist and Hunter College alum, is best known for her interstitial and medium-specific paintings. “Sentinels” is a continuation of Seapker’s hyper-stylized investigation into the nature of paint, yet marks a significant evolution of her practice—one that is adamantly figurative, female, and indulgent in the illusionary ability of a brushstroke.

I sat down with Seapker in her studio to discuss these new works.

Audrey Molloy: One of the first things that struck me about the new work in “Sentinels” is that you’ve employed this internal framing device. Your images don’t necessarily recede into the picture plane but seem to consciously reside inside of these secondary, interior frames. Now, I am seeing this inclusion of other smaller framing devices which pushes a spatiality I think you have been negotiating since early on.

Karen Seapker: This body of work considers the last several years of my life, a time that has slowed me down and held me inside of a space. In that time that I have become a mother and been caring for my two daughters. I’ve found myself feeling more home-bound, tethered, and domesticated than I have ever before.  Not just within my house but specifically in my daughters’ room, in our chair, rocking back and forth. The stillness and interiority from these experiences has definitely entered into these paintings, which feel almost hyper-present and aware of their state of presentation.

At the same time, while my experience of motherhood has stilled me in some ways, it’s also presented opportunities for connecting with mothers across cultures and across history.  While rocking in my chair—mostly nursing—I’ll often find my mind wandering across space and time, thinking about other experiences of motherhood, thinking about what’s happening in the world, thinking about what my responsibilities are as a mother, as a witness—in these ways traveling space and time. So I wanted the spaces in these paintings, though feeling contained and interior, to also suggest planes shifting, teasing the possibility of opening up or looking outside, or simultaneously being here and there.

That dimensionality—those shifting planes that you refer to—also seems relative to your inclusion of both highly abstract andrepresentational elements in your work. What is your thinking behind that?

It’s funny; I can be such a big geek about all of the painterly possibilities in, around, and between abstraction and representation. When I went to grad school, one of the artists who was really hot for a while was Neo Rauch. I went to   so I got to see a lot of his work, and—not that he was the first—but Neo Rauch would work so directly and forthrightly with such a sense of play—putting a cartoonish blob of paint right next to a rendered mythological figure.

After seeing that I thought, Okay, anything is possible. And that’s a lot to digest! So I have had to actually figure out my own logic—it was almost too overwhelming, this idea that you can do anything with painting. But in the logic that I have used, probably for a decade now, I think about the canvas as a space to contemplate time and movement. And of course, that’s inseparable from space, which makes it ideal for something to play with in painting.
I still love the idea that painting can provide a sense of illusion—which allows for a transportation out of yourself—but also can be overtly present; pure material. For a while I was really working that out in my paintings—turning around assumptions and definitions of abstraction and representation onto one another, reversing their roles, and conflating their identities to figure out what would come out on the other end.  I needed to work it all out for myself.  None of that thinking is really used now, but I feel like all of that work and play have almost been inherited in the DNA of my mark-making, and how I allow myself the permission to make marks.

For example, I consider all of my marks as figurative. The slow drag that you see in these [new works] arrived after my first daughter was born. There is nothing overtly figurative about it, but the way that it behaves mimics the way a body might. It recalls my gesture, my hand, it is connected to me. The slow dragged marks were, for me, a revelation as a way of marking something that reflected the pace of my life. They had a grace and an awareness of presence but also fumbled their ways within and around the picture plane. They felt figurative and wanting to hold themselves, or suggested being held, and beheld. At the same time, it was so easy to see them as simple, dumb, obvious, singular, brush strokes.

Absolutely; you have essentially constructed your own lexicon in which to converse among these mark-making styles.

Right. And I do think some of these marks still connote a sense of passage. Like in Sibyl (2017), this is a way of moving paint around which I discovered after a loss in my family when I was thinking about the irreversibility of time. When I had used these marks in paintings initially, they were made from looking at photographs that I had taken through a window while in transit. Those marks were almost romantically fleeting and lush and green, but now, in these works, there’s that sense of remove with them—marking a distance from that loss.

I am really interested in the moments where you have taken a form which would otherwise “complete” a figure but you’ve employed these temporally inclined painterly marks to recede or abstract the form. Like in Congregate (2016), the left side of the two figures’ embrace is bordered in this slow drag of paint which visually constructs a sense of dimension, but also highlights the total flatness of the two figures. There is this great sense of fallacy underlined here—a kind of remove from the hyperreality of the brushstroke.

Exactly. That is really important to me, this honest suspension of disbelief that I am asking my viewers to give. I remember when I was in college, I took a theater course and my professor was talking about how in the play “Peter Pan” everybody can see the strings as she flies across the stage, but because they see the means of the artifice, and know that they aren’t being tricked, they are willing to look right past it and enjoy the excitement of the magic. And then when they say, “Clap if you believe in fairies!” everyone knows that it’s just this little bulb in a jar, but everyone claps! They can see all the falseness but then they agree to participate, I will do that, I’ll play.  I love that. I aim for that honesty, that obviousness, the obvious facture of paint.

One of the considerations I always make when I’m looking at someone’s work is what it could look like or be in a different medium, but your work is so completely about paint.

I tell my students all the time: whenever you have a great idea, what you then have to contend with is why is that a painting? What are the qualities intrinsic in painting that can enhance that content? There are so many things that paint can do. I remember when I first became really interested in time, my friends were like you’re going to start doing film now? But I love the challenge that I have to deal with time on this stagnant, still, surface.

And within this mark-making language that you’ve created, which directly deals with time aesthetically and dialectically, you’ve investigated the temporal constraints of paint as it appears on the canvas but also in a manner which, like language, denotes complexity over time.

Well initially, when I first started working this way, people just saw weather systems and storms. When I was introducing the more elemental brush strokes people just saw the movement, but I think I’ve learned to counter that a bit.

I also feel like one of the things I’ve learned over recent years is that you can get away with expressive brush strokes when you have geometry, or when you couch  them within precision or flatness. Gestural brushwork has such baggage! It’s funny, people speak about Abstract Expressionism as related to machismo, and, for good reason, speak about Ab-Ex in a derogatory manner in how it relates to ego and “feelings.”  But a gesture can be so much more than that.  And I especially resent the baggage of the emotionally coded Ab-Ex gesture when conflated with socialized gender norms and that my marks might purely and solely represent my feminine “feelings.”  I reject that reduction.  A mark can carry emotion, be delivered with skilled execution, be based in reason and logic all at the same time, and can maybe even have a sense of humor to boot.

About your use of color in these new works—there is a sense of it being incredibly artificial at times. Is this intentional?

Yeah, I like the way that it pulls the viewer into this sense of a hyper-reality. It’s not trying to be of this world, they’re not in this world, they’re their own thing. The colors make obvious the painting’s plasticity and artificiality and highlight the obviousness of manufacture. The color also feels playful; there’s always been a part of me which gives myself the permission to let my paintings teeter toward play and the fictional world of cartoon. I permit myself to do that because I know the underbelly is so … heavy. The colors take it out of that realm.

I’ve also started to think about color as another way of generating pace, which relates to time. Whether something moves through a gradient in a way that feels quick or feels slow, or when you put one color next to another, I almost get this clicking contrast which moves so fast as opposed to something else which moves slower and more easily. Almost like choreography I suppose, in terms of positioning the paint to achieve a visual tempo. I’m choreographing a visual experience.

This new work in “Sentinels” seems to mark an evolution toward specific representational objects and figures. What guides those choices?

Considering both our political climate as well as personal reasons, I felt the need to both surround myself with and honor powerful female figures. These figures have been guiding forces for me in the past year, and I’ve felt empowered in their company. The paintings have been places where I am able to focus on balance and resolve and harmoniousness in what has felt like destabilizing times.

Motherhood has been a role in my life that has made me feel so strong, and these maternal figures exude and celebrate that strength. They are tough and complex and tangled compositions and these female figures can bear it all. These figures are on guard with me, my fellow sentinels.

By going epic with these figures, I’ve had to be very strategic in terms of my inclusion of different elements and what they represent. I want the figures to feel otherworldly but also of this world. The idea of the phone in the charger in Bearing (2017), that’s very literal. It’s just beside my living room window. The Nike sneaker is an incredibly realistic element, whereas the figure is referentially art historical. I’ve been trying to figure out how I tether these paintings to right now. I need these to be grounded in today.

Sentinels is on view at Zeigeist Gallery in Nashville through February 24.

INTERVIEW  Slow Drag: In Conversation With Karen Seapker. Published 1.6.2018, BURNAWAY

Karen Seapker , Congregate  (2016), oil on canvas, 72x108 inches. 

Karen Seapker, Congregate (2016), oil on canvas, 72x108 inches. 

"Sentinels" installation. Left to right:  Bearing  (2017), Offering for Renenutet (2017),  Cradle  (2017)

"Sentinels" installation. Left to right: Bearing (2017), Offering for Renenutet (2017), Cradle (2017)

New Modernism: Carol Saffell


The state of contemporary abstract painting and the extensive recurrence (or recycling) of minimalism has been subject to much postulating and criticism in recent years. Verbiage such as “genius” and “inspiration” as well as discourse which relegates an artwork’s origin to the internal self, are common points of contemporary art dialogue which indicate the return of Greenbergian ideas and laconic appearances.

In the famed words of artist Frank Stella, “What you see is what you see.”

This subjective return to modernist formalism—given the various contemporary monikers, critical and otherwise, of Modest Abstraction, Neo-Modernism, and Dropcloth Abstraction—does not directly engage in the ideas and work of those avant-garde progenitors heralded by such nomenclature, but rather, their surfaces.

Carol Saffell, a self-taught painter best known for her highly charged expressionist works, has embraced this shifting inversion in painting aesthetics liberated by a greatly expanded art world and market. The Nashville based artist and owner of L Gallery—where the artist commercially exhibits her work—has comprehensively hitched her artistic practice to the modernist giants of late as part of a continued investigation into hallmark abstract stylizations.

Saffell’s most recent works discursively deploy signs and signifiers of process art, modified action painting, minimalism, color field painting, Italian Arte Povera, and Abstraction, all of which gesture towards artists like Wassily Kandinsky, Jackson Pollock, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Cy Twombly, and Norman Lewis.

This artistic simulacrum is readily apparent in two works from 2017. In these new works, Saffell employs the wide sweeping brush strokes of Expressionism but with the cautious constraint of reductive design. In Untitled (2017), grand loose mark makings bisect the picture plane in mustard, black, and peachy-taupe—an active horizontality which is minutely reaffirmed by the repetitive grid of squares which pattern the canvas’ surface. A solitary splatter of dripped red paint ornaments the center of the picture plane. Optical Illusion (2017) is a starkly minimal regression from all color and action. A near monochromatic save for a formal light blue rectangle, the work figures sparse black and white lines, ovular shapes, floating graphically in an expanse of middle grey. Stylistically disparate, the two paintings share the lexicon of recognizable abstraction.

Invariably, Saffell’s use of paint denotes an aesthetic emphasis derivative of 1950’s Abstract Expressionism, an art movement which called for an interpretive model based on the analogy between a work and it’s maker. In this manner, the work’s surface is conceived of in terms of its “depth” much like the way an individual is understood to relate to his internal, or “truest”, self. Historically, abstraction has relied on this model to assume formal choices, medium specificity, and intent as an expression of the artists internal emotive landscape.

Saffell also positions her artistic practice formally and ideologically in this regard, saying, “I express through my paintings in the form of abstract expressionism because it’s the path that I was given. I didn’t choose it, it chose me. We all have a path and it is up to us whether or not to actually choose it or not...I [am pushed to] never stop expressing my God given gift, which is the ability to take a blank space and turn it into an extraordinary interpretational piece of art.”

Stylistically, Saffell interprets this artistic anointment through an efficient arrangement of modernist forms and techniques. As in Reality Check (2012), sweeping brush strokes in brash, bold, hues cauterize the picture plane amid drips and drops of slashed paint. Roughly applied swaths of acrid yellow, green, orange, and the purest blue float atop a lateral field of murky red, revealing the depth of the picture plane a pre-modern fallacy. Upon further consideration, various numerical groupings, letters, and fragmented words which have been scratched into the paint à la Basquiat become apparent. Untitled (2016) proceeds similarly in hue and composition, with Saffell confining her painterly brushstrokes behind rectangular color fields in black, yellow, red, and blue. The compositional resemblance to Piet Mondrian’s Ohne Titel (1921) is unmistakable.

“When I paint I have no preconceived idea of what I will create, no sketches or drawings—seeing that I can’t draw.  As any creative will tell you there is a creative space you are in where time is lost during your creative process, which, for me, also includes thought of what is actually happening. It’s almost euphoric”, said Saffell, “I may have a moment when some shapes and forms are intentional but most are not.”

It comes as no surprise that Saffell’s paintings resemble the drip and slash paintings of Jackson Pollock or the biomorphic forms of Wassily Kandinsky; their works fulfill a nearly identical role. Those early abstractionists, like Saffell, employ expressive gestures as a type of formalism pre-slotted into a post-war art-historical genealogy. This formal abstraction conflates process and content, relegating the former for the latter. “My creativity comes from within”, says Saffell, “It’s more of an internalized spontaneity with no subjectivity or outside influence.”

While abstraction fulfills a romantic celebration for the externalization of individual emotions, it is a genre and style wholly dependent on the notion that all persons share a common human experience which may be distilled in paint by a single gifted individual. As Carol Saffell continues to embrace the subjectivity and aesthetic language of new modernism, she is ever more conversant in producing art which is unequivocally familiar.

Saffell’s paintings can be viewed at L Gallery at 11 Arcade Alley in downtown Nashville, at her website:, and may soon be purchased in a variety of collectible textile forms.

FEATURE REVIEW Carol Saffell: New Modernism. Originally published 2.1.2018, Nashville Arts Magazine

Carol Saffell,  Untitled  (2015), oil on canvas, 36x24in.

Carol Saffell, Untitled (2015), oil on canvas, 36x24in.

Nick Cave: A Psychological Feat.


You go along for years knowing something is wrong, then suddenly you discover that you're as transparent as air. At first you tell yourself that it's all a dirty joke, or that it's due to the "political situation." But deep down you come to suspect that you're yourself to blame, and you stand naked and shivering before the millions of eyes who look through you unseeingly.” (Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man)

An imposing human-like form stands erect on a white pedestal. It is clad in an impressive two piece ensemble whose surface has been consummately adorned with an array of silvered reflective buttons. The arms and feet of the garments inhabitant are shrouded in elongated fabric, it’s face a massive, flat, circular form whose dark fibrous facing swirls hypnotically. This extravagant material composition completely cloaks the armature, or figure, which occupies the form so bodily—rendering an encounter with this flamboyant exterior decidedly psychological.

This ambiguous sculptural form, Soundsuit (2017) by artist Nick Cave, is one of several works included in Feat. at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, a survey exhibition of phantasmagoric sculptural works and garments by Cave which quietly romanticize material identity. The Chicago-based artist is best known for his sensorial and absurdist wearable assemblages comprised of repurposed objects and craft materials—referred to by the artist as “soundsuits”—whose formal impetus is as a type of armour against racially motivated police brutality. Feat. is a continued curatorial approximation of Cave’s investigation into the preciousness of materiality and its latent function to simultaneously conceal and reveal.

In this exhibition, Cave has eschewed former sensorial displays, electing instead for a quieter, and less polemic  trajectory of works constructed over the last decade. Rescue (2014) figures a ceramic basset hound and vintage settee canopied beneath a net of metal flowers and ceramic birds, a material thematic repeated in the nesting synthetic headpiece of Soundsuit (2012).

This motif is likewise apparent in the four massive wall panels which comprise Wall Relief, (2013), a chaotic sculptural detritus of strung crystals, afghan textiles, gramophone components, and disparate porcelain ware, all composed within a densely structural floral framework. A textural embodiment of Cave’s sculptural work, Wall Relief grapples with the material multiplicity of the sculptural Soundsuits but disavows the inherent tension of “concealing” in it’s immediate disillusioning relationship to the wall.

Notably, more politically urgent works from recent years, such as TM 13, (2015)—a sculptural work which figures a black man in a hooded sweatshirt, who, ensconced in beaded netting, and which was constructed in direct reference to the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012—do not appear. Rather, Cave softly surfaces the visual language of identity politics in earlier works like, Untitled (2014), which figures a cast bronze arm extending out from a cacophonous pile of white linen folds, and a Soundsuit from 2012 which employs early African masquerade stylization in the form of sequins and crochet patterning. It is in these works which the black body figures most readily, albeit subtly, and that his implication of weighted material reference quite physically alludes to interior identities.

It is the enigmatic selection of Soundsuits on exhibit in Feat. where Cave’s investigations of material identity is most psychologically tense. Exhibited along a long raised runway in one of the Frist’s more narrow rooms, ten of Cave’s monumental Soundsuits are staggered at various discursive angles. A seemingly hyperbolic assortment of festoons, buttons, beads, wires, ceramic vessels, knitted crochet, pipe cleaners, vintage toys, upholstery, amalgamated thrift items, and icons of collective nostalgia, have been interwoven to form idiosyncratic edifices for human containment. A Soundsuit from 2015 constructed from enameled can lids, shoelaces, plastic beads, and macramé, is one of the more abstract and resplendent suits on display, and which digresses quite entirely from the human form beneath.

Certainly, despite the suits’ extravagant exterior materiality, the complexity of this work is manifest in the inherent function of a garment—to concurrently conceal and reveal the body. This ideology is iterated concisely in Blot (2012), perhaps one of the more surprising works in the exhibition.

Breaking from the established quietude and object staticity upheld throughout Feat., this video work images a Soundsuit in action. In it, an amorphous figure enveloped in a multi-threaded suit of black raffia—a fiber extracted from palm trees native to tropical Africa and Madagascar—transposes upon itself in the stark whiteness of a single channel projection. The central figure contracts and extends volatilely from the center of the frame, intermittently revealing grasping hands and feet out from the folds of its shaking material vessel. It is not dissimilar in form from a Rorschach blot.

Certainly, the repeated illusion to the necessary occupancy of these works by a body, and their relative lack of ascertainable identity, works well to construct a psychological mystique as to who and why a body might don these garments. Given the known origin of these works as armour for the black body against racially profiled police violence, there is plainly a social provocation. Yet, Feat. in it’s differentially quiet, still, curation, does not overtly call to racial injustice as it introduces an experiential element wrought with personal culpability.

In entering the exhibition, visitors and patrons encounter a large wall affixed with a psychedelic wallpaper culled from a detailed photograph of Cave’s work. Upon it, the title “Feat.” refracts distorted faces of museum-goers in its mirrored surface. Referent to the abbreviation of “featuring” or a “feat of work”, this reflective introduction demonstrably implicates attendants in an actionable viewing experience whereby notice of the self is a cognizant and accountable instrument antecedent to accessing the work. Feat. is an interrogation of materiality, identity, and the causal relationship of those multitudinous solutions Cave has exhibited for his viewers.

FEATURE: Nick Cave: A Psychological Feat. Originally published 12.1.2017, Nashville Arts Magazine

Nick Cave  Soundsuit  (2015). James Prinz photography. 

Nick Cave Soundsuit (2015). James Prinz photography. 

Angie Renfro: Emotive Equivalencies


Angie Renfro debuts in Nashville with (de)construction (2017), an expressive series of floral paintings which employ surface condition as an equivalency for personal narrative. The newly Nashville-based artist is best known for her painterly depictions of desolate landscapes from her previous body of work Industry (2009-2016)—a practice thematically centered on what the artist terms a “longing for connection.” (de)construction is a continuation of Renfro’s investigations of self through the canvas originally manifest in those early works.

In Industry, Renfro activates her layering of paint by emphasizing the painting’s various regressive and intermediary states of process. Previous marks, hues, and figurative shapes float softly behind the most recently applied veneers of oil. In The Lines We Draw (2014), acrid magenta and heavy umber brushstrokes form the hulking shape of a lone industrial mass. The figure is emergent from the bottom of the canvas and ensconced in an irreverently applied swath of dusty blue, an all-over application whose near opaque surface blushes prior hues. To Put Things Into Perspective (2014) features a receding line of power-lines made visually splintered by dripping lines of paint.

Fragility (2017) from (de)construction proceeds similarly; muted orange, verdant blue, and deep yellow brush strokes coalesce at the center of the canvas to form the loosest expression of flora. Horizonless and floating untethered to any environment, the figure recalls the disparate nature and uncertain scale of those prior industrial forms.

“When I’m painting it feels like sculpting to me. I think what I really love in painting, what I’ve figured out over the years—is painting the negative space. That’s where I get really lost.”, said Renfro, “That’s one thing I love about the organic nature of these, because the negative space is so fun and so easy to get lost in. It totally feels like sculpting to me when I’m kind of taking away from the positive space and adding negative space. I like that push and pull.”

The manner in which Renfro approaches her figurative subjects, this reductive and additive process of painting, formally asserts depth up from the surface of the canvas. Renfro thoroughly works the illusion of verifiable depth in (de)construction and Industry by negotiating the romantic integrity of the picture plane. As in Everything Is As It Was, "Industry", (2009), painterly drips and sweeping brushstrokes are intermittently revealed beyond the surface’s topmost pale layers—a conscious mark making which signals the artist’s hand at work.

“I kind of destroy and rebuild as I’m painting, which is super cathartic. Layers upon layers of paintings that I add to, take away from, and destroy what was there, so they are sort of a meditation on accepting uncertainty”, said Renfro, “As I’m painting I work through life lessons—knowing that I don’t have control, things happen outside of my control, but I can control how I respond to it. In this case, I’m responding by trying to create something beautiful.”

This frank assertion of the literal action of painting recalls mid-century gestural abstraction, a process wherein expressive brushwork and instinctive creative actions were employed by artists to convey unfettered emotional states. Art critic and theorist Rosalind Krauss in “The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths” (1985) writes that these abstract expressionist concepts “call for an interpretative model based on the analogy between the work and it’s maker: the work’s surface thought of as existing in relation to it’s “depth” much the way that the exterior of the human subject is understood to relate to his internal, or true, self.”

This manner of seeing and interpreting was fundamental to early abstraction and later conceptual practices as it engaged the psychology of the artist as both quantitative substance and basis for theory. Seen most readily in the expressive, multi-layered, works in (de)construction, Renfro likewise posits the canvas as an emotive equivalency for her personal experience, enacting the process of painting to both consider and aestheticize personal narrative.

“This work is also a meditation in self doubt too, because as I’m painting and adding a layer, I often think I’ve just ruined it—that part I like—and I have to trust that it’s going to work out. There’s no one way something needs to go, and even if I’ve messed up part of it a new part will emerge that I like”, said Renfro, “With this [new] series, I don’t know what it’s going to look like when it’s finished. For me, that’s also an analogy or a life lesson. I’m never going to get to a place where I feel like I’ve figured it out, but the important thing is to keep asking questions.”

Understood exclusively through the perceived interior mind of the artist, aesthetic choices, medium specificity, and function, are correlated in (de)construction and Industry to that of the artist’s psychology, albeit their subjective variation. Renfro personifies the paint and canvas through a layering process whose likeness is most readily akin to that of the artist’s internal self. The formal significance of Renfro’s work is grounded in the biographical matrix of it’s author; it’s condition of surface and depth most actively related to our consideration of the human mind.

FEATURE Angie Renfro: Emotive Equivalencies, Published 11.1.2017, Nashville Arts Magazine

Angie Renfro , After All  (2017), oil on panel, 30 x 18 inches.

Angie Renfro, After All (2017), oil on panel, 30 x 18 inches.

Joel Daniel Phillips: Welcome to The Orange West


On March 17th, 2017 Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket (2016) was unveiled at the Whitney Biennial and was, simultaneously, the impetus for heated international discourse concerning the validity of visual censorship and historic authorship over subjective content—it garnered protests and incited urgent reflection on the socio-political role of contemporary art, and artists, in the current political climate. Can a white artist make artwork about the black experience? How does a white artist pragmatically interpret the past, or narratives, not their own? 

This month, Tinney Contemporary premieres Joel Daniel Phillips: Welcome To The Orange West, a prescient exhibition of hyper realistic charcoal and graphite drawings which quietly sunder relics of collective nostalgia. Phillips, an artist best known for his evocative large format portraits of people at society’s fringe, found himself necessarily responsive to those queries warranted by Schutz’s painting earlier this year. Welcome To The Orange West is a continuation of Phillips investigations into the documentation of elusive narratives—yet marks a conscious re-examination of artistic culpability, historic ownership, and the hollowness of western romanticization.

In these new works, Phillips forgoes portraiture entirely, pairing early reference materials from the early 1900’s with drawings of abandoned signage from along Route 66. Currently located in Tulsa as a Tulsa Artist Fellow, Phillips has been culling public archives and roadside relics from Oklahoma’s formational period as a method for parsing major events from the state’s history: the early oil boom, the purposeful extermination of American bison, and the land run.

“I’m really interested in nostalgia and how this nostalgia—our white washed or rose-tinted view of the past—affects the way we think about our future”, says Phillips, “We’re living in a very fascinating period right now where we have just elected a president based on the idea of returning to a notion of the past. In the midst of that conversation I think there is a lot of room to re-examine, for the first time, what that past is.”

In Working Man’s Friend (2017), a crinkling arrow with limp fluorescent tubing denotes “used cars”, a phrase which partially obscures its earlier identity for “FREE PARKING” that has resurfaced after years of weathered erasure. Mounted below, a faded square sign near imperceptibly declares “the working man’s friend” on it’s torn surface. NY Hookah Lounge (2017) proceeds similarly; isolate amid white expanse, the roadside totem has been excavated and stripped by the sun. Only does the full-scale cast horse chained to its base posit temporal resistance: with its front hooves splayed majestically immobile, the plastic beast infinitely whinnies into the sky.

“I find these signs to be this amazing metaphor for our collective cultural history—particularly this part of the country. They’ve had multiple owners and multiple identities built into them; histories which are on the surface and underneath”, says Phillips, “The signs are these apocalyptic posts from a past which is our truthful past. They aren't the shiny version of what was initially created, they are the actual rust and decaying result. I find them really compelling.”

Stylistically similar to Richard Avedon’s seminal portraits of western type casts In The American West (1979), Phillips has employed a starkly blank background and referentially high-noon lighting situation which effectively thrusts his subjects forward. Like “islands”, an advertising term for images that appear in the middle of page spreads, these meticulously rendered roadside monuments hover with near photographic realism at the center of the composition.

As in Phillips Sirloin Steakhouse (2017), the use of a high contrast, seamless background works well to psychologically displace his subject from temporal constraints and inferred meaning by omitting its original context. Texture, detail, surface quality, and expression are illuminated. For Avedon, this sort of surface-centered depiction of people ultimately reduces the human form to a condition of surface; his is a glamorized conception of the American West whose subjects fulfill, or emulate, stereotypical roles of western settlement and fantasy. Phillips has negotiated a documentation of westernization whose evocation and subjective stance is emotively similar to Avedon’s but which he has parsed conscious of his personal nostalgia.

“I’ve reached this point of realization that the lines between disaster porn and narrative, or exploitation and art, are more and more difficult to walk.” Says Phillips, “How do I be an outsider but also talk about my own history? This work is as much about my history as a white man in the United States. How do I come to terms with my own culpability and also tell my story within these stories which are very much about other communities? I want to tell stories without speaking over someone’s voice—I want people’s own narratives to be told.”

Phillip’s use of the weathered road signs as visual equivalencies for polemical issues allows for an unburdened re-examination of these historical narratives. The topographic denigration of these weathered advertisements signals a looking back to original identities, layered histories, and the physical masking of a space’s original ownership.

A particularly poignant documentation of the economic challenges faced by Tulsa, these monuments loom in Phillips work not as beaming tokens of small-town nostalgia, but as silent markers of what has come to be.

“It’s funny, the way in which we hold these things up—this history of westward movement, the pioneer, and westward expansion in the United States—you know, “cowboys and indians—it’s all very much glamorized. If you ask most people who voted for Trump in the election what their idea of making America great again was, what period they would look at, it’s a Norman Rockwell painting. It’s neon lights and the ice cream parlor. That history was not the reality. It’s a homogenized ideal of our past that is completely invented.”

The most surprising work in the exhibition is Then Your Plain Will Be Speckled With Cattle (2017). Breaking from the established nomenclature of physically encoded signage, Phillips has animated a series of drawings of the American bison in the semblance of an Eadweard Muybridge photographic sequence. In it, a single buffalo runs perpetually on loop, it’s bounding steps regaling it infinitely backwards through whiteness.  

FEATURE: Joel Daniel Phillips: Welcome to the Orange West. Originally published 10.1.2017, Nashville Arts Magazine. 

Joel Daniel Phillips,  Deb’s Cafe  (2017) Charcoal & Graphite on Paper, 30in x 44in

Joel Daniel Phillips, Deb’s Cafe (2017) Charcoal & Graphite on Paper, 30in x 44in

Demetrius Oliver: Aeriform


REVIEW * Demetrius Oliver: Aeriform. Published 9.1.2017, Nashville Arts Magazine

Seed Space gallery debuts Demetrius Oliver: Aeriform, an installation which poetically ruptures the dimensionality of sculpture through deft aesthetic gestures. The New York-based artist is best known for his use of prosaic materials in improvisatory and site-specific installations about atmospheric phenomenon—what he refers to as a process of “suggestion”. Aeriform is a continuation of Oliver’s metaphoric consideration of everyday materials to envision abstract experiences.

In this site-specific installation, Oliver reinterprets material and sculptural elements occurring in his previous work within the constraints and limitations of the gallery space. The motif of a storm shutter reoccurs in this work as an obstructing barrier; Oliver has nailed a clear industrial storm shutter to the exterior of the doorframe, effectively barring entry into the exhibition space. It’s thickly corrugated surface disperses light from a single fixture above. Immediately on the other side of the ridged shutter an iridescent cast-resin air turbine sits just below eye level on a thin steel pedestal—it’s lowest shelf is occupied by a chrome turbine of the same size.

In a poetic and frustrating conflation of screened visibility and limited physical access, Oliver, through disabling the only function of the doorway—a mechanism for transitioning into a new space—has transparently rendered the entrance symbolic and obsolete. Viewers spatially orient themselves several feet from the entry of the gallery, viewing Oliver’s sculptural intervention in context of its extended environment, an action which effectively shifts the physical domain of the gallery beyond the space it normally occupies.

An astute example of Oliver’s penchant for materiality, the use of the storm shutter curiously situates Aeriform as both photographic and sculpturally resonant. Sealing the work along a two dimensional plane, the shutter visually flattens the physical space the work occupies, but in it’s tracslueceny, recalls the foreseeable depth of the room beyond. Likewise, the close proximity of the figurative sculpture to the other side of the shutter denotes a sense of unresolved confrontation—compelled to approach the sculptural piece which domineers the frame, we are unable to occupy the same space and our vision is impaired by a screen.

Oliver’s poeticism in Aeriform arrives from a series of concise denials; the space is unenterable, the door frame is closed, the storm shutter mediates our pure vision of the sculptural work behind it, and the air turbines do not move. His allusion to the conduction and preservation of air through the turbines and the sealed storm shutter denotes an expectancy, or resolve, of possible functionality, yet it is still, and unburdened by real-life application. The final resonance of Aeriform is like much of Oliver’s work; singular, lyrical, and with imperceptible depth.

Demetrius Oliver: Aeriform is on exhibit at Seed Space August 5th — September 23, 2017.  


Women Painting Women: In Earnest, Reconciling the Future of a Medium


FEATURE * Women Painting Women: In Earnest, Reconciling the Future of a Medium. Originally published 8.1.2017


At the back of the bar hangs an expansive gold framed mirror. It’s surface illuminates an indelible assortment of colored glass bottles that have crowded at it’s edge; in its reflection, the gaze of a young woman seated alone at the bar is revealed. She sits with her back to us, hand poised mid-gesture above a drawing, her gaze considering at once both her own visage and her irrevocable encounter with us, the viewers.  

The painting, The Purity of Imagination and Color (2014) by Leslie Adams, is one of forty paintings featured in the premiere exhibition of Women Painting Women: In Earnest at the Customs House Museum in Clarksville, August 1 through October 1, 2017. Curated by Alia El-Bermani, in association with Diane Feissel, Co-Founders and Curators of Women Painting Women, and Terri Jordan, Curator of Exhibits at Customs House, the exhibition features the work of thirty current female artists whose provocations on the tradition of the medium are specific to the experiential and emotional veracity of contemporary women, as artists and immanent subjects.

“Women have been painted since paintings have been made—from cave paintings forward women have appeared as major subjects in Western art history, but it doesn't seem like we've seen a very broad representation of what women are”, said El-Bermani, “It's been primarily women as object of desire—and we're so much more than that.”

How does she envision herself? This is the latent inquiry posited by Adam’s reflective portrait of the young woman seated at the bar. Can a contemporary portrait of woman be exacted bereft of its original convention? It is a compelling question which has guided, and implicitly been answered, by over a dozen international exhibitions of Women Painting Women since it’s inception in 2009.  

Manifest as a matter of discourse between founders and painters Sadie Jernigan Valeri, Alia El-Bermani, and Diane Feissel following their encounter with a Sotheby’s auction and exhibition entitled “Women in Art”, but which did not include a single female artist, their conversation has continued to facilitate a contemporary imaging of women through art as social practice, curatorial-conceptual methodology, and a blog of the same name.

“We are trying to promote the work of contemporary living female artists that primarily paint the female form and, specifically, not in a sexualized mode” said El-Bermani, “How do women see themselves, not just through the male gaze? It’s beyond just our sexuality and our sexual avilable-ness”.

In the current socio-political climate wherein delineations on gender can be increasingly complex, and connoted with extremist typecasts of any overarching inclination, there is a certain stigma that can be associated when an exhibition specifies itself through gender. It is a systemic inclination to assume an exhibition of women artists is, or should be, overtly yonic or subjectively concerned with gender. However, El-Bermani is acutely aware of this—perhaps because it is a social condition not dissimilar from the historicized role of the woman as subject. She says, “ saying “women painting women” we're not only saying that the subject is women, but that the painting itself is important, the work. It creates more of a thematic than a gendered exhibition”.

Following nearly a decade of Women Painting Women, the premiere of In Earnest at the Customs House denotes a marked—and somewhat politically fortuitous—acceleration of it’s intent.

Where previous exhibitions had been curated primarily by hosting galleries, and as such, ostensibly concerned with “sellable” artworks, In Earnest is the culmination of curatorial efforts by El-Bermani and Feissel which began nearly three years ago. A compelling and masterful exhibition of contemporary painting, this show is a fervent display of works whose content has been considered exclusively for its subjective intent, not its potential commercial viability.

“In Women Painting Women: In Earnest, we wanted to show works that have deeper content, that are coming from the heart of the artist”, said El-Bermani, “Sometimes those ideas and feelings can be kind of harsh and not pretty and not easily sellable. But as soon as you take that price tag off a work, you can say so much more—It just gives the artist more freedom.”

Demonstrably, a number of the works on exhibit are on loan from private collections, but a majority of the paintings are for sale. In this regard, In Earnest proffers viewers a unique opportunity to consider high-caliber works by a diverse group of contemporary female painters disparate from commercial oversight.

Situationally politicized by current events and market-specific tendencies, Women Painting Women: In Earnest is an inspiriting and unadulterated exhibition of precisely what it has defined itself to represent; it is an evocative reconciling for the future of a medium unburdened by gender, market, or opportunity, and whose import is underscored by the prodigiously talented artists it represents.  

Following it’s premiere at  Customs House (August 1 - October 1) Women Painting Women will travel to the J. Wayne Stark Galleries at Texas A&M, where it will on exhibit through the end of the year.

For more information:

Customs House Museum:

Women Painting Women:

Ali Cavanaugh,  Effect  (2015), fresco, 16 x 20 inches

Ali Cavanaugh, Effect (2015), fresco, 16 x 20 inches

Leslie Adams,  The Purity of Imagination and Color  (2014) oil on linen, 40x40 inches

Leslie Adams, The Purity of Imagination and Color (2014) oil on linen, 40x40 inches

Nashville Art Crawl (April): Mild Climate & Zeitgeist Gallery


Grey pools, a few self-conscious attempts at commodity sculpture; the monthly art crawl in the burgeoning Wedgewood-Houston arts neighborhood in Nashville premiered its April edition this past Saturday, April 1st, replete with an orthodoxy of muted pastels, tacked wall prints, and gestural paintings—all the makings of a proper, albeit disparate, arts district.

Among a number of events on April 1st was the closing of Corner Palace at the artist-run curatorial collective Mild Climate. One of the more convincing shows in Nashville this past month, Corner Palace featured artists Bridget Bailey, Douglas Degges, and John Dickinson, all of whose scale-oriented works smartly implicated the constraints of the tiny exhibition space. In particular, Dickinson’s aptly named Yellow Pool (2016) and Grey Pool (2016), two low relief sculptures made of silicone, laminate, and MDF, which were haphazardly displayed in the center of the room like two displaced geological survey’s or personified shrouds, anchored the show.

The subtlety in detail and nuance of overall color in Dickinson’s work elevated the experience of these “pools” from what could have otherwise been formal or material studies to a curious reinterpretation of object spatiality. Here, Dickinson configures scale as a linear concept, permitting these two shapes to be seen as either amplifications or reductions from an original form.

In this regard, the “pools” could be interpreted as memory-objects autonomous from real life, derived from the internalized oneiric house; a late mid-century concept by Gaston Bachelard (averse to structuralism) which imbues architectural spaces with psychological significance.

Bailey’s and Degges’ pieces also approach these ideas of spatiality, but are less abstracted from their real life applications. For instance, in Bailey’s Kitchen Table - Floor - Bed - Socks (2017) the silicone socks, although disorienting in their smaller-than-life size, do not push conceptual boundaries, and while Degges’ small black canvas reliefs imply a number of conceivable perspectives (outer space, memory, etc.), they are limited by their inherent status as hanging-paintings-on-a-white-wall. Conceptually and stylistically, I wondered, are these not just inverted and miniaturized Rauschenberg white paintings? Regardless, Mild Climate, in a deft display of contemporary conceptual-curating, succinctly designed an aesthetic experience that converged on a spatial thematic.

In a similar vein, At Home at Zeitgeist Gallery, which held it’s reception April 1 and will be open until April 29, also featured a number of paintings and prints that recalled mid-century stylistic sentiments.

Featuring local and national artists Ky Anderson, Amelia Briggs, Rami Kim, Vicki Sher, Jessica Simorte, Sonnenzimmer, Sarah Boyts Yoder, and art & design retailer Wilder, the show was a comprehensive introduction to gestural works on paper, minimal constraints, and contemporary design aesthetics.

Amelia Briggs’ small fabric prints from her series "Small Green Plane” were a wise curatorial choice and worked well to break up the mass of large gestural paintings. At 14″x14″ and housed within thin white frames, Briggs’ muted prints of partially erased—or intentionally incomplete—illustrations retained a level of conflicting austerity in what would otherwise could have been playful drawings. On first encounter the works are reminiscent of early 20th Century animated cartoons, yet maintain no particular image or recognizable form that would indicate this. Rather, this effect is produced from the quality of line and indicated action within the frame. Ambiguously specific, Briggs’ prints surreptitiously engage the viewer in content that is not there, letting the viewer complete the image for her.

In a similar palette, Sonnenzimmer’s series of screen prints were a showcase of technical mastery and precision not seen elsewhere that night. Graphic in nature, the prints recall the experimental visual language of Tibor Kalman, a hyper-sensitivity to contemporary nostalgia, and a design aesthetic conscious of the eventual digitization of all print matter. Seen through the lens of graphic design, these works are pure aesthetic candy. In terms of curatorial context, they don’t easily serve to enhance a conceptual agenda or interact visually with any of the other work shown. They did however, in their proximity, broach a consideration for contemporary “gestural” painting as a graphic impulse, and implicate works on paper as being consciously produced for a digital interface.

Although gestural in genre and constructed with the accoutrement of the subconscious mind—unframed canvas, raw edges, sweeping paint strokes, splashes—the majority of paintings and acrylic collages included in At Home felt decidedly constrained and calculated, graphic even. The contemporary inclination to paint in this manner begs inquiry; are these types of works simply a study in formal and technical properties? Do they serve a fundamental aesthetic purpose? Or more so, are works like these born from a confirmation of “recognizable art”, wherein, because they embrace a previously established visual cannon, they are comfortable choices for exhibitions?

Interestingly, Mild Climate and Zeitgeist Gallery represent a microcosm of contemporary art both in terms of aesthetic inclinations and foreseeable agenda’s. Particularly at a point in time where galleries struggle to stay open and increasingly, a person’s interaction with art is mediated or exclusive to a screen, galleries exhibit work that is familiar and purchasable. How do you sell a psycho-spatially concerned silicone yellow pool? It is more agreeable to gaze luxuriously at fields of color.

REVIEW Mild Climate & Zeitgeist Gallery, April Art Crawl. 4.10.2017

John Dickinson  Yellow Pool  (2016), Bridget Bailey  Kitchen Table-Floor-Bed-Socks  (2017), Douglas Degges  Barbara White  (2015)

John Dickinson Yellow Pool (2016), Bridget Bailey Kitchen Table-Floor-Bed-Socks (2017), Douglas Degges Barbara White (2015)

Review: Midnight Rainbow


There is something decidedly compelling and emotional about a faux wood paneled digital alarm clock. Four digits beam seven segment LED figures, recalling dated bedrooms in muted tones and economy aesthetics. In deference of kitsch, nostalgia!

This is my initial reaction to Michael E. Stephen’s tower of intermittently blinking identical alarm clocks at Midnight Rainbow, a solo exhibition featuring Stephen’s work at Pump Project, a nonprofit 501(c)3 art complex in East Austin.

Here, a multitudinous singular alarm clock, recently classified relic of temporal restraints, collected by the artist and stacked linearly up from the floor, a disarray of dark brown cords tethering it to the wall.

I used to have that alarm clock!”, reverberated.

The piece, Untitled (2016) proves a rather poignant summation of the show. As found object artworks implicitly do, the piece re-contextualizes a familiar everyday item(s) within the presumably disparate art viewing context. Form, function, viewing relationships, and aesthetic qualities transmute.  Stephen recalls and repeats a normalized commodity—the alarm clock—from two decades earlier, selective for its archetypal qualities. It is an object so deeply imbued with personal nostalgias and cultural reverence that it acts as both a signifier for individual histories and a pictorial icon. Psychological experience and cognitive recognition are simultaneously affirmed.

Similarly, “Midnight Rainbow, golden era” (2016), namesake piece of the exhibition title, implicates analog Video Home System (or VHS) as another dated consumer level technology re-contextualized.

Didactically speaking, “Midnight Rainbow, golden era” is a blank High Grade Polaroid VHS cassette plated in 24k gold. It is displayed on a white shelf at standard pedestal viewing. Its resonance is nearly identical to that of the alarm clock piece; nostalgia, formal interest, amplification of early technologies, and visual fetishization are recurring motifs.

However, Stephen’s use of gold plating implicates a separate, market based system of value, not dissimilar from that of medieval religious icons in which works were quantified by the significance of devotional icons represented and amount of gold present in the work. Through application of a rarified market material, Stephen disavows the real life application of the VHS, it’s ability to hold visual information, and ultimately elevates the VHS’s worth as a commodified art object.

This type of value exchange of the found object by the artist also recalls commodity sculpture of the 1980’s, a variation on the “found object”, wherein commercially mass produced items are arranged in an art gallery as sculpture. Supposing that Stephen recalled this mode of working through use of 80’s-centric-objects delineates a retroactive mode of practice which, although interesting contemporaneously, seems intellectually underwhelming.   

The remainder of work in Midnight Rainbow likewise proceeds as such; a cast black rose composited of incinerated blank VHS cassettes and diamond dust hangs upside down on the back wall, a large black frame contains the tiny white fleck of an auctioned “piece of moon”, and—nearly out of sight—a 4x6 image of Elvira and a preserved giant moth occupy the only space in the middle of a white wall. Hanging some ten feet up, I saw this only upon exiting.

Cold Black (2016), is perhaps the most spatially interesting work. Two nearly pristine 80’s RCA VHS video cameras on thin tripods stand facing each other in the center of the room, their open lenses pressed together to hold a single, square, reflective black pane. With mirroring already enforced by the physical reality of the two RCA video cameras facing each other, the black glass engages a nearly theatrical iteration of mirroring, the individual camera’s each reflected once more onto themselves. Although the formal effect is appealing, it’s functionality does not corroborate conceptually; one cannot help but sigh heavily at yet another overwrought aesthetic illusion.

While the exhibition retains all the nuanced austerity of contemporary aesthetic glory; sparse while walls, restrained artwork inclusion (Midnight Rainbow was comprised of a total of five pieces), limited didactic information, and off kilter curatorial spatial organization, the overarching result of the exhibition is that of an expensive parenthetical Craigslist acquisition, wherein aestheticized 80’s artifacts have been collected, re-commodified, plated in gold, framed in glass, and re-cast with diamonds. Stephen’s concise amalgamation for eighties video lore and cultish tendencies is certainly worth seeing, if not for the sheer anthropological quest of it all.

White walls!”, reverberate.

REVIEW Midnight Rainbow, 9.15.2016

Michael E. Stephen,  Midnight Rainbow (golden era) , blank Polaroid (High Grade) VHS cassette plated in 24k gold

Michael E. Stephen, Midnight Rainbow (golden era), blank Polaroid (High Grade) VHS cassette plated in 24k gold