During the past year, DeSoto Lounge had an entire exhibition of taxidermied African beasts. The exhibit redrew, if only for a moment, the boundaries of fine craft and the decorative arts. Warren Wilson College featured a video performance installation by Chicago-based artist Jefferson Pinder that brought about a serious dialogue on individual upward mobility and American race relations. And two back-to-back exhibitions at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center cemented our city’s lineage to the Bauhaus movement.
Among Asheville’s galleries, studios and arts-savvy cafes and restaurants, 2013 brought a number of exhibitions, individual works and a one-night-only event that broke the mold and helped raise the standards for the local arts community. They ranged from traditional to unique, concept-driven to well-researched. Some were peculiar or triumphantly out of the ordinary, others were just plain simple and effective. A select few stood out for breaking the mold and for challenging both the viewers and other artists and makers.
Chas Llewellyn’s studio is filled with junk. Or so one might think. In reality, the piles of wire, rebar, steel and auto parts mounded like stalagmites in his Wedge studio are all works in progress. Back in March, Llewellyn, a techno-sculptural disciple of former Wedge Studios owner and kinetic artist John Payne, opened his workspace and brought one of those 10-foot-wide mounds of steel and circuitry to life. Junkatron, two years in the making, was exhibited for a one-night-only performance installation.
Junkatron lay in wait in the back left corner of Llewellyn’s barely-lit, cavernous studio. With a single tap from a multiscreened control panel, the entire space was plunged into total darkness. Operatic music rose out of speakers. Just as the eyes began to adjust, a light bulb flickered. Then another. Then four more. The lights bursts on and off like a visual chorus, fluctuating with the music and arcing from total darkness to rapid-fire illumination and back to black.
The piece can respond to a seemingly infinite number of audio tracks. And though Junkatron had a short run, Llewellyn plans to expand, recalibrate and show the piece again in due time.
The Philadelphia Story
While an exhilarating portrait show may seem like a misnomer, that’s exactly how the Asheville Art Museum’s spring exhibition, The Philadelphia Story: Contemporary Figurative Works Drawn from the Academy, should be described.
The show explored the aesthetic and conceptual reaches of the portrait in 40 works by former students of the nearly 200-year-old Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The academy has a historic reputation for its figurative artworks, according to Nancy Sokolove, the exhibition’s curator. Sokolove narrowed two centuries of focus and renown into just three decades, choosing contemporary works only.
Plenty of academy artists, says Sokolove, have excellent technical skills but don’t apply them creatively. Those represented in the exhibit took the academy’s formal, nonconceptual framework and translated it into creative and conceptual figurative works.
The Philadelphia Story offered not only a comparative view into the upper echelon of American figurative works but a glimpse at artists and works that have found the balance between ability and and creativity.
“I wanted to show that creativity coupled with excellent skills will equal dynamic work,” the curator said. The exhibition did have one glaring letdown: It was Sokolove’s last. She and her family have since moved to Georgia.
A mural by any other name
In August, San Francisco-based muralist Mona Caron spent a week in Asheville. Though it was a week of leisure, she wasted no time getting acquainted with some of Asheville’s muralists. And walls: Caron ended up leaving her mark on the side of Collaseable Studios on Haywood Road.
In a short few hours, she’d painted a small wildflower she found in a nearby parking lot. The green stalk rose out of a wispy, leafy base and reached 10 feet up the wall toward a small blue flower. She’s painted similarly invasive little weeds all over the country, sprouting them from sidewalks, cracks in walls and the tops of buildings.
Caron’s trip was also an opportunity to scope out Asheville as a potential new home. San Francisco is getting far too expensive for much of the city’s remaining arts community: That reality serves as a foundation for Caron’s wildflowers pop-ups.
“Every invasive species is a native somewhere,” she said. “Species” is synonymous with plant and artist. Both have the weedlike tendency of moving into and reshaping undesirable areas. “We have people from all over the world living here, painting, drawing, mixing their ideas. [Weeds] are the perfect emblem for this globalism,” Caron said.
Whole Earth Theory
In March, Asheville artists Valeria Watson-Doost and Jeremy Russell revived the censorship argument with their UNC Asheville joint exhibition, Whole Earth Theory: Dimensions of Life and Death. The show provoked institutional, academic and student responses to the work, brought on a discussion panel about the role of explicit art in academia and even garnered a warning sign on the gallery’s front door. Some would call it censorship, others a gentle reminder. And for some, a lure.
It was the best show of 2013.
Russell’s works played on social and psychological domineering by using materials and imagery often associated with poverty, sexuality and mob rule, such as four lynching victims, dildos and a makeshift shanty. Watson-Doost lined the wall with a drapery of photos, clothing, lingerie and toys focussed on confronting sexual orientation and repression.
But the exhibition’s most controversial piece, a wall-mounted, glass-fronted box that housed an assault rifle, wasn’t even in the show. It would have read “Break Glass In Case Of Crazy F—-,” much like a fire extinguisher box. Russell created the piece in the wake of several mass shootings. It served as a shrewd and exceedingly-clever response to the then-frontpage stories about the Second Amendment. Though the firing pin was removed, so the gun could not be fired, UNCA would not allow the piece, citing N.C. firearms laws.
— Kyle Sherard writes about visual arts for Xpress and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.