When I first read the press release about Living on the Edge, I thought it was going to be an exhibition of homeless people’s artwork — an intriguing theme for an art show. Reading closer, I realized that Living on the Edge is an exhibition by two Asheville artists — Chloe Kemp and James Daniel — intended to raise awareness around issues of homelessness and Pisgah Legal Services, the nonprofit that provides legal assistance to low-income people.
I admit I was skeptical. I was worried that this would be some kind of sentimental, objectified representation of poverty coming from a detached perspective. At their worst, art shows on a mission to enlighten the masses can get overly sensationalized and didactic, with the message taking precedence and the art compromised.
Fortunately my fears were unfounded. Living on the Edge confronts the viewer in an understated way and is more than just a token documentation of homelessness. This is not a feel-good show that’s easy to love. The exhibit can be hard, emotionally, to walk through, but often the best art is the kind we want to turn away from.
Most striking, upon entering the gallery, is a tent splayed open to reveal few creature comforts — a pink stuffed bunny, some food containers, a sleeping bag. In this context, the materials looked out of place. A video monitor placed above the tent streams testaments by homeless people who tell the tales of events leading to their situations.
Produced by Kemp, the video is not a slick production, and the lighting and sound quality are shaky at times. Still, it offers an honest glimpse at how close homelessness is to many of us: lost job, foreclosure, illness … homelessness is not just something that happens to “them.” More importantly, the video gives voice to the subjects of the exhibit, so they aren’t just faces on the gallery walls.
The voices in the video followed me as I walked through the gallery and studied the elegant drawings and paintings by Daniel, who is known for his classical realist work. Each face is densely rendered, while clothing (a parka or a hoodie) is created with single strokes in charcoal, graphite or paint. I was most drawn to the portrait of “Happy,” a man who has survived Hurricane Katrina (his son didn’t), diabetes, a spider bite and the loss of his right leg. Luckily, Happy was recently able to secure a monthly disability stipend.
Talking with Xpress, Kemp admitted her surprise at how much attention her video had received on the opening night of the exhibition. “There was a very emotional response,” said Kemp. “But what’s had the biggest impact on me is how invisible and forgotten some of these people feel and how relieved they were to have their story told.”
About Pisgah Legal Services: For more than 33 years, PLS has provided free civil legal services to very low-income people. PLS works to help people avoid homelessness, escape domestic violence, access health care and secure subsistence income. For more information, visit http://www.pisgahlegal.org.
Living on the Edge hangs through September at The Asheville Area Arts Council’s Artery gallery at 346 Depot St. in the River Arts District. More at http://www.ashevillearts.com.