David S. Allee,
Stadium Light (The Bronx, N.Y.), 2002; Chromogenic print on sintra, Edition of 12, artist’s proof; Gift of the artist, 2005.01.01

Ask someone to name a few locales that are important to contemporary art and they’re likely to give you the usual suspects—New York, Paris, Berlin. Rarely would their thoughts lead them south of the Mason-Dixon line. “Currents: Recent Art from East Tennessee and Beyond,” now on view at the Knoxville Museum of Art, is a reminder that the area that gave us Beaufod Delaney (TN), Jasper Johns (GA), and the Black Mountain College (NC) is still tuned in to the art world today.

Having grown up in Knoxville, I’ll be the first to say that KMA’s offerings are a mixed bag that range from a moving exhibition of David Bates’s post-Katrina paintings to far less notable shows which usually sacrifice quality for a heavy emphasis on the regional. No doubt this variability comes with the territory of being a small art museum in a flyover state. That being said, in recent history the KMA has done an excellent job using its resources to bring quality art to East Tennessee including an Ai Weiwei solo show, a pleasing collection of contemporary Eastern European art, and this ongoing exhibition.

The collection of roughly two-dozen works (which continues to grow) has been diligently assembled by curator Stephen Wicks and is a diverse and engaging sample of contemporary work. A wide range of media is represented in the show, though the focus is primarily on painting, sculpture, and photography. While “Currents” is meant to have a local focus, many of the artists on display have only tenuous connections to the area (almost all now work in one of the traditional art centers of the world). Nonetheless, this is a strong body of contemporary work that is much needed in the Southeast.

Layers are of paramount importance to “Currents,” manifesting themselves in different forms throughout the show. The best photograph in the exhibit is undoubtedly David S. Allee’s Stadium Light (The Bronx, N.Y.) (2002). Peering across subway tracks through a gap in the walls of the old Yankee stadium, Allee uses ambient light and a long exposure to create movement. Spectral banners flap in the breeze while faceless patrons in the distance walk towards the exits of the emptying field. Our eye wanders from the emanating light of the baseball diamond to the blur of a car passing under the tracks and we squint as we try to make out the driver. Here, transportation, infrastructure, and diversion are laid one on top of the other and the viewer is cast as voyeur, peering through the nooks and crannies of concrete and steel to try and catch a glimpse of the eternally blurred lives that move throughout the frame.

Ulf Puder,
Baustopp, 2010; Oil on canvas; Purchased with funds provided by June and Rob Heller, Cathy and Mark Hill, Diane Humphreys-Barlow and Jack Barlow, Barbara and Bernard Bernstein, Andrea Cartwright and Alan Solomon, Len and Geoff De Rohan, Jayne and Myron Ely, Susan Sgarlat and Charles Fels, Kitsy and Lou Hartley, Carole and Robert Martin, Jennie and Albert Ritchie, Stuart Worden, and the KMA Guild, 2010.07.01

Exuding dark undertones and working in a different medium, Ulf Puder’s Baustopp (2010) similarly deals with layers of structures. An incomplete rail project (baustopp itself means that construction has been halted) cuts through the center of a small group of buildings—run down houses and an old church precariously balanced on the edge of a cliff. Hectic diagonals and the looming gap in the center of the track lend a sense of foreboding to the constantly-unstable scene. Puder has assembled his painting piece by piece, layer by layer, much as the dilapidated structures that are his subjects have been reworked as needed—new shutters here, a patch for the wall there. Puder’s work stayed with me for some time after leaving the show, and his smart choice of colors, strong verticals, and magnificent technique are reminiscent of John Dubrow if he painted in Leipzig instead of New York.

Giles Lyon,
Empire, 1997-2009; Acrylic and mixed media on canvas; Gift of the artist, 2010.06.01

The abstract works in the show are less strong, but Giles Lyon’s Empire (1997–2009) is an explosion of color and texture that draws the viewer in, lending itself to endless new discoveries as we explore the oversized canvas. Organic rainbow forms crash into one another, fighting for dominance in a field overlaid with limbs of greens and violets, themselves sprouting fractals which dissolve into the edges of the work. All this is covered with small pools of paint that grow out of the canvas—some several inches high. Many of these have been cut away at places to reveal the layered paint inside—sedimentary art that exposes the developed history of the piece. These mountains and valleys create a complex topography across this aesthetic map where red-orange canyons are bisected by periwinkle rivers in a truly engaging work.

Ridley Howard,
Starry Carpet, 2005; Oil on linen; Gift of Craig Jacobson, 2009.12.01

Not everything in the show is strong—A Type of Magic (2008) poorly experiments with layers and comes off as amateurish next to Lyon’s work. Similarly, collage-esque prints by Wade Guyton look outdated, reminiscent of Robert Rauschenberg’s Combines from the last century. Still, there is plenty to enjoy here. Imaginative sculptures by Chris Jones take inspiration from traditional stories and American history, putting an environmental spin on them in a move that has gained popularity recently. Also strong is Ridley Howard’s Starry Carpet (2005)—a painting of a couple in a cold embrace in a hotel hallway—which renders the viewer uncomfortable both in its sterility and the sense of loss that permeates the work. With a perspective set just around the corner, we feel guilty having caught the subjects’ in the hallway—an empty moment with its pseudo intimacy. Claims of locality aside, “Currents” is an excellent show that is well worth the trip should you find yourself in East Tennessee. 

“Currents: Recent Art from East Tennessee and Beyond” opened at the Knoxville Museum of Art, Knoxville, Tennessee on November 9, 2012 and is an ongoing exhibition.