In Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a shiny black monolith appears to a group of prehistoric apes. The monolith communicates with the apes, and they learn how to use tools, and eventually evolve into human beings.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, and the monolith reappears in Louisville with the smell of warm alfalfa hay.
In the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft’s “Hollers and Harvests” exhibit, six hay bales are stacked on a minimalist pedestal and artfully lit. They make up conceptual artist Russel Hulsey’s “Kentucky Monolith 2012.”
Get a little closer and you hear this monolith communicating, too. It’s a quiet invitation rendered in digital audio. A voice whispers, “Hey …. Hey! Hey!”
“Come in closer, is the idea,” says Hulsey. “Let me tell you a secret. Let me speak to you something of the deep wisdom of the earth.”
The monolith is surrounded by folk art pieces from the museum’s collection, brightly-painted wooden objects depicting scenes and motifs from rural life. “Hollers and Harvests” explores the close ties folk artists have traditionally had with farming and agriculture. The exhibit opens during downtown’s First Friday Trolley Hop and runs through August 31.
A contemporary piece like Hulsey’s, appearing alongside a Noah Kinney wood carving of a man driving a horse-drawn sawmill cart pulling raw lumber, helps disrupt the expectations dividing contemporary art from folk art traditions.
“It’s a big gray area now,” says exhibit curator and Kentucky native Cecilia Adwell, a graduate student at California College of the Arts. “You have artists who are engaging with these aesthetics and techniques of traditional folk or craft, but may have a full education or have an MFA. They find these things interesting or have a family background in it.”
“The idea that these levels of art production need to be separated and need to be defined is being challenged by contemporary curators and contemporary artists,” she adds.
Though his techniques and tools are decidedly modern, Hulsey says the philosophical underpinnings of his works aren’t so far removed from folk art.
“(My aim is) to point more toward folk wisdom and to get people in a more contemplative space, thinking about the earth and how we as tool maker and tool users, human beings of the 21st century, how we can perhaps more responsibly and sustainably working in conjunction with the earth, rather than thinking somehow that we dominate it,” says Hulsey.
Inviting contemporary work like “Kentucky Monolith 2012” into the gallery with folk art pieces blurs the lines between art movements while solidifying the relevancy of the context in which rural folk artists worked. Issues surrounding agribusiness and sustainable farming were on Adwell’s mind as she selected works from the collection for the exhibit.
“These are people who are farmers, or were farmers, and then started engaging their art production when it was harder to make a substantial living out of farming, because the technology was changing and corporations were able to make food cheaper,” says Adwell.
“These artists might no longer be living around us, but we’re still dealing with these issues of agriculture and farming because our economic and cultural makeup is founded in agriculture and the natural resources this state provides.”