A new exhibition opens this week at the Speed Art Museum’s satellite gallery in Nulu. “We’ll Wear a Jolly Crown” examines some of the big themes in American art – life, death, identity – through the work of a small and focused group of artists selected by Lexington-based artist and curator Aaron Skolnik.
(The exhibition’s title refers to the lyrics of a Beat Happening song, “Indian Summer.”)
“It’s a small group of works, and that’s intentional,” says interim chief curator Scott Erbes. ”Aaron really wanted to give each work some space to breathe and to really encourage people to stop and look, rather than the habit even I get into, which is going from work to work to work when they’re lined up on a wall.”
John Knuth is one of the show’s five artists. He’s based in Los Angeles, and he uses an unusual tool to create his paintings – flies. A video explaining Knuth’s process is on display along with two paintings. Knuth breeds the flies specifically for his project, feeds them a mixture of sugar water and pigment, and encloses them in a space that includes canvas. Their regurgitated pigmented water on canvas creates the work.
“Which sounds curious, but he’s interested in the idea of the artists’ control over materials and giving up that control,” says Erbes. “It also deals with ideas of our attempts to control other species and the idea that you really can’t do that entirely. He’s also talked about his work being almost metaphors for urban life in the 21st century, just chaos, things moving around, thousands of individuals each doing different things, and that’s playing into the work as well.”
A selection from a series by Louisville’s own Stephen Irwin, who passed away in 2010, explores the connections between impermanence and memory. The pieces use vintage pornography from the 1960s and ‘70s which Irwin then altered by erasing portions of the images until they no longer resemble the original photographs.
“He was a well-known artist here in Louisville, and is still very well-regarded after his death,” says Erbes. “It was important to Aaron to represent his work and to us, too.”
Three self-portraits by Trenton Doyle Hancock (“A rising star in contemporary art,” says Erbes) explore the artist’s own identity in the context of the mythological landscape and narrative the artist has created in recent works.
“A lot of his work will have certain influences or references to Biblical stories. His father was a preacher, so you see that element coming into his work,” says Erbes. “But it is very expressionistic, and I think it does encourage some close looking and some time spent with what you’re seeing to try to understand what each of these images, what they have to tell us about the artist.”
Recent University of Kentucky graduate Aurora Parrish also examines identity within mythology, through a series of ceramic sculptures titled “Weird Creatures on an Island.” Each piece is named after a person.
“[The series] is dealing with the fantastical imagination of adolescence, in a way. And so each of these works is seen as metaphor for an individual in one way or another,” Erbes says.
Bookending the exhibition are works by Lexington-based Louis Zoellar Bickett, a conceptual artist and photographer who is in the process of collecting, tagging and displaying items from his daily life in an ongoing project, “The Archive.” Opening the exhibition is a framed obituary from the Lexington Herald-Leader of artist Willem de Koonig, followed by an extensive textual catalog of the published obituaries of people who had an influence on Bicket’ss life.
“I think one of the other themes you’ll see in the some of the work here is the recontextualization or manipulation of materials or images, giving things a new context,” says Erbes. “In this case, an obituary cut out of a newspaper becomes something with greater meaning when you see it hanging on a gallery wall.”
The final piece in the exhibit is Bickett’s 1999 sculpture “Family Grave Dirt,” from the Speed’s collection. Bickett collected dirt from the graves of family members and people of personal significance into canning jars, which he tagged and lined up on a shelf.
“We are all the sum of many parts, of many identities that shape each of us. With this work, you see his interest in taking an archivist’s approach to the creation of works of art,” says Erbes.
The exhibition opens Friday during the First Friday Trolley Hop and runs through March 22 at Local Speed (822 E. Market St.). The East Market Street building serves as the museum’s satellite public exhibition and event space while the Speed’s main building is closed for its renovation and expansion project. This is the third exhibition hosted at Local Speed since the gallery opened in June.
“Coming down the road we’ll have an exhibition of French posters, mostly drawn from our collection, works that haven’t been exhibited before,” says Erbes. “And then later in the year, African pottery from our collection. Again, works that we didn’t have the chance to exhibit before we had to close for renovation so here’s the chance for people to see them for the first time.”