It has perhaps become a truism that an artist’s work is influenced by the place in which it is created. But the current exhibit at Swanson Contemporary explores regional artists whose relationships with the places they live go far beyond mere influence.
“Cardinal Moments: Regional Artists on the Periphery from Found to Folk,” celebrates those artists “who have forged their lives on the periphery” and who explore “ideas that are both distinct and unavoidable to everyday life in the Ohio Valley.”
Curated by Nathan Hendrickson and Thaniel Ion Lee, the exhibit features works by 16 local and regional artists that couldn’t possibly have been made anywhere else, whether due to the materials used, the creative constraints imposed by living away from a major art center or, just as often, their inverse: the artistic freedoms afforded by life on the periphery.
The “found” component of the title is amply represented by the assemblage works that feature prominently in the show, and fittingly: since the artists are using elements they find in their environments, these pieces give us immediate insight into their worlds.
Hendrickson says the defunct payphone stand at the center of Matt McCarron’s Land Line Frequency Weapon was given to the artist by a friend in “some kind of anarchist commune-type situation” and the work indeed reflects a kind of ecstatic Armageddon bursting with American pop culture ephemera: neon graffiti and puffy paint daisies, skulls and Polaroids, Little Debbie adverts and cigarette packets, Saddam Hussein playing cards and plastic Happy Meal figurines. It’s a work so rooted in time and place that it leaves no question as to where McCarron is calling from.
Jacque Parsley’s smaller-scale assemblages offer a window into a quieter, more domestic place, though they draw us in with a power and an immediacy that’s just as strong as McCarron’s. In her pieces Animals Are Our Friends. Be Kind. and Faerie Teaching The Birds To Sing, Parsley incorporates vintage children’s book illustrations, cancelled postage stamps, cherubic doll heads, ceramic figurines of woodland creatures, dime-store rickrack, seashells and sequins and charms to evoke childhood afternoons spent in an antique shop or a grandmother’s attic, those sanctuaries of nostalgia where imagination and whimsy find safe haven.
Though sharing a similar process, the visual contrast to these two artists couldn’t be greater than in the natural assemblages of Albertus Gorman, who uses his regular walks along the Falls of the Ohio to collect the trash and debris that form his work: discarded Styrofoam, bits of plastic, pieces of driftwood worn smooth by the river. In Gorman’s hands they are transformed into delightfully whimsical figures, some animal-like and others more human.
Significantly, those included in “Cardinal Moments” are birds — specifically birds like the stilt-legged plovers that make their homes on the shores of the Ohio River. In this way, Gorman is not merely mining the land for raw materials, but for inspiration as well: creating his own Styrofoam simulacrum of the co-inhabitants of his landscape, developed through a dedicated and prolonged investigation of the world around him.
What’s more, Gorman does all his assemblage mere feet from where he sources his materials; the river’s shore is his only studio. This is where most of the work stays, carefully arranged as if in a site-specific installation, its existence threatened by flooding from the moment he situates it along the shore. And so it is that the river that brings Gorman the raw materials for his creations is the very same river that will eventually destroy the transfigured fodder. Artist and place are inextricably bound, engaged in a perpetual dialog that evolves as slowly and subtly as the river itself.
This resourcefulness is evident everywhere in the show. Maybe it’s the product of our agrarian heritage, or just a compulsion to take what others disregard and use it to forge something new and beautiful. It is testament to the intrinsic human desire to create as well as the ingenuity and persistence of the regional artists who do so despite the creative constraints that can come with living outside the country’s cultural centers.
Sue Martinez, for example, found herself creating board games for her children when the family couldn’t afford the mass-produced versions sold in stores. Her first outputs were straightforward reproductions of traditional games like checkers and parcheesi, but her work quickly evolved as she began altering the games’ principles, inventing new and more complex rules and structures.
The instructions for her piece Tax-see, a board game painted on plywood, note “the name is spelled to sound like the folks on New York city streets hailing a cab… Tax-zeeeeeeee!” and hints that the folksy homespun visual quality of the work belies a more sophisticated self-awareness. Martinez is worldly enough to have observed New Yorkers’ particular way of hailing cabs (in pre-Uber days, that is), but comfortable enough with her identity as regional outsider to regard these urbanites as just “folks” and to subvert the challenges of their daily commutes into a playful game for children.
After her children grew up, Martinez realized she didn’t have to limit herself to games, that she could paint the people and places important to her life, as in her piece Aida Makes A Beautiful Home For Her Family. But she continues to work on plywood, using leftover scraps given to her by her son who works in construction, or the broken boards she scavenges from the bin of damaged wood at her local Home Depot. “Canvas is the same every time,” Martinez says. “Plywood has its own texture, its own personality. Each piece of wood gives me an idea.”
This theme of working with what you’re given, along with what the curators describe as the artists’ “ethnographic fidelity to keeping their eyes open” permeates the entire show, from Mark Anthony Mulligan’s playful renderings of the signs and storefronts he observes riding the city bus, to Donna Sherley’s reimagining of The Louisville Yellow Pages as her own artist’s book, crammed with colorings, doodles and collaged images ripped from catalogs.
In these artists’ hands, the detritus of the everyday becomes not something to discard or ignore but something to work with. They are acting on an internal desire to create and to respond to the world around them, plumbing the depths of this periphery for their own personal satisfaction, and with a sort of admirable disregard for whatever is going on in the major art centers. They are not editing their work for some broader commercial audience, nor altering it to speak to the current trending topics.
Rather, they have found in art a way to navigate the challenges of daily life, and to grapple with questions about identity and place, gender and race, work and family and the environment — all as they relate to their own lived experience, in a way that makes sense to them. What results are pieces that feel deeply personal and revealing, more honest and open and vulnerable than the works favored by the country’s commercial arbiters of art. And yet in offering up their particular response, the artists manage to achieve something of the universal.
Perhaps the most engaging and nuanced works of the show are two pieces by Cynthia Norton: a video (Ninnie Naive) embedded within a homespun altar to modern celebrity and regional resourcefulness. A small TV/VCR combo, draped in a piece of cheap white lace and resting on a mass-produced rug, holds her Instrument For A Nervous Breakdown (Classic Reserve), a homemade banjo fashioned from a worn-out tennis racquet and an old leather case containing a small silver cocktail shaker.
On the TV screen, impromptu interviews of hometown characters with clothing and technology that places them somewhere in the early 1990s and black-and-white footage of early country music stars are crudely pieced together using the static glitching characteristic of the poor reception in rural areas of Kentucky, where Norton’s family is from.
Anchoring these clips are performances by Norton’s alter ego, Ninnie, an aspiring country music star whose off-key warbling is alternatingly cringe-worthy and captivating. Ninnie doesn’t address the camera but instead seems to be lost in a personal reverie, singing for her own satisfaction, and so she evades easy identification as either rube or genius, resisting both our pity and our applause.
Were the video presented in a digital format, we might assume that Ninnie is willingly submitting herself to the YouTube public, ready to risk rejection and ridicule in the hopes of achieving instant celebrity. But because the VHS tape is more limited in its reproduction and circulation, Ninnie’s performance takes on an intimate and almost voyeuristic quality as she sings her interpretations of old Appalachian murder ballads in the (recorded) privacy of her living room.
If Ninnie were a real person, her work would fit seamlessly within the show as more proof of the regional artist’s earnest inventiveness. And yet the fact that Ninnie is a creation of real-life regional artist Cynthia Norton introduces another layer of complexity and ambiguity. Norton is keen to engage in a critical dialog with the culture that formed her, appropriating from it at the same time she challenges its attitudes toward women, celebrity and parochial clichés.
Hers is a dialog that explores questions about who and where we are, about what we do with the resources we have been given. And it’s a dialog that’s given voice and sustained by shows like “Cardinal Moments” — equal parts dynamic and rooted, outward-looking and introspective, and with an unvarnished exuberance that gives us the uncanny sense we have somehow arrived at the center of everything.
Swanson Contemporary is located at 638 E. Market Street, Louisville. “Cardinal Moments” runs through August 10.