In organizing “In Celebration of Spring: A Show of Public Work,” I was interested in gathering artists whose work was designed to exist outside a gallery space. Artists who gear their work towards a public discourse must also rise to meet the aesthetic challenges posed by the world. There is a wonderful element of mystery and anonymity in art that appears in the public domain; the work exists in the world without the myth of the maker to accompany it and give it credence. This show mixes ideas ranging from the generosity of artists sharing delightful objects, to the vital public confrontation of political activism. The question of permanence is brought into play: how long is it intended to last before it is taken, destroyed or altered in some way? Taking the art out of the gallery space also exposes the work to a broader audience, whose interpretations may be more varied than those of a typical gallery audience.
Emerging Memphis artist Patrick Graves’ contribution to the show, Riverview, continues his exploration of the difference between nostalgia and what is present and real. His riverside sculpture positions the viewer looking through a window to a postcard of the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge, which is captured in an amazing sunset, a firestorm of pinks and oranges. Behind the postcard is the actual bridge in its banal gunmetal green-ness framed by an overcast, early spring day. This piece brings a new perspective to the way photographs serve as substitutes for real memories.
Since October of 1999, Madelon Galland has been conducting what she describes as “unauthorized art interventions” in New York City, covering city tree stumps with vinyl upholstery. While the upholstered stumps present themselves to the viewer as quiet conundrums, their bright red or seafoam green material, tacked down evenly around the fabric-trimmed border, makes them impossible to easily dismiss. They are upholstered in broad daylight and without permission. The artist extends an empathetic gesture — one of adorning and protecting — to that which has been harmed. The project redirects the public eye to an often overlooked part of the landscape.
Greely Myatt’s Street Corner Talking or Mimes on South Main features his familiar voice bubbles engaging in a public discourse. The series of three pieces set in different places along South Main features pedestals with poles holding the cartoon-like voice bubbles above the viewer’s head. The plywood for the bubbles, taken from salvaged signs, is richly weathered and creates a stark contrast to the crisp newness of the pedestals. The first piece is the site for a monologue: one bubble and three steps at the corner of South Main and Linden; the second is at the corner of South Main and Talbot with two steps and a debate between two voice bubbles; the last piece is at the corner of South Main and Calhoun, in the empty lot next to Earnestine and Hazel’s with a single, broad level playing host to three voice bubbles — a conversation of sorts. Myatt’s pieces provide a soapbox for the willing participant or the burgeoning art critic.
Whereas some work in the show is meant to last, some pieces are meant to be taken home by the viewer. Michigan artist Julie Purwin’s Cork Project involves scattering her tiny paintings all over the world. Her poetic, tender cork paintings that bear phrases like “the sound of rain” or “listen to the sky” are placed in out-of-the-way nooks to be found by the careful observer. The viewer has no knowledge about the maker, and the artist has no idea where the cork goes once it is discovered. One of her corks represents a rare, selfless act of giving in itself: lying on the window ledge of a coffee shop, it is a free transfer of thought.
Rhode Islander Todd Lambrix’s work focuses on his tendencies as a collector. Previous pieces include an oversized cabinet containing a drawer for each of the drawings he did in college and a piece called Requiem, a flat vitrine that held 1,086 tiny snail shells gathered near his grandmother’s house. His addition to the exhibition is two hollow copper spheres spun out of a copper sheet with the help of his father, a lifelong machinist. The numbered spheres read:
PLEASE MAIL THIS SPHERE TO:
15 SLIKER RD
CALIFON, NJ 07830 USA
YOU WILL BE REPAID.
Lambrix has no idea who will receive the sphere, or if it will be received at all.
For Chicago artist Ben Rubin’s newest project, he has gathered shooting targets used by the FBI, CIA and other law enforcement agencies. These posters are pasted around town and are paired with “innocent bystander” targets: an old man with an umbrella or an auto mechanic holding a wrench. The “bad guys” stand with guns pointed out, putting the viewer into a position of being the victim, while the innocent bystanders stare out at the viewer, frozen like deer in the headlights. The villains in their outdated acid-washed jeans and Ambervision glasses portray, in the harshest possible way, the unglamorous aspects of violence. The posters provide a stark contrast to the glamorous portrayal of violence seen in movies and on television.
When asked to participate in the exhibition, Chicago artist and political activist Josh Macaphee researched Memphis’ history of racial tension and the important role race has played in the city’s history. His position as an outsider raised certain concerns for the artist. “I didn’t want to be this white artist from the North coming down to Memphis acting like I knew what was going on, but then again I couldn’t be here and not talk about race.” His poster features a list of demands excerpted from a speech made by Dr. Ralph Jackson of the African Methodist Episcopal Church on February 26, 1968, when he addressed a mass meeting of sanitation workers on strike. The poster reads:
JUSTICE IN THE SCHOOLS
END POLICE MISTREATMENT
The anonymity of the work in the public space causes the viewer to ask these questions: What is the artist’s race? How long has the poster been there? What is the poster doing there in the first place? Is the poster art? The viewer may also note that the issues raised in 1968 are still being raised thirty-three years later.
The three new murals, created for the show by Meikle Gardner, Jan Hankins and Claudio Perez-Leon, are important in the completion of the project. Their powerful presence in the Art Farm neighborhood will draw attention to the growing arts community.
Long before the projects for this exhibition were put into play, other artists working in the public space were making extraordinary work that deserves recognition. Cheers to the unknown artist who is responsible for the “sheep” flyers. And just behind Last Place on Earth (at Madison & Danny Thomas) is a collaboration between Memphis graffiti artist Codak and Nashville artists Rex2 and Pako. Codak has also worked on the mural on the side of Wild Things (Cooper St.) in collaboration with the prolific artist who is responsible for the “CRICKET” posters. One installation of CRICKET posters at the corner of Union and Danny Thomas proclaims, “ALTER YOUR SURROUNDINGS.”
The challenge for all these artists is to find a significant way of entering a forum dominated by advertising images trying to sell you anything from beepers to cognac. The artists’ images somehow have to rise above the litany of the public space, while at the same time working within the same visual language to provide a lasting, memorable impression that strikes the imagination.
List of works:
Northeast corner of Wagner and Vance / South side of Beale between Wagner and Riverside / Three clusters along Riverside Drive, directly opposite of north entrance to Tom Lee Park.
Located at the northwest corner of Tom Lee Park.
“Please Mail this Sphere To…” spheres #7 and #8
Thrown into the Mississippi River, 4:35 p.m., March 7, 2001.
Scattered throughout Downtown and Midtown.
Street Corner Talking or Mimes on South Main
South Main and Linden / South Main and Talbot / South Main and Calhoun (next to Earnestine and Hazel’s)
Courtesy David Lusk Gallery
Twenty corks placed throughout the city.
Various FBI and CIA targets
Scattered throughout Downtown and Midtown.
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