By Joe Nolan
Frances Berry and Stacy Kiehl share a studio space in Memphis, Tennessee, and their new collaborative exhibition at Channel to Channel in Nashville gives viewers an opportunity to compare and contrast the artists’ styles. It’s also a chance to immerse oneself in the exhibition’s overall celebration of chromatic exuberance. Berry’s painterly works evolved out of her creative beginnings as a photographer and one gets the feeling that it was the textural quality of paint that seduced the artist away from her camera. Kiehl’s more graphic-looking works are a reflection of her experiences as a tattoo artist and a childhood immersed in Southern California culture.
At Your Convenience is a sexy, painful and hilarious exploration of how capitalism prioritizes the notion of convenience: It’s a constantly-highlighted quality in the products we buy, and it’s also held up as a feminine ideal when women are charged with organizing a “convenient” life for their husbands and their children. Of course, capitalism doubles down on its fetishizing of this c-word when it peddles convenient household products and devices to the women who are expected to create a life of domestic ease for partners and progeny.
Kiehl’s lidded-eyed and leering skull-face figures are one of the show’s central tropes. Oggle to the Left presents one of the bony visages beneath a red hat, floating against a backdrop of colored vertical stripes. The face is sort of creepy, sort of silly. It’s macabre and wacky at the same time, and it’s an apt avatar for an exhibition exploring the life-limiting boundaries of sexist socializing against a backdrop of commercial commodities and corporate logos and labels. The skull-faces remind me of Berry’s signature Hooray Face paintings. Both of these artists are creating works that vibrate: charged and iconic.
Kiehl’s contributions to the show do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to exploring the commercial side of the convenience theme: she paints boldly-colored Bubble Yum bubble gum labels on wood panels, captures the colorful Old Bay seasoning mix package on paper, and recreates cans full of Oscar Mayer wieners in sculptures made of cardboard and aluminum. The wiener cans are stacked in the “meat corner” where there is also a set of shelves adorned with “Lucky Steaks”: wooden sculptures painted to look like marbled slabs of beef, displayed in black foam trays and sealed in plastic.
Kiehl’s sculptural sirloins and her Mother Nature 1 painting are showstoppers. Kiehl paints her brown-skinned goddess figure with a pink Afro buzzing with busy bumble bees. She wears a pair of fishnet stockings, and the black-and-white serpent slithering around her neck makes her Eve, sans apple. Mother Nature sits on a leopard skin rug while two candlesticks shaped like Kiehl’s skull-faces try to sneak a peek at her maternal majesty. A collaboration between Berry and Kiehl also includes the ogling skull-faces, but in Paradise Berry’s central female figure looks like a faceless classical statue wrapped in a snake. Again, the serpent and the titling recall the Biblical creation myth.
Kiehl’s feminine ideal is sexy, funky and empowered. But Berry’s figure embodies the show’s themes of sexist ideation. She casts her female archetype as a graceful, physically attractive figure capable of copulating and cooking and cleaning, but nearly incapable of experience or expression. Paradise looks like a poster for a musical comedy, but like Eden’s apple, there’s poison inside.
At Your Convenience runs at Channel to Channel in Nashville through October 31, 2020.
Joe Nolan is an intermedia artist based in Nashville, TN. He writes about art and film for Art in America, Nashville Scene, Burnaway and more.